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Albena Bakratcheva


Henry David Thoreau's name became one of great significance in Bulgaria's recent political and intellectual history. His social ideas and the spiritual atmosphere of his writings thoroughly corresponded to the painful need of the individual in a so-called "socialist country" for outward and inward emancipation: a need most torturous for the intellectuals, indeed. If "there is hardly an ism of our times that has not attempted to adopt Thoreau..."1, then it was the "anti-ism" to Bulgarian socialism that provided many preconditions for Thoreau's reception in Bulgaria in the last three decades and especially after the political change in 1989.

The long lasting compulsory spiritual fasting during the years of socialism needed a counterbalance mainly in terms of stressing the role and the capabilities of the individual. In his inability to face and cope with the intolerable reality every spiritually elevated person found the only way to salvation to be the rediscovery of inward, spiritual spaces; Travelling Towards Oneself2, the title of an outstanding Bulgarian novel of the sixties, acquired a symbolic significance for the decades to come. With circumstances like these Thoreau could perfectly satisfy the urge for spiritual survival. Of course, things were much more complicated and it was the socialist state's policy (on the Soviet model) to encourage the translation and publication of really valuable works of West European and American literature mainly in order to provide an officially controlled polishing for any kind of spiritual discontent with the regime: the accent was usually put on the artistic and the socially "progressive" value of these works, rather than on their deeper significance. As a matter of fact, Civil Disobedience did slip into the publication flow of 1981 and appeared to be one of the first public announcements of the approaching change. Walden, however, never got among these translations until after the political change; the early Bulgarian translation entirely outdated and unknown, it had to be personally unearthed, thus acquiring the additional charm of a self-discovered book about self emancipation. Posttotalitarianism was to reveal later on the depths of this uniquely bred Thoreauvian renaissance.

It will be the task here to trace the reception steps of Thoreau's works in Bulgaria's twentieth century cultural and political history and thus to outline their significance for the processes of spiritual democratization in Bulgaria as a part of the ex-East European bloc.

1. Walden and Bulgaria in the Twenties

Henry David Thoreau's name appeared for the first time in Bulgaria in the early twenties, when the first translation of Walden was published. Since there is no information leading to an explanation of the reasons for its publication at the time and no evidence for either the critical or the literary reception of the book, an attempt will be made here to typologically determine the first Bulgarian issue of Walden by outlining the cultural and literary background that had possibly evoked it, thus avoiding interpreting it as a mere cultural fortuity.

The early twenties were still the time when Bulgarian literature was solving problems such as the overcoming of the already outworn objective (descriptive) realism and was mostly preoccupied with European literary modernism. The realistic trend having always been the strongest one in Bulgarian literature, the line of attempts to overcome it in the first decades of the century in order "to keep in rhythm" with the then ongoing processes in other European literatures went successively through periods of aestheticism, symbolism, and expressionism. The literary change was considered primarily as a constant awareness on behalf of both writer and reader of the "literariness" of the work of literature, of its nature as a "thing made". Predominant at the time of Bulgaria's national liberation (1878), the notion of the writer as primarily a patriot and of literature as hardly more than avocation gradually developed and by the turn of the century was already changed into "the notion of the writer-patriot instead of that of the patriot-writer"3. The status of authorship was changed; writing became a professional occupation. Together with the different perspective towards artifacts went a newly acquired self-consciousness on the part of the intellectual and of the literary endowed individual in particular. This transformation, of course, did not generally affect the cultural life in Bulgaria around the turn of the century, but it was characteristic of the ways the Bulgarian intelligentsia was formed and how its attitude of "estrangement" on the basis of personal abilities was established.

The most important event in this respect was the foundation in 1898 of Misal (Thought) - a magazine for literature and philosophy, which existed for almost fifteen years and "intellectualized" the whole cultural life in Bulgaria during this period. Its founder, Dr. Krustyu Krustev, had studied philosophy, aesthetics and literature in Germany and was an inveterate Kantian; its most leading figure, the poet Pencho Slaveykov, had received the same education in Germany and was not alien to Nietzsche's theory of the individual superpowers, popular then in Western Europe. As a Kantian, Dr. Krustev assumed that what is called nature is the perceptible unification of essence and appearance, and hence art for him was a "contemplative delight driven out of symbols"4. For Pencho Slaveykov the antinomy "man and superman", well discussed then among many of his West European contemporaries, took on the form of an opposition between "poet and crowd"5, thus leading him to - and introducing to the Bulgarian literati - an elitist concept of the creative personality. Although they had their readers, both men believed their reading audience was yet to come and never failed to point out that their writings were aimed at the future. And it was Pencho Slaveykov who also did the first Bulgarian translation of Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra, which was published only a little earlier than Thoreau's Walden.

