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Vasil Levski – The Apostle of Freedom

Vasil Levski – The Apostle of Freedom

Материалът на български виж  ТУК.

The material is part of the publication “Bright Sparks in the Aura of Bulgaria
(Download pdf of the book for free)

Editor’s note for non-Bulgarian readers: Vasil Levski (1837-1873) is the most notable and beloved Bulgarian revolutionary, dubbed the Apostle of Freedom as well as Deacon Ignatius. ‘Levski’ is another title he was given in his youth and means something like ‘Lion-Hearted’. He created and led the Internal Revolutionary Organisation for the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in the period 1869-1872, with over 200 revolutionary committees. He was hanged as a rebel at the beginning of 1873. In a survey carried out by Bulgarian National Television in 2007, Levski was ranked first in the list of the greatest Bulgarians of all time. He is also included in the theologian Vaklush Tolev’s concept of instituting a Day of the 13 Immortal Bulgarians and of erecting a Dome-Sanctuary (Temple House) in their honour.

My father used to say: ‘A nation that has given birth to Levski is a great nation!
– Ivan Undjiev –


Somewhere on the Net you’ve probably come across an amateur video of a mother and her little daughter showing how the little, 2 years old, girl points with her tiny finger at the portraits of the worthy figures of Bulgarian National Revival in a thick tome and calls them all by name in her still baby-ish speech but almost faultlessly. She has remembered dozens of faces along with their names – a truly touching sight – but even more impressive is the child’s spontaneous exclamation at two in particular of the multitude of portraits (0:35 & 1:00). She cries out sweetly at these two, conveying a special attitude towards that person in particular: ‘He’s really lovely!’ At Rakovski and Levski, to be precise – these two colossuses of the Bulgarian Revolutionary and Liberation Struggle.

Well, isn’t that a remarkable ‘coincidence’?! It’s as if the child has intuitively grasped their spirit and expresses her awe of just those two. Because if Levski is radiant with the sacred fire of his self-sacrifice in achieving our national liberation, so Rakovski stands out with his exceptional learnedness and the wide scope of his activities combined with his depth of insight. The ‘hagiography’ of Rakovski is stunningly studded with lofty friendships (including Serbians, Turks, Russians and Greeks), patronage at every step (as if the hand of providence pursues him without fail everywhere) and professional accomplishment in terms of financial successes combined with unrelenting cultural, educational and organisational activity, all with exceptionally significant impact.

And yet nevertheless, if I have to highlight just one amongst the Bulgarian revolutionaries, I confess that (as is probably the case for most of us) it is Levski who has for always occupied, undisputed, the highest place in my heart – the Apostle of Freedom, Deacon Ignatius.

With him it is action which is dominant, rather than knowledge and yet he makes his way through life with more perceptiveness, purity and genuine spirituality than anyone. His very appellations make this abundantly clear by way of illustration. As do his firm position on giving equal civil rights to all in his liberated Motherland – including to those who formerly enslaved us.

Apart from the pathos which the figure of Levski usually evokes, there are several aspects which have given me pause for thought. The subject of his possible betrayal[1], the subject of the failed rescue attempts and the subject of his missing bodily remains…

Once we reach the stage of the Apostle’s life in which Dimitar Obshti[2] appears on the scene, we are beset with the feeling of fateful inevitability. A person enters into the precise organisational works of the Deacon, a person who is strong and ready to fight, but who is also unruly and selfish, portrayed in terms like ambitious, undisciplined, with enormous self-esteem. Levski doesn’t want him – he is an infallible judge of character, but the Central Revolutionary Committee lumps him with this man. And the interesting thing is that it is not uncommon for a parallel to be drawn between Dimitar Obshti and Botev[3] in terms of approach, character, actions and when it comes to seeking external political intervention for liberation (Rakovski and Levski are on the opposite position – to free ourselves indеpendantly). This is hardly an accident, although the Poet-Revolutionary possesses an aura that one could hardly claim for Dimitar Obshti.

But one thing really does make an impression and does not go unnoted or passed over by most researchers: the fateful reason for Levski to find himself in the position of having to save his life’s work from utter failure. The ill-fated robbery of the Turkish post at Arabakonak (which Dimitar Obshti carries out on his own initiative) and the events following it are referred to as the greatest betrayal in the true sense, and one that leads to the capture of the Apostle. And indeed – does it take more to betray a national (i.e. transcending the merely personal) struggle than one person’s individual lack of development when the full force of an ego unsurpassed in its exhibitionism is operating? Dimitar Obshti, once captured, is carried away by his desire for the revolutionary activity unfolding in Bulgaria to explode into a world-wide political problem and literally brags about anything he can think of, giving away individuals and committees one after the other. We may ask ourselves what other option Levski had but to turn himself in and thus attempt to dispel the impression that something big is brewing on Bulgarian soil. Yes, such theories abound: that he was not betrayed but let himself be caught in order to save the Organisation from further unravelling, and even that he had secretly hoped to be free again very soon to somehow continue his work… But he had actually long since laid down more than once in his correspondence what exactly the fate was that would be most fitting for him.


