History


Baba Tonka

tonka2One of the most prominent supporters of the the Bulgarian Renaissance, a patriotic, courageous, and devoted to the National Revolutionary Movement woman, an associate and confidant of Vasil Levski and associate of Georgi Sava Rakovski, Tonka Tihova Obretenova is a key figure in the Bulgarian National Struggle for Liberation in the end of 19th century. She provided fundamental organizational, moral, and financial support to the rebels after the defeat of Hadji Dimitar and Stefan Karadzha’s detachment and to the Rousse Revolutionary Committee by turning her home into a hiding place and a strategic site for the revolution in the northern and central parts of Bulgaria.

Tonka was born in 1812 in Rousse. Her father was an alert and inquisitive person. He supported the active struggle for enlightenment that initiated in the country at the beginning of 19 century and among many other newspapers and magazines, he received the first educational journal published by Konstantin Fotinov in 1842. Her mother wanted her daughter to study and sent her as a student to an educated priest. However, Tonka returned only three days later because she was mocked by her friends for wishing to become educated. Back then, women who wanted to educate themselves were hardly accepted by society.tonka1

In 1831, Tonka married the notable tailor and one of the first traders in Rousse, Tiho Obretenov. His fellow citizens considered him a representative of the intelligentsia in the city. He actively took to public life at that time and sponsored the Lyuboslovie and Dunavski Lebed magazines. Later he bought the house on the Danube which later became the center of revolutionary activity in the region. In 1864, together with his son Nikola Obretenov, he founded the first Bulgarian school in Romania. Tiho died in 1869 from poisoning carried out by his business partner.

The Obretenovi had 5 boys and 2 girls from their marriage – Peter, Angel, Atanas, Nikola, and Georgy, and Anastasia and Petrana. All of them are inextricably connected to the national struggle for Bulgarian Liberation from Ottoman rule.tonka5semeistvo

According to the written sources, Baba Tonka was a warm-hearted, communicative, resourceful, and courageous woman who considered it her duty to help people in trouble and to support the ones in need. Her fate that allotted her one of the most important and unique roles in the Bulgarian National Struggle for Liberation, first encountered her when she was already 50 years old when Georgi Sava Rakovski, a personal friend of her husband’s, visited their home to discuss with Tiho Obretenov matters related to the Bulgarian liberation. It was then when her revolutionary spirit was ignited and her desire to take part in the struggle for liberation was born.

When Rakovski began to form the First Bulgarian Legion, Baba Tonka’s house became the place where young people including her two sons Angel and Peter started learning how to shoot and handle weapons. In 1862, Peter joined the First Bulgarian Legion in Serbia. Angel and Stefan Mesho-the Priest did walking rounds to meet the people on the Bulgarian part of Danube region, to spread revolutionary ideas, ignite a desire for freedom, and attract compatriots to the struggle for liberation.

In 1864, Baba Tonka incited the revolt of women against the Greek bishop in the area. This was a part of the struggle against the Greek clergy in the country and for the establishment of an independent Bulgarian church. Ultimately, the revolt succeeded – the local Turkish pasha was persuaded to remove the Greek bishop and to allow the religious service to be held in Bulgarian.

In 1868, the detachment of Hadji Dimitar and Stefan Karadzha was gathered. Baba Tonka’s two sons, Peter and Angel, joined it. Her daughter, Petrana, created and embroidered the flag of the detachment, which Baba Tonka herself took to the revolutionaries by travelling to Giurgiu in Romania where their headquarters was located.

After the defeat of the detachment, the revolutionaries who were captured alive were taken to Rousse. Among them was one of their leaders, Stefan Karadzha, who later died from his wounds. Baba Tonka managed to bury him and managed to preserve his skull which now can be seen in the Baba Tonka Museum in Rousse. A captive who was also taken to the city was her son, Angel Obretenov, who was sentenced to hard labour for life and sent to Israel. He was released in 1878 by virtue of a general amnesty and returned to Rousse where he died in 1894. Another of her sons, Peter Obretenov, found his death in one of the battles of the detachment in 1868. He was only 26 years old.tonka3_big

In 1872, the Revolutionary Committee of Rousse was established in Baba Tonka’s house by her son Nikola Obretenov. The setup of this committee was long considered of utmost importance by Vasil Levski – the Deacon, the leader of the National Struggle for Bulgarian Liberation, who wanted such a revolutionary organization near the Danube to facilitate the transfer of weapons from Romania to Bulgaria and to act as a connection between the Bulgarian Revolutionary Committee in Bucharest, Romania, and the Internal Revolutionary Organization in the country.

Baba Tonka had two important tasks to carry out – to provide a hideout for the weapons of the revolutionaries and to recruit boatmen to transfer mail and weapons between the Bulgarian and Romanian shores. As a result, a hiding place was dug under the rooms of the house that was big enough to shelter both rifles and several revolutionaries in case of need. By using cunning and bribery, Baba Tonka managed to attract the boatmen that were necessary for the cause.

In 1874, the Revolutionary Committee in Rousse became of great importance and was functioning as the major revolutionary committee responsible for the central parts of the country. In Baba Tonka’s house were hidden weapons, correspondence, archives, the Svoboda (later renamed to Nezavisimost) newspaper published by Lyuben Karavelov. Many revolutionaries, such as Stefan Stambolov, Stoyan Zaimov, Toma Kardzhiev and Zahari Stoyanov, found shelter and protection there too.

In 1875, the preparation for the uprising in Stara Zagora began. To take part in it, the detachment from Chervena Voda and Novo Selo was formed. The flag that Baba Tonka’s daughter Petrana embroidered for the detachment was adopted one year later by the detachment led by Hristo Botev, one of the most prominent revolutionaries to lead the National Struggle for Liberation. Petrana also created and embroidered the flag for the detachment from Sliven and also took part in regular revolutionary activities by transferring mail and weapons.tonka4

After the defeat of the uprising, the sons Nikola and Georgi along with Stefan Stambolov, Panayot Volov, Stoyan Zaimov and others managed to escape from Stara Zagora to Giurgiu. Part of revolutionaries, however, were captured and taken to the prison in Rousse. Baba Tonka travelled to Romania to help the exiled revolutionaries there and also managed by trick again to make the Turkish prison guards let her freely visit the rebels in the prison and therefore bring them clothes, food, and help them keep their faith in the face of the enemy.

In 1876, Nikola Obretenov, who was a central figure in the Revolutionary Committee in Rousse, was appointed a leader (apostle) of the April Uprising in the district of Vratsa. Later, he participated in the detachment of Hristo Botev, witnessed the death of the leader, and is one of the survivors who provided details about the events that led to Hristo Botev’s death. Nikola was sentenced by the Turks and exiled. After the Liberation he became a Member of Parliament and a Mayor of Rousse. Together with his wife, Dimitra, he lived in his mother’s house until his death in 1939. Tonka, their daughter and Baba Tonka’s granddaughter, and her husband, Niko Prosenishkov, were killed in the coup d’état organized by the Communists in September 1944 who also confiscated the house.

In the same 1876, Georgi Obretenov was appointed an apostle for the district of Sliven. He joined the detachment of Stoil Voyvoda. In May 1876 he was severely wounded by the Turks during a battle and committed suicide in order not to fall into captivity.

Anastasia Obretenova supported the revolutionary activities of her brothers. She married revolutionary and writer Zahari Stoyanov, author of Notes on Bulgarian Uprisings, and after the Liberation she edited his works.

Atanas Obretenov was called The Old Housekeeper and was responsible for keeping the hideout and Baba Tonka’s house safe and in order, and for the transfer of weapons and mail.

Baba Tonka lived to see Bulgaria liberated and died in 1893. According to eyewitnesses, her funeral was attended by so many people that only the number of people attending Lyuben Karavelov’s funeral in the city had outnumbered it.

Below are maybe the most famous words Baba Tonka has uttered. They themselves speak of her relentless faith, patriotism, and dedication to Bulgaria during the National Struggle for Liberation:

It’s four sons that I lost in the struggle! Two of them are in their graves already and the other two are half-dead. But had I four more, I’d still make them carry the Bulgarian flag with the golden lion!

In 1934, a village in the Municipality of Popovo, Targovishte, was named after Baba Tonka. The High School in Mathematics in Rousse and a gulf at the Antarctic island of Livingston also bear her name. Her personality served as a prototype for the heroine of Baba Tonka in Ivan Vazov’s novel called Chased and Unwanted.