This purely intellectual trend known as Bulgarian aestheticism considerably influenced Bulgarian literature during the first fifteen years of the century, especially in the direction of changing the attitude towards literary phenomena and towards personal capacities, the last perceived mainly as creative or poetic ones. Having a lot to do with the German philosophic and aesthetic tradition, this transformation might be thought of as a possible helpful precondition for an aspect of Thoreau's reception in Bulgaria at the time, as suggested by the available evidence of Walden's reception in Germany during the very same period. Thoreau was then considered in Germany Kantian, "whose subjective impressions were translated into natural contexts"6; his stylistic ability was praised as highly as the French one and his capacity to discern the essence of nature was labeled "German"7. It is not necessary for the Bulgarian literati from Misal to have known anything about either the interpretations of Thoreau in Germany at that time, or even about the 1897 German translation of Walden; they simply shared the background for similar interpretations. And moreover, they prepared a possible reception of Thoreau in Bulgaria that would have praised the poetic vision as a main characteristic of the creative personality in contrast to the materialistic aims of "the crowd".

* * *

Although considerable, the German intellectual impact in Bulgaria at the end of the nineteenth and during the first two decades of the twentieth century was much more partial than was the Russian one. Plenty of historical reasons, including the very fact of Bulgaria's national liberation, made the Russian influence in Bulgaria at that time powerful and many-sided.

Following an early nineteenth century tradition, many Bulgarians received their high school and university education in Moscow, St. Petersburg or Odessa and directly brought into the country a strong cultural and ideological Russian impact. The closeness of the two languages, Bulgarian and Russian, was another decisive factor for the intensity of the versatile Russian significance to Bulgaria. For a long time, Russian literature became the most influential one in Bulgaria not only culturally, but also in terms of ideology and even politics. And it was through the Russian language that a considerable part of West European literature did actually come to Bulgaria, this process beginning in the years of the so called Bulgarian Renaissance (the end of the eighteenth century - 1878) and continuing sporadically until as late as the thirties of the present century. (More than welcome in the very beginning, however, this practice of translating Russian translations into Bulgarian, naturally leading to results on hardly more than an informative level, was already thoroughly undesirable about the turn of the century; aestheticians, symbolists and expressionists, all mainly German trained, together with the Russian trained Bulgarian intelligentsia, considered it part of their vocation to oppose it.) But if the Russian cultural significance to Bulgaria was not only preserved as an already proven traditional necessity and was even strengthened and elevated in the period considered, it was - in addition to the many historical reasons - because the language closeness naturally served as a mediator for an unimpeded acquaintance on the part of the Bulgarian readers with the achievements of Russian literature and social-philosophical thought, as well as with the then existing Russian translations from other languages; it was also the conscious policy of some Bulgarian literary magazines and publishing houses of the time to provide information and comments on topics of Russian literature and philosophy, including translations into Russian.

The reason for this brief review of some of the aspects of the Russian influence in Bulgaria before and in the early twenties is to outline the main orientation of Bulgaria's cultural life at the time and to point out at least three tightly connected with it preconditions for the appearance of Walden in Bulgarian: namely, the attitude towards nature, the then existing possibility of incorporating Russian translations and original works as part of Bulgaria's intellectual realities and the Bulgarian Tolstoyism.

The first one, though stemming from an age-long Bulgarian folklore tradition, had a lot to do with the closeness of the Russian literary tradition. Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, Chekhov, not to mention Pushkin or Lermontov, were then widely known in Bulgaria. Their intensive feeling for nature thoroughly corresponded to the devotion and admiration the Bulgarians cherished for their native landscape, as Ivan Vazov (1850-1925) used to express it throughout his life in beautiful narratives and poems (The Great Rila Desert, In the Land of Fairies, etc.). For Vazov nature was never simply a picturesque surrounding; it was an altar, pure and sacred, where the spirit achieved its most elevated moments. Sharing a lot of the Russian inclination for highly poeticized and detailed nature descriptions, Vazov made closeness to nature his life-style: he was notorious for his "walks" to the very depths of wilderness Bulgaria's landscape provided, as well as for his conviction, that "One should know one's native land in order to be able to love it". For Vazov the relationship between man and nature, or, to put it more precisely, the relationship between man and nature in one's own native land, was primarily a spiritual one and in itself a whole universe. This combination of a true patriotic feeling (Bulgaria had just become an independent country), poetic talent, high spiritual horizon strongly influenced by Russian literature, and acute sensitivity for detail made Ivan Vazov the first great Bulgarian worshipper of nature - in poetry as well as in life.

