Vasil Ivanov Kunchev aka Vasil Levski (1837-1873), is probably Bulgaria's greatest national hero: a dedicated revolutionary who created a clandestine network of secret cells to foment rebellion and free Bulgarian lands from the Ottomans. He never saw the fulfilment of his ideal, as he was caught, tried and executed before an uprising broke out, and his followers never managed to resurrect the organisation he had meticulously set up.
Levski died young, but had an extensive and varied revolutionary career, which saw him travel far and wide. In his 20s, he was a soldier and a teacher, he fought in Belgrade and went to the Stara Planina with an armed group of men. In his 30s, he was travelling across the Bulgarian lands of the Ottoman empire, creating hubs of resistance in towns and villages, relying on co-conspirators in inns and monasteries to shelter him. When not doing this, he was busy negotiating the future uprising with Bulgarian revolutionaries in Romania. His abilities to travel unnoticed by the authorities, using disguise and forged IDs, gained him the Turkish nickname Cingibi, or Ghost-like. Later, poet Ivan Vazov wrote in his ode Levski: "He was chased out from everywhere; and welcomed everywhere."
A monument stands on the spot where Levski is thought to have been hanged
While organising resistance, Levski was very cautious about disclosing where he had created so-called revolutionary committees, or dormant cells, prepared to rise against the sultan when the time was right. As he famously put it during his trial, the central committee of the network was "nowhere and everywhere."
Today, however, more is known of the places Levski visited. Here and there, his hiding places are preserved and proudly displayed to visitors. As a result, you can organise a real journey in Levski's footsteps, which takes you to towns and monasteries large and small, and even outside Bulgaria. The trip becomes even more fascinating when you realise the importance of these different places in Levski's life and Bulgarian history.
Levski was one of a group of major Bulgarian 19th Century figures who emerged from the industrial towns in the valley between the Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora mountains. His ancestral home in Karlovo, a humble building typical of the period, was practically in ruins after the Liberation of 1878. In 1933 it was rebuilt and in 1937 it became a museum (www.vlevskimuseum-bg.org). The exhibition hall holds several personal belongings and family photographs, and the recently built chapel keeps a precious relic, some locks of Levski's fair hair.
A monument to Karlovo's famous son was erected in the city centre in 1903
Other places of pilgrimage in Karlovo are the grave of Levski's mother, Gina Kuncheva, by the St Nikolay Church, and the beautiful monument of Levski from 1903 in the main square. The latter bears a revealing phrase: "Liberty and human rights we need!"
Levski's birthplace in Karlovo is frequently visited by Bulgarian school children
December 1858, young Vasil took his vows in the St Spas Monastery in Sopot and became a monk under the name of Ignatiy. In 1862, however, the revolutionary ideas of Georgi Rakovski proved to be stronger than religion, and Deacon Ignatiy secretly left the monastery, cut his long hair, gave it to his mother and hit the road of rebellion. Later in his wanderings, he often sought and found shelter in the Sopot Monastery, and arranged meetings there with his mother.
In 1869, he even established the first monastic revolutionary committee there. Today, the monastery church displays the clothes Levski wore when he was a monk.
Levski's contribution to the Bulgarian liberation movement is immense. He was the first to realise that future rebellion should be organised at home, and not be imported from abroad. He also believed that no foreign power should be involved in the Bulgarian revolution, as "whoever liberates us, he will enslave us." These ideas were not contrived overnight but were the result of years of hardship and wandering.
The clothes Levski wore while he was a monk at the Sopot Monastery in 1858-1862 are now displayed in the monastery church
In 1862, Levski went to Belgrade and enlisted in Rakovski's First Bulgarian Legion. It was an army of young Bulgarians which would theoretically help the Serbian king win full independence from the sultan. The legion, including Levski, did indeed fight in the Battle for Belgrade.
The king, however, had to disband the legion, and Levski found himself without a role. Over the next several years he spent time in an Ottoman prison, and became a teacher in the villages of Voynyagovo near Karlovo and Eniköy, today's Mihail Kogălniceanu in Romania. Both schools have been preserved, the one in Voynyagovo is a museum, and that in Mihail Kogălniceanu bears a commemorative plaque to Levski.
In 1867, the Bulgarian revolutionary spirit was revived again by Panayot Hitov, who organised a small armed band to enter Bulgaria and to encourage Bulgarians to revolt. Levski joined the group as the banner bearer and went to the Stara Planina range with it. The march was a failure. Unprepared Bulgarians were less than enthusiastic to take up arms against the Ottomans, especially as the revolutionaries offered neither weapons, nor escape plans.
In 1862 Levski distinguished himself in the battle for Belgrade
In 1868, Levski was again in Belgrade, participating in the second, ill-fated attempt to organise a Bulgarian Legion. When the Serbian king again stopped it, Levski went to the region of Zaječar, on the border with the Ottoman Empire, and tried to persuade Bulgarians there to form armed groups. He was expelled, and by the summer was living in extreme poverty on the outskirts of Bucharest. There, he became a part of the circle of the so-called young Bulgarian émigrés, who believed that only rebellion could free the Bulgarians.
On 11 December 1868, Levski found himself in Istanbul. His task: to enter Bulgarian lands, to meet people and to enquire whether the time was right for an uprising. At the end of his tour, on 24 February 1869, he had visited Perushtitsa, Plovdiv, Karlovo, Sopot and Sliven in the Thrace, and Tarnovo, Lovech, Pleven and Nikopol north of the Stara Planina. The results were discouraging: the Bulgarians were not ready to risk losing everything, if a band of enthusiastic youths were to arrive from abroad, firing rifles in the air and yelling "To arms!".