Her house is now a Museum that is taken care of the Regional Museum of History in Rousse.

Sources

1. Tonka Obretenova
2. Tiho Obretenov, available in Bulgarian only
3. Peter Obretenov, available in Bulgarian only
3. Angel Obretenov, available in Bulgarian only
4. Georgi Obretenov
5. Nikola Obretenov
6. Petrana and Anastasiya Obretenovi, available in Bulgarian only
7. Stefan Karadzha
8. Notes on Bulgarian Uprisings
9. Bulgarian Women, forum, available in Bulgarian only
10. Analyses, Dnevnik Newspaper, available in Bulgarian only

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City of First Things in Bulgaria

Rousse owes one of the informal names by which it is known to its role of an economic and cultural center it played for Bulgaria during the second half of the 19th century and after the Liberation from Ottoman rule.

1In 1836 Rouschouk, as they called Rousse at the time, became the center of the Danube Administrative Territory, which in 1864 included areas from several countries of today. The Ottoman governor of this area was Midhat Pasha. He turned out to be a capable statesman and initiate economic and tax reforms. At the time, the consulates of Austria-Hungary (1849), Russia, Britain, Italy and Prussia (1853), France, Belgium, the Netherlands (1864), Romania, Spain and Greece were founded in Rousse. The city became one of the most important administrative centers of the then Ottoman Empire.3

The story of Rousse, however, got even more interesting: along with a source of economic welfare it was for its citizens in the late 19th century, Rousse also became one of the most important centers of the National Revival Movement, which sought independence from the Ottoman Empire. Twice the Revolutionary Committee in Rousse was voted to be the national central coordination unit in the Resistance. After the Liberation, the city retained its strong position by becoming the largest city in the Principality of Bulgaria with a population of 22,000 people, and became an entry point for Western influences in terms of architecture and culture. It was at that time when Rousse acquired yet another of its names – the Small Vienna.4

In the 1930s the Mayor of the city, Kiril Startsev, continued the successful trend of city development. However, the annexation of Southern Dobrudzha by Romania marked a downfall in capital and was the reason for the withdrawal of BGN 40,000,000 from the city’s economy. Of all consulates in the city only two remained. After the occupation of the city by the Soviet army after the Second World War, the Communists claimed Rousse to be bourgeois and many of its most prominent citizens were killed, convicted, or forced to leave. The scars from this economic and cultural blow are still evident today, when Rousse is trying hard to revive its economy, attract new investments, develop as an attractive tourist destination and sustain international relations.

6All in all, due to its unique position in the second half of the 19th century and the decades after the Liberation from Ottoman rule, it was only normal that Rousse was the place where a number of significant and fundamental for the country’s development events happened just there. The full list is very long, but we managed to pick up some of the more intriguing ones. Believe me, it was not easy at all!

Year For the first time in Rousse and in Bulgaria
1864 An Ottoman territory acquires its own representative institution – the Common Danube Administrative Territory. The first modern printing press starts working.
1865 Streets are given names.
1866 The first telegraph line between Rousse and Varna is built.
1867 The first railway line from the centre of the Danube Territory to Varna is built.
1868 The first exhibition of local industry and agricultural production is held.
The first factory for alcoholic beverages starts working.
1876 The first brewery starts working.
The first steam paint factory begins to operate.
1878 Rousse becomes the first Bulgarian city to have its own plan for urban development, the first curbs, sidewalks and street kerosene lanterns appear.
1880 Ivan Vedder launches the first Masonic lodge in the Principality of Bulgaria.
1881 The first metal ship is built.
The first Bulgarian private bank starts to operate.
1883 The first steam brewery starts to operate.
The first weather station is built.
1884 The first German-language school in Bulgaria and on the Balkans is established.
The first pharmaceutical community is set up.
1890 The First Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce is established.
1891 The first insurance company starts to operate.
1896 The first manually operated elevator is built.
1897 The first film show is presented.
1906 The first import of cars is performed.
1933 The first private-funded refinery is built. First Bulgarian Oil Industry is established.
1953 The first bridge over the Danube is built to connect Bulgaria and Romania.
1981 The first civil protests during totalitarianism are held.
The first attempt to establish a civil ecological organization is made.

firstfilmshow
Sources
1. Peika
2. Wikipedia

The photos in the article are not owned by this website.


