Like his former Communist comrades Erich Honecker of East Germany and Nicolae Ceaucescu of Romania, Zhivkov believed that he could bend the laws of history to usher in the inevitable workers' paradise.
Instead, like Honecker and Ceaucescu, he saw the Communist state he built collapse, and ended his days in ignominy and disgrace, his privileges withdrawn and under investigation for criminal charges.
Loyal until the end to Communism, so servile was Zhivkov to Moscow's wishes that he once even proposed that Bulgaria cease to exist as a sovereign state and instead be absorbed into the Soviet Union.
Many Bulgarians view his passing with ambivalence. Time has allowed them to view the decades of dictatorship under his rule with something approaching nostalgia.
Unlike the Central European nations of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland, Bulgaria, together with its Balkan neighbour Romania, has failed to make a smooth progression from communism to capitalism.
Institutionalised corruption, the seemingly unstoppable onward march of organised crime, the underdevelopment of the necessary political checks and balances of a Western-style civil society, the heritage of Ottoman and Soviet rule, all these have kept Bulgaria far at the back of the race towards integration into modern Western Europe.
With an average monthly wage of about $100 (pounds 60), it's not surprising, say locals, that many, especially among the elderly and poor, look back on the Zhivkov years as a time when life was easier, with a guarantee of work, food and housing.
"Apart from young people, most of the others do not have such bad feelings about Zhivkov, because of what happened over the last nine years," said Nicolai Stefanov, editor of the newspaper Trud.
"The economy is in crisis, crime is on the increase and the politicians are gambling with the country. People have changed their views of Zhivkov, even the ones who hated him before the change of system now have some sympathy for him."
"I too look at him in a very different way. There were some good things about the old regime, even though it was authoritarian rule from Moscow without much freedom, but there was stability," Mr Stefanov said.
Even in his last years, Zhivkov was revered by the elderly, the poor and those living in the countryside, said one Western diplomat. "They called him `Tato', or `Daddy'. He was still popular because of their nostalgia for what they see as the good old days under Communism."
Now there is a sense that with the death of Zhivkov, who ruled from 1954 until he was ousted in 1989, Bulgaria has moved into a new era.
"Beside being the Communist Party leader in one of the darkest periods of Bulgarian history he was also head of state for decades. Eight million Bulgarians lived in labour, dreams and illusions, but also in fear and political repression," said the Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov.
The Zhivkov regime may have met the basic needs of most Bulgarians, but it was also one of the most repressive in the former Soviet bloc. During the 1950s and 1960s his secret policemen sent thousands of people to the Bulgarian version of the Soviet Gulag.
In 1990 he was arrested on charges of misappropriating state funds and the following year was sentenced to seven years in prison. Ill-health kept him out jail, and he passed his last years under house arrest while under investigation for inciting ethnic hatred and imprisoning dissidents.
Thousands of people are expected to attend his funeral on Sunday. "...They can't free themselves from thinking about me. That's the psychology of the people," he said earlier this year in an interview with Associated Press.
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