Vasil Levski, The Man, the Myth, and the Mystery About His Grave

Vasil Levski was a Bulgarian revolutionary who fought for independence from the Ottoman Empire. He died by hanging on February 18, 1873 and is still regarded as the all-time greatest Bulgarian, according to a TV poll. He was 35.

What happened to his body after he died remained a mystery until the 1950’s, at which point the story turns into a real-life communist cover up.

Get comfy! This story is super interesting.

Life and Death of Vasil Levski

Public Domain – Wikicommons

The Many Names of Vasil Levski

You may have noticed (or maybe not) that “Levski” is not a Bulgarian name – it does not end in -ev or -ov.

Vasil Levski was born Vasil Kunchev, in 1837, but was renamed by the Bulgarian people to Vasil “Levski” which means “Lion-like.”

The nick names don’t stop here, he is widely know as “The Apostle of Freedom” and “Bulgaria’s Greatest Son.”

Personally, I would describe him as a Bulgarian Robin Hood. He was known to advocate for stealing from the rich to fund the revolution.

What Did Vasil Levski Do?

Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule for nearly 500 years. This came crashing down just 5 years after Vasil Levski was killed for his efforts.

While technically Bulgaria was liberated by the Russians during the Russo-Turkish war (1877 – 1878), undoubtedly the groups of rebels that Levski assembled all over the country would have propelled Russia’s efforts.

(The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia was built to honor Russian troops that Liberated Bulgaria.)

Before Vasil Levski’s Life as a Revolutionary

Vasil Levski was actually a monk before he became a revolutionary. He joined the Orthodox order at just 21, and even took the religious name Ignatius.

A black and white postcard shows a simple old church building of Sopot Monastery where Vasil Levski was a monk
Sopot Monastery where Vasil Levski was a monk – Public Domain

He was a monk for just 3 years before he was seduced into joining the underground revolution that was forming in Serbia, and he quit entirely the following year.

Vasil Levski’s Work as a Rebel

Because of his revolutionary activities, Vasil Levski was forced to spend most of his time outside of Bulgaria, organizing in Serbia with other Bulgarians, or living and working in Romania.

During the 1870’s after a few groups had formed and disbanded, the “Internal Revolutionary Organization” was formed. Working with this group Levski travelled around Bulgaria spreading his revolutionary ideas and organizing troops.

Levski was known to travel in disguise.

A quote referenced in the Bulgarian wikipedia article.

He is from Karlovo. He changes his name every week.

A quiet pool near a waterfall in the area around Karlovo - Vasil Levski's Birthplace
The nature around Karlovo – Vasil Levski’s birthplace

In September of 1872, colleagues within the IRO were caught after robbing a postal convoy, and eventually they gave up Levski as a leader within the organization.

Vasil Levski was captured in the village of Kakrina in December of 1872, as he was trying to collect important documents before fleeing to Romania.

He died by hanging in Sofia on February 18, 1873. He was just 35.

Vasil Levski’s most famous quote is:

“If I shall win, I shall win for the entire people. If I shall lose, I shall lose only myself.”

The Mystery of Vasil Levski’s Grave

Whispers about where Vasil Levski’s body went after his execution persisted for many years.

Of course at the time of his death the Ottoman rulers were not going to allow him a proper burial.

Bulgaria became fully independent in 1908.

There were a few different stories about how it got there, but the legend was that Vasil Levski’s body had been buried under the medieval St. Petka and the Saddlers church in Sofia.

The medieval church of St. Petka and the Saddlers in Sofia Bulgaria. A small peaked roof stone church with green shrubs out front is rumored to be the place that Vasil Levski was buried.
St. Petka and the Saddlers Church

Original Search for Vasil Levski’s Body

In 1956, acting on rumors from decades earlier, an archaeological team started excavating in the search for Levski’s remains.

They actually did unearth a skeleton, but there were questions about whether it had been there before the current church was even built. The lower part of the skeleton’s legs appeared to rest under the foundation walls.

(An argument could be made that if they were able to excavate the skeleton from under the church foundation, it could have been placed there in the same manner.)

First Debates over Possible Vasil Levski’s Remains

Professor Khristo Ghiaurov, who visited the excavation, compiled arguments that these could be the bone of Vasil Levski, but his arguments fell on deaf ears.

He asked that the bones be examined further.

His opponent, Stamen Mikhailov, led the investigation but had no true interest in the matter and cast doubt on the theory by suggesting the bones could be a woman’s.

(There’s no evidence that Mikhailov had enough – or any – forensic experience to make this determination at a glance.)

He later attacked Professor Ghiaurov’s motives, saying he was only trying to save the medieval church.

