Letters To and From Bulgaria

Alex Miller and Boris Deliradev

Letter to a Bulgarian Friend

Dear Boris,

Clearly you are free, the people of Bulgaria I mean. Men and women walk safely in the streets of Sofia at all hours of day and night. One feels no sense of threat, perhaps only a sense of something a little forlorn, perhaps a feeling that “there is little that can be done” to change things presumably. I was impressed to see how you (Bulgarians) are kind to stray dogs and cats and do not kick them out of the way. The stray dogs lie about or walk the streets calmly, at ease, under no threat, not concerned, among the people, almost with them. Not pets but each with his or her own peculiar destiny. Permitted a quiet respect. Trees are valued more than footpaths, which I liked—here in my country trees struggle to find champions. People were at great pains to be scrupulously honest, service people I mean, like taxi drivers and hotel porters and waiters, almost as if they knew I had been warned to expect trickery from them. Only one taxi driver cheated me. Then he wasn’t really cheating, but was just making the best of the situation, and he was very charming with it, so I didn’t mind and let it pass. When the air-raid siren wailed across the city I was walking in a very poor district of Sofia but everyone—or almost everyone—including the young who held hands, stood still, some even a little to attention, and cars pulled up and waited. I stood still too, moved by this communal memorial to the dead of wars, and was glad to be a part of it, becoming a part of it, a Bulgarian, for the moment of the wailing siren. The antique trams and broken footpaths would make life very difficult for anyone in a wheelchair. And everyone smoked. I sometimes felt I was in the past. Getting into the archaeological museum in Veliko Turnovo was not straightforward. First I tried to open the door but found it was locked. A notice on the door said the museum was open. So I rang the bell. No one came. So I hammered on the door. I shook it and looked through the glass. Not a soul. The foyer was in darkness. I was turning away, ready to give up, when a woman came to the door and, without greeting me, signaled for me to follow her. I waited in the unlit foyer with the oversize amphora while she went away. After a little while another woman came. This woman had a bunch of keys but no English. She locked the front door, signaled for me to follow her, then unlocked a gallery. She waited until I had completed my circuit of the gallery then locked it behind me and opened the next gallery and once again waited for me to be done with my inspection of the exhibits from the graves of Neolithic Bulgarians. And so on, through two floors of galleries. When I left she locked the front door behind me. She did not smile.

In Sofia I visited the National Gallery of Foreign Art and found it full of fakes. The people running the gallery were like leftovers from the Soviet era and clearly resented all forms of happiness and the joy of life. And they were all ugly. Afflicted. Only the nineteenth-century peasant paintings were authentic or interesting. Outside in the sun drinking coffee at a table in the open by the gardens, with Alexander Nevski’s golden cupolas gleaming across the square, it was another world.  If I return to Bulgaria perhaps you and I can drink coffee there and talk about things that interest us. Nineteenth-century Sofia interested me more than the antiquities of Veliko Tarnovo and Sozopol. Though I could see why people might have a seaside house at Sozopol, to escape to during the heat. If they are rich.

In Velko Tarnovo I met a very honest, indeed a deeply generous, taxi driver by the name of Alexandrov. When I did not have enough leva to pay my bus fare—I was booking a bus to Istanbul—he took out his wallet and offered to make up the difference. We drove into the country together the next day and he told me the rulers of Bulgaria are corrupt and criminal and I believed him. He painted a grim scenario of how they came by their power. He was a qualified engineer but had had to resort to taxi driving to make a living. He kept bees and took me to meet them, “I have ten thousand working for me.” His little joke. His bees were housed in the gardens (wild and overgrown) of a convent. A lovely peaceful place that he obviously cherished. He turned off the taxi meter while he made the detour to his bees. “This is among friends.” When we stopped at a wayside coffee place along the highway I bought him coffee and a cake and served him. When I arrived at the table he remarked, “So, the new waiter has arrived.” I liked him very much. We became friends of the moment, friends of the road.

