Poems for Brazil: Dilma Rousseff's Father and Bulgaria's Greatest Poetess between Friendship and Love?*

Special Report |Author: Ivan Dikov | October 5, 2011, Wednesday // 01:00|  views

A portrait of Bulgarian poetess Elisaveta Bagryana by artist Ivan Tabakov. Bagryana was a really close friend - and probably more than that - with Dilma Rousseff's father Petar Rusev (Pedro Rousseff).

*This is a reprint of the Novinite.com article published on January 17, 2011. The article is reprinted on the occasion of Dilma Rousseff's first ever visit to Bulgaria on October 5-6, 2011.

The relationship - whether it was friendship or something more - between Dilma Rousseff's Bulgarian father Petar Rusev (Pedro Rousseff) and Elisaveta Bagryana, the greatest Bulgarian poetess of all time, might have been one of the most beautiful stories of the 20th century.



Dilma Rousseff has already taken over as the 36th President of Brazil, and her administration is up and running.

However, the stories surrounding the amazing fate of the family of Brazil's first female President – from 19th-century Gabrovo in Central Bulgaria, a vibrant center of Bulgaria's National Revival, to Palacio do Planalto in Brasilia, the capital of one of the rising colossi of the 21st century - are yet to intrigue and startle the world.

One such story is the relationship between Dilma Rousseff's Bulgarian father Petar Rusev (Pedro Rousseff) and Elisaveta (Lisa) Bagryana, the greatest Bulgarian poetess of all time.

Rusev and Bagryana are known to have been very close. But how did this closeness come about?Were they "just friends" or was there a love romance between them? Why did Bagryna dedicate poems to Petar Rusev and Brazil? What exactly do these poems say?

I was discretely asked not to tackle the topic about the relationship between Dilma Rousseff's father and the most renowned Bulgarian poetesses; and I have also noticed some attempts on part of certain Bulgarian intellectuals, who are extremely respected authors and researchers and whose names I will not mention here, to dismiss and maybe even conceal this story from the public attention. Probably – this is just my guess! – they are acting on concerns that Bagryana's iconic image might somehow be tarnished.

I for one have chosen to disregard their efforts and requests. For me as a Bulgarian, the great figures of Bulgarian culture matter a great deal, so I am certainly not motivated by any desire to dig up some malicious rumors and dirt about any of them.

But I do believe that the readers of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) from around the world, from Bulgaria, Brazil, and elsewhere, deserve to have this story presented to their attention – as it might be the story of either one of the greatest friendships – or one of the greatest love romances – of the 20th century. And I think that the perhaps the greatest source about their relationships are the poems that Bagryana authored.

All I am going to do is look into the poems of Elisaveta Bagryana dedicated to Petar Rusev, Dilma Rusev's father, and to Brazil. As I failed to find any translation into English (or other languages) of these specific poems, the translations presented here are mine; I do not claim the status of spectacular poetry translation achievements for them; they are solely supposed to convey the basic meaning and messages of the poems.

Dilma Rousseff's family in the 1950s: (L-R) Brother Igor Rousseff, mother Dilma, Dilma Vana (standing), Zana (front), and father Petar Rousseff. Photo from Wikipedia

Back to Who Is Who: Petar Rusev (Pedro Rousseff)

Dilma Vana Rousseff's father, Petar Stefanov Rusev (known in Brazil as Pedro Rousseff) was born in 1900 in Gabrovo in Central Bulgaria. His parents, Tsana and Stefan Rusev, married and lived in the town of Gabrovo. The family had five children – two daughters – Piya and Vana, and three sons – Rusi, Petar, and Zahari.

Petar Rousseff moved to Sofia at an early age where he started studying law but subsequently began trading in textiles (the town of Gabrovo, because of its many textile plants, at the time was known as "The Bulgarian Manchester").

In 1929, Petar Rousseff left his wife Evdokiya Yankova, who was in her last month of pregnancy, and went to France. His wife and son Lyuben-Kamen Rusev (who never saw his father) did not hear from him for 18 years, which is why they long believed that he died somewhere around the world. In 1948, they received their first letter from him.

Petar Rousseff's departure from Bulgaria in 1929 remains shrouded in mystery. According to Dilma Roussef herself and other sources, he was connected with leftist movements in Bulgaria in 1920s, and more specifically, with the Bulgarian Communist Party, and fled political repression.

After a right-wing coup in 1923, the political situation in Bulgaria in the 1920s was especially tense, with the government persecuting the communists and other leftists in the so called "White Terror", while the communists responded with sabotages and armed rebellions (most notably the June and September Uprisings in 1923) in the so called "Red Terror", which culminated in 1925 in the largest terrorist attack in Bulgarian history, the blowing-up of the St. Nedelya Cathedral in Sofia that killed 134 people.

Even though the late 1920s are today seen as a time of relative political calm in Bulgaria politically, the landscape was hardly safe for anybody of communist orientation so leaving the country as a political ?migr? might have made much sense. It still remains unclear whether Petar Rousseff left Bulgaria for political reasons, whether he was ever arrested and persecuted. His Bulgarian son, Lyuben-Kamen Rusev, who died in 2008 claimed that his father emigrated from Bulgaria because his business went bankrupt.

Petar Rousseff lived in France for 15 years, heading to Argentina in 1944, and shortly after that to Brazil, where he married Dilma Jane Silva, and settled in Belo Horizonte.The couple had three children – Igor (born January 1947), Dilma Vana, the future President of Brazil (born December 1947), and Zana (Tsana) (born 1951).

Elisaveta Bagryana (1893-1991), the most renowned Bulgarian poetess.


Bagryana, "the Eternal and Holy" Poetess

One very important fact about Petar Rusev (1900-1962) is that he was very close with Nobel Prize-nominated Bulgarian poetess Elisaveta Bagryana (1893-1991), who he met in France in the 1930s.

Elisaveta Bagryana (1893 – 1991), born Elisaveta Lyubomirova Belcheva wrote her first verses in Veliko Tarnovo in 1907-08. She studied Slavic Studies at Sofia University. Her first poems were published in 1915.

After World War I that Bagryana rose to prominence with her poems published in literary magazines that captivated the minds of the Bulgarian youth. She earned even more widespread recognition after the publication of her first book of poems, The Eternal and the Holy (Vechnata i svyatata), in 1927.

Bagryana's works have been translated in over 30 languages. Her poems are most recently available in a book entitled "Penelope of the 21st Century: Selected poems of Elisaveta Bagryana," translated into English by Brenda Walker. In 1969, Bagryana won a gold medal from the National Association of Poets in Rome. She was the second of three Bulgarians ever nominated for a Nobel Prize for literature.

Bagryana's personal life appears to have been also rather dynamic. She was married to her first husband, Ivan Shapkarev in 1919-1925, giving birth to her only child, her son Lyubomir Shapkarev in 1919. Her second marriage was to Alexander Likov from 1944 until 1954 when Likov died.

Bagryana's life was marked by a rather amazing relationship of friendship and rivalry with Dora Gabe (1888-1983), probably the second most renowned Bulgarian poetess. Interestingly, Bagryana did have a history of dating men who were previously partners of her friend and rival Dora Gabe. In the mid 1920s she dated the most renowned Bulgarian literary critic Boyan Penev, who was married to Gabe earlier; Bagryana's second husband Alexander Likov was initially Gabe's fianc?.

Elisaveta Bagryana (right) with another great Bulgarian poetess Dora Gabe, her friend and rival, in 1940, in Dobrich, Northeastern Bulgaria, at a celebration for the recovery of Southern Dobrudzha from Romania. Here Bagryana is 47.

Lisa Bagryana and Petar Rusev – Friendship or Love?

It is probably safe to say that Bagryana's weight in Bulgarian literature and society was about the same as the importance of all English-language poetesses in the English-language literature combined. For a non-Bulgarian it might be hard to understand what it meant to be close with Bagryana – in the popular culture of the 21st century it would probably equal being best friends with a dozen of the top Hollywood actresses. How did Bagryana and Petar Rusev become close, and how close were they exactly?

One of the clues to the answer to these questions is when Bagryana and Rusev actually met.

Accounts from 2004, in the first publications in the Bulgarian media about Dilma Rousseff, who back then was the minister of energy in the first Lula Cabinet, state that Dilma's father Petar Rusev and Elisaveta Bagryana met in France in the 1930s. These accounts are from interviews with the same researchers, who recently sought to convince me and everybody else who asked them that the two of them actually met much later – in 1960 – and that there was "no way the two had a love affair since they were already very old at that time."

