Bizarre world of Bulgarian writers who were killed, or killed themselves
It has become a commonplace that a nation can be understood best by the sort of treatment it give its poets rather by its military victories or GDP levels. This notion may be a bit outdated in a world run by social media where electronic "devices" by far outnumber fountain pens, and where a "content creator" makes more than a teacher of literature. But it is still at least indicative. Bulgaria, whose writers and poets have been translated into English only sporadically, is a case in point. On the one hand, it is very proud of its literary heritage. All Bulgarian towns have at least a street named after Hristo Botev and Peyo Yavorov. Many schools throughout Bulgaria bear the names of writers and poets such as Aleko Konstantinov and Nikola Vaptsarov, amongst many others. However, a lesser known fact is that many of those writers and poets were killed by other Bulgarians – or they killed themselves. Here is a brief overview of some poets and writers, very different from one another in terms of politics, personal integrity and literary achievement, but sharing one thing: the way they died.
Hristo Botev (1848-1876)
Hristo Botev is celebrated as one of this country's national heroes, both for his literature and for his attempt to overthrow the Ottomans in the late 19th century. Botev penned many fiery poems, essays and articles. In 1876, while in emigration, he started a revolutionary band that was to liberate Bulgaria.
The Communists liked to relate Hristo Botev to... themselves. This 1970s monument in central Kalofer states the years 1923 (when a leftist rebellion took place) and 1944 (when the Communists took over) – when Botev had been long gone – as... related to his work and deeds
Botev diverted an Austrian ship on the Danube, the Radetzky, towards the river's southern shore. He and his men landed near Kozloduy at what would later become a place of national pilgrimage, but their revolutionary ideas failed to impress the locals. A few days later, his armed group was defeated by the Ottomans. Botev was shot dead near Vratsa. He was bound to become a national hero, comparable to Sandor Petöfi in Hungary and Jose Marti in Cuba.
Through the Third Bulgarian Kingdom bigger and smaller monuments to Botev were erected throughout the land. Streets, squares, schools, libraries were named after him. Even football teams took his name. Everyone left, right and centre held Hristo Botev in high esteem. Even the Communist-run clandestine radio station broadcasting pro-Soviet propaganda during the Second World War was named Hristo Botev.
After 1944, the new rulers did not need to think twice to realise the huge publicity potential of Hristo Botev. As soon as they seized power they started eulogising him on an unprecedented scale. His writings against the decadent Ottoman Empire were interpreted as being proto – or "idealist" – Communist. Their brightest example was the Creed of the Bulgarian Commune, written in Galati, Romania, in 1871 – though Botev's actual authorship of the six-line piece has been scientifically disputed.
Under Communism, a great number of statues of bearded young men in various degrees resembling Hristo Botev were erected throughout Bulgaria. His most famous byline, "He, who fell in fight for freedom, liveth for evermore" was used to adorn every other monument of the September 1923 Uprising fighters or of dead partizani. Obviously, neither of them had anything to do with Hristo Botev and his ideas, but in what would later emerge as their perhaps greatest PR feat the Communists managed to convince several generations of Bulgarians that Hristo Botev had in fact been a precursor of Communism.
Significantly, the Communist propagandists were very careful to read Hristo Botev selectively. They rarely quoted his writings where he was critical of the Bulgarian intelligentsia for being docile, subservient, corrupt, venal and not revolutionary enough. In the minds of generations of Communist-era Bulgarian children Botev will remain the ardent revolutionary who loved Russia and who was prepared to die for his country.
Places to visit: Kalofer, Vratsa, Kozloduy
Things to read: The poems. Political Winter. Funny Tears
Aleko Konstantinov (1863-1897)
As a writer, Aleko Konstantinov captured the most fascinating but also the most repulsive traits of the Bulgarian national character, and described in painful detail the shortcomings of late 19th century Bulgarian democracy. His most famous creation, Bay Ganyo, the archetypal "stock" Bulgarian, continues to fascinate but also divide.
A monument near the place where he was shot. The nearby village bears the name Aleko Konstantinovo
Konstantinov's life began in the best possible conditions for a mid-19th century Bulgarian. He was born into the family of a wealthy merchant in Svishtov, then a prosperous trading town at the Danube river. Young Aleko studied at the best schools in Bulgaria, graduated in law from Odessa in today's Ukraine, and in 1885 moved to Sofia along with his family. For several years, Konstantinov worked as a judge and prosecutor. Eventually both he and the then inchoate Bulgarian establishment grew tired of each other. He left the judiciary and became a freelance lawyer, living hand to mouth – and often in poverty.
Konstaninov was a passionate traveller and travel writer. The apex of his efforts to help Bulgarians discover their own country was on 27 August 1895. On that day, about 300 Sofianites responded to his call, and climbed up Cherni Vrah, the highest summit of the Vitosha mountain range. Today, the date marks the official beginning of organised tourism in Bulgaria.
The other side of Konstantinov's writing was not as easy to stomach by his contemporaries. Over the span of several years he penned a number of satirical short stories and feuilletons – a literary form he mastered to perfection – that laid bare the more obnoxious side of the national character and the politics of the day: corruption, stupidity, hypocrisy, sycophancy, brutality and political violence.
Bay Ganyo was his most popular creation. The small-time provincial travelling salesman of rose attar who sought business opportunities abroad made his quiet debut in To Chicago and Back (1894), Konstantinov's mesmerising, witty book about his travels to the World's Columbian Exposition in the United States the previous year.
Aleko died young, in circumstances that might have been taken from his own Bay Ganyo.
In May 1897, Konstantinov and a friend, Mihail Takev, an MP from the Democratic Party, visited the latter's hometown of Peshtera. Takev's stance on a land dispute had enraged a group of influential locals – meddling in property affairs is still the easiest way to make a Bulgarian – any Bulgarian – your mortal enemy. The locals decided to kill Takev and attacked his coach on its way to Pazardzhik. In the ensuing commotion Konstantinov was just "collateral damage."
Places to visit: Svishtov, the Vitosha mountains, the village of Aleko Konstantinovo, Chicago
Things to read: To Chicago and Back. Bay Ganyo. How Bay Ganyo Conducts Elections
Peyo Yavorov (1878-1914)
One of the most tragic figures on the Bulgarian literary scene, Peyo Yavorov, was born in Chirpan. In his early years he worked as a telegraph typist in Stara Zagora, Sliven, Straldzha and Pomorie. At the turn of the century, when Macedonia was still a part of the Ottoman Empire, he got involved with the VMORO, or Internal Macedonian-Adrianople Revolutionary Organisation, whose leader, Todor Aleksandrov, he befriended (the historical VMORO is not to be confused with the modern Bulgarian extreme nationalist VMRO, which was a partner in one of Boyko Borisov's governments). When the First Balkan War broke out in 1912, Yavorov volunteered and left for Macedonia and Aegean Thrace, where he led a unit of revolutionaries.
A monument of Peyo Yavorov in Pomorie, where he worked as a telegraph typist
Yavorov wrote many poems dealing with love, longing and death. At one point he was a librarian, then a literary director at the National Theatre in Sofia. One of his most poignant pieces deals with the atrocities perpetrated against the Armenians in the sunset days of the Ottoman Empire. Another one is sympathetic to the Jews. But what every Bulgarian remembers Yavorov for is the simple yet touching lyricism of "Two Beautiful Eyes," a love poem.
In 1906 Yavorov fell in love with Mina Todorova, the sister of Petko Yu. Todorov, a great Bulgarian symbolist writer. However, Mina was sick of tuberculosis and died in Paris. Yavorov was with her at her deathbed.
In 1912 he got betrothed to Lora Karavelova, the daughter of Petko Karavelov, an early Bulgarian politician. Their correspondence, itself a work of art, tells of the many suspicions, mistrusts and conflicting passions between the two. Karavelova shot herself in 1913. Yavorov tried to follow her, leaving a death note: "My dear Lora committed suicide. Here I come as well." His pistol, however, misfired and only wounded him in the head, leaving him blind with one eye.
A much publicised public trial ensued in which the authorities accused Yavorov of murder. Unable to bear the stigma, the poet took a large dose of poison and shot himself again. This time he did not miss.
