Todor Zhivkov; Bulgarian Dictator, Kremlin Loyalist

<i> From a Times Staff Writer</i>

Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s Communist dictator for 35 years who was the longest-serving Soviet Bloc leader and the first convicted of corruption after the fall of Communism in 1989, has died. He was 86.

Zhivkov, who held office from 1954 until Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe, died Wednesday night in Sofia, his nation’s capital. He was hospitalized July 8 for a respiratory infection and was in a coma when he died.

A veritable Soviet toady, Zhivkov was viewed by Moscow as the ideal leader of an allied Communist state. Never one to strike out on his own, ideologically or politically, he was totally obedient to the wishes of the Kremlin--an apparatchik who championed Soviet policies, whatever they might be.

The dramatic changes taking place in the Soviet Union under the leadership of Mikhail S. Gorbachev did not cause Zhivkov to falter in his devotion to Moscow. Following Gorbachev’s lead, Zhivkov called for democratization of political life in Bulgaria, revamping of the Communist Party and a decentralization of the economy--this from a leader who had followed the wishes of all of Gorbachev’s predecessors dating to the Stalin era.

His flexibility did not save him, however, from his oppressed countrymen when they overthrew Communism. He resigned Nov. 10, 1989, under pressure from reform-oriented Communist colleagues, opening the way for democratic elections in June 1990.


“With the death of Todor Zhivkov the era of Bulgarian Communism is finally ending,” said Bulgarian reformist President Petar Stoyanov, announcing Zhivkov’s death and extending condolences to his family.

In 1992, Zhivkov became the first Soviet Bloc leader to be found guilty of corruption. A panel of seven judges convicted him of embezzling nearly $1 million and letting Communist cronies buy cars, apartments and villas at giveaway prices.

He was sentenced to seven years in prison, but because of poor health spent his remaining years under house arrest.

Earlier this year, Zhivkov was reinstated to membership in the Socialist Party, which succeeded the Communists, and discovered he still had admirers.

Since the mid-1950s, Zhivkov had occupied the two top positions in the Communist Party--first secretary, then general secretary of the Central Committee--and the top position in the government, chairman of the State Council. From 1962 to 1971 he also served as premier.

He referred to his nation as Moscow’s “small, loyal brother,” a manifestation of Bulgarian gratitude that dates to 1878, when Russia helped liberate the country from five centuries of Turkish rule.

For the Kremlin, Zhivkov’s loyalty overshadowed his perceived shortcomings--a mediocre intelligence, lack of imagination and a far from charismatic personality. An American scholar, writing in 1973 on Zhivkov’s rise to power in the tumult of Balkan Communist politics, declared:

“For a man as lacking in distinction as Zhivkov was, this was a remarkable political performance. In a sense his greatest asset was precisely his mediocrity. The Russians were perfectly satisfied to see their most secure Balkan fortress in the hands of an average man who was fully dependent on their will.”

Zhivkov was born into a peasant family Sept. 7, 1911, in the village of Pravets, 27 miles from Sofia. In 1929, he joined the youth league of the outlawed Communist Party.

In a 1963 interview with an American reporter, Zhivkov said he took up revolution “as a profession” in 1938. His activities led to a stay in prison.

In 1941, Bulgaria became an ally of Germany, Italy and Japan and declared war on Britain and the United States--but not on the Soviet Union.

During this time Zhivkov joined the Soviet-supported partisan fight against the Bulgarian government. He served mainly as an organizer of partisan detachments and as a political officer.

The Communists joined other leftist groups in the Fatherland Front, which seized control of the government in 1944. Moscow had declared war on Bulgaria on Sept. 5, 1944, as the Bulgarian government was seeking to extricate itself from its alliance with Germany.

Zhivkov emerged from the war as a colonel in the People’s Militia, which played a major role in overthrowing the government.

In 1947, the Bulgarian People’s Republic was established under the leadership of the Communist Party chief and premier, Georgi Dimitrov. A year later Zhivkov was elevated to full membership in the party’s Central Committee. After Dimitrov’s death in 1950, Zhivkov became a protege of orthodox Stalinist Vulko Chervenko, Dimitrov’s successor.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s death in 1953 led to the resignation of Chervenko, and in 1954 Zhivkov was installed as first secretary of the Central Committee at the age of 43, becoming the youngest leader in the Soviet Bloc.

Zhivkov’s rise in the Communist hierarchy was based on his status as a loyal Stalinist, yet he later became a trusted protege of Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Soviet leader who had denounced Stalin.

Khrushchev’s fall from power in 1964 did not hurt Zhivkov. The Bulgarian leader joined in condemnation of his former mentor.

While adhering unquestionably to Kremlin views, Zhivkov instituted a number of reforms that, along with massive Soviet aid, helped to substantially raise the nation’s standard of living. Although bitterly opposed to Western influences, Zhivkov in later years sought to develop trade with the West. He also opened the reclusive country to Western influences, such as jazz and rock music and Hollywood films.

Zhivkov is survived by a son, Vladimir. His wife, Mara Maleeva, died in 1971, and a daughter, Ludmila, who was once groomed as his successor, died in 1981.

Times staff writer Myrna Oliver contributed to this article.