Monthly Archives: June 2017

The Woman Today / Жената Днес

I avidly read the column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” in my grandmother’s monthly Ladies’ Home Journal magazine whenever we visited her. I was in elementary school when this interest was sparked so either I was precociously preparing for what might lie ahead or being a voyeur into other lives in perhaps the most conservative way possible. “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” and idly looking at the covers while waiting my turn in the grocery line are the sum total of my experience with women’s magazines.

Recently, however, I bought two 1942 copies of women’s magazines as a birthday present for my mother—the idea being that she could browse and see what her mother may well have been reading in the year my mother was born. There was also the aspect of seeing how far women have—and have not—come. Leafing through them at this remove of time piqued my interest. As I noted in an earlier post, it is often true that I find myself thinking about or surprised by steps that seem to inexorably lead to Bulgaria. My brother-in-law was a fashion and interior photographer and Bulgarian women’s magazines were often clients.

Some of the women’s magazines in the United States have been around since the 19th century. Ladies’ Home Journal managed to last 131 years before it acknowledged it could not be saved and folded in summer 2014. Given the category’s monthly publication schedule, news is not the business of women’s magazines, be they considered “service” or fashion, for suburban mothers of young children or urban singles. The operative question is the “how to.” How to dress, how to cook nutritiously, how to diet, how to save time/how to shop, how to travel, how to improve sex/relationships/appearance/parenting as a verb/maximizing time to oneself because you deserve it.

spam-and-limas”Women’s service” magazines were traditionally aimed at stay-at-home mothers with a need for laborsaving devices, relationship-preserving ideas and innovative ways to satisfy children clamoring for food. There are plenty of recipes that would never be included in an actual cookbook, courtesy of the ads for various canned and packaged food that encouraged women to just add lima beans to spam for an instant wholesome meal.

Looking at the vintage copies made me wonder about the existence of such magazines in Bulgaria and how Communist ideology and control affected the approach to Bulgarian women with children clamoring for food and who had concerns about appearance, relationships, and laborsaving devices despite living in a worker’s paradise with a standard of living that was constantly sold as far higher than that in the mythically degenerate West on the verge of collapse. But who wouldn’t be still better off with a washing machine and canned pork seasoned with potato starch and sodium nitrite?

Жената ДНЕС (Zhenata DNES/The Woman TODAY) is perhaps the oldest women’s service magazine in Bulgaria still in publication. From its inception in the mid-1940s, the monthly magazine is now—according to its website—“a 70-year institution for generations of Bulgarian women.” For the first 45 of those years, it operated in a highly-restricted environment under a government that viewed all media as key to maintenance of Communist party power. After all, Vladimir Lenin had clearly said in 1901: “A newspaper should not only be a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, but also a collective organizer of the masses.” Like all publications, Жената ДНЕС was in many ways a means to a political end.

But not entirely. If the publication had to meet political standards, Жената ДНЕС as well had to be sufficiently interesting, relevant, and appealing to the women it targeted. The cover, the features, the regular columns, the supplements, the photography were carefully planned to be familiar and recognizable enough to build readership and distinctive enough to attract purchasers at the newsstand.

The differences between, say, Ladies’ Home Journal and Жената ДНЕС in the latter’s first 45 years are clear. For most of those years, the cover of Жената ДНЕС displayed only the masthead, a single cover image, the issue date and number, and the notation “published by the Committee of Bulgarian Women.” The price of each issue must have been noted at the newsstand because it appears nowhere on the cover. It’s not at all clear how to obtain a subscription, though subscriptions to magazines were possible. There are no advertisements anywhere. This may seem obvious in a Communist country, but in fact the government of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria was careful to set up a number of branded products in such categories as cigarettes, book series, alcohol, household cleaners, and sweets. Advertisements did appear from time to time in other media.

Ladies' Home JournalThe January issue of Ladies’ Home Journal displays the masthead, a single cover image, the issue date, and the following cover lines: Pat Boone Talks, The Burning Eye Condenses Complete Novel In This Issue, How to Lose 125 Pounds and Stay Thin, Lovable, Wonderful Dr. Spock, and Teen Age Report to the Nation Are They Beat…Boho…or? The four-color, glossy paper issue is filled with advertisements.

1960_01In many ways, however, the magazines are strikingly similar. Principally they are aspirational. They show people and lifestyles to aspire to and direction on how to achieve those aspirations. The January 1960 issue of Жената ДНЕС shows an airbrushed pretty woman with stylishly short hair, red lipstick, and blue earings perfectly matching her blue sweater. Her age is indeterminate—anywhere from late 20s to early 40s–maximizing the number of readers who could see themselves in her if they could just find out where she got that lipstick. Turn the page and you see the very first article “More Women in Leadership Positions in [Agricultural Collectives].”

Yes, even in 1960 in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria women are promised that they can have it all; they can lead the country to a new stage in agricultural production and when they’re done can look perfectly put together with nary a wrinkle or sunspot from all that outdoor hard physical labor.

