The Poems of Nikola Vaptsarov

Nikola Vaptsarov was born on December 7, 1909 in the small town of Bansko at the foot of the Pirin Mountains in Bulgaria. He was shot by the fascists on 23 July 1942.

It is a strange experience to read Vaptsarov today as the revolutionary movement is receding and resurgent capital is capturing the imagination of one and all. Born on 7 December in 1909, he belonged to the interwar generation where brilliant minds sought to inherit the mantle of revolutionaries of bygone eras and to integrate themselves with the surge of revolutionary working class and peasant movements. He built upon the legacy of Hristov Botev the Bulgarian nationalist poet of the 19th century and that of Gorky and Mayakovsky. He was not alone in this and had his peers in England in David Guest or Caudwell, Lorca in Spain or Hikmet in Turkey, Brecht in Germany and Faiz in India among others. Those were the times when the ideals of Socialism and revolutionary transformation had caught the imagination of the sensitive and humanist intelligentsia. Vaptsarov was one of them and yet stood out in some respects. He stood out in this galaxy of revolutionary intellectuals perhaps because he was himself a worker and experienced the meaning of being a proletarian at first hand.

Vaptsarov had begun to write poetry early in his youth and wanted to study literature in the university, but since he could not afford a university education he took up work as a machine room mechanic in a paper mill. Earlier as a sailor he had come into contact with revolutionary Marxism and which fuelled his radical ideas which were drawn from the revolutionary traditions of Bulgarian folk and nationalist literature.

In the factory he undertook to organise the workers for action. It was far from an easy task as fascism was tightening its grip over Bulgaria and was specially targetting the labour movement. Besides brutal suppression of the movement there was a torrential press campaign aimed at demoralising, disarming and dividing the people. Vaptsarov remarks on this in one of his poems thus:

    ‘What a struggle it was
    To awaken
    The life in the those people,
    To break up
            the crusted
                            of lies,
                                    that weighed
    On their lives.’

He managed to organise a flourishing dramatic society and constantly battling with the censors produced a series of progressive plays. He circulated literature and aroused interest in cultural questions. He also organised Marxist study circles. He successfully led a strike of about 300 workers in 1936 to reinstate workers after a lock-out. Of course he lost his job in the process and had to flee to Sofia with his wife and child.

Blacklisted by his employers and with few friends and no savings he was exposed to hunger and privation and saw his young child die. He finally found work in a flour mill. The conditions of work here were so appalling that several workers including a close mate of his died of tuberculosis. To their memory he wrote some of his very poignant poems. He himself fell ill and had to leave the job. In 1939 he worked as a railway fireman, and a year later at the city incinerator. Those were years of hard physical toil at the workplace, followed by surreptitious political work. He used to return late at night and then set out to read and compose his poems. His poetry tempered by such a struggle naturally has a passion and a ring of truth to it.

In early 1941 Nazi forces were allowed to enter Bulgaria and take control of the country as a prelude to the attack on the USSR. Vaptsarov joined the armed resistance movement and was active in the ‘military centre’. His training as an engineer and mechanic proved useful at this juncture. This was an extremely tiring and hazardous task and Vaptsarov found little time to write poems. Yet he was urged by his comrades to keep writing as one of them put it, ‘Though at the moment the fate of the world is being decided by arms, a stirring contemporary poem is no less important than arms.’

Vaptsarov was arrested in 1942 and subjected to inhuman torture and finally executed on 23rd July, 1942. He continued to write till the very end, and indeed his last verse addressed to his wife is one of the most moving and inspiring.

    The fight is hard and pitiless
    The fight is epic, as they say.
    I fell. Another takes my place

    Why single out a name?

   After the firing squad – the worms.
Thus does the simple logic go.
But in the storm we’ll be with you,
My people, for we loved you so.
2 p.m. – 23.vii.1942

History and the Working Classes – Two Views

Brecht wrote a rather influential poem, ‘Questions from a worker who reads’ around 1935. It opens with the question,

    Who built the Thebes of the seven gates?
    In the books you will find the names of kings.
    Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

The poem was intended to critique the conventional histories, which attributed the great achievements to heroic individuals and kings. It argues that such achievements could not be possible without the labour of countless ordinary people. There is an implicit claim on behalf of the working people to the glory represented by those architectural wonders and great conquests.