A decisive step in the very same direction was made by another admirer of the great Russian nature-lovers. Aleko Konstantinov (1861-1898) was not simply a nature devotee; his travel notes marked the line beyond which Travelling becomes a poetic experience. Founder of the Bulgarian Tourist Union (which is still named after him), Aleko Konstantinov considered Travelling a mode of life and a mode of writing at the same time; Travelling was his true vocation. Walking was for him a sacred activity, rather than merely an enjoyable cognitive one. What he left were not simply descriptions of static nature pictures, but lively narrations of his personal biography in the midst of nature; he possessed the perceptive intensity and freshness that are characteristic only to new-born nations. A real cosmopolitan, Aleko Konstantinov was also the first Bulgarian writer to visit America (1893) and to express his admiration of Niagara Falls in a book that was from the moment of its publishing considered a masterpiece (To Chicago and on the Way Back). His stay in America being too short and, moreover, the foreign language he used being French, he was not able to get acquainted with what would have been fairly close to his mentality and inward disposition - namely, the writings of the American transcendentalists.

It is possible, however, that both Aleko Konstantinov and Ivan Vazov, as well as many Bulgarian intellectuals of the time, knew about Thoreau through Russian: Novoe Vremya (New Time) was then widely read in Bulgaria and it was exactly this leading Russian daily that published in 1887 the first installment of Walden8; there were also the two later Russian translations of 1900 and 1910, as well as the selection of Thoreau's thoughts, published in 1903 as Philosophy of Natural Life.9 There is no need for speculations in this direction; the facts as they are suggest only that Thoreau's book might have been known to some intellectuals in Bulgaria at the time. But even if it wasn't, the biggest part of Bulgaria's intelligentsia, being closely connected with the Russian one while pursuing its own interests and goals, shared a lot of the disposition that caused Chekhov's or Leo Tolstoy's admiration for Thoreau10 and in a way prepared the ground for the appearance of Walden in Bulgarian in the twenties.

Another opportunity to trace the possibility for Thoreau's name to have reached Bulgaria through the mediation of Russian sources is provided by the strong Tolstoyist movement around the turn of the century. After Leo Tolstoy underwent his conversion in the early 1880's and turned towards the problems of society and religion, his notions, as supported by his already achieved authority, gained popularity among certain circles of Bulgarian intellectuals, preoccupied with the idea of healing society from the discontent and disappointment that followed the idealistic exaltation of the years of Bulgaria's liberation.11 Tolstoy's writings on topics of society reformation and religion were widely read in the original or in Bulgarian translations. V. Chertkov's periodical Svobodnoe Slovo (Free Word), published with Tolstoy's approval, did also have its Bulgarian readers; and it was in its very first issue (1898) that - at Tolstoy's suggestion - the first Russian translation of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience appeared.12 Since "it is true that Tolstoy knew Thoreau's ideas fairly well and that he used them to illustrate and emphasize his own ideas"13, it might be assumed that Tolstoy's popularity among Bulgarian intellectuals provided at least the background for another aspect of Thoreau's future reception in Bulgaria.

The considerable Russian influence on the then ongoing processes in Bulgarian cultural and intellectual life presupposes a certain propitious disposition on behalf of the Bulgarian intellectuals of the time for Walden's forthcoming publishing in the twenties; it also suggests a certain amount of knowledge of Thoreau reaching Bulgaria around the turn of the century.

* * *

Together with the Russian and the German influences that intermingled with some inherent characteristics of Bulgarian cultural and literary life, thus - together with the rest - providing certain preconditions for Thoreau's appearance in Bulgarian, there was another factor that most definitely - and directly - led to the publication of Walden. The doctrine of Peter Deunov (1864-1945), called after him "Dunovism", had hundreds of followers from all the strata of Bulgarian society. Dunov was the type of the Eastern priest-philosopher and had nothing to do with the traditional orthodox preachers Bulgaria knew. He preached for the supreme task of man on earth to be the intimate interrelation with the original cause of existence, with the divine, with the infinity. "The new cosmic view of life", based on "new sensuousness, new paradigm, new consciousness"14 was for Dunov the only way of attaining perfection. This was in itself a religious doctrine that constantly tended to turn into mysticism and thoroughly repudiated the church; it insisted on its "newness" in every respect and proclaimed a life style in the open air, amidst the elements. Dunov's numerous lectures delivered before thousands of people and frequently published during the first decades of the century resulted in the foundation of the so-called Dunovist colonies. These were people who lived in groups of hundreds outside society and as simply as possible: they had no churches to pray in; instead, the sacred ritual of their life became the daily meeting of the sunrise.

