Lagadinova on the left arm of Fidel Castro in Havana, 1978.

The Left Side of History

The Legacy of Bulgaria's Elena Lagadinova

In May of 1944, Bulgaria, which occupied large swathes of Northern Greece and Eastern Yugoslavia, was at war with France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Across the country, meanwhile, ragtag bands of guerrillas were resisting the Nazi-allied Bulgarian monarchy. In response to the growing threat of internal insurrection, King Boris III’s government deployed the gendarmerie to stamp out the partisan threat.

The Ministry of Interior paid large bounties for each partisan head. Anyone caught aiding the guerillas could be arrested, tortured, and shot. The gendarmerie had a license to torch the homes of suspected partisans’ families, and they mounted the severed heads of their victims on pikes in village squares.

On May 31, 1944, the gendarmes arrived in Razlog throwing grenades into the home of 14-year-old Elena Lagadinova. She barely escaped, running barefoot into the foothills of the Pirin Mountains, praying that the soldiers would not capture her before she could find her three elder brothers. As her home was reduced to cinders, Lagadinova took up arms and became Bulgaria’s youngest female partisan.

She spent the summer of 1944 fighting in the mountains, earning the nickname “the Amazon” for her courage and tenacity. Although her second-oldest brother, Assen Lagadinov, was ambushed and decapitated by the gendarmerie, Elena survived the war unscathed and went on to become something of an anti-fascist hero and role model. From Sofia to Moscow, children’s magazines told her story and encouraged boys and girls to “be brave like the Amazon.”

Lagadinova with the Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, at a women's conference in Prague, 1975.

Lagadinova with the Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, at a women's conference in Prague, 1975.

Elena Lagadinova went on to become the most important feminist you’ve never heard of, working with warrior-like dedication to the cause of women’s rights, improving the lives of families within the Eastern Bloc and throughout the world—even, indirectly, in the United States. Her achievements have been obscured by Cold War politics and a post-Cold War mentality according to which anything that happened under communism was ipso facto evil.

After WWII, Lagadinova moved to the Soviet Union to pursue a Ph.D. in agro-biology.

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