This critique of history has been popular in radical circles. In our own country, some years ago the KSSP produced a very popular street ballet, ‘ One Question’ based on this poem. It raised the question, ‘who built the Taj Mahal – Shahjahan or the workers who laboured for it?’

This approach to history actually only manages to invert or stand the traditional history on its head without really questioning its assumptions. In a way it indeed accepts the building of the Great Wall of China or Alexander’s ‘conquest of India’ and Caesar’s conquest of the Gauls etc. as major achievements of mankind. The fact that these ‘achievements’ were conceived by the ruling classes for their own benefit and the working people had to act as mere cannon fodder is entirely ignored. For example the question,

    ‘Frederick the Second won the Seven Years War
    Who else won it?’

implies that the common man and soldier too won the war.

Around the same time as Brecht, Vaptsarov too wrote a poem on history, which unfortunately has not got the attention it deserves. This is being published in the present collection of his poems. He begins with the question,

    ‘History, will you mention us
    In your faded scroll?’

This poem does not seek credit for the enterprises of the ruling classes. In fact it looks upon them as so many ways of bleeding the labouring people.

    ‘We fattened you with news,
    And slaked your thirst so richly,
    With the blood of slaughtered crowds?’

On the contrary Vaptsarov embarks on a new project of retrieving the history of the hard life of the labouring people and also their struggles. He does not glorify that life but only demands that it be treated on its own terms.

    ‘Was it a life worth noting,
    A life worth digging up?
    Unearthed, it reeks of poison,
    Tastes bitter in the cup.’

Vaptsarov’s project may not sound strange today when so much is being written about the so-called subaltern history. However it is indeed strange that even at the turn of the century we still have only isolated instances of labour history of the kind envisaged by him. In fact Vaptsarov did not really call for a reconstruction of labour history but to give labouring people a real presence in history almost as if to add a touch of reality to history itself. After all what kind of a history will it be if it did not cover the life of the vast majority of the people? One may ask the question – why? If the labouring people know of the hardship and bitterness of their lives and really there is nothing to be discovered for them then what is the purpose of such a history? The concluding portions of the poem addresses the problem brilliantly:

    For the hardship and affliction
    We do not seek rewards,
    Nor do we want our pictures
    In the calendar of years.

    Just tell our story simply
    To those we shall not see,
    Tell those who will replace us

    We fought courageously.

Thus it is neither a self-glorificatory exercise nor a mere academic one. The object of this history of the labouring people is to pass on the future generations of labouring people an awareness of their own history and traditions and struggles. To build the memory of the labouring people not as the ruling classes seek to depict them but as they actually are.

C.N. Subramaniam


Nikola Vaptsarov 1909-1942

A factory, Clouds of smoke above.
The people – simple,
The life – hard, boring.
Life with the mask and grease-paint off
Is a savage dog snarling.

You must tirelessly fight,
Must be tough and persist,
To extract from the teeth
Of the angry,
                bristling beast
A crust.

Slapping belts in the shed,
Screeching shafts overhead,
And the air is so stale
You can’t easily

Not far off the spring breeze
Rocks the fields, the sun calls...
Leaning skyward
                        the trees
The factory walls.
How unwanted,
And strange
        are the fields !
     have thrown in the dustbin
The sky and its dreams.
For to stray for a second
Or soften your heart,
Is to lose to no purpose
Your strong
You must shout in the clatter
And din of machines
For your words
                to pass over
The spaces between.

I shouted for years –
An eternity ...
I gathered the others too shouted in chorus –
The factory,
                the machinery
And the man
                in the farthest,
                                darkest corner.
This shout forged an alloy of steel
And we armoured our life with its plate.
Just try putting
                a spoke in the wheel –
It’s your own hand you’ll break.

You, factory,
Still seek to blind us
With smoke and soot,
Layer on layer.
In vain! For you teach us to struggle.
We’ll bring
The sun
Down to us here.

So many
Under your tyranny smart.
But one heart within you tirelessly
Beats with a thousand hearts.