Peter Deunov was a persona non grata throughout the time of the socialist regime and not a word about him was officially allowed to be mentioned, although Dunov had been for years a world-wide known spiritual leader with followers everywhere (Einstein among them).   It was only after the political change in 1989 that book after book by and about Dunov started appearing in Bulgaria. So the important fact came out that Dunov studied medicine in Boston in the last years of the nineteenth century. Given the scope of his interests and the main trends of his doctrine, as well as the experiment of simple collective living undertaken in the Dunovist colonies, it is not impossible to presume that Dunov could have known the writings of "the man of Concord". Like other Thoreau adherents15, Dunov might have ignored the individualism, the solitary side of the Walden enterprise, and transformed it into a collective striving towards spiritual perfection. Following what he considered to be his vocation, namely that of a spiritual father, Dunov could possibly have had in mind something of the Emersonian ideal of the poet-priest. But even if American transcendentalism and Thoreau in particular were outside his knowledge, Dunov was familiar with the same sources in Eastern philosophy and literature and obviously shared the notion of visibility beyond the visible; moreover, preaching for a "new sensitivity", like a true Thoreauvian, he insisted on keeping all the senses and not just the eyes on the alert in order to perceive thoroughly.

Speculations should be left aside either with respect to Dunov's knowledge of Thoreau or in regarding Dunov as having in his own way approached some of the ideas of American transcendentalism; the point here is to draw the attention to the Dunovist doctrine, popular as it was in Bulgaria in the first decades of the century, as another highly possible precondition for the appearance of Walden in Bulgarian.

* * *

The first Bulgarian publication of Walden in the twenties was as a translation more of a bibliographical significance; as a cultural phenomenon, however, it may be considered a litmus exhibiting some of the main aspects of the cultural situation in Bulgaria at the time - the same ones, in fact, that led to its appearance. A period of intensive spiritual uplift brought Walden for the first time to the Bulgarian readers and thus afforded the model which was to bring it back to them more than six decades later.

2. Thoreau and the Process of Spiritual Democratization in Present Day Bulgaria

A broader context would allow the early Bulgarian translation of Walden to be seen as a first step towards introducing Thoreau to Bulgaria - a first step which was matched in 1981 with the translation of Civil Disobedience. Thoreau's famous essay, though translated in an abridged form because of the censorship, gave then its title to a miscellany of American essays. The very appearance of a volume entitled Civil Disobedience was already a symbolic act: it contained in itself the spiritual ripeness for disobedient behavior and was also the first public announcement of the real social-spiritual disposition of the Bulgarian intellectuals at the time - and this through the name and perhaps the most socially influential idea of Henry David Thoreau. Thus it was not unexpected at all that later, in 1989, the main slogan of the Bulgarian "tender revolution" (as the Czech President Vaclav Havel named the political change in Eastern Europe) was "civil disobedience" and that the essay itself was published again by the radical-democratic weekly Vek 21 (Century 21) in one of the most critical moments of the large-scale social resistance.16

There were also other sources for Thoreau's name to reach the Bulgarian readers, these being the Russian editions of Walden from 1962 and 1986, as well as - for a handful of them though - the original text, of course. The closeness of the two languages, Bulgarian and Russian, served once again as a mediator and made it possible for Walden to be much read and often cited especially by the Bulgarian literati. As it was customary for that type of Russian (and Bulgarian) publications of the time, the 1962 and 1986 editions contained introductions both ideologically true to the regime and full of real admiration for the artistic qualities of the book. Such was the usual practice of introducing any actually valuable work of literature to the "socialist" readers: by providing it with a kind of a "passport" that guaranteed primarily its "progressive" social significance and, sometimes, its aesthetic importance, and thus "legalized" the appearance of the translation. The immediate result of this socialist publishing practice was that many of the readers developed the capability to "read between the lines", i.e. to take for granted that what counted most was left unsaid.

Thus, what was virtually praised most in Walden was its stress on individuality and individual capabilities, which matched the spiritual needs in Bulgaria during the totalitarian period - the period when individuality counted for nothing or, to put it more properly, denoted only what had to be suppressed. The significance of individuality was felt and expressed by the Bulgarian intellectuals in the only possible way that was left - namely, in terms of striving for spiritual survival. For this reason above all Walden appeared to be for the inwardly "disobedient" Bulgarian readers an unexplored and, in the same time, artistic way of self-revelation and self-expression.

Exaggerations should be put aside about Walden affording a high spiritual horizon to Bulgaria or about the translation of Civil Disobedience presaging Bulgaria's "tender revolution". What should be accented, though, is that both Thoreau's works were known in Bulgaria quite in time for them to get the most thorough reception and, hence, to be more influential. If, according to the theory of literary reception17, the reader finds in the text the answer to the question he himself has asked, then the time since 1980 was the best for the questions asked in Bulgaria to find most satisfying answers in Thoreau's works.