You asked for my impressions of your country and I know I will think of other things to say the moment I stop writing this letter! There will be something important that I have left out.

Oh yes, of course, I forgot to mention your beautiful forests. I was standing at the window of my workroom here in Castlemaine a moment ago watching the sun set over the watchtowers of the old prison when I thought of the wild forests of Bulgaria—which I did not get a chance to walk in. The wild groves of ancient walnuts, chestnuts and beech, the oaks in new leaf. From the bus to Sozopol I looked into their sunlit glades and longed to be among those trees, but did not get the opportunity. I have promised myself that one day I will walk among those enchanted trees. When we left the mountain forests behind and entered the great plain I was sorry. Here I walk for an hour every day among the hard-grown eucalyptus in the dry flinty forest of this region—which I also love.

Alex Miller
Castlemaine, July 2010

Letter to an Australian Friend

Dear Alex,

When on July 21st, 1981 I heard that Lyudmila Zhivkova had died, I was with my parents—lecturers in choral conducting at the Higher Institute of Music and Pedagogy in Plovdiv, my sister and some family friends in the village of Kranevo on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. We were sitting, some of us standing, around a table in the enormous, unkempt garden of a small dank house where we used to spend our summer holidays. I was eleven.

I remember the snow on the screen of our portable Soviet-made Yunost, the somber voice of the newscaster and the silence that came upon us. It was an unexpected, shocking piece of news—even for us, the children—whose untimeliness was highlighted by Zhivkova’s birth year, 1942, the same as my parents’.

One or two years before, my mother had taken me to a classical concert in the beautiful courtyard of the Ethnographic Museum in Plovdiv, where Lyudmila Zhivkova was present. I didn’t see her—she was somewhere among the guests of honor on the balcony by the entrance; my mother and I—down below in the back seats. But I clearly remember the discreetly elated atmosphere, which, my mother explained to me, was related to Zhivkova’s presence.

These memories came to me at the National Gallery of Foreign Art in Sofia last month while looking at the exhibition Bulgaria’s Cultural Opening to the World, commemorating Lyudmila Zhivkova’s seventieth birthday and her mandate as a chair of the Committee for Culture between 1975 and 1981.

The gallery’s walls were covered with personal and official photos of Zhivkova, mixed with paintings by the Russian artist Nikolay Roerich (whom she greatly admired), drawings by participants in the International Banner of Peace Children’s Assembly organized by her, letters from her to some of these participants, as well as quotes from books and speeches. In most of the photos she is elegant—according to the place and event, exuding freshness and a calm confidence.

I walked around the gallery with the distinct feeling that I am surrounded by words and images from the cultural and intellectual environment I grew up in and that the experience was important. But I kept asking myself what in this exhibition suggested that the year was 2012 and that it had been thirty-one years since Lyudmila Zhivkova had died.

Only two things: a short introductory text that claimed that the exhibition was not “nostalgia for an era renounced by historic and social developments,” and, somewhat unexpectedly, a Bulgarian National Television documentary, screened in the last hall, which suggested that Zhivkova’s heritage as a politician and cultural manager is not at all unambiguous.

Otherwise, on the topic of how much and how exactly Bulgaria’s cultural life opened to the world in the 1970s, why it had been closed at all and how Zhivkova’s activities fit into what had preceded her, the beautifully arranged exhibition remained silent.

Looking for answers, I bought The Cultural Front, a book by the historian Ivan Elenkov (available in Bulgarian), in which he examines the cultural policies of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria from 1946 until 1989.

Straining with the small font, I read eighty or so pages dedicated to Ms. Zhivkova’s mandate and looked at quotes from various program documents and reports. I also watched six hours of interviews by BBT journalist Svetoslava Tadurukova with some of Zhivkova’s former associates as well as former State Security agents.

