Part 8 1885 – 1886

After the war the work slacked for Esper and his officers as the situation returned to normal. In his book he describes Bulgarian life and conducting visits to the various dignitaries in the town of Ruse. Gradually within society groups and cliques were forming, plotting and conspiring, each looking for some advantage or a prestige government post. He describes how he came under pressure to employ certain people who had the right connections even though they were totally unsuitable. Esper was employing foreign skilled and able people to get jobs done. On one occasion he was approached by the Defence Minister to employ some local people in a ship repair work shop. Esper refused on the basis that he needed skilled people in the workshops to get the ships in the navy repaired and back into use. He told the Defence Minister to take away from him the responsibility for managing the workshop. Of course the Minister backed down, probably now quite happy that he could deflect the pressure on him blaming Esper.

Esper relates a story concerning his meeting with Prince Alexander Battenberg, the king of Bulgaria. The prince wanted to visit the Romanian King Carol to express his gratitude for the assistance during the war. For that, it would be necessary to cross the Danube from Ruse to Giurgiu in Romania.

When the prince arrived from Varna by the railway, all the dignitaries and the heads of the various military units including Esper went to the station to greet him. When the prince first saw Esper he regarded him very suspiciously. He had no idea what to expect of this foreign nihilist, a fugitive from Russian justice.  Of course Esper looked no different to any other officer. The next day Esper sailed with the prince across the Danube to Giurgiu.

When the prince met with the Romanian King Carol he spoke about his satisfaction with his army which had performed well during the conflict, but he was concerned about the two Russian nihilists serving in the navy and wanted to get rid of them. However he recognised that they had done great service which made it difficult to just dismiss them.

When the prince returned instead of just being ferried across the Danube back to Ruse the prince wanted to be taken further up the Danube to Lom Palanka. The prince was worried about this longer trip in the presence of the dreadful Russian nihilist, Esper. So he ordered a Major to travel with him, Esper calls him Major C. Major C was to ensure the safety of the prince, who was worried that Esper might blow up the boiler. However as Esper puts it how would the presence of the major help the prince if the boiler blew up.

However when the prince stepped aboard the yacht his attitude to Esper changed. It seems that the prince expected the royal yacht to be in a poor state having been used to transport troops and ammunition and even Turkish troops. At some times the boat had been in a poor state more like a coal transporter than a royal yacht. The newspapers had of course reported this scandal of the poor condition of the yacht.

But as Esper explained, that after a lick of paint and varnish the yacht was restored to its finest glory, because if he, who had got ships in order for inspection by Russian Admirals, couldn’t restore the yacht to its best then no one could.

So as he boarded the prince was greatly impressed with the state of the yacht. His views of Esper seemed to soften, he toured the boat several times and thanked Esper for the beautiful condition of the yacht. Esper had confounded those who had been circulating rumours against him. Esper was about to spring another surprise on the prince. The journey was normally expected to take about 24 hours, stopping for about 5-6 hours at night. Esper set his two best lookouts and sailed through the night to complete the journey in 17 hours. That further impressed the prince who completely changed his opinion of Esper. So much so that he said that he wanted Esper to continue in the service of the Bulgarian navy.

It was not just Esper’s sailing skills and his ability to manage the ship that impressed the prince. It was also his conversation. The prince expected a boorish uneducated nihilist revolutionary, what he found was an educated intelligent man, knowledgeable in politics, literature and art. The prince invited Esper to dine with him where they talked for two hours in French about French and Russian politics and art.

However the prince was not universally popular in Bulgaria. Some people, especially in the army, resented the break between Bulgaria and Russia. It seems that the Russian state had taken a dislike to the prince and there was nothing he could do to repair the position. Russia sent agents to find ways of undermining the prince to bring Bulgaria back into Russian influence.

With Russian encouragement some officers started plotting a coup, planning to capture the prince and send him to Russia for them to dispose of as they saw fit. In that way appease Russia and return to Russian favour.

The coup started on 20 August 1886. The prince was seized in the capital Sofia and put on a boat at Rakhovo to be sailed to Reni in the Ukraine, then part of Russia.

Esper heard about the coup from his friend, Zahari Stoyanov who had been one of the instigators of the unification of Eastern Rumelia and Bulgaria, which was the cause of the Serbian Bulgarian war. Zahari produced a telegram to explain what had happened. The telegram was from the capital telling all government agencies that the prince had been deposed and the government ministers relieved of their posts and an interim government formed.

Esper and Lutsk found themselves in a difficult situation, as foreign officers they felt that they should not intervene in local affaires, yet Esper was in charge of the navy, a significant force which theoretically could be deployed to support the prince. Esper felt he had no choice but to resign his position. He and Lutsk sent a joint telegram to the ministry of defence to that effect. They then left Bulgaria and went to Ploiesti in Romania to stay with friends. There they watched as events unfolded. Things went smoothly for the coup at first. The population did not protest, though they were generally in favour of the prince.

Word came that the prince had been seen aboard the royal yacht wearing ordinary clothes, being taken down the Danube to Reni. This seemed to start some resentment and protest within the population. They could not see why the prince had to be handed over to the Russians, if the new government did not want the prince then just take him to Romania, don’t place him into the hands of his enemies.

Gradually over the next few days attitudes changed. A strong feeling of support for the prince emerged. Those in authority who had initially declared for the coup now supported the prince. Then the coup leaders were arrested, a temporary government was established under a man called Stefan Stambolov and a search was initiated for the prince. The prince was still on route, in the royal yacht captained by one of Esper’s former officers, Ensign Kisimov, having been ordered to have no contact with the shore had no knowledge of the changing circumstances.

In Ruse some supporters of the prince wanted to mount an attempt to save the prince. However Ruse was still under the control of the coup plotters. The prince’s supporters sent a messenger to Ploiesti to meet Esper and Lutsk and ask them to return, take command of the steamer “My Dear” and mount a rescue. Esper however was not in Ploiesti, but Lutsk was and agreed to return and take part in the rescue.

When Esper returned and found that Lutsk had left on his mission he raced after him hoping that he would have been detained at the border by border formalities because he wanted to dissuade him from taking part considering it foolish and futile. But while Esper was waiting for the train he received a telegram saying that Lutsk had been arrested.

It seems that Lutsk had made it to the steamer and was preparing to set off when a whole regiment of soldiers appeared, boarded the steamer, seized Lutsk beat him and arrested him. It seems that Lutsk’s efforts were all in vain as the prince had already arrived in Reni.

The Russians however released the prince who made arrangements to travel to Austria. First he went to Bucharest to see the king of Romania. On this occasion however he was condemning the army that had turned against him saying, “All my officers turned traitors and conspirators, the only ones who did not turn against me were the two Russian nihilists.”

A party from Bulgaria met the prince and persuaded him to return to Bulgaria. He agreed and when boarding a boat to carry him back he called out asking “Where is Blank” meaning Esper, “he would not have taken me to Reni!” The prince thought that Esper had been arrested.

Esper knew that Lutsk had been arrested, and he thought that the officer in charge of the soldiers who has detained Lutsk would play some devious trick, he was already swearing loyalty to the prince. Esper decided to return to Ruse in Bulgaria to try and secure Lutsk’s release. Esper travelled back to Giurgiu, the Romanian town on the opposite bank of the Danube to Ruse, on the same train as the prince.  In Giurgiu he was asked to take command of the boat that came for the prince, but Esper declined and travelled back as a passenger.

On arrival at Ruse the prince was greeted by rapturous crowds as he travelled to the palace. Esper went to the palace where a big reception was being held. All the government ministers and officials were there avowing their loyalty, though previously they had been amongst the conspirators plotting the coup. Esper spoke to the prince about Lutsk’s arrest and his release was ordered.  During the reception Esper was seen by many of the people as a supporter of the prince and they were approaching him commending him on his service during the war and after, seeking to gain favour and influence through Esper.

Esper was again approached to take back is old job as command of the fleet, but he declined. On leaving their service he was not paid in full. When he was initially given the office he did not sign any contract, there was an agreement that on leaving office that he would be paid 3 months’ salary, about three thousand francs. But the government refused the payment, saying that no contract had been signed. Esper’s friends encouraged him to pursue the matter saying that the government would settle because they would want to avoid any publicity.

But Esper did not want to cause any issues, he specifically did not want, as he wrote, to monetise his work in Bulgaria. He had experienced and learnt a lot in his time, and thought that enough reward for his services.

Esper’s friend Lutsk also left Bulgaria but returned after 3 years taking a post as chief engineer. However he was seen as a threat to the government and a plot was hatched against him. He received a telegram to travel immediately to Constantinople. But he failed to get there because he was attacked by a group of sailors from a Russian merchant ship.  He was taken to St Petersburg and imprisoned. Though this act outraged opinion in Europe, it did not influence Russia, in fact the reverse, the Russian authorities felt they could not release Lutsk as they did not want to be seen to be influenced by foreign opinion. However after about three months Lutsk was released. Esper knew no more of his life, but he thought that he died in the 1890s.

Prince Alexander Battenburg found his position in Bulgaria untenable, he had offended Russia and Bismarck in Germany took against him, he had no support for his position. He resigned the throne in September 1886.

All the details given in this chapter are contained in Esper’s book, originally written in 1912 and published in Russia. It was subsequently translated into Bulgarian by Mariana Barchevo of the Ruse Regional Museum of History.

Next section Part 9 1887 – 1899