Freedom or Death. The Life of Gotsé Delchev

Mercia MacDermott



Is a cloud thundering, is the earth echoing,

Is it the falcon that screams - heroes' bird?

From Valandovo, Braikovtsi, Valantsi,

Even to Bogdantsi, all is aflame.


Three days have passed since the tyrant, all fury,

Came here to torture, torture the raya,

And kindled the ovens, heated the irons,

Put them into the mouths of Bulgarians,

Neath their nails splinters, a whip on the neck,

A vice round the head, and water that scalds.


Hey, you Bulgarian, infidel giaour,

Call yourself Greek, and you shall see heaven!

He cries: 'I'm Bulgarian, and don't want to know,'

And sings a gay song, a gay haidut song.

    Folksong popular in the Kukush and Doiran areas


During 1900 Gotsé made two tours of the interior: the first, during March and April, took him to the Adrianople region, and the second, during the autumn, to north-eastern Macedonia.


The Adrianople Region - Odrinsko, as the Bulgarians call it - was the general name given by the Organization to those areas of Thrace which, like Macedonia, had been left under Turkish rule i.e. the area bounded by the frontier with the Principality to the north, the Aegean to the south, the River Mesta to the west and the Black Sea to the east. Here, too, the Bulgarian element predominated in a mixed population, and had its own specific characteristic songs, dances and costumes, which differed in certain respects from those of Macedonia and the rest of Bulgaria.


The areas had fine traditions of struggle against tyranny, which were epitomized by the colourful person of Captain Petko voivoda, who commenced his rebel career as a haidut in the Rhodope Mountains in 1861 and had taken part in the Cretan Uprising in 1866.


The organized revolutionary movement in Thrace can be said to date from 1895 when Damé Gruev recruited Hristo Kotsev, who, born in Shtip, was then teaching in the Bulgarian High School in Adrianople. Acting in the name of the Central Committee, Kotsev set up a regional committee in Adrianople, and gradually committees were established in Lozengrad (Kirklareli), Malko Tŭrnovo, Bunarhisar (Pinarhisar), Mustafapasha (Svilengrad), Uzunköprü, Malkara, Keshan, Ahuchelebi (Smolyan), Gyumyurdzhina (Komotini), Xanthi, Dedeagach (Alexandroupolis), Dimotika (Dhidhimoikhon), Soflu (Souflion), Ortaköy (Ivailovgrad) and their surrounding villages.


As an integral part of the Internal Organization, the Adrianople Regional Committee and all the district and village committees under it conducted their affairs according to the Organization's Rules. In





Thrace, as in Macedonia, cheti were formed, traitors were punished, and robbers and haramii were either reformed or liquidated.


One of the most interesting punitive actions undertaken by the Organization in Thrace was directed against the kaimakam of Mustafapasha, after he had stopped the collection of mekteb parasi - a levy used to finance the town's Bulgarian schools and churches, which received no subsidy from the Exarchate. The ban followed intrigues on the part of the relatively small Greek community, who, incited by the Patriarch, had managed to persuade the kaimakam that the mekteb parasi was being used to subsidize revolutionary activity. When delegations of Bulgarians failed to persuade the kaimakam that this was not so, the Organization decided to act. One night a group of revolutionaries overpowered the kaimakam's guard, stole his horse out of the stable, and took it away to a hide-out near the frontier with the Principality. A few days later, they returned the horse with a note stuck to it, informing the kaimakam that, if the ban on the collection of mekteb parasi was not lifted within three days, the Committee would kidnap the horse's owner. He was also told that he must pay a fine of ten liri as a punishment for allowing himself to become a party to Greek intrigues, and he was warned that unless he did as he was bid, he would answer with his head! The kaimakam immediately decided that discretion was the better part of valour: he rescinded his order regarding mekteb parasi, and dispatched the ten liri to the intermediary indicated in the note. In return the Organization sent him one of its official printed receipts - an impressive document, decorated with the figure of a girl holding in her right hand a banner inscribed with the words Death or Freedom, and in her left - a torch and a lion emblem. The girl had one foot on the body of a slain Turk, and over her head was the inscription 'Dare, O people; God is with us'. There were also quotations from Botev's poems:


