Bulkes: the Greek “republic” in Yugoslavia

Greek communists were shipped off to Bulkes, in former Yugoslavia, and created a mini-Greece

One of the great mysteries of the Greek Civil War is the story of Bulkes, Yugoslavia (Serbia). This village functioned as a rear camp for the Greek Communist movement from the aftermath of the Varkiza Agreement in 1945 to the final defeat of the Communist guerillas in 1949. Bulkes was indeed a training camp, but in fact much more, and very little is known about it, deliberately so.
Bulkes is a village in Serbia’s Vojvodina province, now known as Maglic. Like dozens of villages in multi-ethnic Vojvodina (where over 20 nationalities live), Bulkes was solidly German before the Second World War, a result of German colonization when this part of Serbia belonged to Austria-Hungary. After World War Two, the Yugoslavs, like other East European nations, expelled most of their Germans, and formerly prosperous villages such as Bulkes stood empty.
For reasons still not clear, several thousand Greek Communists who sought refuge in Communist Yugoslavia were shipped north, to the empty village of Bulkes, in mid-1945. Here within the confines of the village and outlying fields, they functioned as a fully autonomous, extraterritorial mini-Greece; with Greek language schools, media, police, hospitals and their own currency, “Bulkes Dinars” valid only in the community. The Greek Government considered Bulkes nothing more than a Communist training camp, and appealed to the United Nations to investigate and to reprimand the Yugoslav government for running such a camp. While the UN’s sanitized tours did not conclude that Bulkes was a training camp, most sources and people I spoke to confirm that military training and indoctrination in what author Nicholas Gage describes in his seminal work Eleni as an environment of “Kafkaesque Paranoia” did in fact occur there.
What is clear (if anything is clear with regard to this issue) is that, while Bulkes did function as a terror-filled training and rearguard camp for the various fronts in the Greek Civil War, it was more than that. It was a community with families, activities (mostly centred on the massive theatre), and community infrastructure. In typical Greek fashion, moreover, it had factions. In the midst of the Greek Civil War, Bulkes’ community had its own ‘civil war’, a bloody three day battle that forced the Yugoslav authorities to intervene. Ostensibly, Yugoslavia’s break with Stalin was the main instigator of the Bulkes conflict, as the community divided into supporters of Yugoslav dictator Tito and Stalin. However, like most things in connection with Bulkes, the whole truth is unknown. Those few former “citizens” of Bulkes do not go into details, and neither do Yugoslav archival sources.
Just as quickly as it was established, in 1949 the community was disbanded and dispersed. Some people remained in Yugoslavia, others, supporters of Stalin, were shipped to Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and from there to the four winds. For Yugoslavia and Greece, the subject was closed and Bulkes was essentially expunged from the record.
I currently live in Serbia, not one hour’s drive from Bulkes. The village of Maglic, its current name, is now populated largely by Serbs from Bosnia. I have interviewed many Greek Civil War refugees in Hungary, and given the proximity, and the mystery, of Bulkes, I just had to learn more. Between contacts in Serbia and Hungary, in time, I met a Serbian film director from Maglic, Sinisa Bosancic, who is trying on a shoestring to make a documentary about what Serbians euphemistically call “The Bulkes Experiment.”
He has found documentary evidence deliberately hard to come by. For example, the aged official in charge of the Greeks’ transport to Bulkes refused to talk about the operation “without the express authority of the President .” Bulkes had its own account in the Yugoslav (now Serbian) National Bank, but documents concerning this account are unavailable. Photographic and documentary evidence are virtually non-existent.
Maglic today has virtually no reminders of the previous Greek sojourn. The Greeks basically occupied the sturdy German houses and converted the larger buildings into hospitals, barracks, schools, and government offices; the Serbs who arrived after the Greeks essentially did the same thing. Aside from Bulkes Dinars which are valuable collectors’ items, virtually nothing else exists to proclaim that Greeks were here. “One house has a fading Greek inscription, ‘Long live Greek-Yugoslavian brotherhood,'” Bosancic said. I saw the house and the inscription is hardly legible. The only major structure the Greeks built is a theatre, huge and hastily built. No photos of it survive, but Antonis Skutelis, who was born in Bulkes and now lives in the nearby city of Novi Sad, remembers it. “It was huge, over four hundred seats, but poorly built.” It had Grecian style columns on the outside. In the early 1950s it had to be abandoned and raised to the ground.
Sitting in his Novi Sad apartment with the mighty Danube River nearby, Antonis, a television cameraman by profession, could provide few further details of his parents’ day to day life in Bulkes. “Soldiers were coming and going to the front. The witnesses are all passing away, and even when alive, they did not talk about it.” Here Skutelis and his journalist son, Orpheas, paused to remember Orpheas’ grandfather. “He never talked details. They were ashamed, perhaps” Orpheas offered. Antonis then related his own experience as a cameraman in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. “I went everywhere, during the last war, and I saw things . . . Nobody tells the whole truth.” Clearly, the same could be said about the “Bulkes Experiment.”
I recalled the saying that truth is always the first victim in war. Perhaps that is best way to describe what happened in Bulkes. The Yugoslavs set up the community to further the cause of Greek Communism; with the collapse of the guerilla forces and Yugoslavia’s quarrel with the Soviet Union, this querulous camp within Yugoslavia had more than outlasted its usefulness. Therefore, as quickly as it was established, it was dismantled. Yugoslavia wanted to renew the traditional good ties between Athens and Belgrade, and with the West. Post-Civil War Greece also preferred to plough under details of the recent unpleasantness. In a postwar environment, the former inhabitants of Bulkes became refugees again. They were victims, both of larger forces and what Antonis Skutelis succinctly called the “insanity of the human condition.” It is sad that after so many years, and after the demise of both communism and Yugoslavia, that the full truth remains elusive. What remains are these few pieces of a puzzle, an obscure (and obscured) part of Greek history.