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The British Empire Revisited Through the Lens of the Eastern Question

  • Stoyan Tchaprazov

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  • Stoyan Tchaprazov
    University of Minnesota

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Eastern Europe, especially the Balkans, has been and continues to be neglected by scholars of the British Empire. More often than not, the British Empire is studied through the lens of British imperial rule in Asia, Africa, or the Americas, while scholars brush aside what was, in fact, the vortex of British foreign policy in the second half of the nineteenth century—the Eastern Question, or the question of what to do with the Southeastern European subject peoples of the decaying Ottoman Empire. [1] By the late 1870s the Eastern Question had taken center stage in London, as the British public was deeply disturbed by the news of one of the most atrocious quellings of an insurrection in the history of the Ottoman Empire: the Ottoman massacre of the Bulgarians after their uprising in April 1876. The insurgents were badly prepared, and the Turkish troops were swift and merciless in their answer: by the end of May, the insurrection was completely smothered. [2] The number of Bulgarian deaths remains questionable to this day, with estimates ranging from 2,000 to 100,000 according to Richard Millman. [3] It is hardly important, however, to know the exact number of the dead when the atrocities of the bashi-bazouks [4] in the town of Batak [5] alone would make anyone’s hair bristle: a significant portion of the approximately 9,000 people who lived in the town were massacred, regardless of age or gender, and every building was leveled to the ground. And Batak was not the only town to be razed. [6]

At the time, Britain had a great interest in keeping a politically stable Turkey in the Balkans as both a barrier between Russia and Britain’s Asian colonies, and as one of the largest markets for British products. Consequently, the ruling Conservative party made several attempts to tone down the Turkish atrocities in Bulgaria. Benjamin Disraeli, the Prime Minister, even described them as “coffee-house babble brought by an anonymous Bulgarian to a consul” (quoted in Hansard’s 231: col. 203). Yet numerous prominent men of letters, including Thomas Carlyle, Robert Browning, and John Ruskin, expressed disgust at Britain’s support of the Ottoman Empire, which eventually led to the formation of the so-called Bulgarian Agitation, a movement in defense of the Bulgarians and in opposition to the government’s policy of inaction. William Gladstone, the ex-Prime Minister of Britain and leader of the Liberal Party, came out of retirement to head the Agitation. According to Andrei Pantev, the Agitation produced close to three hundred pamphlets by the end of 1877 (174), including three penned by Gladstone himself. As Richard Shannon observes, the Agitation “was, in itself, by far the greatest and most illuminating revelation of the moral susceptibility of the High Victorian public conscience” (v).

Surprisingly, very few of these texts have been studied by scholars of the Eastern Question—the exception being William Gladstone’s Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East (1876). Even more surprising is the rare mention of contemporaneous Bulgarian texts, although the Bulgarian press of the time teems with articles and reports in response to the insurrection and to Western Europe’s interest in it. Thus, the purpose of this essay is threefold: first, to study the language and rhetoric of the texts produced by the Agitation, and explore the social, political, and economic discursive trends they form; second, to introduce some of the Bulgarian texts to Western scholars and, thus, give voice to the Bulgarians’ view of the British Empire and its foreign policy in Eastern Europe; and third, to show that even the morally and culturally charged pro-Agitation arguments launched by Gladstone and his followers conformed to British national interests, especially as contrasted to Bulgarian viewpoints. A defining concern of this essay is to recognize that the Bulgarians were not silently waiting for someone to deliver them from the Ottoman Empire, but actively sought the help of the West and Russia through their writings. I also seek to demonstrate that in the second half of the nineteenth century British foreign policy was formed not only in the context of its interests overseas, but also, and perhaps more significantly, in the context of other empires, such as the Russian and the Ottoman.

