Pano Vassilev: A short biography of the author

At 1900 hours on 13 April (1933) in a Sofia street, the anarcho-syndicalist worker Pano Vassilev was murdered by the police. It was a craven, treacherous murder – regrettably not an isolated instance: it is but one link in the chain of losses sustained in this unhappy land where political murder has by now become a virtue, whilst murderers pass for heroes and patriots.” (Excerpt from a handwritten letter of the time, written in French, intended to brief the libertarian press and signed G.G.)

Pano Vassilev (1901-1933)

If the name and work of Manol Vassev are the very embodiment of the union militant of Bulgarian anarcho-syndicalism, then it is Pano Vassilev who embodies anarcho-syndicalism as an anarchist tendency in Bulgaria, its having been introduced by him around 1926.

Born on 17 October 1901, in Lovech, into a family of small tradesmen (his father was a saddler), he embraced libertarian ideas while at secondary school in his native town.

In search of adventure like many another youth after the first world war, he set off for Argentina in November 1920 in the company of Boris Shivachev who became a writer after this journey. He stayed in Argentina for four years, working as a labourer. At that time the IWA’s Argentine branch, the FORA, was very strong and engaged in glorious struggles. It was under the influence of the FORA and in contact with FORA militants that Pano Vassilev came to his conception of libertarian syndicalism.

Upon returning from Argentina, he spent a little time in France, struck up a relationship with Pierre Besnard and his friends, read syndicalist publications and improved his knowledge of syndicalism.

From 1926 onwards, Pano Vassilev was in Sofia engaging in frantic and fruitful propaganda among the anarchists, workers and students, mainly through lectures, talks and debates at the ‘Kristo Botev’ cultural centre (Chitalichey) in the popular working-class district of Yuchbunar.

A fine lecturer and controversialist with a good knowledge of anarchism and Marxism, as well as of the history of the labour movement and its struggle worldwide, he dominated the auditorium at all public meetings. With his warm voice and solid arguments, he was a very attractive figure and became a star performer in debates with marxists, quickly winning a large following.

Backed by a band of comrades who shared his views, Pano Vassilev launched reviews and newspapers to which he contributed regularly. Thus, anarcho-syndicalist propaganda spread. Author of the first work in Bulgaria on “the soviets”, he rose to become a great labour militant: his name and person became targets for the reactionaries who at that time spared no effort to track down their victims.

The delegate from Bulgaria to the IWA congress in Madrid in 1931 [1], Pano Vassilev began, as soon as he returned, to publish a series of articles which largely briefed the libertarian movement and the working class about the anarcho-syndicalist international and above all on the trade union movement in Spain. In 1933 the federation of autonomous labour federations, recently founded in Sofia, had an appeal published some weeks in advance of the first of May so as to give police surveillance the slip on the eve of the feast. Pano Vassilev went to the printworks in the evening of 13 April to pick up the appeal. Tailed by a policeman, he was killed right in the centre of the capital.

From Gr. Balkanski’ Histoire du mouvement libertaire en Bulgarie (esquisse), Paris 1982, p.71.

[1] In the unpaginated but 18 page printed outline in Spain of the IWA congress held in Madrid on 16-20 June 1931, one may read of two contributions to the proceedings by Pano Vassilev:

(5th session, p.8) The chair recognises the delegate from Bulgaria. He states that he represents anarchist groups rather than economic organisations. Repression to begin with, followed by factional differences to be encountered among all revolutionaries everywhere, have slowed the formation of economic organisations. The two tendencies ought to unite if they want to achieve something practical. To facilitate this, he suggests that a campaign be launched to that end, especially in our Bulgarian language publications, and that a comrade of standing be dispatched to try to advise the different currents along these lines.”

(7th session, p.12) following a comment by the French delegate Besnard on the need to prepare the revolution from an anarcho-syndicalist point of view, stressing the standard wage, and following a reply from the Argentine delegate Santillán stressing the pointlessness of forward planning as far as revolutionary circumstances go, and labouring the differences between Europe and America and the impossibility of implementing pure syndicalism (in Argentina) and the revolutionary potential of the peasants [fn Santillán has evolved radically since then.].

Vassilev, the delegate from Bulgaria, says that although he represents an agricultural country, he does not agree with Santillán. He dismisses the argument that there may be circumstantial differences between Europe and America, since industry is the same there as here. He explains how in Bulgaria itself the smallholders are organising themselves under anarchist guidance. He says that it could be the same the day after the revolution. He does not think that the French theory is imperative. He asks Santilllán to enlarge upon how the revolution is to be organised and says that if we have not prepared everything, the revolution will fail. He does not think that that rationalisation brutalises man: whereas, when he was young he believed in the explanations which Kropotkin offers us about this system, he has now changed his mind. He says that once au fait with his work, the worker does it mechanically, without his attention’s being involved, and that the worker can turn his mind to other matters.”

From: Histoire du mouvement libertaire en Bulgarie (esquisse), Paris 1982, p.71. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.