It was this very spiritual disposition of the Bulgarian literati that also called forth translations of books such as, for instance, Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan series or, earlier, Hemingway's strong-personality-in-the-midst-of-nature stories, and especially Kenneth White's miscellany The Big Coast containing - not surprisingly! - an essay entitled "Walking With Thoreau", the "big coast" being itself a metaphor of the Thoreauvian poetic vision. And it was again this spiritual disposition that led to the new 1993 Bulgarian translation of Walden and Civil Disobedience: the questions arisen were to provoke their needed - and already partly known - Thoreauvian answer in their own idiom.

The point here is that the process of spiritual democratization in Bulgaria preceded and called forth the political one and that in this very process of spiritual democratization there was a lot to go along with Thoreau's writings and a lot that sought for confirmation and inspiration in them.

Political convictions, evolving from moral attitudes, were not directly expressible under the totalitarian dictatorship. Hence a way to literarily express oneself was a notional, kind of "transcendental" poetry and prose (Blaga Dimitrova, Alexander Gerov, Dimitar Korudzhiev, Konstantin Pavlov, Boris Hristov) or the so-called "objective poetry" which was more or less the reverse side of it (Alexander Gerov, Valeri Petrov, Radoy Ralin, earlier Athanas Dalchev). Literature was considered by those authors to be the only means of achieving what was actually unachievable. "I thought I lived in order to accomplish in books, in an indirect poetic way some part of the freedom I would never see, I would never experience", wrote Dimitar Korudzhiev in one of his recent essays.18 Since socialist reality seemed frozen and unchangeable, dissatisfaction with it took on the form of poetically transformed activity. "Something must happen / in our verses at least"19, Boris Hristov proclaimed, thus pointing out the role poetry was undertaking when actual life looked like a vacuum, specially designed for the annihilation of any kind of human vividness. The communist regime seemed to have provided an eternity - a dead eternity that was draining out lives, dreams, talents. "A collective sleep on the parade square", Konstantin Pavlov put it, adding to enrich this image of life under socialism: "Even dreams are needless already. / Someone else will dream for me"20. If creativity and morals were to be preserved by keeping on the alert for things that the overspreading grayness of life tended to obscure, poetry was providing the only way. In their artistic "travelings towards themselves" not a few Bulgarian poets and writers found it possible to spiritually survive only by means of literarily achieving generally unseen visibilities. Thus the nature of literature itself was being loaded with the additional significance of spiritual salvation; what was different in this otherwise traditional concept of literature was the desperateness it was grasped with as a solution to living under the socialist regime. The same counted also for literary translation (Valeri Petrov, Krustan Dyankov, Nikolay Kunchev) considered as a morally motivated, dignified art-life choice of avoiding painful realities.

A brief allusion to the American transcendentalists' recognition of "no distinction between art and life"21 would suggest a way of expressing what was most characteristic of this trend in recent Bulgarian literature, namely, that Life was more or less justified in terms of Art. The reverse was also true - Art was justified in terms of Life, i.e., morals.

Moreover, some of the above mentioned authors even adopted a role bearing a resemblance to the Emersonian ideal of the poet-priest: hence the often didactic tone of, for instance, Alexander Gerov's poetry and prose writings or Dimitar Korudzhiev's essays and novels (Alma's House, The Garden With the Blackbirds); hence the significance satire attained (in Radoy Ralin's books and striking personality). Such artistic "sermons" were very much needed when no prospects for change and freedom were seen. The equation between art and morals they stated made it even possible for the compulsory silence of poets like Konstantin Pavlov or Boris Hristov to be considered in terms of a silent preaching.

The explanation for this in a way "transcendental" trend in Bulgarian literature was not simply these authors being literarily gifted and cultivated intellectuals and hence transforming practical activity into terms of poetic vision; if perceived as a capacity of seeing beyond the visible and of poetically revealing the generally not-seen, the poetic vision was for them the direct way to survive spiritually and the indirect way to express themselves. Therefore the poetic vision so perceived can be considered in terms of a counter-official ideology and, of course, as counter-official creativity as well.

The reason for this brief allusion to American literary transcendentalism is to clarify the readiness on the part of the most outstanding Bulgarian literati to embrace its ideas concerning both the way of living and the concept of art: i.e., their readiness for a Thoreauvian answer. The longing for a worthwhile living had many faces, indeed, but it usually came close to the Thoreauvian idea of building oneself up to the height of one's own conceptions and thus contained in itself the preparation for it. What is most important in suggesting this cursory parallel, however, is to point out the social dimensions of the most advantageous spiritual disposition in Bulgaria: namely, that this kind of art-life experience was actually a form of a peaceful, individuality-preserving disobedience to the totalitarian regime.

