Nationalism and identity under the Communist regime

Mila Moshelova, Leonie Sichtermann (Sofia Platform)

Duration: 40–45 min.

Pedagogic aim and expected attainment:

Example of introductory exercise – “Circle of identity” – 5 min.

The students receive round stickers of the same or different colours. They stick themon paper (or draw circles) and, using five arrows, present five (or fewer) key characteristics of their own identity. A number of students read out their answers. The next task is to erase from the list something that they feel they could relinquish. A number of them will say what they have erased. It continues like this until all that remains is their name. The final task is to erase their name too and to choose another one. The accent is on the feelings the students experience during this process.


© 2020 – 1989 Forced Migration (the picture was taken in 1989)

Activity 1: Introductory picture

Duration: 5 – 10 min.
Distribution: entire class

Discussion questions:

The students look at the photographs and are asked questions. The main points of their answers are noted on the board. We will return to these initial thoughts at the end of the lesson.

  • Describe the people in the photo – what do you think they are doing?
  • Offer a hypothesis as to why they are on the move. 
  • What forces people to move? Who might these people be? Do you think their lives have changed much since the time the photograph was taken?
  • Could you compare the event in the photograph to any events taking place today?

Here students should interpret what could be the reasons people are walking on foot, carrying their luggage with them: to infer about the circumstances around the migratory movement. The emphasis is to articulate the value and meaning of belonging, the concept of home, departure and arrival.

© 2020 – 1989 Forced Migration (The sign says: “We want our mothers' names back”. )

Activity 2: Second photograph: “Revival process”

Duration: 5 – 10 min.
Distribution: entire class

Discussion questions:

  • What do you think the people in the photo are doing? What is the atmosphere like?
  • What is your interpretation of this slogan?
  • Why would anyone want to change somebody’s name?
  • How important is a person’s name?
  • What would it mean to you if you were forced to change your name? (reference to identity)

→ Introductory text laying out the context of the issue. 

“If you don’t know, I will teach you; if you are unable, I will show you how; if you don’t wish to, I will force you.” These were the first words that Zeynep Zafer, today a professor of Slavic literature at Ankara University, saw when she entered a women’s prison in the city of Sliven. She was placed there after resisting the forced changing of her name. Her case was one of thousands involving people who found themselves in the same situation in 1984, when a new and very dramatic period in the Bulgarian Communist Party’s treatment of the country’s Muslim community began. How did this come about? (Students can be presented with this text, or just the opening quotation – at the teacher’s digression – as a transition to the short explanatory part).

Though Bulgaria did not – unlike Albania, Romania and Yugoslavia – adopt an anti-Soviet position, from the early 1960s there were clear signs of a return to the old tradition of nationalism, which was hostile to minorities in particular. Todor Zhivkov’s regime gradually began to perceive Muslim communities as an enemy and launched a policy and measures intended to bring about their assimilation and marginalisation. As early as 1959–1960 it launched a campaign of forced change of dress in areas with mixed Muslim and Christian populations. In the subsequent years and decades, many other steps were undertaken with a view to wiping out traditional Muslim clothing (e.g., the Burqa) or individual aspects of it. By doing this the regime aimed to unify the population outwardly and to erase signs of the Muslim faith. 

In mixed regions it put systematic pressure on the intelligentsia, party members and teachers, who were to assume Bulgarian names first and serve as an example. In some regions this policy had tangible results, though elsewhere it found few adherents. This was why a campaign to force all Bulgarian Muslims to change their names was unleashed in 1972. Numerous cases of unrest in the countryside were quelled, with two killed and dozens injured. The regime’s official version of what happened was that it had been a spontaneous “revival process” of now former Muslims, who had realised the importance of their Bulgarian origins and had themselves requested to have their names made Bulgarian. Many were imprisoned for resisting the forced name changes. The final and most dramatic episode in the Bulgarian Communist Party’s policy toward the country’s Muslim communities occurred in 1984.

Activity 3: Eye-witness accounts and discussion

Duration: 20 min. 
Distribution: in groups

Students work in groups (of max. 4) each working with different material from an eye-witness. All of the groups have 5 minutes to get acquainted with the materials and to discuss 2-3 questions. Then one student from each group will sum up the outcome of the discussion. After that the class will come together for a shared discussion.


From the memoirs of Mohammed Uzunkışe:

“On the 26th people gathered in front of the town hall, though nobody had organised them. They wanted to know why this insanity was taking place. But instead of a reply, the police and fire brigades started to disperse us. They fired shots. They shot somebody beside me in the leg. They later hanged themselves. I found out that they had arrested relatives of mine. The authorities began seizing our passports to change them. Then my mind is blank – for several hours, perhaps for a day. I don’t remember what happened, but I found myself beneath a tent for drying tobacco. I was lying on the ground crying and my sister poked me. She’d been looking for me for ages. I cried out of despair, that I didn’t have the power to change anything.”

