If 100 people on the street were asked to name the most po-faced ideology, most of them would initially express some confusion at the question. When pushed, I would wager that at least 60% would respond with ‘communism’, playing on the grey and humourless stereotype that one half of the globe pushed in the second half of the last century. The decision makers in the communist world didn’t help matters, although one could argue that the Cold War and great ideological conflict weren’t matters to laugh about.
Anyway, the point is that socialism gets tarred with the humourless brush more than gaudy capitalism, expressive anarchism and the rest. I’m sure there are already plenty of articles on this site about the relative expressiveness of socialism, the plethora of writers, musicians, painters and the rest who managed to spread the good work with no small amount of personality. Hristo Smirnenski is yet another name to add to that list.
He wasn’t born with that name of course. Hristo Izmirliev was born in the Macedonian town that was then called Kukush and is now called Kilkis, a part of Greece, and I really have no desire to get involved in the Macedonia-Greece fight. The Izmirlievs were a poor family, but a poor family with the energy to fight the fight of the Macedonian Bulgarians, a fight the centred around the role of the church in Kukush. Papa Izmirliev was arrested and tortured on numerous occasions, and the family was punished with pure poverty.
The Balkan Wars of the early 1910s did a real number on Kukush, the initial joy at Bulgarian victories being replaced by the white fear of having to escape your burning home. The Izmirlievs were one family among thousands, making the journey as refugees to Sofia. The poverty continued, but somehow the family managed to get Hristo to Technical College, which is where his interest in writing began. That interest should have theoretically been put on hold when Hristo enrolled as a cadet at Military School during World War One, but it would take more than the Great War to stop the pen of Hristo Izmirliev.
In April 1918 Hristo’s first collection of poems was officially published, although he had been contributing to various magazines for a couple of years at the point. The collection was called ‘Raznokalibreni vazdishki v stihove i proze’, or ‘Sighs of various sizes in verse and proze’ to those who aren’t too hot on the Bulgarian front, and all the signs of youthful naivety were on show. Izmirliev would criticise this collection later in life, which should come as no surprise.
Well, Izmirliev didn’t, as Hristo soon took on the pseudonym that sits in the title of this article. Hristo Smirnenski was his name, and poems full of wit and humour were his game. He was actually still in the Military College, but he left after witnessing first hand the brutality that the government was willing to display to keep themselves in power. His father had to pay a large compensation fee to get him out of college, although honesty and integrity trumped financial comfort for sure. Hristo began to become more involved in the political world, participating in demonstrations and rallies for social causes. In 1920 he joined the Communist Youth League, before making the adult jump to the Communist Party proper the following year.
Much like a striker going on a goalscoring spree after signing for a new club, Hristo Smirnenski entered the most creatively fertile time in his life after joining the Communist Party. He contributed frequently to a variety of publications and magazines, creating prose that was as socially engaged as it was human, focusing on the need to a better world for all of humanity. There was something uniquely human about his work, a true love of the fallibility of human beings. Smirnenski wanted humans to be happy – it was that simple.
Smirnenski produced thousands of pieces of poetry during these years, using a variety of pseudonyms but the work was uniquely his. The lyrics flew by at a rapid pace, with characters taking form through short stanzas that explored the confessional nature of existence without being too down in the dumps about it. The poems were also funny, as Hristo injected no small amount of humour into the everyday struggle for something better. That is life after all, is it not?
His intense working schedule did little for his health. After struggling with paratyphoid in 1921, Smirnenski managed to exchange this one debilitating condition for another, altogether more vicious one. Tuberculosis made itself at home in his lungs, and the doctor’s advice to get ‘fresh air, strong food and tranquility’ didn’t exactly bode well. Smirnenski went to a sanatorium but was unable to secure a bed, and the Bulgarian coup of June 1923 left him without food for a number of days. He had little chance of surviving, and on June 18, 1923, he passed away. He was just 24 years old.
Smirnenski’s legacy is that of a poet who believed in socialism second only to his belief in humanity. 24 years is no time at all, but in less than a quarter of a century Hristo Smirnenski managed to fill the world with humour and wit, whether writing about the everyday struggles of sex workers of the Devil himself, desperately wanting a little bit of respect on Earth.
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