Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Ilinden-Preobrazhenie Uprising of 1903 Ideals and Heroism

The Ilinden-Preobrazhenie Uprising of 1903 Ideals and Heroism

Dedicated to the 106th anniversary from the events

Professor Dimitar Gotsev
Translated by Iv. Cholakova

106 years ago in 1903 the Bulgarians living in Macedonia and Odrin (Turk.: Edirne, Greek: Adrianopolis) Thrace rose against the oppressive Turkish rule in the name of their national liberation and Bulgarian national unification, under the leadership of the Secret Macedonian - Odrin Revolutionary Organization - SMORO (or ТМОРО in Bulgarian). The events were preceded by decades of national awakening and reaffirmation, and by the creation of democratic organizations (public associations, churches, schools, cultural centers, trade associations), which lay the basis for a vigorous national and cultural consolidation and for political development.

The efforts culminated in 1870 with the restoration and acknowledgement by the Turkish Sultan of an independent Bulgarian Church. The April Uprising of 1876 sought political liberation and, although severely crushed by Turkey, it and the unsuccessful Tsarigrad (Istanbul) Conference of 1876, lead to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 - the Liberation War.

The War was officially concluded with signing the San Stefano Peace Treaty on 3 March 1878. The treaty outlined the ethnic boundaries of the lands inhabited by the Bulgarian people as a majority - such as they were already mentioned by Vasil Levski, the revolutionary leader who prepared the grounds for the April Uprising. He said:

"...we too are humans and want to live in a free and human way there, where the Bulgarians live - in Moesia, Thrace and Macedonia."

Having been liberated with the help of Russia, Bulgaria instantly became an arena of foreign political struggles for influence. As a consequence, Bulgaria's neighboring countries and the Western Great Powers imposed a revision to the results of the war. In July 1878 in Berlin San Stefano Bulgaria was torn into three parts: Principality of Bulgaria (vassal to the Ottoman Empire), Eastern Roumelia (an autonomous province within the Ottoman Empire of Turkey) and the region of Macedonia and Odrin (Adrianopolis) Thrace, which was returned under the full sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire.

From this moment on among the free, the semi-free and the "enslaved" Bulgarians (in the Principality, Eastern Roumelia and Macedonia - Adrianopolis Area) a common Bulgarian national ideal was born, according to which the struggle for complete national liberation and unification of the parts torn apart became the primary duty of all Bulgarians. In August and September 1878 committees called "Unity" ("Единство") were formed in the Principality and in Eastern Roumelia, and in October along the valleys of the rivers Struma, Mesta and Bregalnitsa the Kresna-Razlog Uprising erupted. After a sequence of riots, actions and events the Unification between Northern (The Principality) and South (Eastern Roumelia) Bulgaria became a fact in the autumn of 1885. Defended in a victory over Serbia (which on 14.11.1885 promptly attacked the new country), the Unification is now honoured as one of the milestones of Bulgarian history.


The Bulgarians in Macedonia and Thrace, however, remained under the Turkish Empire. Moreover, the implementation of the clause for autonomous government of the region (art. 23 of the Berlin Treaty) met the resistance of not only Sultan Turkey, but of the Kingdom of Serbia and of the Kingdom of Greece. The vigorous resistance was backed by an unscrupulous and unprecedented cultural and political anti-Bulgarian propaganda. At the time (end of the 1880ties - beginning of 90ties) the Bulgarian national and cultural activities in Macedonia and Adrianopolis Thrace were lead by the Bulgarian Exarchate in Tsarigrad (Istanbul) and the local Bulgarian church-and-school communities. Every year the comprehensive secondary schools (gimnazii) in Solun (Thessalonica), Skopje, Bitola, Odrin (Adrianoplolis), etc. yielded dozens of educated and patriotically minded youth for whom national liberation had become a highest ideal and a personal bounden duty. In 1890-91 several students in the Higher Education School (the future Sofia University), with Dame Gruev and Petar Poparsov at the lead, establish a "Students Revolutionary Association", which according to Dame Gruev himself aims at struggling for the liberation of Macedonia from "Turkish yoke". Poparsov adds that the aim of the association is to recruit followers, who would travel to Macedonia and then, on the spot, in the same way as Levski and his associates previously, would prepare the grounds for a revolutionary movement.

On 23 October 1893 most of the activists of this student association and their supporters in Thessalonica initiate the Bulgarian Macedonian-Odrin Revolutionary Committee (BMORC). It aims at achieving full political autonomy of Macedonia and Odrin (Adrianopolis) Area. According to art. 3 of the organization's Charter every Bulgarian, notwithstanding gender, may become a member of the committees. BMORC members, according to art. 15 of the regulations, are under the obligation to fight to the death for the freedom of the Bulgarians in Macedonia and the Odrin area. All program documents - charters, regulations, and objectives for BMORC - follow the spirit and the fundamental stipulations in the documents of the Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee (BRCC, 1869/70) and the Secret Bulgarian Revolutionary Committee (SBRC, Bulgarian ТБРЦК, of 1866), where the creation of a unified and free Bulgarian state is envisioned. However, at the end of the 19th and beginning of 20th c. the international political scene is very different to the one around the time of the Russo-Turkish war. Now the Great powers and Bulgaria's neighbouring countries seriously oppose the idea of Bulgarian unification. The latter have initiated unprecedented campaigns against the very ethnic and cultural character of the Bulgarian population in the territories in question.