‘A great quality of a national activist, according to Levski, is the readiness to sacrifice himself in the name of freedom’ – thus does Nikolai Genchev summarise this in brief (p49 in his work), going on to cite the Apostle: ‘With an impeccable sense of historical eternity he writes that the name of he who sacrifices himself for freedom ‘will remain alive in all eternity’. For the decisive, constant and noble activist for revolution and liberation ‘there is no fear nor any kind of excuse, but his death is a veritable consolation and redemption of the soul, a death which deserves our above-mentioned glory in the eyes of the Bulgarian people and a crown of laurels from God.’

In the same spirit are the devastating disclosures of the Deacon in his famous letter to Filip Totio (after Genchev, p109): ‘I have promised to my nation to be a sacrifice for its liberation and not to be some kind of special person. On this let the people judge rather than me putting myself forward. That is something scorned by humanity as something stupid and ignorant. What more could I ask for than to see my nation free – is that not what we’re predestined for today: not to see myself as someone of high rank, but to die, brother. Every worker for the Bulgarian cause ought to see himself predestined for such a fate. And then our cause will shine out and Bulgaria will explode forth magnificently as a unique state in Europe.’ Well, yes – that’s how Bulgaria would actually explode forth rather than by the beating of chests.

We could then ask ourselves what other demise could have befitted Levski on the path he trod, when, as it seems, he came with such a powerful inner compulsion in his soul as the one described? And is there any need to talk of traitors if this is the case? For me, it is the fatefulness of his path in combination with his ‘high degree of internal combustion’ that lead him to the gallows – not to go, but to stay for all eternity as an ideal and radiant example, for which Dimitar Obshti is simply a tool of the world of circumstance. The parallel with the grand example of Christ to all humanity is more than obvious as is the other element: the lack of a grave. ‘In works of song motifs about traitors or the grave of Vasil Levski are also lacking. They are replaced by the magnificent silhouette of the gallows in Sofia. ‘The saint’ – the hero and martyr of Bulgarian history – has no grave. It’s as if he is resurrected,’ concludes Nikolai Genchev (pp 211, 206).

And for a fuller picture of the real lives of the great, I’d like to insert one more bright brush-stroke from Genchev’s book because it always shakes me to my core (p145):

The opinion of those who resented the Deacon during his life (and here we are not talking of Turkish administrators or Bulgarian traitors but of those participants in the movement or Bulgarian patriots from other political camps) is illustrated most starkly by Atanas Pop Hinov.

Hinov ends one of his letters to the Apostle in which he expresses outrage at Levski’s reproaches towards him thus: ‘But please, I beg of you, do not tread on my toes like this or one day I’ll stand up and strike you right on the fore-head so that you’ll never forget it.’

Just what kind of ill-will does Pop Hinov harbour in his petty soul that he can hiss like a viper in the Apostle’s face his desire to ‘strike him right on the fore-head’. Such tussles for greatness, which turned into envy with Atanas Pop Hinov and which gave rise to deadly hate: this is what accompanied the last days of Levski, showing the other side of that historic fearlessness of his which leads him to the gallows.

The Sofia gallows of 1873 wreaths the life of the Bulgarian Apostle in unearthly radiance. The rebellion of cowardly souls against him, the scepticism of the wealthy and even of his own allies: all this is forever stemmed. No longer would anyone dare to think that they could, like a viper, strike this titan on the fore-head, because to do that would mean climbing up to the gallows. No-one will ever dare to spread rumours here and there that ‘that guy from Karlovo’ would sell his own father for money, because he has now given his life for Bulgaria.’