'He who falls in the fight for freedom does not die.'

and 'Inspire in each of us, O God...' [1]


Eventually, the vali of Adrianople was informed of the affair by the Greeks and he demanded an explanation of his subordinate. The wretched kaimakam freely admitted that he had indeed contributed to the Organization's funds, but showed the vali both the threatening letter and the receipt, and said: 'Dismiss me, if you will, Vali Pasha, but I could not risk my head.' [2]


Like their brothers from Macedonia, the Thracian emigrés in the Principality had their own committee and local societies. Most of the Thracian emigrés were concentrated in the Varna, Burgas, Plovdiv and Stara Zagora areas. The committee, which was called Strandzha, after the oak-wooded mountains in Eastern Thrace, began as an emigré circle formed in Varna by Petŭr Dragulev and Captain Petko





in 1895. In the following year, it broadened into the Strandzha Society, which published a newspaper of the same name. The Society's first Congress, attended by 36 delegates and held in Burgas during February 1897, decided to set up, parallel to the legal society, a secret revolutionary committee which would organize the passage of cheti into Thrace. Several cheti were, in fact, sent during 1897, 1898 and 1899, and they were instrumental in encouraging the people and strengthening the local committees. In the spring of 1900, Gotsé and Gyorché managed to negotiate an amalgamation between the Strandzha societies and those of the Supreme Committee.


According to one uncorroborated source, [3] Gotsé had already made two short visits to the Lozengrad area of Thrace, in 1896 and 1898. His tour during March and April 1900 is, however, well documented by the memoirs of several contemporaries.


Gotsé travelled via Burgas, where he met Georgi Minkov, the Adrianople Regional Committee's representative abroad, who briefed him on the situation in Thrace. After crossing into Turkish territory, Gotsé went to Lozengrad and toured the surrounding areas, accompanied by Lazar Madzharov, [4] who had been head teacher in Lozengrad until 1899, and Stoyan Lazov, one of the leaders of the local revolutionary committee.


In conversations with Lozengrad comrades, Gotsé was asked whether, in the event of a rising, the Organization should count on help from the Principality, and whether it would not be wiser at the outset to proclaim the union of Macedonia and Thrace with the Principality. Gotsé replied: 'We have to work courageously, organizing and arming ourselves well enough to take the burden of the struggle upon our own shoulders, without counting on outside help. External intervention is not desirable from the point of view of our cause. Our aim, our ideal is autonomy for Macedonia and the Adrianople region, and we must also bring into the struggle the other peoples who live in these two provinces as well... We, the Bulgarians of Macedonia and Adrianople, must not lose sight of the fact that there are other nationalities and states who are vitally interested in the solution of this question. Any intervention by Bulgaria would provoke intervention by the neighbouring states as well, and could result in Macedonia being torn apart. That is why the peoples inhabiting these two provinces must themselves, through common effort and sacrifice, win their own freedom and independence, within the frontiers of an autonomous Macedonian-Adrianople state, counting only on the material and moral support of Bulgaria and the Great Powers.' [5]


Apart from Lozengrad, Gotsé visited Malko Tŭrnovo, Bunarhisar and a number of villages. Everywhere he urged the people to rely upon themselves alone, and assured them that, providing they were





properly organized, they could free themselves from Turkish rule. Everywhere, he recharged the resolve and energies of the local committees. 'He spoke to us well and with passion, so that we, too, all became filled with his enthusiasm,' [6] wrote Lefter Mechev, one of the members of the committee in Malko Tŭrnovo, while Stefan Dobrev, the leader of the same committee, said that Gotsé's visit 'gave courage to the young people whom I had recruited in Tŭrnovo. The Organization gained in strength.' [7] Dimitŭr Gruev, secretary of the Lozengrad Committee, wrote much the same: 'The visit of Gotsé and his comrades was for us, young enthusiastic workers, an event of particular importance and usefulness. We set to work with even greater energy.' [8]


