Bulgarian Strongman Todor Zhivkov Dies

SOFIA, Bulgaria - Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria's Communist dictator for 35 years and Eastern Europe's last surviving Stalinist leader, died yesterday. He was 86.

Zhivkov had lapsed into a coma after being hospitalized July 8 with a respiratory infection.

Zhivkov held office from 1954 until his fall in the anti-communist revolutions of 1989. His longevity at Bulgaria's helm was largely based on such absolute servility to Moscow that Zhivkov once proposed that Bulgaria should merge with the Soviet Union.

Bulgaria's reformist president, Petar Stoyanov, said Zhivkov oversaw "one of the darkest periods of recent Bulgarian history.

"Eight million Bulgarians lived during that long period with their work, dreams and illusions, but also in fear and political repression," Stoyanov said. "With the death of Todor Zhivkov, the era of Bulgarian communism is finally ending."

Zhivkov dealt mercilessly with dissent, imprisoning thousands of people in the 1950s and 1960s.

"He served the Soviet Union more ardently than the Soviet leaders themselves did," wrote Georgi Markov, a defector working for the BBC in London. In 1978, Markov was slain - most likely by Bulgarian agents - with a special umbrella that injected him with a tiny poison vial.

Zhivkov was part of a generation that came of age after World War I dissolved the Ottoman and Habsburg empires that had ruled the Balkans for centuries. This led him to embrace revolution, and Zhivkov joined Bulgaria's illegal Communist party in 1932.

His meteoric rise through the party ranks started in 1944, when the Bulgarian Communists seized power with the backing of the Red Army. In 1954, he became first secretary of Bulgaria's staunchly Stalinist Communist Party.

Zhivkov was ousted as head of the communist party in 1989 and replaced as president of Bulgaria.

He was arrested the following year on charges of misappropriating state funds. He was sentenced in 1991 to seven years in prison, but his failing health meant he never went to jail. Instead, he spent his final years under house arrest.