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The most important feminist you probably never heard of died in late October, a brave woman still dreaming of a better future.by Kristen R. Ghodsee 11 December 2017
She was the youngest female partisan fighting against the Nazi-allied Bulgarian monarchy during World War II. She later became a fierce advocate for women’s rights at the United Nations during the Cold War. Тo me, she was just Elena. A woman who made me drink nettle tea and eat raw walnuts because they helped prevent cancer. She loved the marches of John Phillip Sousa and recited the poems of Hristo Botev from memory.
I first met Elena Lagadinova in 2010 when she was exactly twice my age; she was born in 1930 and I in 1970. I tracked her down for an interview about her years as president of the Bulgarian Women’s Committee from 1968 to 1990. I knew nothing about her guerilla activities between 1941 and 1944.
The daughter of a poor carriage driver in Razlog, Elena began running medicine and messages to the communist partisans hiding out in the Pirin Mountains at only 11 years old. At 14, she fled her burning house to take up arms alongside her father and brothers. “They made me wear my pistol on a chain around my neck,” she told me, “So if the gendarmes attacked while we slept, I wouldn’t forget it.”
Partisans occupy a contentious place in Bulgarian history. Celebrated as heroes during the communist era, their post-1989 fortunes soured with the fates of all those too closely associated with the previous regime. The Elena I knew was a solitary widow curating a personal archive in the cupboards of her Sofia flat: a personal note from Brezhnev, photos with Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, letters from women’s activists across the globe.
As an American, I found her story larger than life. I spent countless hours questioning her across her dining room table. Over the seven years I knew her, Elena conjured for me a vision of what it meant to be a young girl fighting fascism in World War II and the dreams of the political utopia that motivated her. She narrated her studies in the Soviet Union after the war, earning her doctorate in agro-biology and aspiring to develop more robust varieties of wheat. Later, she regaled me with tales of her fight for women’s rights both within Bulgaria and on the international stage, crisscrossing the continents to convince governments to build childcare centers and introduce paid maternity leaves.
But in the years following the global financial crisis of 2008, Elena’s pension wasn’t enough to pay for central heating, so she lived in layers of sweaters and blankets. When I visited, she switched on a small electric unit that spewed weak waves of warmth around our feet. We sometimes sipped shots of mastika to stave off the chill.
When you befriend an octogenarian, you know your time is limited. I should have been writing a book about international women’s activist networks between Eastern Europe and Southern Africa, but Elena’s experiences as a partisan entranced me. I wanted to commit her memories to the page before they were lost to the world forever.
In the Central State Archives in Sofia, I read hundreds of pages documenting her time as president of the Women’s Committee. I laughed at a 1977 letter to the Ministry of Trade and Services complaining about the availability of women’s clothing. “Jersey dresses, which are very practical, are rarely available in the stores,” she wrote. “When they are, there are only limited sizes and they are not in the most fashionable styles.” She went on to point out that while the central planners did a great job of making men’s underwear, the undergarments available for women and children were scarce and “not in all the sizes or patterns or colors that the population is seeking.”
In the records of the United Nations, I found copies of her speeches to plenary sessions, extolling the virtues of socialism and its commitment to women’s emancipation. I traveled to Zambia to meet with her former African colleagues, and tracked down Americans she had invited to Bulgaria in the 1980s. Opinion was unanimous that Elena set aside ideological differences to build international alliances with women on all points of the political spectrum. Her passion and enthusiasm swayed even the most intransigent communist leaders as she fought to extend maternity leaves and expand the networks of kindergartens and crèches across her country.
Elena’s efforts informed a special 1973 Politburo decision on enhancing the position of women in Bulgaria, which became a template for other socialist nations in Eastern Europe. She distributed English translations of this decision to delegates at the First World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975, and Bulgaria became a model country for many newly independent nations. Between 1980 and 1985, hundreds of women from Asia and Africa visited Bulgaria on the invitation of the Women’s Committee, and Elena set up a special training school for women’s activists from the developing world.
Elena’s allies across the world helped ensure that she was elected the General Rapporteur at the Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1985. This Bulgarian became the face of the international women’s movement for the international press corps, and in 1991 an American university awarded her a special presidential medal of honor.
And then the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended. At the age of 60, Elena retired and slipped into obscurity, a forgotten relic of a bygone age, still imagining a different world where people matter more than profit. In Bulgaria, women of Elena’s generation are called “red grandmothers,” because they lived most of their lives under communism and tend to be critical of the moral vacuum that followed its collapse. They wag fingers at the crime and corruption and growing inequality of their society.
But Elena was different. Rather than losing herself in the past, she lived for a future she was sure would come. Serendipity had brought us together, and my visits to her apartment became a ritual part of my biannual visits to Bulgaria. And when the governor of California, Jerry Brown, visited Bulgaria in June of 2016, I helped arrange for him and his wife to meet Elena. “She was so energetic,” Brown later told me, “Her English wasn’t so good, but I could feel her passion and vitality.”
I last saw Elena in May of 2017 when I touched down in Sofia for a short, four-day stint: an in-and-out trip to the archives to put the finishing touches on an article. We sat for a few hours in her dining room, catching up and discussing the rise of right-wing parties in Eastern Europe, the increasing influence of the Alternative for Germany party, and the unexpected election of Donald Trump. I despaired for the future, joking that I might emigrate to New Zealand. Before I left that day, Elena told me: “Don’t run. Fight.” She put her hand on my shoulder. “And remember, it’s not enough to struggle against the things you hate. You have to stand up for something you believe in.”
Elena Lagadinova died in her sleep just five months later, on 29 October, at the age of 86. When I received the email, I recalled those final words. But these days, it is hard to be credulous in a world swirling with “fake news” and “alternative facts,” where politicians lie and deceive and ordinary people numb their minds with mobile phones and opioids.
Elena will never see the future world she hoped to build, but it consoles me to think that she passed from this world still dreaming of it. I imagine her in the afterlife, pistol on a chain around her neck, young again, and ready to fight.
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