The Bulgarian Agitation was not a unique phenomenon for Britain. Such socially and politically engaged intellectual movements had been a regular occurrence in Britain’s public life. One finds them during the anti-slavery period, the Indian “Mutiny” in 1857, and the Governor Eyre controversy of 1865. The Agitation was unique, however, in the amount of literature it produced in a short time span on an issue that did not directly concern Britain; Britain became involved in the Eastern Question, especially its Bulgarian component, as an avowed financial and political supporter of Turkey. From the first news of the atrocities in Bulgaria until the early 1880s, the Eastern Question became an obsession for British society. Pamphlets, books, articles, and reports, including republished materials from the earlier Crimean War period (1853-1856) flooded the British literary market. Almost no intellectual of the day, liberal or conservative, remained silent on the subject. As Shannon observes, “Perhaps only the Dreyfus Affair among political causes célèbres can compare with the Bulgarian Agitation for the brilliance of the patronage and the opposition it evoked publicly amongst the greatest contemporary names in literature, art, science, and philosophy” (202).

The bulk of the literature the Agitation produced was published between July 1876 and December 1877, especially during the first six of months of this period—the nominal lifespan of the Agitation. The cultural and religious arguments employed in the texts of the Agitation, as David Roessel notes, are “firmly rooted in the perceived differences between Europe and Asia, which had been prevalent in the West since the Enlightenment” (132). To use Edward Said’s term, these arguments are “orientalist” in nature—typically viewing the Oriental as weak, backward, in constant need of help, and/or as cruel, bloodthirsty, and unable to control his emotions (3). Almost without exception, the texts of the Agitation portray Christians, in quasi-racial terms, as more progressive than Turkish Muslims. The killing of Christians and, more significantly, the raping of Christian women by Muslim men are major topoi in these arguments. As Henry Barkley reports his experiences in Gebedji, a small Bulgarian village, “Over and over again, I have seen every woman and girl in the entire Christian village disappear, as if by magic, at the approach of a Zaptieh” (vii). [7]

One of the most memorable depictions of the cruel Turks is that of William Gladstone. In the few pages he dedicates to them in his first pamphlet, Bulgarian Horrors, Gladstone presents the Turks as the most despotic, bloodthirsty, and backward race in the whole world:

the one anti-human specimen of humanity. Wherever they went a broad line of blood marked the track behind them; and as far as their dominion reached, civilization disappeared from view. They represented everywhere government by force, as opposed to government by law.

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This is only a small sample of Gladstone’s rhetorical outburst. Like other Liberals of this period, Gladstone relentlessly attacks and dismantles any conceivably positive Turkish attribute, including their renowned military might. “Power is gone, and the virtues, such as they are, of power; nothing but its passions and pride remain” (16), writes Gladstone. In his Evidences of Turkish Misrule, Henry Richard strikes a similar chord, explaining the Turks’ military achievements as a product of their barbaric nature: “[The Turks] can fight desperately enough; but that is the note of barbarism, not of civilization” (3). John Boyd Kinnear only adds spice to these outbursts when stating that “looking back” through the 500 years of Turkish presence in Europe “the mind loses itself in the chaos of slaughter” (8). Apparently, these Liberal adherents harbored an enormous hatred for the Turks and regarded them as malevolent brutes, racially inferior to Christians. The events in Bulgaria seem to have only awakened that hatred and given it an acutely spiteful voice. [8]

Unlike the Liberals, the Conservative writers blamed the massacres in Bulgaria on the Bulgarians themselves and on the Russians, whom they often described as the actual instigators of the April Insurrection. In addition, these writers constantly challenged the number of the dead Bulgarians reported in the British press and described the violent measures the Turks took to quell the Bulgarian insurrection as “overly exaggerated.” In the Conservatives’ eyes, the Bulgarians sealed their fate when they rose against the Turks. Thus, the Conservatives usually described the atrocities of the Turkish troops as nothing but a justified retaliation. As Disraeli stated in a speech in the House of Commons, “Wars of Insurrection are always atrocious.” To illustrate his case, he gave as an example what the British themselves had done several years previously to quell a rebellion in Jamaica (quoted in Hansard’s 230: col. 1182). In other words, the Bulgarians got what they deserved; therefore, the British people should not empathize with their suffering or try to help them.

Russia and Turkey are the two central concerns in the political arguments of the Agitation. The questions most often discussed are 1) what would Russia’s next move be were it allowed to confront Turkey without British interference; and 2) should Turkey remain undisturbed in the Balkans. Pantev is certainly right in his observation that the rhetoric of the agitation is more often anti-Russian than pro-Turkish. In fact, most writers, especially the Conservatives, portrayed Russia as the evildoer behind the Balkan crisis, claiming, as “Warsling” did, that “The Russians were at the bottom both of the Bulgarian insurrection and the Servian war” (17). These writers openly accused Russia of setting up and financing the Bulgarian insurrection for its own purposes, namely, to gain influence over Eastern Europe by establishing a pan-Slavic coalition, to get to Constantinople and “bring about the supremacy of the Czar over the entire Greek church in the East” (Wyatt 4), and to “despoil” the Ottoman Empire.

