Dimitrova, Blaga (1922—)

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Dimitrova, Blaga (1922—)

Bulgarian poet, novelist, political activist, and vice-president of Bulgaria, whose slow evolution from literary Stalinism to dissent is a case study in intellectual disillusionment as well as a chronicle of one writer's moral evolution. Born Blaga Nikolova Dimitrova in Biala Slatina, Bulgaria, on January 2, 1922; married Iordan Vasilev; children: one adopted daughter.

Was the best-known intellectual dissident in Bulgaria in the closing decade of the Communist regime; elected to Parliament (1990); began to serve as vice-president of Bulgaria (December 1991); resigned from that position (June 1993).

Selected writings:

Because the Sea is Black: Poems of Blaga Dimitrova (Translated by Niko Boris and Heather McHugh, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989); Journey to Oneself (Translated by Radost Pridham, London: Cassell, 1969); The Last Rock Eagle: Selected Poems of Blaga Dimitrova (Translated by Brenda Walker and others, London: Forest Books, 1992);

The collapse in Bulgaria in November 1989 of the hardline Stalinist regime of Premier Todor Zhivkov brought to world attention details of decades of not only political repression but intellectual tyranny as well. Perhaps the most talented and representative writer of the group of dissident intellectuals who were now finally able to freely voice their thoughts was the poet, novelist and playwright Blaga Dimitrova. Born in 1922 in the northern Bulgarian town of Biala Slatina, she grew up in the city of Turnovo. Dimitrova studied Slavonic philology in Sofia in 1945 and did graduate work in Moscow, receiving a degree in 1951. After graduation, she supported herself working as an editor for various publishing houses in Sofia. Although her earliest writings were critical of Bulgarian social conditions, intellectually Dimitrova was by and large a Stalinist both politically and culturally. During this phase of her life, she produced poetry and prose—including a 1950 book entitled Verses About the Leader—that was artistically weak but perhaps of some value as agitprop to the struggling Communist state and society that emerged after World War II.

By the 1960s, Dimitrova and a growing number of Bulgarian intellectuals found themselves increasingly unable to accept the harsh and arbitrary control of the Communist cultural bureaucracy over their artistic production. Growing confidence in her own work and disgust with the repressive Stalinism of the Zhivkov regime emboldened Dimitrova to challenge her pro-government colleagues who controlled the Writer's Union and thus were able to determine what could and could not be printed. Her first major clash with the authorities took place in the 1970s when she and her husband published two out of a projected three-volume study of the poet Elisaveta Bagryana . Because these volumes had questioned Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy in the area of cultural and political history, they were banned immediately after publication; the third volume was denied official permission to be published.

In 1975, a harshly worded attack on authors who dared to question the official cultural line appeared in the Communist Party newspaper Rabotnichesko Delo (Workers' Action), an assault that was clearly directed against Dimitrova. Refusing to be cowed, she continued to write about issues that concerned her deeply, including the Bulgarian government's oppressive treatment of its Turkish minority. Dimitrova submitted an impassioned essay on this problem to the writers' newspaper Literary Front, which rejected it. When the piece was eventually published in another paper, the consequences were immediate and chilling: a crescent was painted on her door. Being branded "a friend of the Turks" was clearly a warning from the regime to immediately fall into line or be prepared for far more serious consequences.

Around this time Dimitrova had to face a major personal crisis, surgery for cancer. She recovered fully, vowing that with her restoration to health nothing would ever again stop her determination to write and disseminate the truth as she saw it. "After I met death and survived," she wrote, "I lost all my human doubts and fears. I came back ready for the battle with the system." In a 1990 interview, she recalled: "My thoughts about death helped me to overcome my slavery. I wanted to say to young people: 'Don't compromise, because later on there may be no time to say what you wanted to then.'"

In the mid-1980s, Dimitrova saw a little-publicized documentary film about the catastrophic environmental situation in the industrial city of Rousse. The film showed in terrifying detail how for years the wind had carried toxic chlorine gas from a Rumanian chemical factory directly across the Danube from Rousse. Despite the fact that the citizens of Rousse were afflicted with chronic health problems, the Bulgarian government did not protest the matter because it feared offending the Ceausescu regime. An outraged Dimitrova helped organize a Rescue Rousse Environmental Committee, which quickly gained mass support with petition drives, and a rally—the first opposition demonstration in Sofia since the end of World War II. The dictatorship of Todor Zhivkov was accused of consciously committing a crime against the citizens of Rousse. Several members of the committee lost their jobs, and Dimitrova was banned from appearing at public poetry meetings. The secret police tapped her telephone and intercepted her correspondence, but Dimitrova refused to be intimated.

In its final years, the dictatorship headed by Todor Zhivkov became more and more petty in its oppressiveness. For Dimitrova, one of the tragedies of these years was the fact that the censors who kept her writings from being published were often also her colleagues and even in some cases close friends. Displaying compassionate understanding, she noted years later that many of these censors, some of them talented poets like Nadia Kehlibareva , sadly died young and thus could themselves also be regarded as victims of censorship. The oppressive side of the regime made itself felt in the early 1980s, when Dimitrova's novel Litse (Face) was banned. From this point on, she was regarded both by the regime and her colleagues as a dissident. But the firmly entrenched Zhivkov regime did not regard her as an immediate threat and was content to deal with each new manuscript of hers on its own terms. Thus Dimitrova could continue to publish some if not all of her new works in Bulgaria.

In the final years of the moribund Bulgarian dictatorship, Blaga Dimitrova played an important role in signalling the dawn of a new cultural era, becoming in 1988 a founding member of the Club for Glasnost and Perestroika, an organization of intellectuals demanding that Bulgaria too embark on the road to reform launched by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. Although the dissidents could not always agree on exactly what they desired for Bulgaria besides the general goal of freedom, Dimitrova summed up their desire when she wrote of "the human longing for something different, a different time, a different way, and a different place."

The demise of Communism brought both promise and problems to Bulgaria. For Blaga Dimitrova, it meant that all of her writings could now be published. The novel Litse, which had previously only appeared in a heavily censored version, now appeared in print in its full text. Its portrait of the deformations of human decency and idealism resulting from the harsh rule of an arrogant Communist elite remained a valuable document of a difficult phase of the evolution of a nation that has suffered much throughout its long and colorful history. New challenges had to be met, particularly in public life, where Dimitrova had taken on the aura of a national hero for her principled resistance to dictatorship in years past. In 1990, she was elected to Parliament in the nation's first free elections. In December 1991, Dimitrova became vice president of Bulgaria. Not surprisingly, she chose as members of her administrative team a group of women, many of them talented writers including Rada Sharlandjieva and Maria Georgieva . But the politics of an emerging democracy was not always easily dealt with, and in less than two years Dimitrova called it quits. Accusing President Zhelyu Zhelyev of colluding with the former Communists to restore dictatorship in Bulgaria, Dimitrova protested by dramatically resigning her vice-presidential position on June 30, 1993.

Blaga Dimitrova has written in many genres including novels, plays, film scripts and reportage, and she has also produced sensitive translations from German, Swedish and Polish into Bulgarian, but her most profound thoughts have invariably appeared as poetry. Sophisticated, stylistically dense, and relentlessly demanding of the reader's intellect, her verse is characterized by its depth and compassion. In her best work, Dimitrova probes the different roles women assume in a lifetime, including the reversal of roles that takes place when parents age and previous relationships are reversed. Thus we find her eloquently writing in her "Lullaby for My Mother" of the poignant situation in which:

At night I make her bed in
the folds of old age.
Her skinny hand
pulls mine into the dark.

Before her dreams begin,
from a brain erased of speech,
a small cracked voice calls mama
and I become my mother's mother.

A deep moral sense pervades the entirety of Blaga Dimitrova's work, and a passionate concern for humanity's sufferings is to be found on virtually every page of her poetry. Dimitrova's fellow Bulgarian Julia Kristeva has noted that "seldom has a woman's writing been at once more cerebral and more sensual."


Agoston-Nikolova, Elka. "The Dilemmas of the Modern Bulgarian Woman in Blaga Dimitrova's Novel Litse," in Literature and Politics in Eastern Europe: Selected Papers from the Fourth World Congress for Soviet and East European Studies, Harrogate, 1990. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 74–82.

Bradbury, Malcolm. Rates of Exchange. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.

The Devil's Dozen: Thirteen Bulgarian Women Poets. Translated by Brenda Walker, Belin Tonchev and Svetoslav Piperov. London and Sofia: Forest Books/Svyat, 1990.

Dimitrova, Blaga. "The future is for everyone," in Index on Censorship. Vol. 21, no. 9. October 1992, pp. 30–31.

——. "The Russian Legacy," in Intellectuals and Social Change in Central and Eastern Europe: A Conference, April 1992. Newark, NJ: Television and Radio Media Center, Rutgers, the State University Campus at Newark, 1992 [videorecording].

——. "Voices against the tide," in Index on Censorship. Vol. 20, no. 2. February 1991, p. 13.

Kanikova, S.I. "Blaga Dimitrova," in Celia Hawkesworth, ed. Writers from Eastern Europe. London: Book Trust, 1991, pp. 12–13.

Katzarova, Mariana. "Bulgaria's poet by profession, vice president by duty," in Ms. Vol. 3, no. 1. July 1992, pp. 16–17.

Meredith, William, ed. Poets of Bulgaria. Translated by John Balaban and others. Greensboro, NC: Unicorn Press, 1986.

Staitschewa, Emilia. "Die Frau und die Macht: Über die Selbstwahrnehmung der bulgarischen Dichterin Blaga Dimitrowa," in Der weibliche multikulturelle Blick: Ergebnisse eines Symposiums. Berlin: trafo, 1995, pp. 196–207.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia