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March 3 as a national day and a new beginning

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By a decision of the National Assembly from 5 March, 1990, the date 3 March was proclaimed national day of Bulgaria. This is the day on which the peace treaty between Russia and the Ottoman Empire was signed in San Stefano (now a neighborhood of Istanbul) in 1878, marking the end of the war between them and the beginning of the restoration of Bulgarian statehood after almost five centuries of Ottoman rule.

Even though 3 March has been celebrated as national day in Bulgaria for close to 30 years, the controversy has not abated whether this is the historical date that deserves to be celebrated as a symbol of the nation. Without doubt, the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878 and its consequences were the fruit of the interests of the 19th century Great Powers – Great Britain, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, Germany and Italy. Four months after the peace treaty was signed in San Stefano, at the Berlin congress in mid-1878, they revised its clauses and divided Bulgaria up, taking away part of its rightful territories and giving them to neighbouring countries.

All of these facts give many Bulgarians reason to maintain that the national day of the country should be either the date of Bulgaria’s Reunification or the proclamation of its Independence.

The arguments in favour of these dates are that both of these events are entirely the result of Bulgaria’s own efforts without any outside interference. Still, it should not be forgotten that without the liberation there would have been no unification or independence.

As a matter of fact, the liberation day of Bulgaria was celebrated for the first time on 19 February, 1879 (and on 3 March as of 1917 after the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1916), in the old capital Turnovo, and as of 1888 until the end of World War 2, it was marked as the day of Bulgaria’s liberation from Ottoman rule. For years this date was all but forgotten. And it was only in 1978, the centennial anniversary of the country’s liberation that 3 March was celebrated, though as a one-time occurrence. Ten years later it was proclaimed an official holiday, and has been marked as a national day since 1991.

What does March 3 mean to us, Bulgarians of today? To what an extent are we able to analyze what this date means?

To be able to answer that question we need to go back years, to the attitudes of the 19th century. For Europe this period marked a turning point – a time of uprisings and battles for independence.

The national tendencies and ideologies gathering strength in Europe reverberated throughout the Ottoman Empire. Like other Balkan nations before it Bulgaria took the road to freedom. The national liberation movement reached its “Golgotha” in 1876. The April uprising broke out earlier than planned and was crushed and drowned in blood. But the lives lost were not in vain, Bulgarians had begun to awaken.

After that attempt at revolution Europe once again turned its eyes on the Balkans, this time with the Bulgarian question.

Russia which was longing to get its own back after the Crimean war (1853-1856) decided to attack the weakened Ottoman Empire and the 12th Russo-Turkish war began on 24 April, 1877.

The siege of the town of Pleven (Northern Bulgaria) tightened its grip after the crossing of the River Danube and the unsuccessful passage south of the Balkan Range. The battle raged for five months. The heroic defence of Shipka peak with the involvement of Bulgarian volunteers, provided the time needed for a turning point in Pleven. This was followed by the epic winter crossing of Balkan Range passages which took the Ottoman army by surprise. The Russian forces took Edirne and reached the Sea of Marmara, making it known they had the intention of entering the imperial capital.

The preliminary peace treaty of San Stefano was signed on 3 March, 1878 (19 February old style). For a short while Bulgaria was given national unification. The subsequent Berlin Congress was a different reality altogether, the foundations for which were laid down by the deals brokered by the Great Powers. But it served to trigger the struggles for national reunification. That is why 3 March should not be regarded solely as the end of the Russo-Turkish war in which Bulgarians had but limited involvement, 3 March is the history-given date when Bulgaria’s freedom was reborn. A 500-year long thorny but heroic journey led up to the formation of the Third Bulgarian kingdom. It is the date of a new beginning for Bulgaria, a new journey no less thorny, filled with trials and tribulations but also successes.

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