There are reports that both the poison and the pistol were provided to Yavorov by his old-time friend and comrade, Todor Aleksandrov.
Places to visit: Chirpan, Straldzha, Pomorie, Gotse Delchev
Things to read: Haydut Songs. Banished. In the Fields. When Thunder Strikes, How the Eco Dies Away
Dimcho Debelyanov (1887-1916)
Born in Koprivshtitsa, which will forever remain in the collective Bulgarian consciousness as one of the hotbeds of the April 1876 Uprising against the Ottomans, Dimcho Debelyanov initially was well-to-do as his father had a successful tailoring business. But after the restoration of independence Koprivshtitsa, like most other Revival Period towns, went to seed as the local craftsmen and merchants were unable to compete with industrial production. Debelyanov moved to Plovdiv and then to Sofia. His poems were either lyrical or satirical, and Debelyanov published extensively in various literary journals at the time.
Debelyanov's house in Koprivshtitsa
In 1912, when the Balkan Wars broke out, he was drafted in the army, where he progressed to the rank of lieutenant. Though he professed pacifism, he volunteered in the First World War and was killed in action in today's Greece.
Though he rarely came back to Koprivshtitsa, Debelyanov's longing for the place where he was born is perhaps best exemplified by one of his most loved lyrical poems:
"To return to your father's house,
When the humble evening is dying down,
And the night opens up its quiet bosom,
To woo the sorrowful and the brokenhearted."
His house in Koprivshtitsa is now a museum and a meeting place for international literati.
What to read: When the Sour Cherries Blossomed. A Moment. I Want To Remember You This Way
Where to visit: Koprivshtitsa
Geo Milev (1895-1925)
Geo Milev, who was born in Radnevo, was this country's best known expressionist poet and writer. He started writing as a child, studied in Sofia and ended up in Leipzig where he read philosophy. When the Great War broke out, Milev went to London, but returned to Germany where he was arrested on suspicion of being a British spy. He came back to Bulgaria and was drafted into the army. While in action at Doyran, in today's Greece and North Macedonia, Milev was shot in the head and lost an eye.
A monument to Geo Milev in front of his house in Radnevo
A man of many languages, Geo Milev is still credited for making a translation of William Shakespeare's Hamlet. In addition to that he translated and published varied Western work ranging from Friedrich Nietzsche and Stéphane Mallarmé to Paul Verlaine and others.
After the September 1923 Uprising Geo Milev wrote a poem called September, which was sympathetic to the perpetrators of the rebellion. It was also a very good poem, one of the best examples of revolutionary modernism in this country. But the tsarist police was far from being interested in literature. Geo Milev was arrested, the magazine he published was shut down, and he was sentenced to a prison term and a fine. Milev wanted to appeal. He was called to his local police station for an "interview," and was never seen again. His bodily remains were discovered as late as the 1950s in a mass grave near Sofia. He was identified solely on his glass eye.
Geo Milev's house in Stara Zagora is now a museum, and one of the exhibits displays... that same glass eye.
Places to visit: Stara Zagora, Radnevo
Things to read: September. Lamentation for Peyo Yavorov, a Poet. How To Learn German Without a Teacher. An Expressionist Calendar for 1921
Nikola Vaptsarov (1909-1942)
Bansko-born Nikola Vaptsarov was a social and humanist poet strongly influenced by Modernism of the time. He graduated HM Maritime School in Varna and worked as a ship mechanic, travelling around the Mediterranean. After he left school, he did odd jobs including one as a steam engine feeder.
A monument to Nikola Vaptsarov in the central square of Bansko
Vaptsarov had an early flirt with leftist ideas. In the the late 1930s he sympathised with the Bulgarian Communist Party and took part in some of its actions. He was arrested in 1942, sentenced to death and executed.
His oeuvre, especially the poems he wrote before his execution, will probably remain as some of the most poignant writing in 20th century Bulgaria.
"A Firing Squad. And after the fire, worms.
This is so simple and logical.
Yet in the end we will again be together, my people,
Because we loved each other."
Vaptsarov was rehabilitated immediately after the Communists seized power and was interred at Sofia Central Cemetery.
In 2008, his grave was desecrated. The marble plaque over it was shattered, and acid was poured over the insignia to delete the letters. The bones were reportedly stolen.
Nikola Vaptsarov, like Geo Milev before him, was arrested, tried and executed by the tsarist police for what he wrote. Under Communism both were elevated to a specials status in the catalogue of "progressive" Bulgarian men of letters. Post-1989, however, there have been attempts to denigrate both because the new anti-Communists just tagged them "Communist."
Places to visit: Bansko, Varna
Things to read: Faith. Duel. Spring. The Fight is Mercilessly Cruel. Farewell
Penyo Penev (1930-1959)
Penyo Penev was born in a village near Gabrovo, on the northern slopes of the Stara Planina mountain range, and in 1947 he published his first poems. Like many of his contemporaries, Penev sincerely believed in the bright Communist future of Bulgaria. The new Communist authorities in the People's Republic at the time had set off a giant construction effort to modernise the country. As they lacked qualified manpower, they drafted thousands of young Bulgarian "volunteers," both men and women, to work for free in what they billed brigada. Penyo Penev was an enthusiastic participant. Some of this country's biggest infrastructure projects, such as the Pernik-Voluyak railway line, the Hainboaz Pass through the Stara Planina, and the Koprinka Reservoir, then called Georgi Dimitrov, came into being in this way.
Locals taking a picture of themselves around Penyo Penev's monument in Dimitrovgrad. The signage at the foot reads: "The path has already been trodden to the end..."
One completely new town appeared on the map of Bulgaria as a result of the brigada movement: Dimitrovgrad. While working at construction sites and wearing his notorious workman's padded parka, Penev continued to write. Later, he settled in the new town and started a literary career, writing regime-flattering but honest poems about the creation of the "new lifestyle" of Communist Bulgaria. Unlike other of his literary peers who made good on their work at brigades and progressed up the Communist hierarchy ladder perks and all, Penyo Penev remained a humble local newspaper editor.
The poet famously described the enthusiasm of the young builders of Dimitrovgrad in one of his poems, "Me, One of the People":
"I do not dream about immortality and about an easy path,
But I dream about a quilted coat for the wintery day.
Immortal let's become to all eternity,
What was built here by me."
It all ended in 1959 when – supposedly due to depression triggered by disillusionment with Communism – Penev committed suicide at the age of 38. Obfuscating the reasons for his early death, the Communist Party haloed him. His poems were installed in school textbooks. The memory of him as a rebel against the system, however, somehow managed to survive and ensured the continuing popularity of Penev, even after the fall of Communism. While other "bards" of Communism were largely forgotten after 1989, Penev still gets read. The flat in Dimitrovgrad, where he lived and where he killed himself, is a museum, and the poet's humble statue on the pavement is a favoured place for children to climb over and for graduates and newlyweds to be photographed at.
Places to visit: Dimitrovgrad, Village of Dobromirka, Hainboaz
Things to read: Good Morning, People. We, of the 20th Century. When the Foundations Were Laid Down
Georgi Markov (1929-1978)
Of all the 20th century Bulgarian writers Georgi Markov is perhaps the best known abroad – unfortunately, for the wrong reasons. He was assassinated, in 1978, while walking on Waterloo Bridge in London in an act that has gone down in history as the infamous Bulgarian Umbrella Murder.
Markov was born in Sofia in 1929. In the 1950s and 1960s he was close to the Communist regime and became a writer. His novel, Men (1961), was reviewed positively. Markov gained access to the top Communist nomenclature all the way to Todor Zhivkov himself.
Courtyard of Radio Free Europe in Munich, now a part of the Ludwig Maximilian University
In 1969 things changed, however. Some of his plays, notably I Was He, were taken off stage just before they premiered. Markov sensed trouble and promptly defected to the West.
He started working for the World Service of the BBC where he met and later married his second wife. Owing to his contractual obligations to the BBC he was not allowed to broadcast any of his material from London. Instead, he turned to the US-sponsored Radio Free Europe, then stationed in Munich, Germany.