The Thracian revolutionaries were soon to need all the courage and enthusiasm that they could muster, for some two months after Gotsé's visit, the work in the Lozengrad, Bunarhisar and Malko Tŭrnovo areas was badly dislocated by an 'affair', which followed an ill-considered action on the part of a cheta, sent by the Supreme Committee to raise money through terrorism. The cheta in question was organized on Saratov's orders by Pavel Genadiev, [9] the Supreme Committee's representative in Plovdiv, in conjunction with the chairman of the Armenian Revolutionary Committee there. After failing to kidnap a rich Armenian from Rhodosto, the cheta seized a Greek doctor named Keremedchioglu, and, in so doing, set in motion an 'affair', which wrought as much havoc in Thrace as the Vinitsa Affair had done in Macedonia. At first, the cheta demanded a ransom of 4,000 gold Turkish liri, but later agreed to accept only 800, which were paid. The doctor was released, but the Turks began energetic investigations, and, as the mutesarif of Lozengrad later remarked, 'While looking for brigands, we found komiti.'


Almost all the leaders of the Organization in the Lozengrad area were arrested, together with over six hundred peasants, and most of them were terribly tortured.


In October 1900, the arrested men were tried in Adrianople before a military court, and over forty revolutionaries were sent to Asia Minor for long terms of imprisonment. Thus, the Keremedchioglu affair ended in disaster for the Organization, and, over a wide area of Thrace, the committee network, built with such care and effort, was decimated for the sake of a mere 800 liri, which could easily have been collected without risk from members of the Organization.


In Macedonia, too, 'affairs' were becoming more frequent. The very size of the Organization was a contributing factor, for, wherever carelessness, treachery or some chance mishap alerted the Turkish authorities, their investigations inevitably uncovered some section of the now ubiquitous underground movement.





In May 1899, two veteran members of the Organization, Yordan Gavazov and Hristo Chemkov, were trapped by the Turkish police in a house in Prilep, and, after a battle in which several Turks were killed, the two men committed suicide rather than surrender. Only a few months earlier, in January 1899, there had been another violent scene in the streets of Prilep, when Stoyan Lazov, [*] one of the Organization's terrorists, had killed a Serbomane informer with a hatchet. The Turks had pursued Lazov, who shot several of them and then shot himself. Such was the hatred and contempt in which the Serbomane had been held by the Bulgarian population that the whole town turned out for Lazov's funeral.


At the end of the year, in December 1899, a more serious 'affair' was sparked off when the Doiran cheta was surprised in the village of Valandovo by the Turks as a result of treachery. [10] The cheta managed to slip away under cover of darkness, after killing two policemen, but large number of people, not only in Valandovo itself, but in many other villages in the Doiran, Gevgeli and Enidzhe-Vardar areas, were subseqently arrested and tortured no less horribly than the victims of Vinitsa had been. A greater number of them, however, managed to remain firm, and, in general, although the 'affair' continued until April 1900, there was less panic and less damage to the Organization than before. Crowds of women went to Salonika and protested to the foreign consuls about the atrocities to such good effect that the Turkish authorities were obliged to dismiss the kaimakams of Gevgeli and Doiran, together with Mehmet Pasha, chief of the Salonika Gendarmerie, who had conducted the investigation.


About the same time as the Valandovo Affair, there was an incident in the Novo Selo district of Shtip, where a wounded chetnik, called Sando, had taken refuge in a house. Unfortunately he was betrayed, and the house was besieged by police and troops. For three hours the battle raged - a hundred against one. The cool, accurate fire of the lone defender had already accounted for some ten Turks, when a fire pump was brought - in defiance of its intended purpose - to spray the house with kerosene, but Sando managed to escape from the flames into a neighbouring house. Later he died from his wounds. The other victims of the 'affair' included two Bulgarians killed, twenty-one arrested, fourteen convicted, and one driven insane (the woman whose house had been burnt).


