Mutafchieva, Vera P. (1929—)

views updated

Mutafchieva, Vera P. (1929—)

Bulgarian historian and author of historical fiction whose research concentrates on Ottoman rule in the Balkans, while her novels deal with phases of Bulgaria's national evolution. Name variations: Vera Moutafchieva. Born Vera Petrova Mutafchieva in Sofia, Bulgaria, on March 28, 1929; daughter of Petûr Mutafchiev (1883–1943, a historian) and Nadezhda Trifonova Mutafchieva (a historian); Historical Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, M.A., 1958, doctorate, 1978; married Jossif Krapchev; married Atanas Slavov; children: two daughters.

After the collapse and repudiation of Communism in Bulgaria in 1989, Vera Mutafchieva emerged as one of her nation's most committed intellectuals, using her prestige to help bring about a successful transition to an open society. Born in Sophia in 1929, she followed in the footsteps of her parents, Petûr Mutafchiev and Nadezhda Trifonova Mutafchieva , both accomplished historians. Her father, who taught Eastern European and Byzantine history at the University of Sofia for two decades until his death, was the first Bulgarian historian to consistently investigate the history of his country within a wider European framework. From both parents, Vera received a broad cultural lens for viewing events both in her country and abroad.

Life changed drastically for Mutafchieva while she was in her teens. Her father's death in 1943 left the family impoverished, a situation that was compounded the next year when Bulgaria took the first steps toward becoming a Communist People's Republic. She wanted to begin her studies at the University of Sofia, not in history, which did not yet interest her, but in one of the natural sciences or possibly in literature. This had become impossible, because as a member of a middle-class family she now found herself disadvantaged vis-à-vis Bulgaria's emerging new elite—young people of proletarian or peasant backgrounds. Under these circumstances, she made a realistic choice to focus on Ottoman studies, a field which in the late 1940s did not attract many students. The few experts still active in the area were all close to or past retirement age, and since they were all of bourgeois origins they received little support from the regime.

Mutafchieva's career strategy proved to be a successful one. After completing her undergraduate university studies in 1951, she became a permanent employee (having already been hired as a student assistant) at the Orientalistics Archive of the Cyril and Methodius. By 1955, she had gained considerable expertise in the complex area of Turkish and Ottoman history, and she enrolled as a full-time student at the Historical Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, specializing in the history of the Ottoman Empire. Mutafchieva received a master's degree in 1958. Although she would not be awarded a doctorate in historical sciences until 1978, she was now effectively a professional historian and began working as a full-time researcher at the Historical Institute.

In 1960, she published her first study in Ottoman history. Her books and articles would total almost 70 by the late 1990s. Although her historical works were highly specialized and intended only for experts in the field, they quickly gained her a reputation that extended beyond Bulgaria. Her work was cited by scholars throughout the world, and one of her major books would appear in the United States (1988) in an English-language edition. Unlike her father, whose works were written within a nationalistic and idealistic framework, Mutafchieva's studies of Ottoman rule in the Balkans are rigorously "objective," at least to the extent that they do not exhibit the anti-Turkish biases so often found in previous generations of Bulgarian historical writing.

By the early 1960s, her energies and insights—many of them derived from intensive study of original archival documents—could no longer be contained within the confines of academic historical writing. Although she continued to produce a large number of highly regarded academic studies over the next two decades, while working at Sofia's Institute of Balkan Studies from 1963 through 1979, she also began to write historical fiction. Incorporating original historical documents into the plots of her books, and experimenting with new forms of narrative and dialogue, Mutafchieva produced a series of innovative novels that brought her to the attention of the Bulgarian literary world. In time, her creative writings—which included plays and essays as well as novels—became well known in the Balkans and the Soviet bloc.

In 1979, the dual nature of her creativity received official recognition when she was hired as a professor at the national Institute of Literature. The Gottfried von Herder Prize, awarded to her by the University of Vienna in 1980, was a sign of the high esteem in which her writings were held by the end of the 1970s. Mutafchieva's Bulgarian contemporaries took note of her achievements in 1981 by giving her the Georgi Dimitrov Award, which was followed by the City of Sofia Prize in 1986. By the 1990s, her novels had been translated into 12 languages including Czech, French, German, Hungarian-Magyar, Polish, Rumanian, Russian, and Slovak.

In her first published literary work, Letopis na smutnoto vreme: Roman v dve chasti (Chronicle of the Times of Turbulence, 1965–66), Mutafchieva presented her readers with an epic novel, rich in detail. There are five different plot lines, which portray both historical and fictional characters who represent the complexities of life in the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans. The work shows the tragic fates of Sultan Selim III, kûrdzhali (outlaw-rebel) leader Kara Feizi, and the autonomous ruler Osman Pazvanoglu, a Muslimized Slav who rose to power within the Ottoman state apparatus. The Bulgarians are depicted by the character Stano Mukhtar, whose children are also drawn on Mutafchieva's vast canvas.