Quoted from: Istoriyata, naselena s khora, vol. 1 – Interviews. Ed. Genka Markova, Rumyana Bratovanova et al., “Gutenberg”, 2005, p. 457.



  • Summarise the content of the document in one sentence.
  • How did the authorities respond to protests?
  • How does Uzunkışe view those events?


From the memoirs of Zeynep Zafer:

[At that time] I was at a grammar school on an internship when, during the first lesson, they informed the children that they had to […] change their names. Even though I didn’t have work that day, I deliberately went to school. The teachers didn’t know I was a Turk, except for one with whom I worked in literature classes and who I was doing the internship with [there], who knew about it. But at that moment she wasn’t in the staffroom. I listened to what they were saying… In the morning I went out. I thought I’d take a look at what was happening in the streets. They had already entered Shumen… In the morning I went early… I was already close to the school when I met a young guy who was running away. I called out: ‘Wait, what’s going on, did they tell you about the name?’ He shouted: ‘Get away!’ and fled from the school. I then understood from the comments of the teachers, who were really outraged by the whole situation, that he was the son of a dentist. When the teacher told the pupils they had to change their names he had apparently left the classroom as a sign of protest. The other ones that they had told had just been let out for their lunch break, and I saw girls in the hallway, crying. I said to them in Turkish, “Why are you crying? Take the bus and go home, discuss it with your parents. You’ll decide there. It’s not like you’re changing your names here.” “That’s true,” they admitted. They didn’t know what to do, these are young kids, after all. They told me that they had been told to change their names.’

Quoted from: Nasilie, politika i pamet. Komunisticheskiyat rezhim v Pirinska Makedonia = refleksii na savremennika i izsledovatelya. Ed. M. Gruev, V. Tepavicharov et al., Universitetsko izdatelstvo “Sv. Kliment Ohridski”, 2011, 622 p.



  • Summarise the content of the document in one sentence.
  • Can you give reasons for the children’s response and why they acted as they did?
  • How would you behave in such a situation?


Transcription of meeting of management at the Ministry of the Interior, 4 January 1985

Comrade D. Stoyanov – minister: 

‘Comrades, let us wish each other a happy New Year. Allow me, on behalf of all my colleagues, to all the present comrades, and through you, to the ones who aren’t currently in attendance, to wish you a happy New Year, to wish for, most of all, health, energy and optimism, good mood and fewer worries. […] A few minutes ago, I jokingly said that there’s enough space in Belene [prison]. However, the leaders, initiators, instirgators, and those who break the law must know this. That is the first question I pose, so that every district leader, as well as the National Security deputies, once they return, can take it into consideration. […] Comrades, in light of the new circumstances that have arisen, we must put in place new agent-driven operations. The separation of 200 thousand people creates a new climate, not only in [the city of] Kardzhali, not only in those six districts; it creates a new situation in the entire country.’

Quoted from: Provezhdane na nasilstvenata vazroditelna kampaniya sreshtu turskoto nacionalno maltsinstvo v Balgaria (23 dekemvri – 31 mart 1985). Dokimenti. Ed. V. Angelov, S. b.d. i. 2016. pp. 68-94. 



  • Summarise the content of the document in one sentence.
  • What does the minister regard as the main problem?
  • What measures does he propose to resolve the problem?


Information pertaining to the work of the Ministry of Interior organs in the matter of renewing public order in several areas of the Varna, Razgrad and Haskovo districts in the period 20–30 May 1989.

“In total, aside from the more acute and large-scale demonstrations that have been mentioned, there have been 71 such incidents in 30 cities and villages, and have involved 52,700 participants. In clashes with aggressive mobs, attempts to mistreat and disarm members of the armed forces and the national police have left 6 dead and 30 wounded. In the attempts to restore order in important agricultural and other objects, apart from the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ forces, 9,033 members of the motorised police and Internal Forces were called on for a month in the period between May and September of 1989.

Quoted from: Protestite na turcite v Balgaria sreshtu vazroditelniya proces 20 – 30 may 1989, Ed. V. Angelov, Sofie, b.d.i. 2015, 125 p.



  • Summarise the content of the document in one sentence.
  • How were protesters referred to in the official report?
  • Can you give reasons for the actions of the authorities and why they acted as they did?

Discussion questions:

  • What does the material say about the events?
  • Whose viewpoint is represented?
  • Describe the three points/feelings/facts that made the strongest impression on you.
  • How has the material shaped your understanding and informed you about the events?
  • Is there anything in the material that is unclear to you? Do you have any questions regarding its content?

Activity 4: Return to the introductory photograph and the students’ responses to the opening question.

Duration: 5 min.
Distribution: entire class

Discussion questions:

  • How does your initial hypothesis regarding the event in the photo differ from/tally with what actually happened? 
  • In what ways does what you learned from the photograph tally with or differ from what you discovered from the materials and eye-witness reports?
  • How do you evaluate historical archive materials as a means of studying history? (Compared, e.g., to lectures or textbooks)
  • Has what you have learned changed your attitude to people who are different from you? What should our relationship to minorities be like, in your view?