The back of the medieval church of St. Petka and the Saddlers in Sofia Bulgaria. A small peaked roof stone church is rumored to be the place that Vasil Levski was buried.

The whole matter was dropped for about 20 years.

Renewed Interest in Vasil Levski’s Grave

In the late 1970’s the arguments flared up again, and the whole story was blown wide open in 1980 when a TV show interviewed all living parties.

(Professor Ghiaurov passed away in 1966.)

Mikhailov’s deputy, Sava Bobchev, was an architect that had been commissioned to take detailed sketches of everything they found.

When they discovered the skeleton Bobchev said that he remarked to Mikhailov that “it seemed to be something special, a secret, and it needed to be duly documented.”

In a later interview Bobchev said: “The discovery occurred by chance but the coincidence is remarkable.”

Mikhailov objected to anything being sketched, saying the discovery was of no archaeological value because there was no way that it was Levski.

(You would think even if it were not Levski, someone buried under the church is likely to be a saint or someone important. So it’s strange that Mikhailov considered it of no consequence.)

Bobchev documented everything anyway and took very detailed sketches, commenting that Mikhailov had already decided that the story was fabricated.

The medieval church of St. Petka and the Saddlers in Sofia Bulgaria. A close up of the small peaked roof of stones. Imagery of St. Petka is on the front.

When Bobchev spoke to Professor Ghiaurov a few days later, Ghiaurov insisted that they had found the bones of Vasil Levski.

When they returned, the bones were already missing.

The Case of Maybe Vasil Levski’s Missing Bones

After the bones from the church vanished, Bobchev noticed “Nobody further inquired how this could happen, why it happened. Nobody.”

In his private journal with the sketches of the skeleton, Bobchev made a note: “Here lies Vasil Levski.”

The Beginning of a Government Conspiracy

Now remember if you will, that this was the time of communism.

The same time that history was being erased under man-made reservoirs.

(In my Bulgaria Fun Facts post I tell about the 1950’s communist government purposely flooding the best preserved Thracian village the world had ever seen.)

a spaceship looking concrete building at the top of a hill with two concrete hands holding flaming torches at the bottom of the hill
Buzludzha – Built by Communist Government in 1980’s

It really sounds to me like the government did not want Vasil Levski found: Why else put a man on the job who had no interest in the matter?

Did he actually have no interest, or was his whole job to discredit the rumors?

It now seems pretty likely, but why?

Vasil Levski stood for liberty and fought to topple Ottoman Rule.

Did they fear his memory would inspire a rebellion?

From this article about Levski:
“Levski looked beyond the act of liberation and envisioned a Bulgarian republic of ethnic and religious equality, largely reflecting the liberal ideas of the French Revolution and contemporary Western society.”

Bingo.

Sava Bobchev’s Search for Truth

For years after the excavation, Bobchev tried to get his story to the media, but they all refused to publish it. Many feared retribution.

In 1976 Bobchev got his big break.

He managed to tell his story to fellow architect Nikolai Mushanov, who worked for “The Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Monuments.”

In 1978 a commission was set up and interviews were conducted to establish if the bones found under the church were Levski’s or not.

(Remember that they were long lost at this point.)

Mushanov had been appointed to the preservation of the St. Petka Church, and this is why Sava Bobchev had approached him.

The Great Plaque Debate

Giving his opinion on the matter, Mushanov theorized that even if the bones couldn’t be proven to be Levski’s, that they had a right to “speak of a legend.”

He said at the very least, a plaque could be mounted “stating that according to Bulgarian folk legends Levski had been buried here.”

This school of thought had a powerful ally in Lyudmila Zhivkova, the daughter of Todor Zhivkova, who was the previous Bulgarian Prime Minister and current 1st Chairman of the State Council for the Communist Party.

Lyudmila Zhivkova (Right) Copyright The National History Museum of Romania via Project Communism in Romania

Lyudmila Zhivkova was powerful in her own right, as a member of the Communist Party and leader within the group of science, culture, and the arts.

She had said at a meeting that if it was clear from the discussions that more people believed the remains to be from Levski than not, “we would agree to place such a plaque which would have an educational and patriotic effect on the young generation.”

Opposition for Vasil Levski Memorial

On the other side of this commission in the “It’s not Levski” club, was Magdalina Stancheva.

(You will want to remember that name.)

She argued:
“I do not believe the Bulgarian people are thinking now in a less sacred manner about Levski than if a place existed which would be considered to be the resting place of his bones.”

Magdalina Stancheva had been heavily involved in the details around the original excavation and had visited the site.

Do you want to guess who is said to have “lost” the bones?

Yep. Magdalina “we don’t need a plaque” Stancheva herself.