During this trip, Levski realised that only a well-planned and carefully executed organisation throughout the Bulgarian lands could prepare the people for revolt. Importing a revolution would not do.
CREATING A CLANDESTINE NETWORK
The young revolutionaries were not impressed by Levski's ideas, but he decided to go ahead regardless. On 1 May 1869, he was again at Nikopol, on the Danube. He spent the next four months travelling around both sides of the Stara Planina range, gaining acquaintances and exploiting old connections, and created the first revolutionary committees. The first one was at Pleven, followed by committees in Lovech, Karlovo, Plovdiv, Perushtitsa, Pazardzhik, Chirpan, Stara Zagora and Sliven.
Levski returned to Romania, but the revolutionary émigrés were still not convinced by his tactics. At the end of May 1870, he was in Bulgaria. He stayed there for the next two years, widening and strengthening the internal organisation. Ruse and Lovech were the focal points of his activities, with the former used as a place for transferring weapons and people across the Danube and the latter serving as the de facto centre for the internal organisation. Lovech was chosen for its position on the road connecting the north and the south, and its proximity to the Danube. The house of secret committee member Hristo 'Latin' Tsonev, where Levski often hid, is still preserved in the old quarter of Lovech.
The Glozhene Monastery is one of many monasteries in Bulgaria that proudly display rooms where Levski hid
The Romanian town Turnu Măgurele was the communication point between revolutionaries in Bulgaria and in Romania.
Among the new committees created by Levski in the period were those in Tarnovo, Lyaskovets, Gorna and Dolna Oryahovitsa, Tryavna, Polikraishte, and Dryanovo – all north of the Stara Planina. His activities in the Sofia and Teteven region widened, covering towns and villages like Golyam Izvor, Vidrare, Orhanie (today's Botevgrad), Etropole and the Dragalevski Monastery. South of the Stara Planina, the villages of Mechka, Poibrene, Strelcha, Lesichevo and Popintsi were added to the existing network of committees.
Monasteries became a vital part of the organisation. Levski used them not only as shelters – many are still preserved – but also as hotbeds of revolutionary preparation. In the Troyan Monastery, for example, 80 monks were members of the committee, presided over by the archimandrite himself.
In May 1872, Levski attended the meeting of the Bulgarian Central Revolutionary Committee in Bucharest. His ideas for internal organisation were adopted, but he was forced to accept the imminent start of the revolution and the unwanted help of a deputy, the valiant but unruly Dimitar 'Obshti' Nikolov.
When Levski returned, he dedicated himself to expanding the committee network, making the committees in Golyam Izvor, Pazardzhik, Stara Zagora, Sliven and Tarnovo central for their regions.
Levski's handgun and personal belongings are at the National Military Museum, Sofia
On 22 September 1872, however, Dimitar 'Obshti' committed a serious mistake. Ignoring Levski's orders, he and a company of men robbed the post convoy at the Arabakonak Pass in the Stara Planina. Soon, they were caught and, during interrogation, they revealed the existence of the revolutionary network.
The Lovech committee was shattered and Levski, who at the time was at a safe distance in the Thrace, returned to collect the organisation's archives. This he managed to do, and hid in the inn in the village of Kakrina, which had been acquired by the committee earlier to serve as a safe house. On the morning of 27 December 1872, however, Ottoman police besieged the inn and captured Levski.
The inn burnt to the ground at the end of the 19th Century. In 1931 it was completely renovated and turned into a museum. Today it is listed in the 100 National Tourist Sites. The tall elm tree in the yard is believed to have been a witness to Levski's capture.
From Kakrina, Levski was brought to Tarnovo, where he was identified, and was then sent to Sofia, where the Arabakonak robbers and the captured revolutionaries were put on trial. The prison where he spent the final days of his life is still preserved and marked with a memorial plaque. You will find it in the very centre of the city, beside the building of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Eastern-Orthodox Church.
Levski's capture as depicted on a memorial in Karlovo
On 18 February 1873, Levski was hanged on the outskirts of Sofia. Today, there is a busy roundabout on the supposed place of his death. In its centre stands a 13-metre grey granite obelisk with a relief of Levski. This monument was among the first to be erected in free Bulgaria. It was unveiled in 1895, and was designed by the then chief architect of Sofia, the Czech Antonín Kolář.
Levski was buried in a nearby cemetery, which was long since destroyed by the expanding capital of Bulgaria. The whereabouts of his remains are unknown.
The Kakrina Inn was rebuilt and turned into a museum in the 1930s
In the 1930s a rumour appeared that, shortly after his death, Levski was secretly re-buried in the Petka Samardzhiyska Church, which today is beside the Serdica Metro Station in Central Sofia. In the 1980s, the popular writer, Nikolay Haytov, promoted the idea that during research in the church in the 1950s, archaeologists had discovered the remains of Levski and had destroyed them following orders from the Communist Party. The supposed reason for this was to avoid the creation of a shrine of strong national sentiment so close to the then new statue of Lenin. The fact that the skeleton in question was lost did not help the archaeologists' claim that Haytov had misinterpreted the find. Today, there is a strong belief that the church was the final resting place of Levski, and a plaque proclaims this.
The National Military Museum (www.militarymuseum.bg) in Sofia is also a place dedicated to Levski's memory. It displays, among other things, locks of his hair and shackles similar to those he carried in the final days of his life.