Ivan Mihailov Gavrilov (Bulgarian: Иван Михайлов Гаврилов; 26 August 1896 – 5 September 1990), sometimes Vancho Mihailov, was a Bulgarian revolutionary in interwar Macedonia, and the last leader of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO). Under Mihailov, the IMRO identified itself closely with Bulgarian nationalism. He also cooperated actively with Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, Admiral Horthy’s Hungary and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. He changed the organization's tactics from guerrilla campaigns to individual terrorist acts. Numerous terrorist attacks were carried out by IMRO against Yugoslav officials under his leadership, the most spectacular of which was the assassination of Alexander I of Yugoslavia, in collaboration with Croatian Ustaše. During the last stage of the Second World War he tried to realize the IMRO plan about Independent Macedonia, however he abandoned this idea due to the lack of real German military support. At the end of the Cold War, only a months before his death in 1990, he kept insisting: I am Bulgarian from Macedonia. Thus, rejecting the 20th century Macedonian national separatism, he is considered a bulgarophile traitor in North Macedonia.
Ivan Mihailov was born on 26 August 1896, in the village of Novo Selo (now quarter of Štip, North Macedonia) in the Kosovo Vilayet of the Ottoman Empire. Mihailov studied at the Bulgarian Men's High School in Thessaloniki up until the Second Balkan War when the school was closed by the new Greek administration, he later continued his studies at a Serbian school in Skopje. He was offered a scholarship by the Serbian Ministry of Education to pursue a degree at a European university but declined, later enlisting in the Bulgarian army, which had by that time occupied a significant portion of the region. After the end of World War I, Mihailov emigrated to Bulgaria, settling in Sofia. Here he began studying law at the Sofia University, at which time he was contacted by IMRO activists and offered to work as a personal secretary for IMRO's leader at that time, Todor Aleksandrov.
Leader of the IMRO
On 31 August 1924, Todor Aleksandrov was assassinated in unclear circumstances and IMRO soon came under the control of Mihailov, who had become a powerful figure in Bulgarian politics. IMRO's leadership was quick to blame Aleksandrov's murder on the communists, while they claimed that Mihailov may have actually been responsible for the murder. These events created friction between factions within the organization and led to several high-profile murders, including that of Petar Chaulev (who led the Ohrid uprising in 1913) in Milan. During the interwar period IMRO, took action against several former members of IMRO's Sandanist (left-wing) faction. Gjorche Petrov was killed in Sofia in 1922, Todor Panitsa (who had previously killed the right-wing Boris Sarafov and Ivan Garvanov) was assassinated in Vienna in 1924 by Mihailov's future wife Mencha Karnichiu. Dimo Hadjidimov, Georgi Skrizhovski, Aleksandar Bujnov, Chudomir Kantardjiev and many others were killed in a series of consecutive murders all taking place in 1925. Mihailov's group of young IMRO cadres soon fell into conflict with the older group of the organization. The latter were in favour of the old tactics of incursions by armed bands in Yugoslavia and Greece, whereas the former favoured more flexible tactics, with smaller terrorist cells, carrying selective assassinations of public figures. The conflict grew into a leadership struggle and Mihailov soon, in turn, ordered the assassination in 1928 of a rival leader of the older group, General Aleksandar Protogerov, which sparked a fratricidal war between "Mihailovists" and "Protogerovists". The less numerous and ill equipped Protogerovists, soon became allied with Yugoslavia and certain Bulgarian military circles as Zveno, who favoured rapprochement with Yugoslavia. That period led to intensification of the armed struggle of the organization in Aegean, and especially in Vardar Macedonia. A total of 63 terrorist acts and attacks on bridges, warehouses, Serbian police stations and military targets were undertaken between 1922 and 1930, the number of assassinated Serbian officials and collaborators numbered in the thousands
IMRO had de facto control of Pirin Macedonia and acted as a "state within a state", which it used as a base for hit and run attacks against Yugoslavia with the unofficial support of Bulgaria and later Fascist Italy, also establishing close links with the Croatian Ustaše movement. Numerous assassinations were carried out by IMRO activists in many countries, the majority of which occurred in Yugoslavia. The most spectacular of these was the assassination of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia and the French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou in Marseille in 1934, in collaboration with Ante Pavelić. IMRO's constant fratricidal killings and assassinations abroad provoked some within the Bulgarian military to take control and attempt to crush the organization after the Bulgarian coup d'état of 1934. In 1934, Mihailov fled to Turkey and ordered his supporters not to resist the Bulgarian army and to accept the disarmament peacefully, potentially avoiding a civil war or foreign invasion. Many inhabitants of Pirin Macedonia met this disbandment with satisfaction because it was perceived as relief from an unlawful and quite often brutal parallel authority. Mihailov had nine life-sentences and three death-sentences in Bulgaria. Although IMRO's main goal had always been the creation of an independent Macedonian state, some previous Bulgarian governments tolerated it as its goal was the liberation of Macedonia from Greek and Yugoslav occupation which they considered Bulgarian land. As a result of this, IMRO had built an extensive network in Pirin Macedonia and in the other parts of Bulgarian territory, which was used to provide financing for the organization and an operational base from which the offensives into Yugoslavia and Greece were conducted. While in exile, IMRO was kept alive by members in various countries worldwide, but ceased to be an active force in Macedonia except for brief moments during the Second World War.
