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“Think of me as fire” said Lyudmila Zhivkova, one of Bulgaria’s most powerful political figures

Tijana Radeska
Lyudimila Zhivkova 1
Lyudimila Zhivkova 1

Lyudmila Todorova Zhivkova (1942 – 1981) was the daughter of Bulgarian Communist leader Todor Zhivkov. Primarily known for her interest in preserving and promoting Bulgarian arts and culture on the international stage, Zhivkova was also a controversial figure within the former Soviet Bloc because of her interests in esoteric Eastern religion and spirituality.

Zhivkova in 1978

Zhivkova in 1978. Source

The Red Princess

Zhivkova was a princess not in the sense of any linkage to the Saxe-Coburg dynasty; she was the offspring of long-standing communist dictator Todor Zhivkov. Being the daughter of this arch-survivor made her extraordinary career possible, and today some Bulgarians will sneer at the mention of her name and term her a “red princess”. In contradiction, there are those who believe that even her place as a possible heir to the running of the country could not protect her from murder at the hands of the Soviets, or in fact was the very reason for it.

Lyudimila Zhivkova

Lyudimila Zhivkova. Source

“Clad in the fire of the indestructible… May consciousness embrace the infinity of the Cosmos. There will glow the vibration of electrons filling the vast expanse of iridescent spheres with their harmony and rhythm…. May the happiness of being eternally new as you create be … the most magnificent garment sparkling on you in the vibration of the seven-modal harmony of Eternity!” – an extract from a late 1970s speech of Zhivkova to primary school children.

Chairman of the Government’s Committee for Culture

Elena Ceausescu (left) with Lyudmila Zhivkova (right) in 1977.

Elena Ceausescu (left) with Lyudmila Zhivkova (right) in 1977. Source

Zhivkova was born in Sofia. She studied history at Sofia University (1965) and history of art at Moscow State University (1970), before researching a book on British-Turkish relations at St. Anthony’s college in Oxford. As chairman of the Government’s Committee for Culture since June 1975, she was in charge of education, culture, and science. She opened Bulgaria to foreign cultures and was known as a promoter of Bulgarian creative arts.

”Nature has created all possibilities for man to correspond with his environment,” she once said in an interview. ”The problem is to ensure that man develops in an all-around manner and utilizes his potential. Every individual has creative possibilities.”

Occasionally, amid increasingly esoteric language and thought, there is a somewhat more conventional bit of communist fraternal twaddle: 1976 finds her saying that “there is no country where the talents of the people are in full bloom and the film art so developed as in (North) Korea”.

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Renouncing Marxism and Communist atheism

Lyudimila and her friend Svetoslav Roerich

Lyudimila and her friend Svetoslav Roerich. Source

In 1973, while her father was out of the country, Zhivkova’s luxury car was in a collision with another vehicle, reportedly leaving her with serious head injuries. Recuperating, she foreswore conventional medicine for traditional and herbal remedies, and it is said that it was during this time she began making intensive and regular contact with the oracle Vanga who occupies a special place in Bulgarian contemporary culture. Later, Zhivkova allegedly developed additional interests in Native American and particularly native Mexican beliefs and mysticism.

Lyudimila Zhivkova and the mystic Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich during an exhibition in 1978

Lyudimila Zhivkova and the mystic Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich during an exhibition in 1978. Source

The Zhivkova of this period was already a world traveler, sometimes in the company of her father and sometimes not. In all, her globetrotting would take her to destinations both in and out of the communist bloc, including India and Nepal a number of times (she later reportedly told friends she had learnt not only meditation but levitation too), and even on unaccompanied trips to West Germany and the United States.

“Unity, Creativity, Beauty”

Her motto, which also became that of the arts and education in Bulgaria, was “Unity, Creativity, Beauty”

Recollections about Zhivkova highlight her interest in Theosophy, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, parapsychology, vegetarianism, yoga, Madame Blavatsky, Gurdjieff and, so some say, her claim to have had dialogue in séances with – among others – Napoleon and Jesus.

The legacy of Zhivkova, with which anyone living in Sofia would be familiar, was a series of construction projects in the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s: the National Gallery of Foreign Art, the National Palace of Culture, and the display in the crypt of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. She is in at the founding of an Ancient Theater which performs, at Nevsky and at Sveti Georgi church in Sofia, mystery plays. Her brainchild is Kambanite, a display of bells from many countries of the world, located in the same place that she oversaw the August 1979 Banner of Peace extravaganza. The Kambanite event is the pinnacle in a continuing theme of Zhivkova’s practice of events involving children, in whom she saw mystical possibilities through their innocence.

“Think of me as fire”

A sculpture of Zhivkova in Sofia.

A sculpture of Zhivkova in Sofia. Source

Zhivkova died at the age of 38 from a brain tumor. Unsubstantiated rumors continue to circulate that perhaps Zhivkova was murdered by those who disapproved of her esoteric interests.

The official cause of death was a brain hemorrhage. Some suggest that the 1973 car collision finally had killed her. Others say it had been a subtle, slow-acting poison (a precursor of the Litvinenko death, perhaps).
Varying accounts describe her as having been depressed in the weeks before her death and having reverted to conventional medicine, including sleeping pills.

Others say that she had been in fine form. They recall her repeating, even in the final days before her death, what had become a favorite saying: “Think of me as fire”.