A Bilingual Bulgarian Woman Writer from the late Ottoman period
Written by Lora Haralambieva, PhD student at Sofia University
Ekaterina Vassileva (1852-1926) was a Bulgarian woman writer and important public figure, associated with the activities of the Bulgarian community in Romania during the late Ottoman period.
On her mother’s side she is a second generation immigrant from the territories of Eastern Rumelia. Her grandfather was a refuge who run from the territories of after the Russo-Turkish military conflicts in the 1820s together with a large amount of Bulgarians who formed a big Bulgarian community, which was located predominantly in Southeastern Romania and Bessarabia.
As a young woman Ekaterina Vassileva received high education in local institutions, therefore she was fluent in French and Romanian, knowing better to read and speak Bulgarian than to write in it. Following the civilizational trends, she also studied music and established a literary salon in her house. She marries a well-established Bulgarian merchant – Mihail Vassilev who was a leading figure in the community of Braila and Bucharest. Together with him Ekaterina Vasileva took part in the establishment of the Bulgarian Reading Association in Braila, which was considered as the archetype of the future institution of the Bulgarian Academy of Science. Vassilevi’s home became a cozy place where Bulgarian immigrants met and discussed literary questions, shared versions of glorious Bulgarian historical past, and most of all shared their pain and melancholy of living away from their motherland.
Vassileva’s public activities during the 1870s are connected mostly with her participation in an amateur theatre group that staged plays on historical and contemporary themes in various cities on the north of Danube, such as Bucharest, Braila, Tulcea, etc. The purpose of these performances was to gather the members of Bulgarian immigrant community and to accumulate funding for the causes of the evolving Bulgarian schools and cultural associations in those cities. She participated in the establishment and operation of Braila women’s association which did charitable activities and lecture series.
As a culmination of her social and political activism she considered her visit to the court of the Russian Emperor Alexander II during his stay in Livadia (Crimea) in 1880 just after the end of the Russo-Turkish war which lead to the liberation of Bulgarian from Ottoman rule. She wrote a brochure, called “La Bulgarie Epique” which she recited in front of the emperor and was given special presents of acknowledgement of her loyalty to the Russian crown.
Her literary writings
In her literary works she touched upon on moral and social issues. She wrote poetry, articles in Bulgarian periodicals, and finally towards the end of her life, she published her memoirs. Her writing was filled with pain, melancholy and empathy. Ekaterina Vassileva spoke publicly in defense of the press as an enlightenment tool for “awakenings of the nation.” Besides her several articles and poems in the Bulgarian newspaper “Otechestvo”, published in Bucharest (1869), she also published an article in the journal “Turcia”, published in Constantinople (1870). In it she justified the role of women actresses and recalled her appearance in the historical play about a Medieval princess – “Velislava”. The articles insisted on the author’s merits as a playwright (Dobri Voinikov was the author of the play), and on women’s performances as “coming out of deep patriotic feelings”. Her position was important because at that initial period of the development of Bulgarian drama its modern influences were regarded as dangerous for public morals and her educational significance was still underestimated.
As a poetess she wrote several poems, some published in newspapers and others included in her memoir as evidences of her image of a writer. Her poems were dedicated to her homeland (“Zhelanieto mi”/My desire, to Bulgarian revolutionaries (“Midhat pasha otchayan sreshtu 19 vek i vastanieto na balgarite govori na sebe si” /“Midhat pasha desparate against the Bulgarian’s revolt speaks to himself ), to the desire to see the freedom of her country (La Bulgarie Epique”), etc.
Migration to France
From the turn of the 19th c. onwards to the end of her life she moved to France with her son who studied medicine with Bulgarian state fellowship. She also used any occasion to popularize Bulgaria at the Parisian intellectual circles where she had the chance to talk to several female salonnieres among the French aristocracy and with writers, such as Victor Hugo.
In the last decades of her life she had a hard time fighting poverty and loneliness. She sent most of her valuable belongings, such as honorable charters and medals to Bulgaria, asking from the state to recall her contribution and to provide a pension. She received official letters of acknowledgment of her contribution and she also got an order of merit from the Bulgarian king. But hardship continued and in the Great War she lost her son. A few years after the end of the war she died in Paris in 1926.