1934 – 1944
After 1934, Mihailov lived in Turkey, Poland and Hungary and finally settled in the Croatian capital Zagreb, which at that time was part of the Independent State of Croatia, a fascist puppet-state. In 1941, during World War II, most of Vardar Macedonia and a half of Greek Macedonia were annexed by Bulgaria and along with various other regions, becoming part of Greater Bulgaria. Mihailov refused to return to the Bulgarian-occupied part of Macedonia and remained in Croatia until the end of the war. With his help in 1943 some armed detachments – Ohrana, which included Bulgarian Slav-speakers in Italian- and German-occupied Greek Macedonia were organised. It was apparent that Mihailov had broader plans which envisaged the creation of a Macedonian state under a German control. It was also anticipated that the IMRO volunteers would form the core of the armed forces of a future Independent Macedonia in addition to providing administration and education in the Florina, Kastoria and Edessa districts.
Refusal to create a pro-Nazi Puppet State
In August 1943, Ivan Mihailov left Zagreb incognito for Germany where he was to visit the main headquarters of Hitler and the headquarters of the Sicherheitsdienst, where he spoke to Hitler and Himmler and other top German leaders. From the scant available German information, it is apparent that Mihailov received consent to create three battalions consisting of volunteers armed with German weapons and munitions. Moreover, these battalions were to be under the operative command and disposal of Reichsfuhrer of SS Heinrich Himmler. Additionally, in Sofia talks were held between high-ranking functionaries of the SS and the IMRO Central Committee members. Despite the confidential character of the negotiations between Mihailov and the Sicherheitsdienst, the Bulgarian government obtained certain information about them. On 2 September 1944 Bulgaria ordered the withdrawal of its troops from Macedonia. Detailed German telegrams indicate that on 3 September 1944 Mihajlov was flown from Zagreb to Sofia. A German telegram from 1:07 am on 5 September indicates that Hitler re-ordered the establishment of a puppet state in Macedonia. Mihajlov was transported to Skopje on the evening of 5 September "to see what can saved". Another telegram repeating the Fuehrer's order came in at 2 am on 6 September. On 6 September, Mihajlov declined the offer to lead an independent 'puppet state' for inability to get local support. The German diplomats in Skopje reported to Berlin that the attempt to establish a puppet state had failed. On 8 September 1944 Germany closed its Consulate in Skopje, and Mihajlov with his wife, together staff from the German consulate, left Skopje. Nevertheless, the same day, right-wing IMRO nationalists declared independence.
During the Cold War
In 1944, he was forced to flee again, this time to Italy. The Bulgarian communist leader Georgi Dimitrov ordered the assassination of Mihailov. The new regimes in Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Greece persecuted his followers as fascists and traitors. After World War II the ruling Bulgarian Communists declared the population in Bulgarian Pirin Macedonia as ethnic Macedonian and teachers were brought in from Yugoslavia to teach the locals in the recently codified Macedonian language. The organizations of the IMRO in Bulgaria were completely destroyed. Former IMRO members were hunted by the communist Militsiya and many of them imprisoned, repressed, exiled or killed. On the other hand, former Mihailovists were also persecuted by the Belgrade-controlled authorities on accusations of collaboration with the Bulgarian occupation, Bulgarian nationalism, anti-communist and anti-Yugoslav activities, etc. Josip Broz Tito and Georgi Dimitrov worked on a project to merge Bulgaria and Yugoslavia into a Balkan Federative Republic under control of the Balkan Communist Federation. These policies were reversed after the Tito-Stalin split in June 1948, when Bulgaria, being subordinated to the interests of the Soviet Union took a stance against Yugoslavia. After the Second World War many former "Ohranists" were convicted of a military crimes as collaborationists. Also, after the Greek Civil War many of these people were expelled from Greece and tortured as Bulgarians.
Gradually Ivan Mihailov was established as a legal political figure and author of the ideology of the Bulgarian national liberation movement in Macedonia. This fact allowed for a close political alliance between Ivan Mihailov and the Macedonian Patriotic Organization in the United States, Canada and Australia in the late 1940s. Mihailov became the emigrants' ideological leader, and the MPO supplied the people and funds for the political struggle. With the help of the United Nations and various humanitarian organizations, the human rights of Bulgarians repressed by Tito in Yugoslavia were protected. In order to provide a basis for the Bulgarian emigrant movement and create a historical record, Ivan Mihailov started writing his memoires from the 1950s to the 1970s, which the MPO's Central Committee published in four large volumes. These works provide serious proof of Bulgarian national interests from the 50s to the 70s. After the change of Bulgarian policy toward the Macedonian question in the late 1950s, Mihailov was largely forgotten about and according to some sources even in the 1970s and 1980s the Committee for State Security supported his pro-Bulgarian and anti-Macedonistic political activity. However, in September 1989, Boris Vishinsky, a Skopje journalist, decided to try and interview Mihailov. He expressed his hope for such an interview on Radio Vatican, which contacted Anton Popov, a journalist at the same station. Popov was one of the persons abroad that Ivan Mihailov trusted most. Sensing the impending collapse of Yugoslavia, he consented to such an interview, but only provided written answers. It then came as a real shock for many in Bulgaria when in 1990 at the end of the cold war, the popular TV anchor Kevork Kevorkyan contacted Mihailov, thought by many to be long since deceased, and recorded a long interview with him. After the long years of official propaganda he was still thought of as an "enemy of the people" by many. This was Mihailov's last interview. He died in Rome on 5 September 1990.
Although the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) was no longer active, Mihailov remained the leader of the Macedonian Liberation Movement and was supported by the Macedonian Patriotic Organization of US and Canada, of Fort Wayne, Indiana. He wrote four books of memoirs and regularly wrote articles for The Macedonian Tribune, the oldest continuously published Macedonian émigré newspaper. Until the end of his life Mihailov continued his interest in the fate of the Macedonians (whom he considered ethnically Bulgarian) and was committed to autonomous or independent Macedonian state.
In Bulgaria Mihailov is regarded as an important revolutionary from the third generation of freedom fighters who continued the struggle for political autonomy or independence in the Bulgarian populated parts of Macedonia after the partition of the most of the region of Macedonia between Serbia and Greece after the First World War. His memory is honoured and his name is taken from streets and schools in whole Bulgaria.
In North Macedonia, Ivan Mihailov has been regarded as traitor of the Macedonian people. The Constitutional court of the Republic of North Macedonia banned the Radko Association, a pro-Bulgarian organization bearing the name of Ivan Mihailov as separatist.
The Government of North Macedonia, in an event led by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and Minister for Culture, Ms. Elizabeta Kancheska-Milevska, opened a memorial home of leaders of historical VMRO, devoted also to Ivan Mihailov, at 20 December 2014 in Novo Selo, Štip.
Mihailov's view about the Macedonian question
There are different political opinions about Mihailov's activity in Bulgaria, but scholars agree that he was a defender of the statement about the strong Bulgarian character of the Slav-speaking population in the region of Macedonia. He was a follower of the idea about an independent United Macedonian multiethnic state with prevailing ethnic Bulgarian element, something as "Switzerland on the Balkans". According to his personal secretary Vida Boeva he was constantly canvassing by means of petitions, letters of protest, memoirs addressed to the UN etc. By the name of Macedonian Patriotic Organisation emphasizing that the Macedonian Republic was a colony of Serbia, under other name, as a Macedonian nation. He declared also that Macedonia is Bulgarian and the Slavs in Macedonia are Bulgarian. All these people that had the power in Macedonia were serbophiles or grecophiles. He believed that the Macedonians are part of the Bulgarian nation and the founders of IMRO were people who accepted the San Stefano Bulgaria. The Bulgarianness of Mihailov is recognized by several Macedonian historians like academician Ivan Katardžiev, director of the Historical Sciences section in the Department of Social Sciences in the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts and the director of the Macedonian State archive PhD Zoran Todorovski. According to Katardžiev the policy of Mihailov for establishment of an independent Macedonian state meant a Macedonian state of the Bulgarians in Macedonia. That denotes a second Bulgarian state, but not a national ethnic Macedonian state. Katardžiev stated Michaylov's view about the term "Macedonian" was, that this is a generalizing, regional term, including different ethnicities as Bulgarians, Aromanians, Albanians but not ethnic Macedonians. Katardžiev defines all Macedonian revolutionaries from the period before the 1930s as "Bulgarians" and asserts that separatism of some Macedonian revolutionaries toward official Bulgarian policy was only a political phenomenon without an ethnic character. Todorovski asserts that "All of them declared themselves as Bulgarians....".
- "Спомени I – Младини" – Volume I of Ivan Mihailov's Memoirs, Leuven, Belgium, 1958
- "Спомени II – Освободителна борба 1919 – 1924" – Volume II of Ivan Mihailov's memoirs, Leuven, Belgium, 1965
- "Спомени III – Освободителна борба 1924–1934" – Volume III of Ivan Mihailov's memoirs, Leuven, Belgium 1967
- "The Conspirator Rediscovered", Interview with Ivan Mihailov in Storia Illustrata, by Antonio Pitamitz. pp. 46–51. Translated by Cali Ruchala.
- Ivan Mihailov, Unpublished Memoirs, Diaries and Materials (in Bulgarian)
- Ivan Mihailov, Quo Vadis, Bulgaria? (in Bulgarian)
- Ivan MIhailov, Articles (in Bulgarian)
- Ivan MIhailov's biography (in Bulgarian)