Turn the page and celebrate the “50th Anniversary of the International Day of the Woman” with a two-page spread of three short pieces. One shows a historical photo a well-dressed young beauty, born of a poor family, who rose—just as surely as the Жената ДНЕС reader might similarly rise—to become a brave revolutionary serving now as an example to all women. Another is titled “Towards Freedom, Towards Light,” as aspirational as a headline could possibly be.

Leaf through further pages and read a variety short fiction, a poem or two, a first-person account of a factory weaver and her trainees. International affairs are not ignored with a dutiful spread on some doings in the Soviet Union. “By demand of our readers,” there is a profile of Yma Sumac, the Peruvian-American singer famed for her five-octave range; Жената ДНЕС was careful to excise the “American” half of that identity, despite Sumac being an American citizen by the time the profile appeared.

Television was praised though almost no Bulgarian at that time had seen one. Reader letters are given their due as are education of preschool children, hygiene in flu season, and advice for the housewife. A cartoon has one man complaining to another “The more women rise up in leadership, the more it’s frustrating that they are always busy.” The issue makes space for a “Style” section with photos of modern fashions credited to the West German sewing magazine Neue Schnitt, the monthly Sybylle from East Germany (“the Vogue of the East”), the French Modes & Travaux (a monthly dating back to 1919), and the Sofia Style Center. The closing spread offers recipes, including nutrition for the breastfeeding mother, and ideas for cardigans and pullovers for everyone in the family.

The parallels between the two publications are clear and unless one counts paper and printing quality, it’s difficult to say that is one is more sophisticated than the other or serves its intended public better. It seems no matter the time period or the political environment in which they operate, women’s service magazines are an institution for generations of women. No matter how many recipes have been served up or fashion advice disseminated, how many relationships saved or leadership positions flaunted, the women’s service magazine reader is always in need of a little more help.

Stoyan and a Village / Стоян и село

Satirical TheatreFor three years after serving his mandatory two years in the army and fruitlessly applying to the Art Academy in Sofia, my husband worked for the Сатиричен Театър, the Satiric Theater at 26 Stefan Karadja Street. His politics prevented his acceptance in the higher levels of academe, but seemed to be of little importance when working in theater set design.

The work wasn’t onerous, it was in a creative environment, the theater operated at a very high professional level in all aspects, and he met a friend he still has more than three decades later.

Станислав СтратиевThe Satiric Theater’s literary director at that time was Stanislav Stratiev. Stratiev was a playwright, screenwriter, satirical essayist, and short story writer. According to his website, “Stratiev’s plays have been performed in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Romania, Russia, Sweden, the Slovak Republic, Turkey, the USA, and others.”

Stratiev died in 2000, having worked at the Satiric Theater since 1975 and producing an enormous body of work, much of it still performed and read and cherished.

Not long ago, my husband pulled off the bookshelf a volume of Stratiev’s short fiction, Избрано 1. Белетристика (Selected Works 1. Fiction). After a few minutes of listening to him chortle, I had to see for myself. The character Stoyan is a sort of Everyman, or perhaps Everypeasant. Bulgaria has seen enormous changes in the last 130 years, but the village is the ironic harbinger of the news that for many even seemingly cataclysmic change results in little advancement in day-to-day life—and sometimes in reversals. Here then is my translation of Stoyan and a Village.

Stoyan and a Village

Somewhere—mineral water, elsewhere—oil, in Stoyan’s village—backwardness.

Backwardness and barbarism.

Mountains, forests, rocky peaks, and hobgoblins.

The population, of course, doesn’t believe, but when it comes and sits at your table, how can you not believe?

Either that, or it reaches for you in the middle of the day so that you circle the village while someone knocks the head off a black hen and throws it across the path of the hobgoblin.

The village is small, twenty houses, but when a hobgoblin is chasing you it appears to you as large as the capital Sofia.

Big backwardness.

The last hope of the population is at least democracy to come, because electricity and water don’t come, and they don’t have anywhere to come from—no road, and it also is not coming.

Instead bears come and they blow in your eye in the middle of the square.

Wolves throttle the sheep, boars ravage the potatoes.

The people number less than the beasts.

Big backwardness.

Big backwardness and explosives.

The village lays on explosives.

Somewhere God gave gold, elsewhere—pyramids, here—explosives.

On the very top are those from the Second World War. They are, let’s say, two hand spans down. You dig the cucumbers in a little deeper and you fly in the air.

Below this layer are the explosives from the First World War. They are at the depth, let’s say, of a latrine.

The population is in shock and has already stopped digging latrines. At the smallest occasion, one runs into the woods.

Big backwardness.

Backwardness and barbarism.

Under those are the ones from the Russian-Turkish War.

You go to dig a well and after forty-five minutes, you don’t need either water or food.

So the village has no water, and the population drinks like beasts from bear paw prints and from forest springs.

Farther down no one has reached; no one knows what is below this layer.

The population with reason supposes that further down are sabers and maces.

One can’t say that this is fertile soil and that the harvests are very bountiful in Stoyan’s village.

Despite everything, life here passes like it does everywhere.

One’s birthplace, there’s nothing like it.