* * *

It was exactly this atmosphere among the Bulgarian intellectuals that made an eminent dissident philosopher announce in 1988 that "the great time of the intelligentsia"22 had come. The very nature of intellectual activity, i.e. creativity, natural need for freedom, democracy, openness was already seen as destined to become the leading force towards democratization. The hour had struck for these essential characteristics of intellectual activity to attain social significance and thus change the totalitarian reality. And moreover, without physical force.

A little history is needed here in order for what was going on in Bulgaria to be seen as a part of the processes in Eastern Europe at the time. The first to come were the events in Hungary immediately following Stalin's death in 1953; the "excuse" provided for the bloodshed caused by Soviet troops and tanks was that violent actions could be answered in no other way but violently. With such a bloody experience already gained it was clear that other forms of opposing the totalitarian regime were needed, namely peaceful ones. Thus later, when the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia was already taking effect, nothing could have brought more disgrace on the Soviet system than Soviet tanks invading Prague in 1968 for absolutely no reason; the student Jan Palah burned himself out.

The so-called "theory of convergence" was another expression of the wish for nonviolently opposing the Soviet system: it considered a convergence between socialism and capitalism possible on the basis of preserving the advantages of both social systems in order for the tension between the East and the West to be eased, the horror of the cold war to be overcome and the ecological catastrophe to be avoided. The Helsinki Agreement (1975) that called for economic cooperation and the freer exchange of people and ideas across international borders was another decisive step in the same direction. One section of it dealt with such fundamental human rights as freedom of thought, religion and conscience. Referring to this point several writers and educators in the USSR and other communist countries publicly protested what they considered human rights violations by their government; a form of control for the disregard of human rights in the Soviet Bloc was established under the name of Helsinki Watch. Another immediate result of the Helsinki Final Act was that the Soviet leaders could no more feel "confident about the fighting capacity and morale of the East European troops."23 "In Poland, Solidarity demanded cuts in defense spending..."24 The direct and nonviolent methods used by the members of the Greenpeace Organization in opposing the spread of nuclear weapons and the inhumane killing of animals did also have considerable importance as to the ways of experiencing civil resistance in Eastern Europe; an ecological nuance was gradually added to the struggle for recognition of human rights in the socialist countries. Nonviolent resistance proved itself more and more to be the best way for preserving both human dignity and the environment.

The gradual democratic achievements in Eastern Europe during the last decades were primarily provoked and inspired by the intelligentsia; common to most of the countries in the socialist bloc, including Bulgaria, they preconditioned the "velvet revolutions" of 1989 primarily by pointing out the way of nonviolent resistance and, finally, of civil disobedience.

* * *

Thus it was no wonder that the first response to the appeal for socializing the inherent characteristics of intellectual activity came in Bulgaria with the foundation of the Ecoglasnost organization. For the first time in more than forty years an organization was founded that had nothing to do with the leading communist party; its members were only intellectuals; their goal was, through peacefully resisting the official communist party policy of everywhere building chemical or nuclear works, to save the town of Rouse, which was dying from poisonous chemical gases. Writers, artists, musicians, actors began a broad campaign for the closing of the chemical factory that was mortally threatening the citizens of Rouse; the right to live in an ecologically clean environment was considered by them a human right violated by the government, i.e. by the communist government. Such a behavior was not even thinkable before; it meant nothing less than free will expressed freely and openly, it meant announced discontent with socialist realities. Although the usual consequences did not fail to come, they could no more be severe as they used to be: the fact was that the forthcoming democratic change already had its first manifestation.

Bulgaria's ethnic Turks provided another answer as to the ways of nonviolent resistance: their movement, founded again by intellectuals, showed what civil disobedience in Bulgaria really meant, when the Bulgarian Turks suffered physical persecution and suppression. It was after the March conference of the communist party in 1987 that a "general offensive" was taken against the Turks: repressions started, people were forced to change their original Turkish names to Bulgarian ones, compulsory expatriations of thousands were undertaken under the name of "mass tourism" and all this was wrapped into communist phraseology that labeled actual violence as a "renaissance process"... The main goal of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, established in the beginning of 1989, was to keep the worldwide public opinion informed about the real condition of the Bulgarian Moslems.25 Their activity consisted in a series of peaceful demonstrations and hunger strikes aimed at the restoration of their severely withdrawn rights. The Bulgarian Moslems were actually the first in Bulgaria to oppose nonviolent conduct to brutal communist repressions.26 The Movement for Rights and Freedoms' policy of peaceful resistance was thoroughly supported by the most advanced part of the Bulgarian people and of the Bulgarian intelligentsia; the results of this broad policy of civil disobedience are duly recognized nowadays: "nowhere in the world has a country made a more constructive, positive step than the dramatic reversal of the communist forced assimilation campaign against the ethnic Turks"27.

