Ask any Bulgarian about their country’s history, and it won’t be long before they bring up the period of Ottoman oppression. The roughly 500 years spent under the Sultan were dark times for Bulgaria. From ~1396 – 1878, Bulgarians endured what is often described as brutal subjugation, or even slavery. Cultural centers were destroyed, literature was lost or confiscated, and many of the country’s most educated citizens fled the country. As a result, Bulgarian culture was stifled, and isolated from technological and cultural advancements in the rest of Europe. But Bulgarians are a proud and determined people. Despite centuries of oppression, they survived, and did the best they could to preserve their religion and culture.
Tensions reached a boiling point in the mid to late 19th century, and Bulgarians started to revolt. Knowing that this was such an important part of Bulgarian history, I wanted to learn more. I decided to read Under the Yoke by Ivan Vazov. The book–written by one of Bulgaria’s cherished poets, writers, and playwrights–describes life under Turkish oppression. More specifically, it follows the story of Boicho Ognianoff, a young revolutionary who escapes from Turkish prison with the goal of inciting a rebellion against Bulgaria’s Ottoman oppressors.
After escaping from prison, Boicho goes into hiding, relying on the good will of fellow Bulgarians to shelter him. However, when he witnesses a couple of Turkish guards attempt to rape an innocent 14-year-old girl, he emerges from hiding and kills them. This is just one of many acts of defiance that earns Boicho the reputation of a hero. With the help of several other staunch Bulgarian patriots, Boicho plans uprisings in Klissoura and Bela Cherkva, two Bulgarian towns. Tension builds as plans are finalized, arms are collected, and guards learn of the uprising.
Boicho and his closest compatriots man defenses just outside of Klissoura. Dr. Sokoloff, another key leader and Bulgarian patriot leads the efforts in Bela Cherkva. A mass of Ottoman soldiers are sent to quell the rebellion, and knowing the success of the entire rebellion depends on both cities rising up in unison, Boicho leaves Klissoura to see how things are progressing in Bela Cherkva. Much to his dismay, Bela Cherkva seems as peaceful as ever. Moreover, he encounters Turkish forces heading to crush Klissoura, and while they don’t recognize Boicho in his Turkish disguise, they force him to join the attack party. While he manages to escape and rejoin his men in Klissoura, bravery is starting to falter. Boicho even threatens his comrades as they start to flee. The Turkish soldiers crush the rebellion, and only a handful of revolters survive.
Miraculously, though he was the last to abandon the fort, Boicho survives. After narrowly avoiding capture and certain death, he stumbles upon several of his compatriots who try to convince him to flee with them to Romania. Boicho decides instead to continue to Bela Cherkva after learning that his love Rada was still alive there (he had assumed she was dead after seeing the home she was in burning when the Turks invaded Klissoura).
While hiding just outside Bela Cherkva, Boicho is reunited with Dr. Sokoloff. Boicho learns that “cowardice and treachery” doomed the revolt there. As they are discussing the failed revolt, Rada arrives, and she and Boicho are overcome with joy. However, Rada brings news that the Turks are fast approaching. A local woman had seen Boicho, and reported where he was hiding. Before they have time to think, they notice a large group of about 100 Turks approaching quickly. They took shelter in a mill, but knew they were surrounded. Dr. Sokoloff and Boicho count their remaining cartridges. “Eighteen…enough to die honorably.”
The Turks fire several volleys into the mill, and it’s clear that the trio’s final moments have arrived. They know they must not be captured, so they agree to save the final bullets for themselves. Boicho accidentally fires his last shot, and Dr. Sokoloff only has two remaining. He selflessly gives Boicho his last two bullets, and rushes into the crowd of Turks fighting heroically. A short while later, the Turks are marching demoniacally back to Bela Cherkva, brandishing the heads of their victims proudly.
While this story ultimately ends in a failed rebellion, Vazov conveys an incredibly strong sense of Bulgarian nationalism. He paints what I suspect is an accurate representation of how many Bulgarians felt under Turkish oppression. I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in Bulgarian history, or who are just looking for an interesting story with strong characters.