His In Absentia Reports About Bulgaria, broadcast on short-wave in 1975-1978, were an instant hit in Communist Bulgaria (to whoever dared to tune in). The 150-insert programme, aired weekly, described in vivid detail the bogus realities and hollowness of life under Communism. Real names were named, factual entities and situations were described. The government was quick to take notice, especially in the latter part of the reports where Markov described Todor Zhivkov as a frail and flawed little man rather than an omnipotent dictator.
The Communist-era State Security masterminded an elaborate plan to get Markov out of the way. Which did happen on Waterloo Bridge in London, in 1978.
Since the collapse of Communism, in 1989, many hacks – both in Bulgaria and abroad – have tried to make some extra dough by writing more or less phantasmagorial stories about Markov's assassination, usually quoting (or misquoting) whatever remains of the Bulgarian State Security archives.
No one has been indicted.
The Umbrella Murder case illustrates another characteristic of post-Communist Bulgaria, hypocrisy. A man was killed. Murdered. Assassinated. Yet, there is no investigation because there are... statutes of limitations. At the same time some Bulgarians continue to rile about... a pile of stones in central Sofia called the Red Army Monument. Markov would have loved that!
Places to visit: Sofia, London, Whitchurch Canonicorum
Things to read: In Absentia Reports About Bulgaria
Petya Dubarova (1962-1979)
When she committed suicide, Petya Dubarova was just 17.
A portrait of Petya Dubarova, 1984
A pupil at the Geo Milev English Language School in Burgas, Petya had begun writing poems and occasionally short stories as a child, encouraged by her mother who was a teacher of literature. As a fledging talent Petya had an early start in the literary press and got her first works published when she was in primary school. Her brilliant though obviously still immature early poems – some of them dealing with life at school and describing her classmates and teachers – were quick to impress. She gained recognition, and even had a cameo appearance in a 1978 feature film.
In later years her topics grew a lot more serious. One of the darkest, dealing with the traumas of adolescence, is quoted as a latterday masterpiece:
Behind the walls of the big house
Petya Dubarova killed herself by overdosing on sleeping pills. The immediate motive was trouble at school, but the underlying reasons were a lot more complicated and had to do with the inability to cope with young age in an overzealous, conservative family.
Immediately after her death, in the still Communist 1980s, Petya Dubarova was turned into an icon. Some of her poems were used as pop song lyrics. A contest for highschool literati was named after her. The house in Burgas, where she spent her childhood and where she died, is now a museum.
Petya Dubarova's suicide cracked open a complex and deep emotional network in the Bulgarian psyche. Once again, through her, a pain about growing up in a place where little truth-telling occurred, still keeps flowing.
Places to visit: Burgas
Things to read: Night Over the City. Dear Vacation. Forgive Me, Poetry
Veselin Andreev (1918-1991)
Born in Pirdop, Veselin Andreev was a Communist sympathiser from an early age. During the Second World War he joined the Chavdar partizani unit, whose most notable member was none lesser than Todor Zhivkov himself. In 1945 Andreev was a judge at the infamous People's Trials. He progressed up the Communist ladder and was a senior media personality in the Communist press, a Hero of Socialist Labour and a member of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party.
Veselin Andreev's native town, Pirdop
Largely seen as a court poet – at the time writing poems such as A Ballad for the Communist and Partizan Songs – Veselin Andreev was nevertheless not a conventional figure of an artist kowtowing to the regime. His brother had been killed in a Soviet gulag and Andreev's attempts to discover any documentation were brushed down by both the Soviets and Zhivkov. Reports about a long-standing spat with the Supreme Leader emerged post-1989.
Unlike many of his peers in the art and literary world who were quick to turn coat as they sensed Communism was on the path to the dustbin of history, Andreev remained true to his ideals. He committed suicide in his flat in Sofia, in 1991. In his death note he wrote: "I am leaving the Bulgarian Socialist Party [as the Communist Party called itself then]. Damn Zhivkov! Damn the Zhivkovists!"
Andreev was one of the fans of Petya Dubarova, almost 50 years his junior. In 1990 he wrote the preface to her book, The Bluest Wonder, which was published posthumously.
Places to visit: Pirdop. Central Sofia
Things to read: Partizan Songs. Anton. Sonata for Petya Dubarova