Petya Dubarova was a teenage poet who committed suicide 30 years ago, at the age of 17. She is still held as a schoolgirl’s icon across the former East bloc
Issue 39-40, December 2009 - January 2010
by Christopher Buxton; photography by Dobromir Ushev, Antony Georgieff and archive
It is down to Bulgarian burial rites, that I saw a dead body for the first time. Its departed owner was one of my pupils, Petya Dubarova.
The story of Petya Dubarova is known to all Bulgarians. Pictures of her still adorn many a teenage girl’s bedroom. In the most recent and complete collection of her poetry her wide open eyes avoid the reader’s gaze and her mouth is set in sad resignation. Her hair, tied in two regulation plaits, frame her face to flop onto the white collar of her hated school uniform.
It was alleged that during the compulsory weekly work practice class based in the local state brewery, Petya had stopped the production line by obstructing the gears of the conveyor belt. Her teacher reported that this cost the state company thousands of leva in lost income. At the weekly teacher’s meeting, Petya’s behaviour mark was reduced. Some teachers pleaded for leniency, but were steamrollered by a majority intent on making an example.
Until 1990, it was an extraordinary aspect of the Bulgarian education system that individual teacher’s marks for academic ability and collective marks for behaviour remained the most influential factor in determining a student’s progress into higher education. The marking system was still open to abuse and not easily challenged. How the news of Petya’s reduced behaviour mark must have been received in the Dubarova household – particularly as Petya’s mother was a teacher!
The English Language School, where I taught Petya, was one of a few specialist “gymnasia”. Entry to these elite institutions was by competitive examination, oddly in maths, Bulgarian literature and “political culture,” across the whole region as far as Sliven and Yambol, and only children of the Communist elite could expect relatively trouble free acceptance.
In one of her satirical poems, Petya wrote ironically about the “advantages” of being an envied pupil of the school and describes its obtrusive atmosphere of fear. The school’s director and deputy director, lived with the stress of particular political scrutiny – managing a school that taught a capitalist language and which was filled with highly intelligent, often privileged and sometimes arrogant pupils. They had both been chosen mainly on the basis of their party antecedents and certainly not for their knowledge of the English language or culture.
So the outcome of the teachers’ meeting following the factory incident was entirely predictable. Similar meetings would routinely reduce pupils’ behaviour marks for such crimes as unexcused absences, smoking in public and shaven heads – a protest against the ban on long hair. Without a great deal of discussion Petya’s behaviour mark was reduced.
Interestingly, it was later alleged that Petya’s boyfriend, Vlado, had managed to repair the assembly line with a matchstick and that the beer factory had never been officially informed of the incident. So the losses cited by the teacher might have been imaginary.
On 3 December Petya broke with her usual rhyming stanzas to write the following inscrutable lines:
Behind the walls of the big house
By 4 December she had taken an overdose and so joined the extraordinary number of Bulgarian poets who have committed suicide. Her death was immediately linked to the zealous disciplinary action taken against her by her school.
There was an anxious discussion in the teacher’s room – whether any of us should attend the wake. The news of Petya’s suicide had so stunned my colleagues that even the party zealots were reduced to a helpless and human lack of direction and in the vacuum, younger voices were listened to. As the Englishman who had not attended the fatal teachers’ meeting, I was asked if I would accompany her form teacher to ensure the school’s presence at the wake. Separately three other teachers also took flowers.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers