A Family Secret

Dear Reader, 

Let me show you something that once was a closely guarded family secret:

Just an old painting...
Just an old painting…

This may look like an old painting in a dilapidated frame, and so it probably is, but just look at the back…

Hah! Surprise! :)
Hah! Surprise! 🙂

I bet you did not fail to recognise the Comrade of Comrades, the generalissimo and the Father of Nations – Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, Soviet leader from the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s.

His friendly face, full of love for mankind, was for some mysterious reason pasted on the back of this innocent-looking landscape by its author – artist Petar Valchev (Петър Вълчев /1905-1964/), who was a friend of my grandfather and gave him several of his paintings as presents. 

Painting re-framed, lacquered and waiting to be hanged in my living room. My mother does not like it and ditched her to a village but I have a thing for rescuing slighted objects of the past. :)
Painting cleaned, lacquered, re-framed and waiting to be hung in my living room. My mother does not like it and ditched it to a village, but I have a thing for rescuing slighted objects of the past. 🙂

And this is how this painting has remained for the about 55 years of its existence. The personality cult towards Stalin had almost disappeared with his death and was even condemned by the Party, both in the USSR and in Bulgaria, so this joke of having Stalin’s portrait at the back of a painting was not really as serious as it would have been in the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s.

Tovarish Stalin looks even happier now.
Tovarish Stalin looks even more content now.

Still, communism was very successful in instilling fear and distrust among people and of the people towards authorities, whom they expected to be arbitrary in their law enforcement – too lenient to some citizens and too severe to others, depending on their ties to people in power.

So my family was very cautious about having this picture of Stalin there and showed it to me only when I was old enough to understand that I had to tell absolutely no one about it. And so I have done, but now that the framer has seen it, I guess the secret’s out… 🙂

All Petar Valchev works that have gone for re-framing and restoration. Only the Stalin one has been so far returned. The two portraits depict Bulgarian national hero Vasil Levski (R) and poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev.
All these have gone for re-framing and restoration. Only the Stalin one has been so far returned. The two portraits, also by Petar Valchev, depict Bulgarian national hero Vasil Levski (R) and poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev (L).

And since we have been talking about communism of late, let me show you some of my favourite political cartoons related to communism or the time immediately preceding it, by Ilia Beshkov, whom I have already mentioned around the blog. 

Apart from my home,
Apart from at my home, Levski and Botev are side by side also in this 1941 cartoon. In it, Botev is apparently whispering to Levski, who has a concerned expression: “Look, how soon have our ideals become reality!” This remark has been valid throughout Bulgaria’s history after the liberation from the Ottomans. It can be also encountered today, in critical views of the politics and society in the country. Source: Бешков, Черната тетрадка, Изток-Запад, 2015 г.
Cartoon depicts Valko Chervenkov (1900-1980), leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party between 1950 and 1954, so at the time of Stalin, and object of a personality cult in Bulgaria. The woman is Tsola Dragoycheva (1898-1993), who at Chervenkov’s time was minister of the postal service, telephones and telegraphs (communication was closely monitored.) I believe Beshkov has not shied away from portraying both in the boorish way they were perceived by the Bulgarian society falling outside the ruling class. Caption says: “The red bourgeoisie.” Aptly enough, as they settled in the homes of the ousted bourgeoisie and quickly developed a taste for its cuisine and other refinements. So much for the “people’s” things and equality…Source: Бешков, Черната тетрадка, Изток-Запад, 2015 г.

And finally, my 12 points go to…(to quote the kitschy Eurovision song contest):

This 1944 cartoon summarises in just a few ironic words the disaster behind the rule of the proletariat. This peasant, seated on a throne and smiling good-naturedly but not very intelligently, says: “So now that they’ve made me master, who is doing to take care of my work?” Good question…Source: Бешков, Черната тетрадка, Изток-Запад, 2015 г.

As closure, a great song, Moody Blues style, of the 1960s, whose black-and-white video features the Alexander Nevsky cathedral. The song is called White Silence (Бяла тишина) and has very nice and poetic lyrics. They speak of people who, prompted by memories of the summer, have searched for love again but have found only white silence, which has remained on the horizon as, come the morning, a ship (obviously personifying the protagonists) sets sail with the tailwind. 

Speaking of ships, a great little Russian poem comes to mind – Sail (Парус) by Russian Romanticism poet Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov (1814-1841). This is one of the Russian poems, apart from the prologue of Ruslan and Lyudmila by Pushkin among others, which most Bulgarians who studied in Russian schools, La Sottoscritta included, are able to recite by heart.

This one seeks no happy ending and does not flee a happy past. Source: Click here.

I thought the poem was somehow a logical sequel to the White Silence lyrics and also faintly resembled Debelyanov’s Dismal Chant. It’s obvious who has read Lermontov in his heure bleue…:) 

Here goes a great translation* of Sail:

A sail drifts white and on its own
Amid the light blue ocean haze.
What does it seek in distant country?
What made it leave its native bays?

Great billows play. High winds are whistling

Down at the bending, creaking mast
Oh! This one seeks no happy ending
And does not flee a happy past.

Beneath, a brighter stream than azure.

Above, the golden sunray flows
Yet this one, restive…quests for tempests
As if in tempests were repose. 

Translation by A.Z.Foreman

And now the original, for the benefit of Bulgarian speakers. 🙂 You know, this year on March 3, which is Bulgaria’s national holiday, the Russian ambassador delivered a speech in front of a monument of the Bulgarian volunteers in the liberation fights in the centre of Sofia, and no one had seen fit to provide a translation. This was doubtlessly a diplomatic faux pas, but the speech was fully understandable to all people present. So – to the benefit of Bulgarian speakers:

Белеет парус одинокий
В тумане моря голубом!..
Что ищет он в стране далекой?
Что кинул он в краю родном?..

Играют волны – ветер свищет,
И мачта гнется и скрыпит…
Увы, – он счастия не ищет
И не от счастия бежит!

Под ним струя светлей лазури,
Над ним луч солнца золотой…
А он, мятежный, просит бури,
Как будто в бурях есть покой!

Oh, how I love this poem…! And the collected works of Lermontov, like those of Pushkin, have not been ditched to a village for lack of space, but are at my parents’ flat, where they’ve always been.

They are my friends, so that’s a comfort…:)