And so, one 'affair' succeeded another, each resulting in the arrest of twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more people, who were subjected to all the horrors of torture and incarceration in filthy cells. Yet there was never any shortage of volunteers to fill the gaps left by casualties,



*. This Stoyan Lazov was born in Prilep and must not be confused with the Stoyan Lazov mentioned earlier in the chapter, who was from Lozangrad.





and, after every disaster, the rents in the fabric were repaired and the work continued unabated.


In August 1900, a serious 'affair' blew up in Bitolya, after a priest named Stavré had been executed by the Organization for refusing to contribute to its funds and for betraying one of its members to the police. [*] Stavré's murder was followed by many arrests, and one of those incriminated was Damé Gruev, who was arrested early in August. In practice, Dame"s arrest had little effect on the work of the Organization, because, owing to the stupidity, inefficiency and corruption of the prison authorities, he was able to receive visitors and correspondence, to send letters out of the prison, and to direct the work as easily as when he had been free. By and large, arrested intellectuals were not tortured in the way that peasants were, and Damé settled down quite happily to his new way of life. He even started to educate the ordinary Albanian criminals who shared the big communal cell in which he was lodged, and who spent much of their time fighting and beating up the other prisoners. Some Damé taught to read, others he instructed in the intricacies of Turkish law and how to answer in court, and, when he was later moved to another prison, they were genuinely sorry to see him go. [11]


In October 1900, Gotsé undertook a tour of inspection in the areas around Gorna Dzhumaya, Bansko, Melnik, Petrich and Strumitsa. These north-east districts were of vital strategic importance to the Organization, not only because of the supply lines which passed through them, but also because of the potential danger of interference on the part of the Supreme Committee. The united front presented at the Congress had little real depth, and the basic disagreements still remained. The officers were as eager as ever to press ahead with a speedy rising or, at least, with a number of scattered rebellions, for they feared that, unless action were taken at an early date, the Organization would be so weakened by 'affairs' that no rising would ever be possible. Gotsé did not accept the idea that the situation was becoming 'over-ripe', and he was anxious to strengthen the Organization's discipline precisely in those areas most at risk from Supremist influence and interference.


Everywhere, Gotsé called the local cheti to report to him on their activities, and he visited all the villages and spoke to the people, advising them on how to organize themselves. 'One's first impression of Delchev was that he was pure and faultless, and a resolute man into the bargain,' was the comment of Ivan Anastasov Gŭrcheto, [12] who made his acquaintance in a village near Strumitsa. As his nickname suggests, Ivan was a rare exception to the general rule - a Greek, who became a loyal and enthusiastic member of the Organ-



*. There is some doubt as to whether Stavré was, in fact, guilty.





ization, and remained so under the most trying circumstances. Ivan was born in Melnik, and studied first at the Greek school there, and then at the Bulgarian schools in Melnik and Serres. On graduating, he became a teacher in a Bulgarian school near Petrich, and, by chance, he fell in with a cheta led by a haramiya, named Konstantin Zelnikov, and he joined it in March 1900. Owing to his Greek orgin, however, he and his brother, who also became a member of the cheta, were constantly being suspected of treachery, and were on several occasions sentenced to death by the Organization. Each time, Ivan managed to save his skin, but his brother, though equally innocent, was actually executed. Nevertheless, in spite of this injustice, Ivan still remained loyal to the movement.


His meeting with Gotsé was a turning point in his life: 'He understood me, understood what I was, and took me under his wing. From him, for the first time, I got a better insight into the Cause. Until then, I had been in a fog. I had set out with the cheta, but what we were going to do, I did not rightly know. Until then I had thought that the revolution was an easy business, just bringing in a few guns, etc. Delchev explained that we could not rely on foreign help, that we must not wait for help from Bulgaria, or from any other power, but must prepare ourselves from inside. The idea must penetrate the soul of every peasant, everything must be prepared, and then we must rise up in a mass uprising. Until then, no one from outside must interfere in our work, and so on. Delchev urged us to tell the peasants not to go the Turkish courts, which only fleeced them, but to set up village courts and deal with everything themselves, to propagate the idea of freedom, to point out how people live in other, free countries, to explain to the people how the revolutions that freed Romania, Serbia, Greece and Crete came about, to elect village committees and to appoint couriers.' [13]