I realized that until then I had looked at Lyudmila Zhivkova’s personality with a dose of sympathy. Like many others, I, too, had been intrigued by the car accident that changed the course of her life, and, without much inquiry, retrospectively, had approved of her personal pursuits—her thesis research at Oxford, her engagement with the arts, the trips to India. . . . I had also been intrigued by her “clash,” as one associate in the TV documentaries puts it, with yoga and the subsequent recovery from the injuries sustained in the car crash, against doctors’ expectations.

While looking at the exhibition, I pondered the paradox of her life, which simultaneously denied communism’s limitations on personal freedom—because she had access to so much, and at the same time confirmed them—because she was given this access as a daughter of the General Secretary of the Communist party.

Two things struck me in Ivan Elenkov’s book: the intellectual chaos and the megalomania of her projects. I had heard of them, of course, but wasn’t aware of their actual scale.

In the TV documentaries, some of her associates claim that ideologically she wasn’t a communist. I don’t know if this was true or not, but if it were, it seems today that the right thing to do would have been to stay outside the Party and thus signal to her compatriots (among them, my parents, my teachers, me) that something with the platform of Soviet communism was wrong. She could have founded a non-governmental organization—she had the opportunity to do that—and set herself realistic goals and gradually furthered them.

Instead, she first became the deputy chair and then chair of the ministry-ranking Committee for Culture, where she had twelve deputies and provided employment to 70,000.

In 1978, Zhivkova presented her philosophical and aesthetic platform—the Long-Term Program for the Development of Rounded Personalities in the Stage of Mature Socialism—which she elaborated into several subprograms dedicated to various unrelated or loosely related “great personalities,” such as Nikolay Roerich, Leonardo da Vinci, Vladimir Lenin, Constantine-Cyril the Philosopher, Georgi Dimitrov, and Albert Einstein. I struggled to see the logic of this program, but all I could conjure was Ms. Zhivkova traveling around the world, developing her own personality as she wished, then coming back to her border-locked homeland to present her interests as plans for the development of everybody else’s personality.

A little earlier, in 1976, Lyudmila Zhivkova had initiated the celebration of the 1300th anniversary of the first Bulgarian state, a jubilee that was to reach “every town and village” and “every Bulgarian home” and was to turn into a “complex large-scale programming of Bulgaria’s spiritual and social life,” synthesizing the journey of the Bulgarian people from antiquity to its socialist present and communist future.

For the realization of this most ambitious of her projects Zhivkova made full use of the country’s administrative, economic and social resources, engaging the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party, a total of nineteen ministries (including those of defense, justice, health, internal commerce and services, metallurgy and mineral resources, machine building, chemical industry, energy, electronics and electrotechnics, construction and construction materials, light industry, forests and forest industries), the leadership of all of Bulgaria’s twenty-eight administrative regions, the twenty-eight state-funded artist and scientific unions, over thirty economic and social organizations and associations, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the State Television, the State Radio, the sixteen most widely read newspapers, and all Bulgarian publishers. The jubilee was to be prepared over a course of five years, culminating in 1981, and was to serve as a framework for the national holiday calendar until the fiftieth anniversary of the socialist revolution in 1994.

Numerous monuments and memorial complexes were built in the years preceding the celebration. The architectural reserves in Zheravna, Melnik, Plovdiv, Rousse, Lovech, and Nessebar were renovated or rebuilt, as were the archaeological sites in Pliska, Preslav and Veliko Turnovo, the Rozhen and Bachkovo monasteries, the Roman Amphitheatre in Plovdiv, and Kolyu Ficheto’s bridge over the Yantra river. New construction included the Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party on Mount Buzludja, the theaters in Shumen, Burgas and Tulbuhin, the regional communist party headquarters in Varna and Burgas, the new center of Smolyan, and the National Palace of Culture in Sofia. The National Gallery of Foreign Art was founded, as were numerous smaller galleries throughout the country.

I tried and couldn’t find the jubilee’s overall budget in Ivan Elenkov’s book, but judging from the scale of it, it must have been enormous. Only the souvenirs, produced serially by the Ministry of Internal Commerce and Services in 1979, were worth fifty million leva (at the time, roughly equivalent to fifty million US dollars).