Even the Liberals were not sure how to view Russia. Like the Conservatives, they feared that Russia might become too big and powerful, which would disturb the political stability of Europe. However, some of them also claimed that Russia was not as powerful or manipulative as the Conservatives contended and argued that Russia had learned its lesson after the Crimean War—not to attempt to expand its already large territory because Britain and France would not allow it. A few Liberals, among whom were “* * * G.” and Gladstone, even saw Russia as a potential friend, primarily on religious grounds. Even though Orthodox Christianity, the official religion in Russia, was not acceptable in the eyes of most Britons, the Russians were still Christian, which made them better than the Turkish Muslims by default and, thus, more deserving of Britain’s friendship.

Whereas opposition to the Turks was largely based on racial and religious difference, opposition to the Russians, although also couched in terms of difference, was primarily geopolitical. Thus, the Turks’ political interests are not discussed in the rhetoric of the Agitation as much as those of the Russians. The writers of the Agitation repeatedly ask that the Turks cease mistreating their Christian subjects, but rarely do they urge that Bulgaria or any other Christian province of the Ottoman Empire gain autonomy as a state. The most determined and vigorous opinion on what to do with the Turks is found, once again, in Gladstone’s Bulgarian Horrors:

Let the Turks now carry away their abuses in the only possible manner, namely by carrying off themselves. Their Zaptiehs and their Mudirs, their Bimbashis and their Yuzbashis, their Kaimakams and their pashas, one and all, bag and baggage, shall, I hope, clear out from the province they have desolated and profaned.  [9]

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Decisive and aggressive though this language appears, as the later parts of the pamphlet suggest, Gladstone’s rhetorical bark is louder than his political bite. Turkey, Gladstone adds, must retain “titular supremacy, which serves the purpose of warding off foreign aggression” (55). Obviously, Gladstone was not yet ready to give the Bulgarians a politically autonomous state. Neither, in fact, was any other writer of the Agitation. As they saw it, the Turks had to maintain control over the Balkans in order to protect the interests of the British in Eastern Europe. An independent Bulgaria, they feared, could fall prey to the Russians, who might then try to take over other Turkish territories in Europe and gain control over the two major sea passes in Eastern Europe, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles.

Apart from strong interests in protecting its empire, Britain also had great economic stakes in the region. According to John Holms’ Commercial and Financial Aspects of the Eastern Question (1876), which was the most comprehensive text on the topic and the one best supported by statistics, Britain’s trade with Russia was actually much more profitable than that with Turkey. He showed that between 1865 and 1875, the volume of trade with Russia increased by nearly “forty-five per cent,” while that with Turkey “practically [showed] no increase” (5). Moreover, the Russian volume of trade with Britain in 1875 was almost a third bigger than that with Turkey—£31,986,000 versus £23,000,000, respectively. Such figures coupled with Holms’ prognosis that the rampant corruption of the Ottoman administration would not disappear soon, led him to conclude that there was sufficient evidence “to disprove the assertion that [Britain’s] commercial connection with Turkey is more valuable to us than that which we possess with Russia” (6).

These are, in general, the arguments made by both sides of the Agitation, the largely Liberal opponents of Disraeli’s policies and the largely Conservative defenders. The Liberals, although not wholly indifferent to geopolitical concerns, were betting chiefly on more humanitarian and emotional arguments: as good Christian people, Britons were obliged to help the Christians who suffered under Muslim misrule. In contrast, the Conservatives relied mainly on political and supposedly patriotic arguments, emphasizing Russia’s behind-the-curtains work in provoking the Bulgarian insurrection and dispelling the “myth” of the cruel Turk to preserve Britain’s name from the bloody trail that led back to it. Overall, however, the Liberals dominated the discourse on the Bulgarian question. They seem to have caught the Conservatives by surprise, not leaving them much room and time for expression.