The Club for Glasnost and Perestroyka dated also from 1989 - this was the biggest organization of the Bulgarian intelligentsia. Based on the Helsinki Final Act, the Club insisted on freedom of speech and the press and actually laid the foundations of the Bulgarian Union of Democratic Forces. Many of the members of Ecoglasnost and of the opposition group called Citizens' Initiative were also members of this broad organization of Bulgarian intellectuals; it was in it that the different forms of peaceful disobedience in Bulgaria joined forces and thus prepared the political success in November 1989.

With facts like that as a background, it was no wonder that the political coup in Bulgaria was a nonviolent one. And so were all the political events that followed November 10, 1989. After the decades of obedient behavior it was the idea of civil disobedience that led the people to tremendous "blue" (as opposed to the communist "red") demonstrations in their wish for truth, for true Life. It was this idea that inspired the university students in the summer of 1990 to their unforgettable strike which really brought the democratic change to Bulgaria: "The Students' Strike, wrote then Vek 21, marked the beginning of the most wonderful Bulgarian summer - the summer of our discontent. It became a symbol of the irreconcilability with communism. [...] It was the beginning of our velvet revolution"28. This collective act of civil disobedience did work because it fulfilled the main requirement justifying such a type of conduct: namely, that it "must always be based on moral grounds"29. The students were broadly supported by university teachers, parents, writers, by most of the intellectuals. What they started was immediately afterwards continued in the so-called "towns of the truth", where actors, writers, musicians, painters, scholars, university teachers raised the slogan "Civil Disobedience".

All these political events were led by intellectuals: their "great time" did really come and it appeared to be the great time of the Bulgarian civil disobedience.

Not surprisingly, Thoreau's Civil Disobedience was published by Vek 21 in this very same July 1990: this was exactly the time when "the man of Concord" was politically - and morally - mostly "concordant" with the social and the spiritual disposition in reviving Bulgaria.

Thoreau's name was not the only one that was kept in mind in those days, of course, the great examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King being widely known in Bulgaria. But it was Thoreau's idea, in fact, that gave the shape - and the name - to the peaceful resistance, that brought Bulgaria to the road towards democratization. The spiritual disposition shared by the outstanding part of Bulgaria's intellectuals proved itself to be a good soil for the Thoreauvian atmosphere and art-life principles in many of its political, social, and even ecological nuances.

* * *

The accent of Thoreau's political reputation in the United States was put in the sixties when Americans came "to see themselves in a political context": "The single most famous fact of Thoreau's life had once been perceived as his going off to Walden Pond in order to drive life into a corner; in the sixties that was superseded by Thoreau's night spent in jail in order to drive the government into a corner."30 Although later, Thoreau's political reputation followed the same direction in Bulgaria. In the decades of totalitarianism the appreciation for Walden was always politically tinted in Bulgaria: Walden's "metaphoric solution to the problems of the marketplace"31, i.e. to the problems of suppressing the human side of life by the capitalist market, was usually accepted as a metaphoric solution to the problems of spiritual survival in suppressive communist realities; Thoreau's conception of literature as synonymous with life thoroughly suited those of the Bulgarian literati, to whom the regime had left no actual choice. Determined as it was by "personal and historical disappointment"32, Walden was providing a metaphorical way of driving life under totalitarianism into a corner. And when the time came for the totalitarian government to be driven into a corner and Bulgarians came to see themselves in the East European context, Civil Disobedience was called forth to give the name of the opening of the democratic process in Bulgaria.

With the preparation for Thoreau's reception thus achieving its virtual dimensions, the appearance of a new Bulgarian translation33 of Walden and Civil Disobedience was predictable. In many respects connected with recent political and spiritual events, the publication of this book is achieving even greater significance in the rather complicated, sometimes even misleading situation in present-day Bulgaria, when a supporting point is needed by every elevated spirit. Thoreau is sure to provide it.

* * *

Henry David Thoreau's writings have always been open to numerous interpretations. The ones Walden and Civil Disobedience provoked - and are still provoking - in Bulgaria do have something in common and it is their commitment to certain periods of spiritual emancipation. Moreover, the appearances of Thoreau in Bulgarian both in the twenties and in the late eighties/the early nineties were actually called forth by these periods of spiritual emancipation and thus, regardless of all the differences in political and cultural circumstances, gained significance that prevented them from remaining mere cultural fortuities.