The program for the jubilee year of 1981 included 3,000 exhibitions, 550 music events (among them premiere performances of newly written operas on historical subjects), one hundred theater events, and dozens of scientific congresses, conferences, and symposia. The exhibitions Thracian Art in the Bulgarian Lands, 1000 Years of Bulgarian Icon Painting, Treasures of Rila Monastery, Medieval Bulgarian Art, Stone Inscriptions from Bulgaria, and others, traveled around the world to much acclaim. The second tome of the fourteen-volume History of Bulgaria and the first tome of the five-volume Encyclopedia Bulgaria were published, among over 200 other books on jubilee-related subjects.

The plans were thought out to such details as the Bulgaria Ancient and Young National Quiz (with 50,000 participants and an audience of 750,000), the Bulgaria 1300 national tourist outing, the construction of 1300 commemorative water fountains across the country, as well as thousands of sports, school, army, and institutional celebrations.

. . .

I read all this in Ivan Elenkov’s book and wondered whether Lyudmila Zhivkova had known that this was the largest cultural and historic festival Bulgaria had ever organized and was ever likely to organize; and whether she truly understood the responsibility that arose from this.

Did she know that the celebration of the 1300th anniversary of the first Bulgarian state would turn into a celebration of the slogan “1300 years of the Bulgarian state,” which sits uncomfortably with the fact that there were a total of three Bulgarian states separated by two intervals whose combined length was 700 years? In 1981, the latest of these and most important to us was merely 103 years old—a young nation whose constant challenge throughout the next century was the lack of political, economic and cultural continuity.

This distorted historical thinking was rooted in even those of Lyudmila Zhivkova’s projects that even her fiercest critics today agree were successful—the archeological digs, the renovations of churches, monasteries and other monuments of culture, as well as the international exhibitions presenting the ancient civilizations in the Bulgarian lands. It has reached millions of Bulgarian minds, including mine, and continues to exert its influence.

I wondered if Zhivkova had known that throughout her mandate at the Committee for Culture Bulgaria was generously subsidized by the Soviet Union thanks to secret deals between her father and Leonid Brezhnev. And if she had, whether it had ever occurred to her that a large part of her projects was being paid for by this subsidy, and also that, consciously or not, she was misleading her compatriots to believe that if the government spent so much on culture, the country’s economy had to be in good health.

I also wondered how she would have reacted, had she been alive, when in the mid-1980s Bulgaria accumulated a foreign debt of billions of dollars and what she would have said to the tens of thousands employed under the Committee of Culture when they landed in the harsh realities of 1989/90.

I thought of all this fully aware that, on the material plane, our childhoods, my sister’s and mine, were built entirely on the participation of our “non-political” parents in the cultural ferment of the 70s and 80s, which included our Plovdiv home, our family Lada, our furnishings, audiovisual equipment, heating, clothes, food, and holidays. I remember my mother telling us after her two concert tours in Western Europe (France and the Netherlands) that people lived better there. But never did I hear from either of my parents a direct criticism or a warning that something might be wrong with the very foundations on which our society was built and that it could one day collapse. This disappointment, which I can barely admit to myself today, is probably familiar to many Bulgarians.

After so many questions, I finally realized what had attracted me to see the exhibition Bulgaria’s Cultural Opening to the World. I became aware that in 1981 I knew few of the threads connecting Lyudmila Zhivkova’s personality with the life of my family and country, and I didn’t know how to say goodbye to her.

Thirty-one years on, after one exhibition, a quarter of a book, and several hours of TV footage, this is finally possible and my feelings are mixed: a sense of clarity about the incongruous ideas I was raised with, and of confirmed loss—because I haven’t been able to rely on what I learned in my childhood and adolescence.

Boris Deliradev
Chirpan, October 2012

This essay was originally published in the Bulgarian weekly Kultura in November 2012 under the title “31 Years On: Saying Farewell to Lyudmila Zhivkova.” It was translated in English for Alex and Stephanie Miller.

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