In January 1901, Gotsé was touring the villages of the Karshiaka, in the hills along the right bank of the Struma. The character of his activities there is described by Hristo Kuslev, a teacher in the village of Tsaparevo, who begged him to speak to the local peasants. 'He also "baptized" a few of them. All the villagers knew about the Cause, but a person who had been "baptized" considered himself to be a worker, a soldier of the Organization, in duty bound to do whatever he was asked to. Delchev did not speak about risings, but merely told them to work, and to prepare themselves, because no one knew when the people would be called to arms.' [14]


Other aspects of Gotsé's work are reflected in a letter which he wrote from the village of Sushitsa to the committee in Gorna Dzhumaya, telling them that some of the consignments of ammunition contained stones instead of cartridges, and that he was going to check





the channels to see where the substitution had taken place. The letter is also interesting because it contains a rare request on Gotsé's part for items which he personally required: 'Buy me a pair of tanned moccasins (not Morocco), strong ones; some underpants; a face towel, a fleecy one; a piece of soap, let it be from the chemist's, and of a medicinal sort, and let it be very expensive, because I must use it to wash my eyes, which have suffered very much from the smoky atmosphere I've lived in for so long. If they go on like this, I'll surely go blind. Also get me a box of matches of the kind that I took from your house when I visited you. Send all these things to Leshko. Make sure the moccasins aren't rotten.' [15]


A week later he wrote to them again from Leshko raising a pressing organizational problem, namely, the need to provide assistants for those teachers heavily involved in committee work and frequently obliged to absent themselves from school. Apparently some peasants were complaining about the effect that these absences were having upon their children's education, and the Organization had to provide 'supply' teachers in order to ensure that the schools did not suffer. [16]


While Gotsé was in the village of Goremé, a courier brought him news of yet another 'affair', this time in Salonika itself: virtually the whole Central Committee had been arrested and thrown into the Yedi-kulé, the Prison of the Seven Towers.


The 'affair' had begun on January 23, 1901, when two members of the Organization were arrested. One of them was Alexander Nikov, secretary of the Central Committee, and the other was Milan Mihailov, a former servant of the Supreme Committee, who had been transferred to the Central Committee on Sarafov's recommendation, after some action of his had necessitated his leaving the Principality. Nikov managed to escape, but Mihailov turned traitor under torture and told the Turks everything he knew and led them to houses where they could lay their hands on members of the Organization and all kinds of compromising documents. Among those arrested were Dr Tatarchev, Hristo Matov, Peré Toshev, Ivan Hadzhinikolov, and Vasil Monchev, proprietor of the Boshnyak Inn. Nikov, too, was recaptured, as he and several other people, including two school-boys connected with the Organization, were trying to slip out of the city in a cart at night. Nikov committed suicide, but one of the school-boys gave the Turks further information.


Encouraged by their discoveries, the Turks began to spread their nets wider, throughout the areas around Kukush, Gevgeli, Voden, Tikvesh and Radovish, where large numbers of people were arrested and tortured. When the trial opened in May 1901, one of those who took a leading part in the prosecution of the revolutionaries was Gotsé's former friend, Hussein Tefik Bey, by now a major in the





Gendarmerie. In all, over a hundred people were convicted and sentenced to terms of imprisonment in Asia Minor. Early in July, the first forty, who included eight priests and the members of the Central Committee, embarked for the prison-fortress of Bodrum-kalé (Halicarnassus), loaded with chains, but undismayed and singing Botev's song: 'He is alive, alive!... He who falls in the fight for freedom does not die.' Among those who crowded the quayside to watch them go and who heard Matov's parting shout: 'Vive la revolution!' was the French writer Pierre D'Espagnat, who was so impressed by the scene that he described it in his novel Avant le Massacre.


When Gotsé learnt of the arrests, he cut short his tour and made his way back to Sofia. There he was to hear still more bad news. A cheta, commanded by Hristo Chernopeev, had been surrounded by Turkish troops in the village of Bayaltsi, between Kukush and the Vardar, and had lost seven of its thirteen men breaking out of the encirclement. In all probability the figure was eight killed, because one seriously wounded man had been left unconscious after his comrades had tried to carry him away. Among the seven certain dead was Gotsé's brother, Mitso.


