First Ladies during the days of Tsarist Bulgaria depicted in a book

Photo: Архив
An old adage says that behind every successful man there is a strong woman. The book entitled “The First Ladies of Tsarist Bulgaria”, written by associate professor Tsvetana Kyoseva, is yet another proof of the truth in this claim.
In her book, Assoc. Prof. Kyoseva, who is now executive director of the National Historical Museum, has tried to show a different look at Bulgarian history and describe the fates of 17 wives of Bulgarian prime ministers who were in office in the period between 1879 and 1944. The main heroines in the book are: Maria Burmova, Ekaterina Karavelova, Hristina Konstantin Stoilova, Poliksena Stambolova, Sultana Racho Petrova, Maria Geshova, and Milena Stambolijska. Tsvetana Kyoseva spent two years looking for documents related to the intimate world of politicians. “I was reading the letters that statesmen and their partners sent to each other. I was looking into their personal accounts that showed their exceptional punctuality. I was surprised to find out that they were writing down everything – how much money they spent on shoes, on food, on clothes for the servants, on walks with carriages, etc”, Mrs. Kyoseva explains. She was also amazed to see that such records were kept very carefully and not only by politicians such as Dragan Tsankov and his wife Rada, but also by millionaires like Ivan Geshov and his wife Maria.

The data in such notes and letters can change the idea of a politician that has been imposed by time and historians for a long time. Prof. Kyoseva uses Vasil Radoslavov as an example: he was twice at the post of prime minister – in the period 1886-1887, and between 1913 and 1918 when Bulgaria entered the First World War. Radoslavov was taken to the People’s Court for violating the Constitution and was regarded as one of the main culprits for Bulgaria’s national catastrophe after the war. Mrs. Kyoseva says in her book: “People used to say that he annexed his country to Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the war, and received an enormous pension from the last German Emperor Wilhelm II, with which he lived in luxury in Germany where he left after the Thessaloniki Truce was signed in 1918. When you read the letters that he and his wife wrote to each other, you will see that the situation was completely different”, assoc. prof. Kyoseva says. From his letters, one can see that Radoslavov lived quite modestly, he had not enough money to pay for the education of his children and when in 1929 he developed cancer, he could not afford treatment. His funeral was in Bulgaria and was paid by the state, and his family inherited large debts.

Another personality that was depicted in literature in a distorted version, in prof. Kyoseva’s opinion, is that of the wife of Racho Petrov, prime minister of the 21st interim and 26th regular government, and also a close friend of King Ferdinand:

“It turns out that he scandalous wife of Racho Petrov, Sultana Racho Petrova, of whom so many indecent stories have been written in the memoirs of the time, was not only a glamorous society belle, but that she was secretly doing a diplomatic mission to protect the Bulgarian national liberation movement in Macedonia”, Tsvetana Kyoseva says. “Very few people know that Sultana Racho Petrova was sent to a concentration camp in 1944 for no other reason but because her adopted daughter became an announcer at the BBC, and was condemning Bulgaria’s decision to take the side of Nazi Germany. Naturally, no one in Bulgaria wasready to forgive her and she was sentenced to death, but because the sentence could not be executed in England, her mother had to suffer the consequences and she was thrown into a concentration camp. Very few people in Bulgaria have also heard that Sultana was the first woman in Bulgaria to undergo plastic surgery. Her face was so much changed after the plastic surgeries she had in Germany that even at a very old age, she still looked splendid.”

Another first lady of that period with a striking life story was Stefan Stambolov’s wife – the exquisitely beautiful Poliksena who shrank from society. She was there at the door to meet her husband after he was cruelly attacked and stabbed by his political enemies. Three days later, in 1895, he died and she did something horrifying:

“Poliskena put his cut-off hands in a glass vessel, turned his study into a chapel and made her children pray to the cut-off hands of their father every morning. This ritual lasted for years, and the children were so severеly traumatized that neither of them could build a happy life later. Their daughter, Vera Stambolova, fell madly in love with a military officer from the Bulgarian army, but he mother decided he was not a suitable husband for her daughter. Unable to overcome the pain and grief of the separation, Vera suffered a nervous breakdown and was taken to a psychiatric hospital where she died soon afterwards. Witnessing this tragedy, Stambolov’s two sons decided never to get married and kept that vow. So, the family line of the Stambolovs was lost forever not only because they did not have any heirs, but also because of the personal ambitions of the mother and her cruelty to her children”, Prof. Kyoseva says.

The overall impression that the book of prof. Kyoseva created is that the first ladies in Bulgarian politics at that period were incredibly frugal and economical and were able to inspire ideas into their husbands, making them believe they were their own. Most of them were beautiful and were not involved in any society scandals. Assoc. prof. Kyoseva admits that while she was preparing the book, she was constantly drawing a parallel with contemporary first ladies in Bulgarian politics. 

“I intend to continue my book in the future and write about the first ladies during Socialism when things stood differently. Things today are also a different story. I cannot say that I know many of the first ladies today, but I cannot speak very highly of some of them. I think my book would be interesting not only to a larger readership, but also to the narrower group of the wives of contemporary political leaders”, Tsvetana Kyoseva says.

Translated by: Rossitsa Petcova
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