Zhivkova, Lyudmila (1942–1981)

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Zhivkova, Lyudmila (1942–1981)

Bulgarian political leader, one of the few women in Eastern Europe to achieve significant political influence during the Communist era, who directed virtually all aspects of cultural and educational affairs in Bulgaria in the years before her early death. Name variations: Liudmila or Ludmilla Zhivkova; Lyudmila Zhirkova. Born Lyudmila Todorova Zhivkova in Sofia, Bulgaria, on July 26, 1942; died in Sofia on July 21, 1981; daughter of Todor Christov Zhivkov (first secretary of the Communist Party of Bulgaria and chair of the State Council) and Mara Malleeva Zhivkova; had brother Vladimir; married Ivan Slavkov; children: Zheni; Todor; Lyudmila Zhivkova.

Although Lyudmila Zhivkova was the daughter of Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria's longtime Communist strongman, and thus faced fewer obstacles than many in the path to power and influence, all evidence supports the conclusion that she was in fact a woman of considerable energy and intelligence. Born in 1942 in a wartime Bulgaria allied to Nazi Germany, when her father was a leader of the underground Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP), she grew up in the capital city of Sofia, at the center of power. By 1951, Todor Zhivkov was a member of the ruling Politburo, and in 1954 his power became virtually absolute when he became first secretary of the BCP Central Committee. Bulgaria was closely tied to the Soviet Union for ideological and historical reasons (in the 19th century, Tsarist Russia had supported the Bulgarian struggle against its Ottoman Turkish occupiers), and its internal politics often reflected major transformations in the USSR. In the late 1950s, Todor Zhivkov's rise to power was closely linked to the fortunes of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Both Khrushchev and Zhivkov championed reforms, initiating a "thaw" in political and cultural life.

For Lyudmila, growing up in the post-Stalinist world of Eastern Europe represented a challenge she felt certain she could master. Zhivkov was proud of the fact that his daughter and son were unlike some of the children of other BCP leaders, who had become "princes and princesses" with insatiable tastes. After completing her studies in history and philosophy at the University of Sofia, Zhivkova went on to study art history in Moscow, then enrolled at Oxford for a research project on British policy in the Balkans in the pre-World War II era. After several years spent as a scientific assistant at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, she made her first appearance

on the political stage in 1971, when her mother Mara Malleeva Zhivkova 's death thrust her into the role of Bulgaria's first lady; she often accompanied her father on state occasions. At this time, the only other woman better known to Bulgarians than the youthful Lyudmila was the veteran Communist Tsola Dragoicheva .

In March 1972, Zhivkova's political star began its ascent when she became deputy chair of the national Committee of Art and Culture. In reality, the committee members quickly realized she was that body's actual head. Displaying obvious talent and ambition, Zhivkova quickly expanded her powers by reorganizing the committee under her leadership. Now designated the Committee on Culture, it enabled her to wield great influence over Bulgaria's realms of education, publishing, and international cultural relations, as well as the more traditional areas of domestic cultural life. This position gave Zhivkova Cabinet rank, and in 1976 the 11th Congress of the BCP voted her a full member of the party's Central Committee. Only three years later, in July 1979, she became a full member of the ruling BCP Politburo, taking charge of a newly formed Politburo commission on culture, education and science. Curious about the world, she accompanied her father on state visits to Italy, Japan, India, Iran, and Turkey, and was also one of the few Bulgarian citizens (let alone women) to receive permission to travel on her own in that period. She traveled not only to the Soviet Union, but to the German Federal Republic and the United States as well.

Zhivkova wielded enormous power over Bulgaria's intelligentsia. She surrounded herself with a circle of talented artists and writers, who were rewarded psychologically and materially. She usually ignored the political views of gifted artists; as far as she was concerned, their artistic creativity was of much greater value to the nation than empty professions of Marxist political orthodoxy. Although she never openly criticized Marxist ideology, Zhivkova was much more influenced by mysticism and Eastern religions than the doctrines of dialectical materialism. Her lifelong interest in her nation's history, both in its pre-Christian and Christian phases, made her sensitive to the power of pre-modern cultural values and traditions. Her sophisticated awareness of the larger world that existed beyond the borders of Bulgaria, the Balkans, and even the Soviet bloc made her responsive to the cultural forces that were emerging and evolving on a global scale.