History, will you mention us
In your faded scroll?
We worked in factories, offices –
Our names were not well known.
We worked in fields, smelled strongly
Of onion and sour bread.
Through thick moustaches angrily
We cursed the life we led.

Will you at least be grateful
We fattened you with news
And slaked your thirst so richly
With the blood of slaughtered crowds?
You’ll lose the human focus
To view the panorama,
And no one will remember
The simple human drama.

The poets will be distracted
With pamphlets, progress rates;
Our unrecorded suffering
Will roam alone in space.

Was it a life worth noting,
A life worth digging up?
Unearthed, it reeks of poison,
Tastes bitter in the cup.

We were born along the hedgerows,
In the shelter of stray thorns
Our mothers lay perspiring,
Their dry lips tightly drawn.

We died like flies in autumn.
The women mourned the dead,
Turned their lament to singing –
But only the wild grass heard.

We who survived our brothers,
Sweated from every pore,
Took any job that offered,
Toiled as the oxen do.

At home our fathers taught us:
‘So shall it always be.’
But we scowled back and spat on
Their fool’s philosophy.

We quit the table curtly,
Ran out of doors, and there
In the open felt the stirring
Of something bright and fair.

How anxiously we waited
In crowded-out cafés,
And turned in late at night
With the last communiqués!

How we were soothed by hoping! ...
But leaden skies pressed lower,
The scorching wind hissed viciously ...
Till we could stand no more!

Yet in your endless volumes
Beneath each letter and line
Out pain will leer forbiddingly
And raise a bitter cry.

For life, showing no mercy,
With heavy brutish paw
Battered our hungry faces.
That’s why our tongue is raw.

That’s why the poems I’m writing
In hours I steal from sleep
Have not the grace of perfume,
But brief and scowling beat.

For the hardship and affliction
We do not seek rewards,
Nor do we want our pictures
In the calendar of years.

Just tell our story simply
To those we shall not see,
Tell those who will replace us –
We fought courageously.


A breathless, perspiring
Came to see me
And said:
‘Write a poem about Botev.’

‘A poem about Botev?’
I sat down.
‘All right,
Come back about seven
On Saturday night.’
Saturday’s long gone by – but I
Grimly persist
And heave a sigh.
The rooftops rattle
As engines battle
With moisture of spring
In the world
And the mist.

My mind is a blank,
My brain just repeating
The same old cant.
My heart beats in panic.
I put down the pen,
Scrap the paper,
Sigh deeply
And then
Say: ‘I can’t.’

I undress,
Lie in bed,
Fall asleep.
But here comes
The grimfaced worker
And asks:
‘Have you written the poem about Botev?’
                ‘The poem about Botev?
                Just listen ...
Stars gleam
In the moonswept sky,
Through rocky ravine
Grey wolves go by,
Their eyes in the darkness glisten ...’

The worker looks puzzled
And asks:
‘Is that Botev?

‘Write of the reapers braving the sun,
Of the tyrant toil,
Of the blood that runs
To blacken the soil,
Of the slaves who sing
To ease their pain
Slow songs which the wind
Bears over the plain.

‘Would Botev be seen
In a rocky ravine?
Even wild beasts of prey
Never go there today.
Can’t you see? Botev kindles
The light in our eyes.
Yes, Botev is here – with the people.
‘If you stumble, he says:
‘Up, and carry the flag!’
So I give you my hand
To help you stand,
And bolder we march along
Shoulder to shoulder.

‘That’s really Botev!
But you’ve used a lot of
Old junk. Cut it out!
Look at life! Move about!
And then you shall know him.
There, that is your poem!’

On Parting

To my wife
Sometimes I’ll come when you’re asleep,
An unexpected visitor.
Don’t leave me outside in the street,
Don’t bar the door!

I’ll enter quietly, softly sit
And gaze upon you in the dark.
Then, when my eyes have gazed their fill,
I’ll kiss you and depart.

* * *

The fight is hard and pitiless.
The fight is epic, as they say.
I fell. Another takes my place –
Why single out a name?

After the firing squad – the worms.
Thus does the simple logic go.
But in the storm, we’ll be with you,
My people, for we loved you so.

2 p.m. – 23 July, 1942

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