This forced the Central Committee (CC) and the district revolutionary committees, and personally the leaders Goce Delchev, Dame Gruev, Hristo Matov, etc. to constantly fight off the Greek and Serbian propaganda in Macedonia, moreover that, according to the CC "their emissaries had turned into eyes and ears for the Turkish authorities", enabling the Turkish police to disclose and arrest numerous prominent BMORC activists. Those subversive activities caused division within the movement, compelling the Internal Organization for instance to hide its connections with the public and political circles in Sofia. For the same reasons the real nature of the relations between the Exarchate and the Internal Organization had to be hidden. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th c. the leaders of the Organization, with Goce Delchev in the lead, put their efforts into creating a strong and well-trained rebellion army - the so called "cheta institute" ("cheta" - an armed formation, group of rebels) in 1898-1899. Almost all Bulgarians, "capable to carry a gun" take part in the organization’s regional, district and village chetas and the legal militia. The revolutionary actions take the form of armed guerrilla warfare throughout the Macedonia and Adrianopolis (Odrin) Thrace - chetas regularly engage in armed conflict with Turkish troops in an atmosphere of daily killings and other violent acts on the part of the Turkish authorities over the Bulgarian population.

In May 1902, as a result of allegations by the Albanian, Greek and Vlah communities in Macedonia, that the BMORC is a purely Bulgarian organization defending exclusively Bulgarian interests, the BMORC renames itself into Secret Macedonian-Adrianople Revolutionary Organization (SMARO, or ТМОРО in Bulgarian). Only later at its Rila congress in 1905 the Organization takes the name of Internal Macedonian-Adrianople Revolutionary Organization (IMARO, or ВМОРО in Bulgarian). In December 1902 the Central Committee (CC) of SMARO summons the local revolutionary committees to a congress to discuss the issue of starting an armed rebellion. The congress takes place in January 1903 in the Bulgarian Men's High School in Thessalonica. Delegates from all revolutionary districts in Macedonia and Odrin (Adrianopolis) area attend. A protocol is signed for starting an all-nation armed rebellion in Macedonia and the Odrin Area in the spring of 1903. Already before the congress of 1902 heated debates among the revolutionary circles in Sofia outline several standpoints on the issue of armed rebellion. The High Committee (HC), with General Tsonchev as its Head, and his supporters believe that the preparation in Macedonia and the Odrin area is sufficient and the time is ripe for the rebellion. They also believe that there's no reason to hide Bulgaria's participation in it. On the contrary, in the case of rebellion Bulgaria and the Great Powers should actively interfere in support of the
Bulgarian population.

SMARO, with Goce Delchev as its Head, believe that not all districts are armed and sufficiently well prepared for the rebellion. Moreover, they think that if the rebellion is to rely on the support of the Great Powers, it should be internal - of the population in the areas still remaining under Turkish domination - and that Bulgaria should be safe-guarded from allegations that the country has set the spark to the rebellion in Macedonia and the Odrin area. All the discussions are, however, terminated, the moment the decision for an armed rebellion was made in 1903. The arguments between the HC and the SMARO are put to an end. At the end of April Goce Delchev arrives in Thessalonica where he meets his close friend and associate Dame Gruev. As a result they decide to postpone the rebellion until the autumn and to restrict it to three revolutionary districts.

This is the final plan of the Ilinden-Preobrazhenie (St. Elias’s Day - Transfiguration) Uprising as drawn by the SMARO leaders - Delchev and Gruev. It is interesting to note the position of the Bulgarian government on the issue. Already during the discussions, Racho Petrov's government supported SMARO's position of an entirely internal character of the rebellion. Apart form Racho Petrov's personal warning to Goce Delchev in January 1903 about delaying or even canceling the rebellion, the government sent out a circular note to its diplomatic representations in the Macedonia and Odrin areas, advising the Bulgarian population not to succumb to a pro-rebellion propaganda, as Bulgaria was not ready to support it. To this the Organization's leaders in Thessalonica, Skopje, Bitola and Serres answered that the rebellion could be postponed but not cancelled. So, at the end of the day, the decision for a rebellion was entirely SMARO's. Exarch Yosif too was initially against the rebellion, but when it erupted, he blessed it.