First Civil Protests

In collaboration with Jennifer Atanassova

In 1981 the Romanian chemical plant in Giugiu, Verachim, starts to operate. Poor installation and excessive load causes the systematic release of chlorine compounds in the atmosphere in amounts that are up to twelve times over the permissible norms. The management of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) takes no actions and leads no negotiations with Romania – for fear not to spoil the good neighborly relations. During this time, however, for the residents of Rousse everyday life becomes a struggle for survival. protest1

Analyses show 72 days of intense gassing per year. The number of respiratory diseases registered over seven years has doubled. The number of children born with disabilities has significantly increased. Infant mortality in the city has become 2 times higher than the average for Bulgaria. Nearly 20,000 people have left Rousse. All signals of the ecological threat to Rousse during 1984-1986 have been classified. The Communist government in Romania denies that there is a problem. protest4

On September 23, 1987 the BCP in Ruse makes hundreds of students at the age of ten come to the square in the city center for admission to the pioneering organization. The air is blue haze. Ambulances accompany the procession of the children to the front. Medical teams provide first aid to fainting children. However, nobody cancels the event.

This nightmare becomes the trigger for Tsonka Bukurova, Viara Georgieva, Dora Bobeva, Stefka Monova, Eugenia Jeleva and Albena Velikova – six women working as Technical Leaders and Assistants at the state-owned company for landscape architecture to plan and organize the first environmental protest in the country during the Communist regime. An interesting fact is that due to fear of reprisals, they swear before Bible that they will stick together in the endeavor and it helps them keep their courage. protest-organizatorki

On September 28, 1987 500 people gather outside the Party House to hold a peaceful protest while the District Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party is having a meeting in the building. A representative of the Party faces the protesters and assured them that they have already taken measures to stop gassing – which however happens only four years later.

The silence engulfing these protests is broken, though only in a local newspaper. An article related to the effects of chlorine attacks and the demonstrations is published. The issue becomes known on a national scale after the publication of materials in “Literaturen Front” and “Starshel” published materials for the air pollution in the city. From December 9, 1987 to January 22, 1988 Rousse artists organize an exhibition called “Ecology – Rousse 1987”, which is written about in all major newspapers in the capital. As a result, BCP persecutes the initiators of the exhibition and starts the propaganda for their exposure among the city residents. Due to the lack of any actions on behalf of the government, as much as the six ladies try to keep the protest civil, it takes on a political tone when an unknown perpetrator wrote on the building of the Dunavska Pravda newspaper “Down with the BCP”. protest2

On February 10, 1988 the weather is clear and no gassing has happened up to the moment. Nearly one hundred mothers with their babies in prams gather outside the Municipal Council of the Communist Party. More and more mothers join the demonstration and their number becomes over 2,000. This is also the day when the Member of the State Council and former Prime Minister – Grisha Filipov, is taking part in the Party meeting. He steps outside and talks to the mothers, assuring them that there is no more gassing. Right after the demonstration, however, a thick blue mist again descends over the city. The angry mothers refuse to disperse and to believe the propaganda any more. This civil and environmental protest becomes known ever since as the Protest of the Mothers with Prams. protest3

The filmmaker Yuri Zhirov of the Ekran studio team at the Bulgarian Television shoots the movie “Breathe,” which played a big role in the subsequent events. After the movie is broadcasted, there followed a mass enrollment in the newly established Public Committee for Environmental Protection of Rousse, which is the first dissident organization in the country. In reality, the Committee, however, fails to perform any activity. The Court refuses to incorporate it, the State Security interrogates many of the protesters, puts pressure on its members and forces its founders to give up any related activity.

In 1991 Verachim is closed down. protest5

Resources:
1. Breathe Documentary
2. New Old Stories – The Gassing of Rousse in the Eighties
3. How Jivkov Let Chaushesku Poison Rousse
4. Anatomy of a Civil Protest in Bulgaria towards the End of the Socialism: the Rousse Case

The photos in the article are not owned by this website.

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