Geo Milev studied in Sofia and later in Leipzig where he was introduced to German Expressionism. His university thesis was on Richard Dehmel. Beginning in 1916 he fought in the World War I, where he was severely injured. After recuperating in Berlin he began to collaborate with the magazine Aktion. Upon his return to Bulgaria he started to publish the Bulgarian modernist magazine Везни (Scales), in Sofia. He contributed as a translator, theatre reviewer, director and editor of anthologies.
On May 15, 1925 Geo Milev was taken to the police station for a “short interrogation” from which he never returned. His fate remained unknown for 30 years. In 1954 during the trial of General Ivan Valkov and a group of physical executioners one of them confessed where and how the reported missing had been executed and buried. Geo MIlev was strangled and then buried in a mass grave in Ilientsi, near Sofia after the reprisals following St Nedelya Church assault. The repressive government used that as an excuse for murdering progressive intellectuals. His skull was found in the mass grave. His body was identified due to the glass eye he was wearing after he lost his right eye in World War I.
He published his most famous poem September in his magazine Пламък (Flame) in 1924. It describes the brutal suppression of the Bulgarian uprising of September 1923 against the military coup d’état of June 1923.
Footsteps on the Stairs
Leda Mileva (Geo Milev’s daughter)
I hardly remember my father. I was less than five when he ‘vanished without trace’ — that was the first official version of his death in 1925. But, having grown up admist his family and friends, amidst his extensive multilingual library — Geo Milev’s only real possession — my picture of my vanished father has always been vivid and sharp. His presence in our home was almost tangible. And because a phrase like ‘vanished without trace’ does not mean much to a little girl, for a long time I did not cease to believe that one day he would return. We were living in rented accommodation, as a rule on the top floor of various, for their time, tall buildings. Whenever I heard footsteps behind me as I climbed the stairs I always stopped and with a pounding heart timidly turned to see whether these were not, at long last, the footsteps of my father.
It was my mother who most often talked to me about him. My grandparents, with whom I spent all my school holidays in Stara Zagora, also spoke a great deal about him. And now, whenever I try to say something about Geo Milev the man, I rely principally on their memories.
My grandmother, who had borne and raised six children, maintained that her first-born son Georgi, because of his concentration and wide range of interests, had from earliest childhood stood out from the others. At first, at the age of only three or four, he had shown an exceptional liking for drawing. His father, who had a bookshop, had to bring him home a pad, pencils, and a paint-box. But the young artist painted not only on his drawing pad but also on the walls and on the cupboard doors. He soon began to draw whole pictures, as well as little horses and dogs. At primary school he made successful sketches of his teachers and of everyone else who attracted his attention. A little later he showed a passion for drawing caricatures, many of which are preserved to this day.
At the age of five he already knew the alphabet and declared that he wanted to go to school. At that time children entered the first form at the age of seven, and it was impossible for such a young child to be admitted as a pupil. But little Geo was so insistent that his parents were compelled to do something. They found a schoolmistress they knew and asked her to allow the child to attend school for a few days, so he could see for himself that it would not interest him. The teacher agreed. But things did not work out the way his parents had expected. Geo soon became a good pupil and continued to attend to the end of the year. The following autumn he was admitted as a regular second form pupil.
His interest in drawing and the representative arts continued as he grew up. This is confirmed by some ten self-portraits of Geo Milev which have been preserved. Other interests also appeared very early on in his life – the theatre, music, and the study of foreign languages.
All this began in the small provincial town of Stara Zagora, where the modest house of the bookseller Milyo Kasabov, with its large courtyard full of flowers, is now the Geo Milev Musem. The old well is still there and flowers still bloom. But the first thing to attract the visitor’s attention is an enormous oak tree, growing between the well and the entrance, raising its trunk high above the brick wall which surrounds the courtyard, spreading its massive branches into the quiet street and rustling its green leaves almost as far as the houses on the opposite side. That oak tree, a rarity in Stara Zagora, famous as a town of lime trees, has its own history, told to me by my uncle Boris, my father’s younger brother.
On Sunday mornings grandfather Milyo often took his two sons for a walk in the park by the railway station. One day the boys found some acorns there. ‘Out of this small acorn can grow the biggest and most beautiful tree,’ grandfather explained, ‘a very healthy tree that can live more than a thousaiid years.’ The boys each put a few acorns in their pockets and decided to plant them in the courtyard of their house. And in fact two small seedlings did grow from them. The boys dug around them and watered them, but Boris’s tree soon withered. The oak planted by the elder brother, however/the majestic tree spreading its branches out over the little street which is now called Geo Milev Street, is approximately ninety years old. According to my uncle it was planted in 1900 or 1901.
Maybe it was from these early childhood experiences that the oak tree entered into Geo Milev’s awareness as a symbol of majesty and tenacity. It appears in his poem September in the following lines:
over the Balkan peaks,
with their navels turned
to the sky
and the eternal sun,
— Thunder crashed
straight into the heart of the giant hundred-year-old oak.
