The story of Mihail Shipkov is indicative of what happened to many people in communist regimes in the years after World War Two. For his opposition to the government, he was to pay a heavy price – the disturbingly titled “Menticide”. Richard H. Cummings returns to the site (after the podcast based on his book here) and explains.
Only in the contest of ideas can there be a final victory, which will yield us one world dedicated to peace with freedom.
– Breakdown, April 1950
The March 13, 1950 issue of Time magazine carried a story “COMMUNISTS: How They Do it,” which, in part, read:
The U.S. State Department last week published a remarkable document. It was one answer to a question which has interested the West since the famous Moscow purge trials of 1936-38, a question which has become increasingly urgent with such postwar trials as that of Hungary’s Cardinal Mindszenty, Bulgaria’s 15 Protestant leaders and the U.S.’s Robert Vogeler: How do Communist secret police extort “confessions?? The Communists’ first victim to tell his first-hand story is Michael Shipkov.
Psychiatrist A. M. Meerloo Joost in the Journal of Psychiatry, February 1951, coined the term “menticide,” when he wrote that an “organized system of judicial perversion and psychological intervention, in which a powerful tyrant transfers his own thoughts and words into the minds and mouths of the victims he plans to destroy or to use for his own propaganda.”
He presented Nazi propaganda as “social menticide” and the Cardinal Mindszenty case mentioned in the Time magazine article as an example of “individual menticide.” We will look at the case of Mihail Shipkov and “individual menticide.”
Mihail Shipkov’s life
Mihail (Michael) Todorov Shipkov was born to a wealthy family in Bulgaria on January 1, 1911. His secondary education was at the prestigious American founded and Christian based Robert College on the European side of Istanbul, Turkey. His family had derived its wealth from extracting rose oil. With the coming of Communism in Bulgaria after World War Two, the family lost their wealth when their rose fields and factories were nationalized. Reportedly, Communist authorities confiscated 9,000 kilograms of rose oil. Fluent in English, Mihail Shipkov then became a translator at the American Legation in Sofia.
It was the worst of political times in Bulgaria. The Cold War was hot: staff members of the American Legation were harassed, arrested, and some died under very suspicious circumstances. For example, in August 1949, Ivan Seculov, a Bulgarian translator employed by the American Legation, died after “falling” out of a four-story window three days after his arrest by the state security militia (secret police). One report has him committing suicide rather than being released from prison to work as a police agent. The truth might never be known.
In 1949, the American Legation attempted to get Mihail Shipkov, then 39 years old, and his family exit visas to leave Bulgaria for the United States. The police (militia) opened an investigative file with the code name “Розовият”, translated as “Pink” – not referring to the color, but to his family’s rose oil production.
On Saturday, August 21, 1949, at 2:30 PM, Mihail Shipkov was arrested by the state security militia, after leaving the American Legation, and taken to the National Assembly building. For the next 32 hours, he was subjected to extreme physical and psychological torture (menticide) by seven different militia men to obtain a six-page “confession” that he was an American spy: “At the end, when I wrote down the confession of guilt and repentance, I remember that the whole thing appeared fantastic and ridiculous but it seemed to give them complete satisfaction.” He was then released on Sunday evening under the conditions that he work for the Communist militia against the American Legation, using a suggested code name “Kamenov.” It is not known if he actually signed any agreement to do so.
Shipkov went home, washed up, had a meal of sausage with red wine, and went to bed. On Monday morning he went to the American Legation and reported what had happened over the weekend. He then submitted a hand-written, 8,000 word report in order to clear his conscience of the sense of guilt he had for the persons he had incriminated in his “confession.”
Responding to an official US protest, Foreign Minister Vladimir Poptomov confirmed officially to Donald R. Heath, head of the American Legation, “his conviction that Michael Shipkov was innocent … and assured Mr. Heath on October 11, 1949, that the maltreatment of Shipkov was absolutely against the policy of his Government.” He added that, “He had personally recommended to the Interior Minister that passports and exit visas should be granted to the Shipkovs.” That never happened.
Mihail’s report was later published verbatim in the US Department of State Bulletin, March 13, 1950: “The Story of Michael Shipkov’s Detention and Interrogation by the Bulgarian Militia.” In part of his report, he described how he was tortured:
I was ordered to stand facing the wall upright at a distance, which allowed me to touch the wall with two fingers of my outstretched arms. Then to step back some twelve inches, keep my heels touching the floor, and maintain balance only with the contact of one finger on each hand. And while standing so, the interrogation continued … I recall that the muscles on my legs and shoulders began to get cramped and to tremble, that my two fingers began to bend down under the pressure, to get red all over and to ache, I remember that I was drenched with sweat and that I began to faint, although I had not exerted myself in any way. If I would try to substitute [fingers], I would be instantly called to order . . . And when the trembling increased up to the point when I collapsed, they made me sit and speak. I did get several minutes respite, catching my breath and wiping my face, but when I had uttered again that I was innocent, it was the wall again.
After a time of this, I broke down. I told them I was willing and eager to tell them all they wanted … And if I were to stop and plead fatigue, or poor memory, or ask to rest – the wall again, and the slaps, and the blows in the nape [of the neck]. And I remembered I would come up gasping and talk and talk and feel utterly broken.
Newspapers in the U.S. carried the Shipkov story. For example, the Idaho State Journal, March 7, 1950, printed a cartoon showing the torture of Shipkov, with the headline: “Shipkov Reveals Red Torture Methods.”
From the time of his reporting what had happened to him in August 1949 until February 1950, Donald Heath hid Shipkov from Bulgarian authorities in the attic of the American Legation. Shipkov spent his time analyzing and translating Bulgarian newspapers for the Embassy staff.
Relations soon worsened between Bulgaria and the United States, and it became clear that official relations were to be broken off and the US Embassy to close. A CIA plan was hatched to secretly send Shipkov out of Bulgaria to safety over the Greek or Turkish border near the town of Svilengrad.
American diplomat Raymond F. Courtney gave Shipkov a Bulgarian identity document, provided by the British Legation, of Nikolay Boyadjiev, who had previously escaped from Bulgaria to Turkey. He was also given, a knife, compass, money and a cyanide pill, in addition to other items. He departed the Embassy on February 11, 1950, in the company of diplomat Courtney.
One version of his escape attempt has him staying at two safe houses on his way to meet two couriers, who were to escort him over the snow covered mountains into Greece and presumably then to Turkey. But the couriers did not show up.
On February 14, 1950, Shipkov was discovered by the militia and arrested at the Plovdiv train station, located about halfway between Sofia and Svilengrad.
Communist authorities accused Donald Heath of being an intelligence agent, declared him persona non-grata, and ordered him out of Bulgaria. Diplomatic relations between the United States and Bulgaria were broken off and remained so for the next ten years.
On February 21, 1950, Shipkov was indicted for the following “treasonous” crimes: his family background, his act of seeking employment with the American Legation, his expression of opposition to the Communist creed, and to some of the Government policies.” All Sofia newspapers reported on the indictment and 16 persons associated with the American Legation were implicated. On that date, the US Department of State issued a press statement reviewing the Shipkov case.
Trial and exile
On February 24, 1950, the American Legation was evacuated, and American staff and families made it to safely to Trieste, Italy, with a stop over in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Reportedly 30 plain-clothes policemen were at the train station in Sofia as the train departed.
From March 6-8, 1950, Mihail Shipkov and four others were accused of espionage at a show trial, in which Shipkov confessed to his “crimes.” The co-defendants were Zhivka Tomova Rindova (former telephone operator in the US Legation), Stefan Kratunkov, Nikolay Liubomirov Tsanov, and Vasil Malchev. The accused reportedly “pleaded guilty and confirmed the written confessions of spying for the Americans that they had made to investigating police before the trial.” Shipkov said, “I distorted, slandered and calumniated the initiatives of the fatherland front.”
Shipkov was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. There was widespread coverage in American newspapers of his trial. On March 8, 1950, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a statement to the press, in which he denounced the Shipkov trial and “disregard for human rights and human values demonstrated by the Bulgarian regime.”
After the trial, the Press Department in Sofia published a 125-page report, The Trial of American Spies in Bulgaria. The listed author was Henry Spetter who, ironically, would also be a victim of “individual menticide” in 1974, when he was subjected to psychological torture and forced to sign a confession as a spy for the US and Israel. He was sentenced to death but it was not carried out. In August 1974, he was flown to East Germany, escorted to West Berlin, and emigrated to Israel.
Reportedly, Mihail Shipkov was released from prison after serving some 12 years and then exiled to the provincial town Troyan, where his wife and daughter had been exiled in 1950.
Shipkov’s exact date of death is unknown but in an interview with journalist Alexenia Dimitrova in the Sofia newspaper 24 Hours, on January 26, 2010, his granddaughter Marina said that Michael Shipkov died in 1990 in Troyan.
But wait! This story is not over yet… Part 2 will be here soon!
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