Yet, it is known that in July 1960 Bagryana went to Rio de Janeiro for a congress of the International Pen Club; there she met with Petar Rusev (which was a reunion after a very long time, as the poems below prove) who then took her to his Brazilian family's home, his mansion in Belo Horizonte. Bagryana spent a month there, meeting and spending a lot of time his wife and kids, including the 13-year-old Dilma Vana Rousseff. The future President of Brazil has later revealed she recalled very well the visit of the Bulgarian poetess.

The same researchers, who claim that Bagryana and Rusev did not meet until 1960, have also said in recent interviews that, according to Bagryana's own memories, she was very surprised that the person whom she used to know earlier as a working man, had managed to become rich in Brazil, with a mansion that took three days to see it all.

What is more, Bagryana's poems reveal that the connection that she had to Petar Rusev is very old, very strong, and very well-established since she talks about his family and friends back in Bulgaria and about what they and Bulgaria used to be like many years ago.

It is after her visit to Petar Rusev's home in Brazil in 1960 and after his death in 1962 that she wrote the nine poems in her "Brazilian Cycle", published in the book of poems entitled "From Coast to Coast."

Three, perhaps four of the poems in this cycle appear to be directly dedicated to Petar Rusev, and while they are not explicitly love poems and do not provide conclusive and clear-cut evidence that the two had ever been in love, they do have certain connotations and suggestions of a romance in their younger days that grew to become a very strong friendship, a friendship that persisted until the two saw each other again in 1960 when she was 67 and he was 60.

What most likely happened is that Petar Rusev and Bagryana did meet in France in the 1930s, and then, meeting again in 1960, they reconnected as very close friends who had shared common ideals and aspirations in their younger days, and perhaps feelings for one another.

One of the poems reveals that Petar Rusev himself used to write poems or at least to have poetic attempts in his younger days.

Bagryana is known to have traveled a lot to Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, (even in the days of the communist dictatorship in Bulgaria after 1944 she was allowed to travel to the West) which is where Petar Rusev was from 1929 until 1944. H

er previous great love romance after her divorce in 1925 – with literary critic Boyan Penev – had ended with Penev's death in 1927, and her second marriage came only in 1944. Is it possible that Petar Rusev in the 1930s could have been one of the great romances in the life of this extraordinary woman?

As already mentioned, those people in Bulgaria who can give a more clear-cut answer (which is most likely positive) have chosen not to, and they probably have their reasons. I am told by a Brazilian journalist that Dilma Rousseff at one point suggested that she believed there was something more than just friendship between her father and the greatest Bulgarian poetess back in the days when they were young.

Romance or no romance – the poems that reveal an extremely deep emotional connection between Petar Rusev and Elisaveta (Lisa) Bagryana – are right here.

You can download the below translations of the poems in PDF HERE

Poems for a Nostalgic Love

The nine poem's in Bagryana's Brazilian Cycle (1960-1963) are "The Eyes of Brazil", "Whiskey with Ice and Tears", "A Blazing Tree", "Azalea", "Industry", "Snake Farm", "Nostalgic Love", "A Handful of Snow", "Airports".

Let's start with "Whiskey with Ice and Tears" – the poem that appears to be a celebration of the reunion in Rio de Janeiro between Bagryana and her close friend, and possibly an old sweetheart, after many years.

The poem focuses mainly on Rusev's nostalgia and homesickness but shows that the two must have had a history of a long relationship as friends or perhaps as more than that.

The poem is explicitly known to have been dedicated to Petar Rusev, but it even contains a direct reference to him – as it mentions that he hadn't spoken Bulgarian in 30 years. Rusev left Bulgaria in 1929, then he and Bagryana met in France in the 1930s, and the moment of their reunion is the summer of 1960, when the poetess attended the International Pen Club congress in Rio in July 1960.


Whiskey with Ice and Tears

In this pearly Brazilian forenoon

we are sitting alone by the meeting embarrassed

on the peaceful terrace

above Rio de Janeiro towering.

I gaze my eyes yearningly

into the stunning view

emerged to the surface, engulfed into the sunny brightness

like a mirage above the desert of water.

Unwillingly I close my eyes, I shut my lashes,

and then I open them again

to see that it is real

and not a cinerama image

this vision shining

between the two blue hemispheres

of sky and ocean.

That a reality

is also my accidental presence

on this fantastic beach...


And you – you slowly sip

whiskey with ice,

with a blind look staring

not here but somewhere far, perhaps

beyond the ocean, coasts.

The question, unstopping, invariable,

waiting for enlightenment for so long,

is weighing on your pale lips

and pain it pictures on your face.

