Bulgarians Celebrate the Day of Hristo Botev and Fights for Freedom and Independence of Bulgaria
Every year on June 2 at noon, for three minutes the air raid sirens across Bulgaria sound in alarm. Cars stop, pedestrians bow their heads and students rise at their desks. Everyone observes a moment of dignified silence.
The sirens have long since stopped warning of imminent danger – there are no enemy airplanes over Sofia, no foreign armies marching across the Thracian plains. The sirens sound to remind us of those Bulgarians who died for Bulgaria’s freedom and present-day peace. On June 2 Bulgaria remembers the armies of khan Tervel, who defended Europe against the Arabs, the defenders of Medieval Tarnovo, the heroes of the April uprising, the martyrs of Shipka, the young Bulgarian flying aces who defended Sofia from English and American bombers, as well as countless other known and unknown Bulgarians who laid their lives in the name of our sovereignty.
On June 2, 1876, Hristo Botev, one of the most celebrated Bulgarians in history, was killed in battle in the crags of Stara Planina near Vratza. A poet, a journalist and a revolutionary, Botev was also extremely intelligent and fervent in his ideals. Deeply convinced of the need for the armed liberation of Bulgaria and a sympathizer of the Paris Commune, Botev took an active role in the planning activities of the revolutionary committees outside Bulgaria’s borders. In his poem “Parting”, he wrote:
Well, I know, mother, you love me;
Maybe in my youth I shall perish
Tomorrow when I cross over
Beyond the calm, shining, Danube,
But what would you have me to do now?
Since you have borne me, mother,
With a strong heart of a hero?
That heart, Dear mother, can’t suffer
Seeing the Turks rage like mad dogs
Over the hearth of my father’s,
The company’s starting already.
Our road is dreadful but glorious.
Perhaps I shall die in my youth
But enough for me is this guerdon
That people may say of me one day
” He died, poor fellow, for Justice,
For the cause of Justice and Freedom.”
Botev wrote this poem in 1868 while he, only 20 years old, was preparing to cross the Danube under the command of Zhelyu Voyvoda. Unfortunately, the company fell apart and Botev wasn’t given the opportunity to defend his ideals. And the idealist’s worst enemy is routine. Botev spent the following eight years in Romania in abject poverty – the fiery revolutionary, writing with gleaming eyes about the heroic sacrifice of the freedom fighter, existed in a gruelling, atrophying routine, working dawn to dusk to support ten compatriots, as well as his beloved Veneta, his infant son and his mother.
When the April Uprising began and it turned out that there was no one to lead the company being prepared in Romania, Botev saw the opportunity to finally help his country, to fight for his ideals and to die not of starvation in Wallachia, but armed and face-to-face with the conqueror. He commandeered the steamship Radetzky and crossed the Danube at the head of two hundred men, prepared to aid the uprising in the Vratza region and to raise all of Northern Bulgaria to arms with him.
Imagine his excitement at stepping on Bulgarian soil near Kozloduy, how eagerly he looked around to spot the first throngs of the risen nation, ready to cast aside its centuries-old chains!
But the Vratza region was not up in arms. Not reinforcements, but pursuers awaited him. Like every regiment in the April Uprising, Botev’s is doomed – the enemy was well prepared and outnumbers them heavily. Not only that, but since the April Uprising began prematurely, by the time of Botev’s landing most rebels had been destroyed and the people had realized that the uprising is already quelled and there would be no one to defend them if they rise. On June 1 Botev received the news that there were no reinforcements and that he and his comrades were alone against thousands of Ottoman soldiers and an artillery squad.
It’s unreasonable to believe that Botev was eager to die, that he joyfully accepted his unavoidable demise. Like all humans, he dreamt of victory and of growing old in peace in his liberated homeland.
A heroic death was preferable to any other, but he sensed with anguish that his death and that of his comrades, while heroic, would ultimately be in vain.
In spite of this his company fought to the last man, to the last drop of blood. The following year its shining example gave courage to the Bulgarian volunteer corps, then fed the imagination and pride of the newly liberated nation and left a shining trail in Bulgaria’s history.
While the sirens wail, Bulgarians bow their heads to the self-sacrifice of all who have died for Bulgaria’s liberty and independence. People who answered the call to arms and who gave their lives for Bulgaria. People like Hristo Botyov Petkov, who died for Bulgaria at the age of 28, on June 2, 1876.
If I come Dear Little Mother,
Safe and sound back to the village
In my hands bearing the standard,
Under it all the brave heroes
Golden lions on their foreheads
With rifles slung on their shoulders,
Swords like snakes at their belts,
Then, Oh Heroic Mother,
Oh, my dear pretty sweetheart
Gather ivy and cranesbill,
Wind them to wreaths and to bunches
To deck our heads and our rifles.
Then with a wreath and flowers
Come to me, Mother, embrace me,
Kiss my forehead made lovely
By two words evermore sacred:
F r e e d o m or D e a t h heroic.
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