Respect! Now would be the moment to turn to the next topic: why were there no categorical and meaningful attempts to free Levski and why did the attempts that were made end unsuccessfully? It seems to me, however, that the answer is abundantly obvious and we would only be repeating ourselves. Because just as in the example of Christ, Levski was not supposed to be saved from his personal Golgotha. While Rakovski was saved in the most mysterious ways from the death penalty – twice. Therefore it was possible! On the other hand, Dimitar Obshti did hang from the gallows as Levski did. But not with the same ‘terribly huge power’[4]. It’s so apparent…


And that brings us to my favourite topic: to the religious spirit and proverbial asceticism, which are regarded as his most significant and innermost characteristics, of the Apostle, of Deacon Ignatius. A particular nuance of righteous allegory in this context is added by the fact that his monastic name can be translated from Latin as ‘fiery’, which is worthy of note. Then, I have discovered one of the most satisfyingly penetrating characterisations of Levski – one which I categorically view as the truth, in a work of Ivan Undjiev’s (p88): The idea of God, as Kirchev rightly notes, lies deep in Levski’s nature. Faith, in his case, is not something learned or acquired, but originates in the depths of his spirit and is penetrated by all the elements of evangelical preaching. We may discover the religious spirit in all of the Apostle’s subsequent actions, which for him had always been a kind of public act of worshipping God. It’s precisely in this that his impeccable purity of character, the mysticism of his self-denial and likewise the puritanical strictness of his life find their basis.

The subject is carried over into the debate over why then he left the monastic residence and whether the religious flame in his soul was extinguished or was it just the opposite – as in the words of Deyan Enev: ‘Levski did not turn his back on monastic service but merely chose one of its most difficult forms – to be a monk in the world.’

I think there can be no serious researcher who would not emphasise this aspect of the Apostle’s actual work (and how could it be otherwise!) but by way of a conclusion I would like to bring in two short extracts which raise the question and give answers in perfect parallel.

‘Deeply religious, for him the act of renouncing his monastic vows was not an act of cutting himself off from the faith. And putting away his hair for safe-keeping also has its deep significance. In Levski’s being shorn there is also a detail which is noteworthy. Why did he choose Easter Day itself, the most important day in the Christian calendar, and on this very day of celebration threw off his monastic robes?’ – asks Undjiev (p136).

And Genchev, giving his own kind of reply, summarises the matter so:

‘Renouncing his robes and that on not just any day but on Easter Day itself was not interpreted by the people as sacrilege but as a sign that the hero is setting of on a path which will connect him even more surely to the heavens. And perhaps it is no accident that Levski, throughout his whole life, continues without fail to be addressed as Deacon Ignatius, Deacon Levski or simply The Deacon.’ (p194)

And yet, after all, I feel like rounding off this series of quotations that have touched me with my favourite words of Levski (to the brother of Atanas Pop Hinov), in which I have seen an example of how one can work for others regardless of what each of them deserves separately:

‘Since then and to this day, I’ve been involved in this in one way or another and my work has brought me into contact with all kinds of people, but nothing has been able to make me not work for my fellow man or make me despair so that I look to my own interest only. If you don’t know, ask and learn the answer well, because if you come to believe in me fully, then I know my words will ring true in you.

Written by: RALIE BLAG
Photos: Alexsandra Vali
Translation: Neil Scarth

‘Levski took, for his struggle, blood from the people, the way from Christ and the will to live from the idea of freedom. He embodied the teachings of Christ both spiritually and physically, and he bore his sacrifice not only in imitation but also as a coming into self-awareness. This person bears one of the greatest universal ideas: the idea that the religion of the slave is freedom! And he alone of all the world revolutionaries bears the title of Apostle, because his divine fate is truly that of an Apostle. Destiny has sent this, its own son, to return to history a forgotten name: a people whose Spirit has clothed itself in flesh and blood.’  / Vaklush Tolev, www.nur.bg


[1] There are several versions, most common of which (but disputed in post-communist times) is that cleric Krastyo betrayed the Deacon.
[2] Dimitar Obhsti (1835–1873) entered the Bulgarian Liberation Struggle as an aide to Vasil Levski (1871) in the enslaved Bulgarian lands on the insistence of the Bulgarian Central Revolutionary Committee founded in Romania. Ambitious and craving glory, Dimitar Obshti did not adhere to the established rules of engagement and sought opportunities to cast himself as a leadership figure. On the 22 September he organised a senseless robbery of taxes collected and transported by Turkish officers. The robbery itself was successful but turned into a failure because the perpetrators were captured after being pursued by police.
[3] Botev is a renowned Bulgarian Revolutionary, poet and public commentator (1848–1876). Headstrong, restless and impatient by nature, he met his end in the Balkan mountain range in a battle between his small band and Turkish military forces.
[4] This is an allusion to a stanza from one of Hristo Botev’s poems, ‘The Hanging of Vasil Levski’:
Weep! There, near the edge of Sofia town
Stretches – I saw it – a black gallows
And one of your sons, Mother Bulgaria,
Hangs from it with a terribly huge power.



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