By the late 1990s, Mutafchieva had published a total of 12 novels, most of them regarded by both critics and readers alike as works of genuine literary merit. Unfortunately, her novels have not appeared in English-language translations and so remain undiscovered by English-speaking readers. At the very least, Mutafchieva is one of the few writers in the 20th century to achieve distinction as both a historian and a novelist. The psychological insights that mark her novels are in many ways derived from her study of history. Thus, in her 1969 novel Poslednite Shishmanovtsi (The Last Shishmans), she asserts that though the Turkish invasion of Bulgaria brought with it terrible violence, it was not the violence alone that kept Bulgarians from consolidating to defend their nation; rather, it was a lack of national awareness of a common identity and a shared cultural mission that contributed to Bulgarian weakness at this stage of the nation's evolution.

Mutafchieva revealed another side to her talent in the early 1980s, when she became involved in film production. She adapted two of her novels, Zemya zavinagi (Land Forever, 1980) and Nepalnotie (Under Age, 1981), into film scripts. Most important among her cinema projects was her script for the 1981 motion picture Khan Asparukh (released in the United States as The Glory of Khan). Based on her 1980 novel Preredcheno ot Pagane (Pagane's Prophecy), her screenplay was used by director Ljudmil Stajkov to create an epic motion picture commemorating the 1,300th anniversary of the foundation of the Bulgarian state. The film was not only a smashing box-office success in Bulgaria, but has also been rated by many critics and scholars as the best film ever produced in that nation.

The collapse of the Communist dictatorship in Bulgaria in 1989 opened up infinite possibilities for intellectuals. Mutafchieva, who vowed to never repeat herself in any of her books, immediately became active in the public life of a nation that had never before enjoyed anything resembling a state of intellectual freedom. In her 60s, she continued to write novels, publishing a complex and subtle feminist work based on the life of Byzantine Empress Anna Comnena in 1991. Polemics from her sharp pen appeared as articles in the now uncensored newspapers of Sofia, and Mutafchieva commented on a variety of contemporary artistic and political issues. Very much the public intellectual, she juggled a number of different roles, including a new one at the Institute of Demographic Studies at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. She was fully aware of the damage done by more than four decades of suffocating one-party rule and the imposition of an ideology that refused to allow dissent. Harm had been done, she lamented, to the integrity of Bulgarian intellectual life by a regime that expended as much effort bribing its scholars and artists as it did terrorizing them into a state of conformity.

Ever unafraid of venturing into new territory, in the early 1990s Mutafchieva took on a journalistic role, a move that was not free of controversy but which in 1995 led to her receipt of the first John Panitsa Award, a prize instituted to honor distinguished work in the area of mass media and investigative journalism. When she entered her 70s, she could be seen and heard in countless discussion groups, debates, and seminars. As an academic historian, even while working under the conditions of a dictatorship, Vera Mutafchieva was committed to presenting truthful pictures of the past rather than serving contemporary needs of political propaganda. As a novelist, she pursued the same goal, interweaving historical objectivity with the writer's art.


Deltcheva, Roumiana. "Vera Mutafchieva (28 March 1929—)," in Vasa D. Mihailovich, ed., South Slavic Writers Since World War II. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 181. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1997, pp. 187–196.

Detrez, R. "Bulgarian Historiography," in D.R. Woolf, ed., A Global Encyclopedia of Historical Writing. 2 vols. NY: Garland, 1998, Vol. 1, pp. 116–118.

——. "Mutafchiev, Petûr (1883–1943)," in D.R. Woolf, ed., A Global Encyclopedia of Historical Writing. 2 vols. NY: Garland, 1998, Vol. 2, pp. 641–642.

Kanikova, S.I. "Mutafchieva, Vera," in Robert B. Pynsent and S.I. Kanikova, eds., Reader's Encyclopedia of Eastern European Literature. NY: HarperCollins, 1993, pp. 274–275.

Matejic, Mateja. Review of Vera Mutafcieva, Poslednite Sismanovci. 3rd ed. Sofia: Narodna Mladez, 1979, in World Literature Today. Vol. 55, no. 1. Winter 1981, p. 134.

Mutafchieva, Vera. Agrarian Relations in the Ottoman Empire in the 15th and 16th Centuries. Boulder, CO: East European Monographs-Columbia University Press, 1988.

Mutafchieva, Vera P. "The Notion of the 'Other' in Bulgaria: The Turks, a Historical Study," in Anthropological Journal on European Cultures. Vol. 4, no. 2, 1995, pp. 53–74.

——. Spielball von Kirche und Thron: historischer Roman. Translated by Hartmut Herboth. 2nd ed. Berlin: Rütten & Loening Verlag, 1974.

——. and Nikolai Todorov. Bulgaria's Past. Translated by Georgina Yates. Sofia: Sofia Press, 1969.

"Mutafchieva, Vera Petrova, Prof., Dr.," in Juliusz Stoyonowski, ed., Who's Who in the Socialist Countries of Europe. 3 vols. Munich and NY: K.G. Saur, 1989, vol. 2, p. 817.

Sharova, Krumka. "Prof. D-r Vera Mutafchieva—Uchenijat i tvoretsût" [Vera Mutafchieva—Scholar and Author], in Istoricheski pregled [Bulgaria]. Vol. 45, no. 6, 1989, pp. 62–66.

Witschew, Dobri. "Gespräch mit Wera Mutafschiewa," in Weimarer Beiträge. Vol. 37, no. 4, 1991, pp. 558–573.

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