The story I have told thus far is relatively familiar to British historians. But what has been omitted is the voice of the Bulgarians themselves. To get a sense of the Bulgarians and their relation to Britain, I turn to the Bulgarian press of the period. Before I delve into the rhetoric of the Bulgarians, I should say a few words about the general outlook of the Bulgarian press at the time, for almost all the materials written on the Bulgarian atrocities and the Eastern Question were published in newspapers. Altogether, there were twelve newspapers published in Bulgarian in 1876. Based on their attitude towards the April insurrection, one may divide them into three major types: 1) the revolutionary newspapers of the Bulgarian immigrants in Romania, such as Nova Bulgaria, which not only supported the insurrection unconditionally, but also advanced revolutionary ideology; [10] 2) what Kirila Vuzvuzova calls the “liberal-bourgeois” newspapers, such as Den and Vek, which avoided taking sides on the issue but did report the cruelties of the Turkish troops; and finally, 3) the Turkophile newspapers, including Dunav and Edirne, which were published both in Turkish and Bulgarian, and were closely monitored and censored by the Turkish government; these newspapers usually openly denied or diluted the cruelties of the Turkish irregular troops.

As one would expect, the April Insurrection was closely followed by and covered in all these newspapers. Most of the information published about the insurrection in them came from eyewitness reports and official documents of the Turkish authorities and foreign embassies, the British and Russian in particular. Materials from foreign presses were also quite often translated or summarized; they actually dominated the Bulgarian press—the Bulgarian journalists closely followed the British press and reported and discussed every important speech of the British government that concerned the Bulgarians. According to Vuzvuzova, close to “1,000 reports, telegrams, announcements, articles, etc. about the insurrection” were published in 1876 in the Bulgarian newspapers (15). [11]

Naturally, with the exception of the Turkophile newspapers, the Bulgarian newspapers, especially the revolutionary ones, overtly condemn the brutal behavior of the Turkish troops and ask the Turkish government, as well as Western Europe, to open their eyes and see what is taking place in the Bulgarian provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Notably, the cultural and religious arguments used in these newspapers are not as florid and aggressive as those of the British writers. Nor are they as sweeping in their claims. The Bulgarian writers aim directly and only at the Turkish troops and the Turkish government. Rarely do they describe all the Turkish people as “the one anti-human specimen of humanity.” This does not mean that the Bulgarian rhetoric views the Turks as angels or fails to expose the violence of their irregular troops during the quelling of the April insurrection. On the contrary, the brutality of the Turkish bashi-bazouks is often the leading news in the Bulgarian press. Such, for instance, is the following moving excerpt from an eyewitness’ report in Den, which describes the ferocious acts committed by the Turkish troops in the Bulgarian town of Panagiuriste:

[A]fter a day or two, when the hordes of the Circassians and bashi-bazouks barged in, they turned everything into dust and ash; they dishonored numerous old and young of both sexes; they killed and showed no mercy even to pregnant women, from whose wombs they took out living children! And all this was done with the knowledge of the authorities. [12]

[“Turkish Atrocities”] 1

These words speak for themselves: they show the Turkish troops as brutally merciless soldiers, who do not discriminate between age and gender when it comes to dealing with insurgents. The passage also exposes the complicity of the Turkish government in these atrocities, a complicity which the Porte vehemently denied on the grounds that it was not informed about the actions of its own troops.

Moreover, such reports of massacres and mayhem were addressed not only to the Porte but to Western Europe as well, especially Britain, which more than any other Western state had national interests in solving the Bulgarian crisis as soon as possible. The attitude of the Bulgarian writers toward the British government was ambivalent at best. In most cases, testimonies of the atrocities were used to show how the British government, in tandem with the Turkish, deliberately overlooked the ferocities of the Turkish irregulars. An anonymous reporter for Stara-Planina directly questioned the British government’s objectivity in regard to the Bulgarian atrocities. He wrote:

To deny that forty unfortunate Bulgarian girls, after suffering the last dishonoring acts of their miserable attackers, have been burned alive by these same semi-human monsters in the town of Kalofer; to deny this, as Lord Darby does in the House of the Lords, is more than audacious, for in Tzarigrad itself, Courier d’Orient published this fact under the nose of the Turkish censorship, and the authorities did not deny it. [13]

“[Bulgarite]” 2

Such straightforward attacks on the credibility of the British government are not a rarity in the revolutionary and liberal Bulgarian press. The editor of Den, for instance, says this about England in response to accusations from the editor of Levant Herald that the Bulgarians had “fabricated” the atrocities of the Turkish troops:

Some European kingdoms, especially England, when it comes to their interests, do not choose the means—whether honest or not—they use to achieve their goals. [T]o achieve a certain goal, England has a manufactory, where lies, calumnies, inconsistencies, perfidies, and all kinds of other vileness are manufactured. [14]

“[British]” 1

Evidently, the Bulgarians were disappointed in the British government’s response to events in Bulgaria, which also made them rather skeptical about receiving help from Britain. As the editor of Nova Bulgaria exclaims in a side note to the political-review column of his newspaper, “God save the Christians if they ever have to wait for England to protect them” (Aug. 22: 98). [15]

The discouraging response of the British government to the atrocities did not prevent the Bulgarians from believing firmly in the righteousness of their revolt, however. Their revolutionary rhetoric is filled with vigorous passion and enthusiasm. As one Bulgarian writer states on the pages of Nova Bulgaria, “We will no longer be silent, and will ceaselessly shout until someone hears us and shows mercy on us; our determined heroes will not let go of their rifles until they free our dear fatherland, Bulgaria” (July 17: 57). [16] Indeed the Bulgarians were ready to give their lives for their freedom. They wanted one thing—independence—and this was clearly stated in the first two points of the political program of the Bulgarian revolutionaries, which was published in Nova Bulgaria: first, “To establish a Bulgarian state of Bulgaria, Thrace, and Macedonia, for the predominant element living in these areas is Bulgarian,” and second, “This Bulgarian state should be ruled independently, by its own organic statutes” (Sept. 23: 133, my emphasis). [17] In the words of one of the most revered Bulgarian revolutionary poets, Hristo Botev, the Bulgarians’ existence had come down to a simple choice between “freedom and death” (16).

Not everyone shared the revolutionary spirit, however. The so-called Bulgarian “evolutionists” saw the liberation of Bulgaria as a slow, gradual process, one that should not involve the spilling of blood, but, rather, social and political pressure from the inside, from educated, high-class Bulgarians. This line of thought was primarily articulated in the more moderate liberal newspapers, such as Vek, Den, and Napreduk. Yet, as Bozhidar Raykov observes, once the insurrection broke out, these newspapers “do not stand indifferent in front of the suffering of the numerous victims and courageously raise their voice to protest in defense of the tortured Bulgarian people” (44). [18] Eventually, Raykov continues, Vek even changed its evolutionist positions and appealed to the Turkish government that it “disarm” and “pull out” the bashi-bazouks sent to smother the Bulgarian revolt. These declarations led to the eventual termination of Vek by the Turkish censors. Similar was the fate of Den, which was also terminated for publishing materials that were damaging to the image of the Porte.

In short, what stands out in the rhetoric of the Bulgarians on the atrocities are not the poignant descriptions of raped Bulgarian women, slaughtered children, and impaled heads of Bulgarian men, or the silent support of these acts by the Turkish and, by implication, the British governments, but the Bulgarians’ use of the atrocities as a way to be heard and noticed, the assertive and decisive tone of their rhetoric for independence. After hundreds of years of Turkish oppression, the Bulgarians had become almost inured to mistreatment; such atrocities were nothing new to them. What was new was that the West actually noticed their suffering. Thus the rhetoric of the Bulgarians primarily aimed at attracting the attention of the Western powers, as well as Russia, from whom they expected help in their fight for independence.