After the meetings in Thessalonica with D. Gruev and the Higher Committee, Goce Delchev sets off for a congress of the Serres Revolutionary District. On his way to it on 4.05.1903 he is killed in an attack of a Turkish posse over his cheta. On 7.05.1903 Dame Gruev chairs a congress of the Bitola Revolutionary District. Continuous announcements of Turkish atrocities over the Bulgarian population lead to a unanimous decision for the rebellion to erupt on 2 August 1903. Rebellion Head Quarters are established in which are elected: Dame Gruev, Boris Sarafov and Atanas Lozanchev.

They issue a proclamation, which among other things says:

“…The blood of our brothers, who died innocent under the Turkish tyranny, calls for revenge! The desecrated honor of our mothers and sisters calls for its restoration! Enough suffering, enough shame! Freedom or death!”


Thus the saga began in which 26 000 armed rebels engaged in uneven battles with 350 000 Turkish regular army. There are armed engagements throughout the whole Bitola Revolutionary District – Bitola, Ohrid, Kichevo, Kostur (Kastoria), Prilep, and Skopje. The rebels proclaim Bulgarian revolutionary authority over many towns and villages. In Krushevo the rebels declare the so called “Krushevo Republic”, with SMARO leader Nikola Karev as its Head. The Republic lasts only 10 days before the town is smitten by Bahtiyar Pasha’s army. (The original of the Krushevo Manifesto has never been found.) Following SMARO’s CC’s plan for successive rebellions in the different revolutionary districts, the congress for initiating the rebellion in the Odrin Revolutionary district, begins on 11.07. in the locality of Petrova Niva in the Strandzha Mountain.

The rebellion erupts on 19.08, Transfiguration Day (Preobrazhenie, Преображение in Bulgarian). One of its Leaders, Mihail Gerdzhikov, declares: “From today on, on this ground army, court and authority are we, the Bulgarians.” The rebels capture almost the whole of the Strandzha area and establish the Strandzha Commune, which holds for 26 days. They are attacked by Shukri Pasha’s 40-thousand army - and crushed. As a result, more than 2700 houses are destroyed and 20 000 Bulgarian refugees seek shelter in the State of Bulgaria. On 3.09. the Serres Revolutionary district holds its congress close to the village of Pirin. After reconciliation between Yane Sandanski and General Tsonchev, the rebellion erupts on 14.09., Holy Cross Day, under the combined leadership of SMARO and IMORC, and headed by Dimitar Stefanov and General Tsonchev.

After a temporary success, the rebellion is severely crushed by the Turkish army. Excessive atrocities are accounted for, especially in the Razlog Valley. As Macedonia and the Odrin Area are all in fires, on 29.09. the Headquarters of the Uprising sends the historical address N 534 to the Bulgarian government, appealing for immediate armed intervention: “The Main Headquarters considers its duty to turn the attention of the respectable Bulgarian government to the disastrous consequences for the Bulgarian nation, if it does not carry out its duty towards its birth brothers here, in an impressive and active manner, as imposed by the power of the circumstances and the danger, which threatens the all-Bulgarian fatherland – through war.”

Unfortunately, Bulgaria is unable to send troops to the rescue of the rebelling fellow Bulgarians in Macedonia and Adrianopolis (Odrin) Thrace. When CC SMARO’s representatives meet the Bulgarian Prime-Minister Racho Petrov, he shows them the ultimatums by Serbia, Greece and Romania, which he had just received and which informed him of those countries’ support for Turkey, in case Bulgaria intervened to support the rebels. The Great Powers, including Russia, also threatened, that they would let Bulgaria be torn apart between its neighbors, if the country supported the rebellion. This confirmed Gotse Delchev’s fears, that Bulgaria will be dangerously dragged unprepared into the turmoil of the rebellion, which would threaten the country’s very existence and which would truly destroy all hope for national liberation. On 2.10.1903 the Headquarters issued an ordinance for ceasing action and hiding the arms. Only in Macedonia 1200 rebels perished, 5000 civillian Bulgarians were killed, 3000 women were raped, more than 70 000 were left without a home, 15 000 were jailed, more than 30 000 became refugees and found shelter in the Bulgarian state. Crushing the rebellion in bloodshed brought protest all over Europe and set the Bulgarian public in turmoil for months on end. The uprising’s leaders became national heroes for all Bulgarians.


The Ilinden-Preobrazhenie Uprising is a topic, which is still to be broadly discussed with scientists, politicians and ordinary people – our brothers from the Republic of Macedonia. This should be done to the moment we consent to respect our common history and our common national ethnic roots such, as they have been for centuries. And finally, these are the words of the historian of the national-liberation movement of the Bulgarians in Macedonia and Adrianopolis Thrace:

“This spirit – the immortal heritage of the Ilinden heroic deed – is the dearest contribution of Macedonia to the common national history of the Bulgarians.”*

* Silyanov, Hristo, The Liberation Struggles of Macedonia