The monument at the top of the Shipka Pass, commemorating the fallen in the 1877/78 war. Photo: Tsvetelina Beloutova
A shameful chapter in Bulgarian history has been revealed in a report by the Bulgarian National Television on March 3 2011, the day the country celebrates its liberation from Ottoman rule.
The campaign to liberate the county was long, arduous and one of attrition, but nowhere else is it more emblematic and alive in the consciousness of the Bulgarian people than the battles of Shipka Pass in the Stara Planina mountains range.
Four battles were fought between the Russian Empire, aided by Bulgarian volunteer militia known as Opulchentsi, and the Ottoman Empire for control over the crucial Shipka Pass during the Russian-Turkish War of 1877/78.
During the height of the battle, the belligerents constituted of some 8000 Russian troops and Bulgarian volunteers against more than 25 000 Ottoman forces. After a series of battles, came the fourth and final encounter, which was fought from January 5–9 1878, in which the Turks were utterly crushed.
In the end, Russian and Bulgarian casualties numbered about 4000, according to historic reports, while the Turkish lost more than 10 000 men.
Of the thousands of Russian soldiers who fell for Bulgaria's freedom in the war, many were killed near the town of Shipka. Subsequently, they were buried in mass graves marked by cenotaphs, which are common in the area.
Two of the biggest Russian graves are located in Ostrousha where more than 500 Russian soldiers are laid to rest.
Unfortunately, the sight of those graves nowadays is depressing – many are neglected, overgrown, vandalised and plundered. Russians used to make the pilgrimage to Shipka during the communist era, according to the report, and pay their repasts to the fallen soldiers, and some would seek distant relatives who fought for Bulgaria's freedom.
But Russians rarely visit the graves in recent years, according to locals.
"Up until maybe 30-40 years ago, people came who would seek their distant relatives. I've heard that a man related to a Russian commander came to Shipka to find his grave," Pencho Bustrev told the BNT.
Not all graves are vandalised of course, as Bulgarians still try to keep them protected to this day.
"Grateful Bulgarians over time have built these monuments here in Enina and for many years they maintained them and looked after them," Enina mayor Bonyo Mirchev told BNT. "On everyone of those graves it reads – They fell for Bulgaria. Let us never forget that".
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