Did Britain hear the Bulgarians’ rhetoric for freedom and independence? Apparently not, even though at least some Britons had been willing to help in other struggles against the Turks, as in the Greek war for independence. Unlike the Greeks, however, the Bulgarians were not viewed by the British as the carriers of the Greco-Roman legacy, a legacy that such British philhellenes as Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley often stated as the main reason why the Greeks needed to be delivered from Turkish oppression; as is well known, Byron even lost his life on his way to help the Greeks in their war for independence. The atrocities themselves were, indeed, quite thoroughly and compassionately covered by the Bulgarian Agitation writers. Yet neither the Liberal nor the Conservative texts discussed openly the future of Bulgaria as an independent state. While these two groups of texts appeared to be different on the surface, they were actually quite similar in that both of them stood behind the status quo of the day—explicitly or implicitly, they guaranteed the integrity of the Ottoman Empire—and were first and foremost interested in saving Britain’s name and protecting Britain’s geopolitical interests in the East. To both groups of writers, the Bulgarian question was about what had happened to Bulgarian subjects of the Ottoman Empire, not about what would happen to an autonomous Bulgarian nation. In addition, rarely was the Bulgarians’ rhetoric quoted or discussed in these texts. At best, a quotation from a Bulgarian was used to emphasize or give credibility to the cruelty of the atrocities that had taken place in Bulgaria. Ironically, the so-called Bulgarian Agitation did not actually include Bulgarians; they were not invited to participate in it.

Thus, while condemning the massacre of thousands of Bulgarian Christians and denouncing the British government’s response to them, the Bulgarian Agitation also silenced the Bulgarians. Such an act is certainly in tune with nineteenth-century British imperial policies. As Gayatri Spivak eloquently argues in “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in an attempt to help the Indian woman subjected to suttee, the British force her to “regress to an anteriority transformed into stasis” (32). An analogy between subaltern woman and the Bulgarian people may seem a stretch, but it nonetheless strikes a chord with the point I am making—that the Bulgarian people are rendered static in the rhetoric of the Bulgarian Agitation. The British writers speak for them without saying a word about what the Bulgarians actually wanted, without even mentioning that they had risen against the Ottoman Empire for nothing less than their complete independence. In other words, the compassion shown for the Bulgarian victims in the rhetoric of the Bulgarian Agitation appears to be sincere only in humanitarian terms while open and direct political solidarity with the Bulgarians is missing from it.

Consequently, Britain’s avowed compassion for the suffering of the Bulgarians mutates into what I call compassionate colonialism—the showing of sympathy with the colonized, while siding with the colonizer in order to protect the political status quo[19] Regardless of how vociferously most writers of the Agitation condemn the cruelties of the Turkish troops, ultimately they still say nothing, or very little, about the fact that in preparation for the April insurrection the Bulgarians had actually formed several revolutionary committees inside and outside Bulgaria and had established a concrete program for achieving independence. To be sure, it was important to know that atrocities had taken place in Bulgaria. To most Bulgarians, however, it was much more important to know what measures the British and the West in general would take to guarantee that the atrocities were not repeated. The only sure way to avoid that was to establish an autonomous Bulgarian state. As Liuben Karavelov states in his essay “What Do the Bulgarians Want?”, “What the Bulgarians want is a question that is really hard to answer in a few words, but at the same time, it is enough if a person just said: ‘They want complete freedom.’ With these words [this person] says almost everything” (129). [20]

An independent Bulgaria was too great a threat, however. The British feared that an independent Bulgaria would open Russia a door to Europe and would only fertilize the ground for the formation of a pan-Slavic coalition in Eastern Europe. The predatory tactics of the “Russian Bear” play a central role in the discussions of the Agitators. In the words of the anonymous author of The Northern Question or Russia’s Policy in Turkey Unmasked, “England sees that it is not a question of Christian Slav and Mohammedan Turk, but purely one of Muscovite policy” (10). As Pantev rightly remarks, “The Conservative thesis for the solution of the Balkan aspects of Eastern Question in fact stipulates ‘jumping over’ both the Porte and the Balkan peoples and turning this problem into an organic part of the Anglo-Russian relations” (171). [21] Thus, towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Eastern Question becomes the Russian Question for the British Empire, and the problems of the Balkan Christians, including the Bulgarians, even though rather noisily discussed in Britain, especially by the Liberals, are simply swept under the rug. Led by the British government’s apparent reluctance to help their cause, the Bulgarian revolutionary writers often portrayed the British as one with the Turks. This anti-British rhetoric only fueled the Bulgarians’ belief that help would come not from the West, but from the East, from Russia. And they were right. Two years after the April Insurrection, in 1878, Russia, with the help of Bulgarian troops, delivered Bulgaria from the hands of the Ottoman Empire. [22]

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