The chairman of this commission summarized the whole dilemma rather poetically: “Give us the bones. Then this whole dispute will become superfluous.

Archaeologists Under Fire

A historian at the meetings, Khristo Ionkov stated:

“The guilt of our colleagues, the archaeologists, who were leading the excavations in 1956 is not in denying that the skeleton they discovered belonged to Levski, but in their negligence as Bulgarian scholars, and their having lost the bone materials.”

That’s an excellent summary.

This is even more convincing to me that there were ulterior motives with discrediting the Vasil Levski remains.

What archaeologists would be this careless about preserving history?

Especially given the fact that it may not have been Levski, but another important figure.

(Unless of course, they knew.)

Shutting Down the Vasil Levski Debate

In 1981 Lyudmila Zhivkova died suddenly at the age of 39.

Officially her cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage, but there is widespread speculation that the KGB murdered her.

Huge Brutalist Building in the center of Sofia - The National Palace of Culture.
National Palace of Culture in Sofia – Lyudmila Zhivkova’s project

In 1982 Sava Bobchev also died at the age of 91.

You may remember, the other staunch defender of the discovery Professor Ghiaurov had passed away in 1966.

In 1983 Zhivkova’s replacement as the head of the Committee of Culture invited a new committee, who reviewed none of Bobchev’s work and instead formed their opinions entirely off of a short report made by Stamen Mikhailov at the time of the excavation.

(Mikhailov was the original leader of the excavation, who Bobchev said had decided at the outset the bones were not Levski’s.)

Naturally they concluded that the missing bones were not those of Vasil Levski.

Re-Opening of the Vasil Levski Debate

In 1985, a respected Bulgarian author named Nikolai Haitov published a book about the entire drama, and sent it directly to the new Committee of Culture head, Georgi Iordanov.

(The same one who took over for Lyudmila Zhivkova.)

This, along with public outrage over the mishandling of the situation, triggered a series of investigations, letters, meetings, and rebuttals in an attempt to put the situation to bed, once and for all.

Of course this went on for quite some time, because with the bones lost, there was no practical way to prove any theory.

By Георги Данчов – Plovdiv Art Gallery, Public Domain

What was clear, was that the archaeologists involved believed Haitov’s book to be an attack on the entire profession.

They largely ignored any of his facts and stuck to personal arguments against him.

Our friend Magdaline Stancheva said that he had “behaved like an investigator” and that archaeological science needed to be rescued from his attempts to discredit them.

This is quite funny when you think about it, since the most likely person to discredit the profession is the one who, I don’t know…LOST THE BONES.

Also, anyone who thinks they are being investigated should probably be investigated.

Haitov had a charming reply to her crticism:

“The search for scientific truth is a kind of investigation, and if M. Stancheva did not know that, it is time she learned it.”

Oof.

The Final Vasil Levski Saga

In 1986 debates still raged and a criminologist was even consulted to look at the photographs taken during the excavation.

Nikolai Todorov (another new player) was given the task of compiling all the evidence into something like a scientific journal.

Here are the important findings:

“In the church (St. Petka of the Saddlers) irregular burials have taken place after the construction of the church. Given the evidence (…) there is the great possibility that one of the skeletons might have belonged to Levski.”

So what was the decision?

Well the bones were still lost, so they suggested a plaque could be placed that indicated Vasil Levski had probably been reburied in the church by patriotic Bulgarians.

That’s right, after six years of debate and the deaths of two more key players, a plaque.

So What Happened to the Bones?

There are a number of theories and accounts.

Someone said they were Roman and thus reburied somewhere else.

Others think they were thrown away.

Mikhailov said they were packaged properly and stored in the Sofia City Museum.

Current site of Sofia Museum of History - an eccentric looking domes building with multi-colored layers of brick.
The Current Museum of History in Sofia

At the time the bones went missing, Bobchev and another scientist were told the bones had been taken to Magdalina Stancheva at the Museum of the City of Sofia.

They said when they asked her about them “she said she would tell us when she was ordered from above.”

Of course she said that was “ridiculous.”

Interesting to note: The second scientist who was with Bobchev when he approached Ms. Stancheva, had been present on the day the bones were found. He was sent out of town by the Archaeological Institute the very next day.

Of course the bones were lost by the time he came back.

Although she denied ever having the bones, on a different occasion when asked about them, Stancheva had responded that they had sent them to a lab for analysis.

She claimed the lab assistant told her mice had eaten the packaging, the bones got mixed up, and they couldn’t be worked on.

She later said that had happened but she wasn’t talking about Levski’s bones. Which raised eyebrows because it was clear at the time that the person was specifically asking about the bones from the church.

Again, she is either involved in something, or terrible at her job, because wouldn’t anyone just ask for the bones to be sent back then?

