In Memoriam Petya Dubarova

Cheated Youth

Petya Dubarova: born 25 April 1962; died 4 December 1979

Petya Dubarova is a Bulgarian phenomenon.  A published poet with a significant acting role in an acclaimed film, she committed suicide at the age of seventeen. In the years of decaying communist rule, her death led to much soul searching in party and intellectual circles. To her generation, brought up with Beatles music, but frustrated by petty harsh and oppressive school rules and excessive parental expectations, she became an icon of resistance, not only in Bulgaria, but across the entire Communist world. In hundreds of schools, pupils formed societies in her honour.  The Petya Dubarova house museum, to be found in a quiet quarter in the port city of Burgas, displays their messages still.

Christopher Buxton taught in the elite Burgas English Language School from 1977 – 1980 where Petya was a pupil.  What follows is his personal account of the events of 1979.

It is down to Bulgarian burial rites, that I saw a dead body for the first time.  Its departed owner was one of my pupils – the seventeen year old poet, Petya Dubarova.

The story of Petya Dubarova is known to all Bulgarians.  Pictures of her still adorn many a teenage girl’s bedroom. In the most recent and complete collection of her poetry her wide open eyes avoid the viewer’s gaze and her mouth is set in sad resignation. Her hair, tied in two regulation pleats, frame her face to flop onto the white collar of her hated school uniform.  Her suicide made her an icon of protest against the perceived oppression of the communist school system.

I cannot comment on any of the factors surrounding Petya’s death – only the part the school played. It was alleged that during the compulsory weekly work practice class based in the local State Brewery, Petya had stopped the entire production line by deliberately placing a match in the gears of the conveyor belt. If true, this may have represented a cheeky act of defiance, the response of an intelligent teenager, bored by the tedium of repetitive work. However the school could not fail to take this event seriously. In the weekly teacher’s meeting, Petya’s behaviour mark was reduced.

It is still an extraordinary aspect of the Bulgarian education system, that individual teachers’ marks for academic ability and collective marks for behaviour remain the most influential factor in determining  students’ progress into Higher Education. The marking system is still open to abuse but not easily challenged. Thus one can easily imagine how the news of Petya’s reduced behaviour mark might have been received in the Dubarova household – particularly as Petya’s mother was herself a teacher.

On 3 December Petya broke with her usual rhyming stanzas to write the following inscrutable lines:

Cheated Youth

Forgiveness Dream Memory Behind the walls of the big house SECRET

(Translation of lines taken from Petya Dubarova Poetry 2007 Publishers Libra Scorp)

By 4 December she had taken an overdose and so joined the extraordinary number of Bulgarian poets who have committed suicide. Her death provoked considerable public disquiet – particularly as it was immediately linked to zealous disciplinary action taken against her by her school.

There was an anxious discussion in the teacher’s room – whether any of us should attend the wake. The news of Petya’s suicide had so stunned my colleagues that even the party ideologues were reduced to a helpless and human lack of direction and in the vacuum, younger voices were listened to.

As it was likely that the school would be held responsible for Petya’s death – especially by her close friends and family, any official presence was ruled out. However, if no-one from the school went, the consequences would be equally bad. As the Englishman who had not attended the fatal teachers’ meeting, I was asked if I would accompany her form teacher.

A dead body in Bulgaria must be buried within twenty four hours.  The evening and night before the coffin is taken to the cemetery, the body lies in an open casket in the front room of the family home. So having received an emergency lesson in etiquette, from my wife, I led the way through a hostile group of neighbours gathered round the Dubarova gate, up the steps of the typical two story house and straight into the tiny front room. The smell of flowers and candle wax was overpowering as was the sound of continuous suppressed weeping from Petya’s immediate family, jammed in chairs around the coffin, allowing only the narrowest passage way for mourners to pay their respects.

Only Petya’s face was visible.  Her wantonly destroyed body was covered in flowers that threatened to overflow onto the floor. I placed my bunch carefully and approached her face.  It was as I imagined it would be.  The cheeky liveliness had gone to be replaced by a horrible white calm. I muttered prepared words to her mother and stumbled out down the staircase to await my colleague.  We had not been welcome, but we had done our duty.

And of course, Bulgaria did its duty by us, the survivors. I remember my wife’s cousin, Milcho, once saying to me as we observed a drunk weaving between fast moving traffic:  “Because of that drunk, some innocent driver will lie in prison.” I was outraged but Bati Milcho shook his head sadly.  “Someone dies – someone must be blamed.”

The day after the funeral, I learnt a new word –Mamkavi (ital) (translation: – motherfuckers (ital))It was painted in tall letters on the back wall of the teachers’ room alongside -Teachers Murderers(ital). The school’s management set their faces and pretended it hadn’t happened, though traces of the message survived a brigade of scrubbing aunties.