Thanks to Gotsé's love and insistence, Mitso had completed his studies and had become a teacher, first in Kukush, and then in Radovish. But he was still far too wild and impetuous to be satisfied with a combination of legal and illegal activity. It had to be all or nothing, and he joined Chernopeev's cheta, to die when he was barely twenty-two.


Gotsé received the tragic news with an icy, tearless calm. Even before the embarrassed emissary had come to the point, Gotsé guessed what he was trying to say, and cut him short with a single word: 'Mitso'. Then he asked: 'But tell me, if you know, did he display any weakness?' 'On the contrary,' was the reply, 'they say that he was the first to throw himself against the enemy.' That pleases me. I had great hopes of Mitso. He could have been of further use, but never mind. God rest his soul...' [17]


Gotsé, who usually wore his heart on his sleeve, and who reacted with unrestrained emotion to all that concerned the Cause, now found the strength to set an example of stoicism by remaining dry-eyed and impassive in the face of personal tragedy. Not even in this moment of searing grief would he admit any dichotomy in his life between what was his own and what was the Organization's, and therefore he would not weep more over the death of a beloved brother than he would over any other comrade. In public, at least, he steeled himself, and wept less.


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1. From Botev's poem My Prayer. The whole verse, in prose translation, reads:


Inspire in each of us, O God,

A loving love for freedom,

So that each may fight as best he can

Against the enemies of the people


2. From Memoirs of Georgi Vasilev. Prinosi kŭm istoriyata na Makedono-odrinskoto revolyutsionno dvizhenie. Vol V. pp. 46–48. Compiled by Ivan Ormanzhiev. Quoted by Danailov and Noikov. Trakiya prez vekovete. Vol: II, Natsionalno-osvoboditelnoto dvizhenie v Trakiya, Sofiq 1971. pp 105–107.


3. Ibid., Vol IV, p. 8, 9. From the memoirs of Petŭr Kiprilov, priest in the village of Pirok. Quoted by Danailov and Noikov, Opus cit. p. 157.


4. Lazar Madzharov came from a village near Salonika.


5. Prinosi... Vol Vl. Dopŭlnitelni materiali za trite revolyutsionni rayoni na bŭlgarite v Lozengradkiya sandzhak. p. 5–6. See Danailov and Noikov. Opus. cit. p. 159–160.


6. Prinosi... Vol III, p. 88. See Danailov and Noikov. Opus. cit. p. 161.


7. Prinosi... Vol III, p. 26. See Danailov and Noikov. Opus cit. p. 161.


8. Ibid., Vol VI, Dopŭlnitelni materiali... p. 8.


9. Genadiev had, for a time, been chairman of the Revolutionary Committee in Mustafapasha, where he had gone after being dismissed from his post as teacher in Lozengrad, in 1896. In Mustafapasha, Genadiev's activities had been characterized by a tendency towards robberies and other forms of terrorism, a discinclination to account properly for the committee funds placed in his care, and other rather dubious practices which hindered the development of the revolutionary cause. He left Mustafapasha after and 'affair' in 18906. See danailov and Noikov, Opus cit. p. 132–134.


10. The Organization's cheti avoided clashes with the enemy, and the Valandovo battle was only the second in two years. The first battle had taken place in the village of Gavalyantsi, near Kukush on march 20, 1898. One chetnik and several Turks had been killed.


11. Ilyustratsia Ilinden, 1934-35, Book I, p. 5-9.


12. Materiali... Vol VII, p. 140. 'Gŭrcheto' means 'The Little Greek'.


13. Materiali... Vol VII, p. 139-140.


14. Ibid., p. 119.


15. Gotsé Delchev. Pisma... p. 241-242. Letter dated February 13 1901.


16. Ibid., p. 243-244, Letter dated February 19/20, 1901.


17. Yavorov. Opus cit. p. 196.