The decade in which Lyudmila Zhivkova played an increasingly significant role in her country's politics, 1971–81, marked a period of cultural and diplomatic assertiveness by Bulgaria on the world stage. Among her policy goals was to stress the development of strong relationships between Bulgaria and major Third World countries such as India and Mexico. Some observers interpreted this policy as representing a significant divergence from the "fraternal" direction that had up to that time always been given by the Soviet Union. She also created the Banner of Peace Center, the organizing force behind the International Children's Assembly, which spread a Socialist bloc message of peace, disarmament and "friendship among the peoples."

For the citizens of Bulgaria, Zhivkova set in place policies and programs to dramatically raise the level of national culture. Convinced that even Bulgarian peasants would benefit from the arts, she established local councils in every town and village. In pursuit of the long-elusive "New Socialist Man"—Zhivkova's personal amalgamation of Marxism, European philosophy, and oriental mysticism—she took on entrenched factions within the BCP and the state bureaucracy. In one such instance, she successfully removed the lawyers in Sofia's Palace of Justice, transferring them to offices in the city's suburbs so as to transform the palace into a new national historical museum. Older hardline elements within the BCP regarded her ideas of the cultural significance of "beauty, light, and harmony" as heretical and exotic, but did not dare challenge her. At the same time, with her control over a generous budget, she was able to make a significant group of officials loyal to her and her alone. Intellectuals who had doubts about her notions of a national program of "aesthetic education," which was defined as the "realization of the vital necessity to live according to the supreme laws of truth and beauty," kept their doubts to themselves. Another weapon in her arsenal was her husband. Ivan Slavkov held the post of director-general of Bulgarian State Television.

By 1980, a number of political observers began to suggest that Zhivkova was being groomed by her father as his eventual successor. Had she lived and had her father retired before his overthrow from power in 1989, it is conceivable that she might have become the first woman head of state in the Soviet bloc. (As it was, the only other Eastern European woman to achieve similar power was Rumania's Elena Ceausescu .) Extremely popular among Bulgaria's intellectuals, she was becoming the focus of a personality cult. She was the main champion in the construction of a huge Palace of Culture in Sofia, which was a significant strain to the national budget, using resources that might have gone to build workers' housing. During the last years of her short life, she presided over a number of successful art exhibitions in Sofia, including one devoted to the work of Leonardo da Vinci (criticized by Moscow as tilting Bulgaria along a path potentially too pro-Western), and another, which received international praise, on "Thracian Art on Bulgarian Soil." By 1980, Zhivkova was confident enough to display a benevolent attitude even toward a phenomenon anathema to Soviet cultural commissars, namely rock music, whether foreign or domestic in origin. She authorized the release of albums by Balkanton, the state recording company, featuring not only recordings by Bulgarian rock bands but also such classic rock oldies from the USA as Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock."

Lyudmila Zhivkova died of a sudden cerebral hemorrhage on July 21, 1981. At the time, some Kremlinologists went so far as to suggest that, because of her political style, she had been murdered by the KGB. There is no evidence for this. Scholars now conclude that her death was brought on by a near-fatal automobile accident she had been in five years earlier, resulting in a brain injury that never completely healed. Her father and all Bulgaria mourned the loss of a remarkable woman. In September 1981, only weeks after her death, Zhivkova's last great project, nationwide celebrations of the founding of the Bulgarian state, took place. Completed only after her death, Sofia's ornate Palace of Culture was named in her honor. Inside, a great mural dedicated to the "awakeners" of the Bulgarian nation included a portrait depicting Lyudmila Zhivkova.

Immediately after the collapse of the Communist regime in November 1989, Bulgarians began to reevaluate the Zhivkov legacy, both that of father and daughter. In an exhibition of formerly banned caricatures entitled "Documents of Authoritarianism," the reputations of Todor Zhivkov and Lyudmila Zhivkova suffered from the harsh criticism of intellectuals and artists who now began to communicate with each other in a new cultural environment, one grounded in intellectual freedom. A decade or more later, however, many facets of this complex woman's life and legacy remain to be fully investigated and evaluated. She remains one of the most fascinating personalities to emerge during the final decades of Communist rule in Eastern Europe. To commemorate the first anniversary of her death in July 1982, the Bulgarian post office issued two postage stamps and one souvenir sheet in honor of Lyudmila Zhivkova.


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