James Crouchman travelled mainly on foot across Bulgaria's North West - the mountainous lands between the Danube and the border with Serbia, today the Bulgarian province of Montana. He explored and documented on film an area full of history, where dialects overlap and once gold and silver miners came from as far as Saxony, brought in by the Ottoman Turks.
James: I met Asparuh from Glavanovtsi village. He gave me apples and told me he disliked Churchill. He was five during the worst bombing of WWII, but still remembers Allied planes flying overhead to target the oil fields in Romania just across the Danube, before returning and unloading their unused bombs on this part of Bulgaria. He told me about the sound the explosions made, echoing for miles around.
From Glavanovtsi I walked nearly 100km over four days to Belogradchik, crossing mountains and taking detours to villages on the way. People would often stop me and give me food or drink. In Protopopintsi village, two old ladies invited me in to their garden and gave me 'compot', not the British sort but fresh fruit juice from figs and peaches. It's a fascinating area, one that deserves to be spoken about more than just in terms of GDP and employment figures.
Photography © James Crouchman
Insurance company headquarters, 1891-1944
Communist Police headquarters 1944-1990
The Bulgarian city of Rousse is a true gem of Fin de Siècle architecture. Craftsmen and architects sailed down the Danube from Vienna and further afield, shaping a distinctly Central European look -- plenty of Neo-Baroque, Neoclassicism, Art Nouveau…
More than 250 buildings were listed and carefully preserved. Others were less lucky though. Take this one in the city's main drag, King Alexander II street: designed by an Austrian and decorated by an Italian master in 1891 for the country's largest insurance company.
After the Communist takeover the house became the Police headquarters and remained a place of sorrow and pain till the 1990s. The frescoes were covered in plaster or destroyed. For many the house stands as a reminder of times they would rather forget. Its future is now uncertain.
'Bulgaria and Russia are marching in one column under the banner of labour...' goes this song. The march was a favourite of the Soviet Army Group in Bulgaria.
In September 1944 the Red Army crossed the Danube and entered Bulgaria.
It ignored the announcement of the Bulgarian government that it was withdrawing unilaterally from the Axis, pulling its troops out of Greece and Yugoslavia and then declaring war on Germany, hoping to avoid a Soviet occupation. By the time the Red Army entered Sofia on 16th September 1944, the Bulgarian capital was already controlled by armed Communist activists. The Soviet army presence enabled the Bulgarian Communists to later seize power and establish a Communist state.
One of the first tasks for Soviet Power in Bulgaria was to establish continuity between the XIX Century Russian presence in Bulgaria and its new rulers. The myth of the Dual Liberators was born.
The new administration was equally harsh towards all within Bulgaria's borders. Tens of thousands of White Russians lived in Bulgaria after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Legally, they were not Soviet citizens, some of them had Bulgarian passports, others the so called Nansen Passports (as stateless people in need of protection), issued by the League of Nations in Geneva.
Similarly to the post-1945 practice across Eastern Europe, some of those Russians were taken to the Soviet Union, others to Bulgaria's Forced Labour Camps: first the Kutsiyan Mine near the town of Pernik, later to Bulgaria's largest Gulag on the Danubian island of Persin.