1. Walter Harding, A Thoreau Handbook (New York: New York University Press, 1959), p. 132. [back]

2. Blaga Dimitrova, Travelling Towards Oneself [Bulg.] (Sofia, 1961). [back]

3. Milena Tzaneva, Poet and Society [Bulg.] (Sofia: Bulgarski Pisatel Publishing House, 1980), p. 22 [back]

4. Krustyu Krustev, Etudes and Criticism [Bulg.] (Plovdiv, 1894), p. 73. [back]

5. Pencho Slaveykov, Selected works in two volumes, Vol. 2 - Essays [Bulg.] (Sofia: Bulgarski Pisatel Publishing House, 1958), p. 54. [back]

6. Eugene F. Timpe, "Thoreau's Critical Reception in Germany" - In: Thoreau Abroad. Twelve Bibliographical Essays. ed. Eugene F. Timpe (Hamden, Connecticut: The Shoe String Press, 1971), p. 79. [back]

7. Ibid., p. 78. [back]

8. Jerzy R. Krzyzanowski, "Thoreau in Russia" - In: Thoreau Abroad. Twelve Bibliographical Essays. ed. Eugene F. Timpe (Hamden, Connecticut: The Shoe String Press, 1971), p. 133. [back]

9. Ibid., p. 136. [back]

10. Ibid., p. 134-138. [back]

11. Milena Tzaneva, Ivan Vazov [Bulg.] (Sofia: Bulgarski Pisatel Publishing House, 1980), p. 80. [back]

12. Jerzy R. Krzyzanowski, Op. cit., p. 135. [back]

13. Ibid., p. 136. [back]

14. Peter Deunov, Strength and Life [Bulg.] (Sofia, 1990), p. 156. [back]

15. Seymour L. Flaxman, "Thoreau and Van Eeden" - In: Thoreau Abroad. Twelve Bibliographical Essays. ed. Eugene F. Timpe (Hamden, Connecticut: The Shoe String Press, 1971), p. 57-72. [back]

16. Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience [Bulg. trns.] Vek 21 (Sofia, July 18, 1990), p. 4-5. [back]

17. Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader (London, 1980), p. 23. [back]

18. Dimitar Korudzhiev, "Freedom Is Not A Gift", Dimitar Korudzhiev, Set Free the Sunlight [Bulg.] (Sofia: Zlatorog, 1991), p. 15. [back]

19. Boris Hristov, Night Trumpet [Bulg.] (Sofia: Bulgarski Pisatel Publishing House, 1977). [back]

20. Konstantin Pavlov, Old Things [Bulg.] (Sofia: Bulgarski Pisatel Publishing House, 1983). [back]

21. Lawrence Buell, Literary Transcendentalism. Style and Vision in the American Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973), p. 66. [back]

22. Zhelyu Zhelev, "The Great Time of the Intelligentsia", [Bulg.] (Sofia: Narodna Kultura, July 22, 1988), p. 3. [back]

23. Z. A. B. Zeman, The Making and Breaking of Communist Europe (Oxford, 1991), p. 280. [back]

24. Ibid., p. 289. [back]

25. Kalina Bozeva, Parvan Stoyanov, "The 'Renaissance Process' - Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow", [Bulg.] (Sofia: Demokratzia, April 27, 1990), p. 3. [back]

26. Wenzeslav Konstantinov, "Der Kampf zwischen den Toten. Orthodoxe und islamische Religion im kommunistischen Bulgarien" (Wien: Europäische Rundschau. Vierteljahreszeitschrift für Politik, Wirtschaft und Zeitgeschichte, 20. Jahrgang, Nummer 3/1992), p. 68. [back]

27. Kjell Engelbrekt, "William Montgomery. New US Ambassador Takes Position in Sofia" (RFE/RL Daily Report, Munich, Germany, Oct. 28, 1993). [back]

28. Alexander Yordanov, "The Beginning of the Bulgarian Tender Revolution" [Bulg.] (Sofia: Vek 21, June 17, 1992), p. 1. [back]

29. Walter Harding, Civilized Disobedience (Geneseo, NY: State University College of Arts and Sciences, 1968). [back]

30. Michael Meyer, Several More Lives to Live. Thoreau's Political Reputation in America (Westport, Connecticut - London, England: Greenwood Press, 1977), p. 158. [back]

31. Michael Gilmore, American Romanticism and the Marketplace (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 41. [back]

32. Ibid., p. 35. [back]

33. Henry David Thoreau, Walden; Civil Disobedience [Bulg. trns.] (Sofia: Narodna Kultura Publishing House, 1993; trns. Albena Bakratcheva). [back]



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Slaveykov, Pencho. Selected works in two volumes. Sofia: Bulgarski Pisatel Publishing House, 1958.

Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience. [Bulg. trns.] Vek 21, Sofia, July 18, 1990.

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Tzaneva, Milena. Ivan Vazov. [Bulg.] Sofia: Bulgarski Pisatel Publishing House, 1980.

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© Albena Bakratcheva, 1993
© Publisher LiterNet, 15. 07. 2000
First edition, electronic.

The Annual Thoreau Society meeting, Concord, Massachusetts, U.S.A., July 1993 (Fulbright Study).