Freedom or Death. The Life of Gotsé Delchev

Mercia MacDermott



Surely it is no small thing to be just a human being.

Gotsé Delchev



I understand the world solely as a field for cultural competition between the peoples.

Gotsé Delchev



Devil's work,

Devil's work, my masters!

 Britain, your hands are red!

You may close your heart, but you cannot shirk

This terrible fact: we kept the Turk.

His day was done and we knew his work,

But he played our game, so we kept the Turk;

For our own sake's sake we kept the Turk:

 Britain, your hands are red!

Red are the walls and the ways,

 And, Britain, your hands are red!

There is blood on the hearth and blood in the well,

And the whole fair land is a red, red hell —

 Britain, your hands a red!


From a poem on Macedonia by John Oxenford

published in the Daily News

September 29, 1903




'It should be called not

Macedonia but Mukidonia.' [*]

    Kuzman Shapkarev [1]


In the beginning, when the form and colours of the Earth were ordained, fate apportioned to Macedonia a maze of mountains and a soil as red as blood.


The history of this beautiful, tormented land does not encourage belief in a benevolent Creator, whose everlasting arms are outstretched in mercy to support even a falling sparrow. Rather it tempts one to give credence to the Bogomil heresy, which, conceived and nurtured in the Bulgarian lands, asserted that the world was, in fact, created by the Devil. And indeed, who but a fiend could have created this Aceldama? Who but the Devil himself could have fashioned so fair a charnal-house of hope and high endeavour?


For Macedonia is as beautiful as her history is hideous... A southern land, born of the warm fertility of the Mediterranean and the rugged splendour of rebellious mountains... A land where eagles watch over the graves of heroes, and nightingales and cicadas sing serenades to the sun and moon... A land whose rivers, drunk with snow and thunderstorms, eternally seek the blue Aegean...


A land bounteous with all that man could desire: flowers and golden grain, grapes and apricots, figs and pomegranates, apples and almonds, cotton and rice, quinces and sesame, mulberries and walnuts, tobacco and opium...


A land of lakes, as bright as the eyes of angels, ringed with snowcapped mountains, and filled with fish fit for the gods of Olympus: Kastoria, Prespa, Doiran and celestial Ohrid... Ohrid, 'gilded in the setting sun and slumbering below hills, forest, snow, piled up and mingled with cloud midway in heaven,' [2] Ohrid, whose name in ancient Greek meant 'light', Ohrid, whose waters are as transparent as sunlight and where the very air sparkles like quick-silver...


An historic land, full of ancestral memories... Of the forebears of Philip and Alexander, who built their first capital, like an eagle's eyrie, high above the crags and cataracts of Edessa... Of Spartacus, born and bred beside the Struma, and taught by the stern, proud peaks of Pirin that life without liberty is merely a living death... Of St Paul, who came to preach the word of God in response to the poignant appeal which has echoed down the ages: 'Come over into Macedonia



*. A grim pun. In Bulgarian, Macedonia is pronounced Makedonia, and Mŭki (Maki in some Macedonian dialects) means 'torment', 'agony' or 'suffering'.





and help us!' [3] ... Of St Kliment, who, at the behest of Boris - that most wise of Bulgarian princes - went to shining Ohrid to be the 'first bishop in the Bulgarian language', [4] and there preserved and propagated the Bulgarian alphabet by training the first three thousand five hundred Bulgarian teachers... Of the Emperor of Byzantium, Basil Bulgaroctonos - the Slayer of Bulgarians - whose Christian charity did not prevent him from blinding no less than fifteen thousand captured Bulgarian soldiers, leaving one man in a hundred with one eye, so that he might lead his comrades from the foothills of Belasitsa to Prilep and the court of Tsar Samuil, who, having barely escaped with his life from the scene of his defeat, died of shock on beholding the mutilated remnant of his army...


It was the agony of feudal wars and bondage that induced the Bogomils to assume the infernal origin of the world. But although their heresy vanished when the Ottoman flood swept over Bulgaria and Byzantium alike, the agony remained, and the worst was yet to come. The Devil continued to go about seeking whom he might devour, torturing his victims as a cat tortures mice, and piling horror upon horror, until the climax came - ironically enough - in the era which saw the dawn of concern for the rights of small nations and minorities.


It was as though a curse had been laid on the land of Macedonia, so that all the good seed sown by honest men brought forth only blight and worms. Justice was mocked and set at naught; might triumphed over right, falsehood over truth, virtue was punished and guile rewarded, and, as the final turn of the screw, the noblest sentiments of tolerance and goodwill were frustrated, trampled and debased by crude self-interest and chauvinistic gall...


A land accursed and abandoned by God, where malevolent forces seemed to take delight in transforming beauty into ashes, joy into mourning, bread into stones, water into blood, light into darkness, brotherhood into hatred...


A land inhabited, nevertheless, by human beings to whom every inch of the blood-soaked soil was as dear as their father's house, as their mother's face, for whom exile was less bearable than the hell which was their home...


A land whose sons were tough and resourceful, stern and upright in their dealings, contemptuous of death, whose very dances were permeated by a spirit of dignity and revolt and demanded athletic prowess in their performance...


A land whose daughters showed deference and obedience to their menfolk, and yet displayed the courage of tigresses when their homes and families were threatened...


A land where every hero and every memorable event is celebrated





in songs of haunting sweetness, sung with controlled, yet potentially explosive emotion to melodies unique in rhythm...


A land where the costumes are rich in golden filigree and massive silver jewellery, where the colours are elemental, and the white of wool and linen can hardly be seen beneath the fiery hues of aprons, tassels and heavily embroidered sleeves and hems...


Macedonia - a land of men and women whose faith burned brightest and most stubbornly when the wells of blood and darkness overflowed, and who, in defiance of God, the world and the Devil, continued to believe


'That tomorrow

Life will be finer,

Life will be wiser...' [5]


And among these men, one stands out above all others, like the snow-white marble peak of Eltepé above the dark-grey granite ramparts of Pirin - a man as mild as the Aegean spring, as heroic as Krali Marko, [6] as unsullied as the waters of Ohrid; a man of the kind that is born only to a land in an extremity of need and suffering, where dross is purged in the furnace of adversity, and heroes are tempered like swords in fire and blood; a man whose name was synonymous with Macedonia's freedom, no matter what form that name might take. In secret revolutionary documents he was Ahil - Achilles the Fleet-footed; to the exasperated Turkish police, he was kanadli sheitan - the Winged Devil; to his contemporary Simeon Radev, he was 'the saint with the dagger in his belt'; to his family and friends he was simply Gotsé - the affectionate diminutive of his baptismal name - and Gotsé he was likewise to his whole people, young and old, rich and poor. For them the defining surname - Delchev - is superfluous; every street, every family may have its Gotsé, yet in all Macedonia there is only one Gotsé, just as in the Universe there are many suns but only one Sun. Gotsé, who according to the folk songs, married Macedonia, with the black earth for a bride, with his slender rifle for a sister, with his brace of pistols for brothers, and with black ravens for wedding guests.


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1. Kuzman Shapkarev (1834-1909) was a famous Bulgarian teacher and ethnographer from Ohrid. His collection of Bulgarian folksongs, stories, riddles etc. - Sbornik ot bŭlgarski narodni umotvoreniya - was published in Sofia in 1891-1892. The greater part of the material is from Macedonia.


2. Edward Lear, Journal of a Landscape Painter. London. 1851.


3. Acts. XVI. 9.





4. From The Extended Life of St Kliment of Ohrid written by the Greek bishop Theophylact in the XI-XII centuries. See: Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Dokumenti i materiali za istoriyata na bŭlgarskiya narod, Sofia, 1969, p 45.


5. Nikola Vaptsarov. 'Faith'. The poet was born in Bansko at the foot of Pirin.


6. Krali Marko is a legendary Bulgarian hero, comparable to King Arthur. Many folk songs tell of his mythical feats of valour. There was a historical ruler called Marko in the Prilep area immediately prior to the Turkish Conquest. Unlike the hero of the folksongs, the real Marko ended his days ignominiously as a vassal of the Turks, while, in the people's imagination, his fictional counterpart continued to ride his mighty horse across the mountain tops, as, in the words of the poet Raiko Zhinzifov, he 'defended the Bulgarian land and gave succour to his people.'