That poem also repeatedly refers to the Balkan mountain range which traverses Bulgaria from west to east. There, in a picturesque village on its flank, called Maglizh, my grandfather’s family often spent several weeks during the hottest part of the summer.
Geo, by then a grammar school pupil, loved those holidays. He was moved by the beauty of the mountains. He would spend hours sitting on the high and not easily accessible Black Rock beyond the village, deep in thought, listening to the song of the Balkan mountains. My grandmother told me that on one occasion, as she was talking to some women in the village square, she turned towards the Black Rock. ‘Can you see it?’, she asked, ‘An eagle sits perched on the rock.’ The other women now turned their heads. ‘Some eagle! Can’t you see?’, one of the women exclaimed, ‘That’s your son Geo!’ His mother froze with horror. But the young eagle returned after a while, boldly and joyfully. From afar one could hear him singing his favourite song: ‘Ah, forests, Balkan forests . . .’
Childhood and student years in Sofia and Leipzig, a visit to London which left a deep impression on him (reflected in his unfinished long poem ‘Hell’) soon passed, and the young poet found himself face to face with a grim reality. One rainy day he was sent to the fighting line. ‘Throughout the day there is waste land all round,’ he wrote in his wartime diary. ‘Only the terrible whistle of the shells continually reiterates the terrible thought: “War!”.’
Soon he was to experience its full horror. In the spring of 1917 fierce enemy artillery fire cracked his skull. Geo lost his right eye. Only by a miracle did he survive. Yet in spite of his severe wounds he was still fired by a desire to read, to work with all his strength, to ensure that he lived a full and valuable life.
Against his parents’ objections, and before he was fully recovered, he married a young actess and intellectual, Mila Keranova, who had recently returned from Paris where she had studied philology at the Sorbonne. And although they had little money, the young family was soon increased by two daughters.
Our home, which I remember vividiv, was in the very centre of Sofia, by the market hall. Under the windows of the big building, which before the war had been the post office, the trams clanked by. With the acute shortage of accommodation after the war many families were crov. ded into that building. And so we lived in one large room on the fourth floor; that room contained everything – bedroom, children’s nursery, study.
My mother has left an accurate account of the circumstances in which her husband worked, feverishly and untiringly for the next five years. ‘He wrote on a small plain table [which is now in the Geo Milev Museum] in his small, modest but interesting study,’ my mother recorded in her memoirs. ‘One wall of his study was taken up by his large library, and the opposite wall was formed by a screen which divided off the bedroom. On the study side the screen was painted by Geo with cubist figures and in the middle it had a small door with a curtain of dark blue cloth to which I had stitched some golden stars and a crescent moon cut out by Geo. By the table Geo had a small settee with many cushions, painted by him and embroidered by me. I used to sit there and listen to Geo reading to me. He smoked a lot, and would get me to make him strong coffee. Geo was infinitely considerate towards me and the children.
Clearly there was not a lot of room for us children and we often played with our dolls under the table in the bedroom behind the screen. Friends of my father’s would say that no matter what time of night they passed our building there was always a light in our window. ‘Geo is working,’ they said.
In spite of his unbelievable amount of work my father had many friends – mainly writers, artists and painters, who sometimes interrupted his evening’s work on his manuscripts and noisily thronged cur flat. ‘Those meetings/ my mother recalled, ‘were rapturously bohemian. We always had to scrape together everybody’s meagre means in order to prepare a dinner. But they were meetirgs with rich literary programmes, not planned, of course, but as soon as Geo stood at the centre it was impossible not to recite verse or talk about the theatre, or sing songs in all the languages we knew. Geo was carried away, forgetting that th ? following morning they would call for the proofs. But these evenings in a circle of friends were his only relaxation.’
At that time th° fascist government of Bulgaria proclaimed its ominous ‘Defc nce of the Realm’ law. My mother has often told me that as soon as she read the first few sections of the then unfinished poem ‘September’ she saw herself as a widow and her children as orphans. She did not conceal from her husband this terrible premonition. But he only laughed and tried to reassure her. ‘This is a literary work; have no fear! Don’t cry, it’s useless, no one and nothing can stop me. I must finish and publisli this poem.’
Even after the confiscation of No. 7/8 of the periodical Plamak, in which the finished poem was published, and despite several police searches of the house, my father had no intention of emigrating or even of leaving Sofia, although his friends were advising him to do so. One of my few clear memories from that time is the morning of our unexpected parting. I can still see the dark silhouette of the policeman framed in the door as he summoned my father for ‘a little questioning’. My mother gave him a clean handkerchief and he followed the policeman out without even saying goodbye — surely they were just summoning him for a little questioning and he would soon be back for his morring cup of coffee.
I remember very clearly how, soon afterwards, my mother started searching for him from one precinct to another, from one prison to another, from one town to another. I used to go off to school, and -vhen, returning home, I would hear footsteps behind me on the stairs I used to stop. My heart would pound. I would turn timidiy. But my faint hope would again dissolve. No, these were not the footsteps of my father who had been summoned to the police station ‘for a little questioning’.