The gentleman whose lab they supposedly went to, Professor Boev, denied ever having the bones or being asked to analyze them.

He had been called to the site, where he said he knew they weren’t Levski’s bones just by looking at them.

Levski was Nordic – he claimed – and these bones were Mediterranean.

Levski was actually believed to be Thracian, and Boev’s science in these and other matters has been called “dubious.”

Some have accused Magdalina Stancheva of having the bones incinerated at the museum.

A picture of the wildly colored front of the Sofia History Museum
Current Sofia Museum of History

Will Vasil Levski’s Bones Ever be Found?

There are still believers that hope one day Vasil Levski’s bones will be found somewhere in the Sofia City Museum archive, filed away in the wrong place.

It seems unlikely that they would surface anywhere else, since it has been more than 60 years, and any bones dug up in Sofia wouldn’t automatically be checked.

(It is an ancient city after all.)

We can always hope that another Bulgarian patriot sensed something fishy was going on and managed to save the bones somewhere else.

Still, in the 1990’s Vasil Levski did get a plaque in front of the St. Petka and the Saddlers Church, and the church was saved and restored like Professor Ghiaurov wanted.

The marble plaque later disappeared, just like the hero’s bones. Perhaps they are together somewhere.

Vasil Levski Celebrated

There were many that wanted Vasil Levski to be made a Saint, but unfortunately due to his life of theft and other crimes it was not to be.

Paraphrased by a Priest, at his hanging Vasil Levski had said:

 “I left the service in the consciousness that I was called to perform another, more urgent, higher and more sacred service to the enslaved fatherland

Vasil Levski is memorialized in plaques, statues, monuments, and public buildings throughout Bulgaria, and even other countries in the Balkans.

How to Visit Vasil Levski’s Memorials

St. Petka and the Saddlers Church

The church in the city centre of Sofia was given a new plaque in 2012.

This one managed to stick around and it reads:

“In the altar of this church according to national memory and a number of scientific data, buried in 1873 The Apostle of Freedom Vasil Levski Hierodeacon Ignatius.”

The original plaque had only said “According to the peoples memory.”

You can visit the Church of St. Petka and the Saddlers but the opening hours are not published online.

Many churches are closed on Monday and Tuesday, so Wednesday to Friday during the day should be a safe bet.

Entrance is 3 lev (~$1.75 USD) but more if you want to take pictures.

Interestingly, the metro station has been built around this old church.

Kakrina Inn – Museum Kukrinsko Hanche

The Kakrina Inn, where Vasil Levski was captured, was burnt to the ground in the years following his execution.

(A coincidence I’m sure.)

In 1926 it was rebuilt in replica to serve as a museum.

The Museum Kukrinsko Hanche is open daily from 8:30 am to 12 pm and again from 1:30 pm to 5:30 pm.

One reviewer said that every Bulgarian should visit.

Entrance fee is 3 lev (~1.75 USD) for Adults, 2 lev for students and seniors, 6 lev for families.

Vasil Levski Museum Karlovo

Vasil Levki’s birthplace is home to the Vasil Levski National Museum. His childhood home was restored in 1933 and opened to the public in 1937.

The museum is open daily from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm and again from 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm.

Entrance fee is 3 lev (~1.75 USD) for Adults, 2 lev for students and seniors, 7 lev for families.

Children under 7 are free. It costs an additional 5 lev to film video.

Vasil Levski Museum Lovech

Another museum, this one is in the town of Lovech where Levski was said to organize his activities. This is the largest Levski museum and has many objects to look at.

The Lovech Vasil Leski Museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 9 am to 1 pm and 2:30 pm to 6 pm.

Entrance fee is 3 lev (~1.75 USD) for Adults, 2 lev for students and seniors, 6 lev for families.

Vasil Levski Monument Sofia

In the heart of Sofia, surrounded by a major traffic circle is the Vasil Levski monument, on the road also named after the Bulgarian hero.

This monument stands in the very square that Vasil Levski was executed in back in 1873.

The Vasil Levski Monument stands in a snowy square in Sofia City Centre in front of some yellow buildings
Vasil Levski Monument Sofia

Other Memorials

Throughout Bulgaria you will find roads, schools, and parks named after Levski.

He was also commemorated on the 1000 lev note. Which is a little ironic, because I’m sure they wanted to honor him by making it a valuable bill, and yet hardly any Bulgarians will see it.

I hope you found the story of this Bulgarian hero as fascinating as I did!

Now when you visit Bulgaria and see his name on a street corner, you will know why his name is so special.

You can read more about Vasil Levski and the burial controversy in the book: “Bones of Contention” by Maria Todorova.

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