The  poet, Vesselin Andreev, felt impelled to lead the lament for the latest in a long list of Bulgarian poets who had chosen to end their lives. The former partisan  had, according to Georgi Markov, so fallen out of favour with  Bulgaria’s president, Todor Zhivkov, that his life had been in danger.  Perhaps sensing the atmosphere of permissible debate in the late seventies, he launched into a maudlin bout of breast beating which fell just short of questioning Communism itself.  In a repetitive and often contradictory book, punctuated by poetic howls of grief, he took the whole of society to task for not protecting Petya’s talent.

“They ask me – how did you end up writing about Petya Dubarova? You write Partisan songs, Partisan stories, Partisan experiences and then all of a sudden…

I answer: I am writing about my warrior comrade. In poetry.  In the struggle for humanity.”

(Sonata for Petya Dubarovaby V. Andreev 1984 Publishers H Gdanov Plovdiv)

According to Comrade Andreev, the teachers of the English language school were not entirely responsible for extinguishing this brave but fragile flame but we became the obvious targets, especially as apparently none of us had had the courage to attend the wake.  Conveniently ignoring our presence, he reports instead Petya’s mother’s cry:  “They killed my child.”

 Across the world, pupils in probably more oppressive school regimes saw Petya as a martyr for the free spirit of youth. Her mother soaked in their messages of grief and solidarity and the walls of her house – soon to become a museum – were festooned.

The English language school, where I taught Petya, was one of a few specialist Gymnasia. Of these, it and the Maths school were the most sought after.  Entry to these elite institutions was by competitive examination across the whole region as far as Sliven and Yambol, and only children of the Communist elite could expect relatively trouble free acceptance. I was therefore teaching in a school whose recruitment policies resembled a cross between English Grammar and Public Schools. I was teaching the future elite – the surgeons, generals, lawyers, economists, police chiefs, writers and actors of the nation. There was however a down side.

In one of her satirical poems, Petya wrote ironically about the advantages of being an envied pupil of the English language school. These included uniform, hair and makeup   inspections at the school doors and the classroom terror of random oral knowledge tests, on which a pupil’s subject marks depended.

The school’s Director and Deputy Director, lived with the stress of particular political scrutiny –  managing a school that taught a capitalist language and which was filled with highly intelligent, often privileged and sometimes arrogant pupils. With Todor Zhivkov’s concerns about the new generation’s loss of commitment to proletarian values, the two “comrade managers” had to demonstrate the school was beyond any suspicion that its teachers and pupils were not totally loyal to the principles of Marxism-Leninism. The two of them had been chosen mostly on the basis of their party antecedents and certainly not for their knowledge of English language or culture.

So the outcome of the teachers’ meeting following the factory incident was entirely predictable. Similar meetings would routinely reduce pupils’ behaviour marks for such crimes as unexcused absences, smoking in public, shaven heads – a protest against the ban on long hair. Without a great deal of discussion Petya’s behaviour mark was reduced.

It is important to note at this stage that Petya had exhibited no signs of dissidence.  With published poems and a film role under her belt, she was on the doorstep of the intellectual establishment.. Local Burgas poets Christo Fotev and Nedyalko Yordanov spoke glowingly of her poetry. She represented precisely what the forward looking members of the party were seeking in the late seventies – a new personal voice. To this point, the English language School were proud of Petya and probably saw her act of vandalism as an aberration. In time her good behaviour marks would have been restored.

In spite of all wisdom after the event – particularly from Comrade Andreev, desperate to re-establish himself as spokesman of the new generation, the teachers of the English Language School could have had no idea that their response might become a factor in Petya’s unforeseeable death.

What remains with me, however, is the memory of Petya’s live presence in the class. From the centre of the class room, she was a ruling influence.  Sitting next to her friend Maya, she appraised me in my first lesson with the knowing superiority that some girls possess.   This flexing of feminine muscles was not repeated but it indicated a fierce spirit. In succeeding lessons, Petya proved highly intelligent with a cool reserve. She gained her high marks with ease, but I sensed her heart was in Bulgarian literature. She enjoyed singing and she mentions my guitar in a previously unpublished poetical fragment.

What is captivating about her poetry is its simple expression of the teenage condition with all its occasional joys, doubts and fears. She is particularly sensitive to weather and conveys the prevailing seasons of the port city, linking her own moods to changing cloud formations. Throughout, there is a tension between the ideal good daughter/pupil/citizen and the wild soul that yearns to overthrow conventions.  Hers is a voice, like Ann Frank’s that demanded to be listened to and has spoken to generations since. Her poetry is all the more striking because she was unable at her age to resolve her natural rebelliousness with the external requirements of socialism and traditional morality.

However at the time when I stared at her dead face, I had not read many of her poems. All I could feel was the absence of the girl with whom I and all the other pupils shared a classroom. She had understood her own value all too well.

Copyright Christopher Buxton 2007