"How is it there, with us?" -

it finally is uttered

in your Bulgarian, half-forgotten,

unspoken in 30 years.

"Tell me the truth.

About alive

and about dead."

Did you knock down a rock from your chest?

I come to my senses from my oblivion,

I take my sight off the horizon,

I turn it inwards,

to the heart,

and speak

about Bulgaria.

Slowly, unpretentiously.


What am I telling?

"Your mother lives

with your photographs and the rare letters.

She pines after you.

She says she is okay.

She shows to relatives and neighbors

your wife – a beauty!

Most favorite

of the kids – is the youngest one

who you named with her Bulgarian name.

She shows your new home, the car...


But you're turning your head away, you stand up quickly

to the end of the terrace you go

and before the laughter of a poster,

you discreetly wipe your eyes.

Returning, you ask me with excitement -

not to speak about her any more...

But your raving remorse

and grief,

how will dissipate?


What am I telling?

Simply and chaotically,

without unneeded fervor, or comments,

about my last journey I took

on Bulgaria's new roads.

"By car?" you ask me.

"Yes, by car," I say.

"So they are not those roads today..."

I am not making up thing for you.

I'm not exaggerating, nor hiding what's good,

what's bad;

I am not making

our roads straighter.

I am not making

our mounts higher,

nor our Black Sea coast more beautiful,

nor our new lakes deeper,

nor our burning furnaces more powerful,

nor the Kremikovtzi mud more shallow,

nor do I turn the houses in the Rhodope into palaces,

nor do I add more storeys to our cities,

nor do I make our new villages richer,

nor do I make our people, us, more perfect,

without a shadow,



inside the soul.

Nor do I make our mistakes – less important,

though overcome

and paid for they are...


What am I telling?

Most usual

and everyday exploits and facts

known with us even to the children.

And you have gazed at me,

with elbow on the marble table,

and hand has nervous twitch.

What am I telling?

"In the hard years

of bloody fight, war, deceptions,

not few of your friends

in prison,

in fight,

in the hands of firing squads

they died...


But memory about them is alive, alive

and love in the hearts does not get colder,

and dead they aren't for us

but alive they are.

What am I telling?

I hear, you're breathing hard.

"Yes, Nikolay, your closest friend

from your school years

(you know, today he is a writer)

is asking you -

do you still write poems,

and won't you ever to your fatherland

come back?


What am I telling?

You absolutely faded,

as if you're shivering with awful fever

and you start talking brokenly:

"Since I've been here not a single line I've written

and, shame on me, forgot my native tongue.

The first fifteen years

I was fighting


and nail,

and fist

for some shelter, even small one,

for meager bread,

and for a little whiskey.

And only I do know how much I wandered,

and how many kilometers

I went on foot...


Now I am tangled in a golden web

by banks,

by factories

and markets

(they bring surprises every day),

by love and unaltered worries -

for both my kids,

and for my wife -

a coddled and frail southern flower -

who helpless is without me.

Unbreakable is

this golden web engulfing me

so closely.

I know, I will never leave from here,

and will never feel

the homely soil under my feet.


No, I have no,

I have no fatherland

any more..."


You gaze at me for moment with a blurry

and moist look.

Your head is bowing lower and lower,

your shaking hand is reaching

to the crystal glass -

with spectral glimmers from the sun.

And you raise it,

and gulp – thirstily, quickly.

But I see

how in it

from your eyes

two small gushing brooks

are flowing down...

And you are drinking -

whiskey with ice

and tears....

(L-R) Poetess Elisaveta Bagryana, the young Dilma Vana Rousseff, and her mother Dilma in their home in Belo Horizonte in 1960. This photo was given in the 1970s to Bulgarian diplomat Rumen Stoyanov by Dilma Rousseff's mother



"Nostalgic Love" conveys the same strong feelings on part of Petar Rusev with respect to Bulgaria, his fatherland, and his Bulgarian family. The nostalgic love that he has for them is epitomized by Bagryana, the author herself, as she becomes the "recipient" and conveyor of his feelings.

Why did Rusev see her as the proper outlet of his love for his home country and his family there – just because she was some old Bulgarian acquaintance who had dropped by on a visit? Or is it because she was somebody whom he loved in the past? - So that in this way his feelings for the lost fatherland, his family that he never saw again, and his past beloved woman would merge into one nostalgic love?

This merging of a man's love for his country, his mother, and his beloved woman (the country is also seen as a motherly figure in Bulgarian culture) has been a very common and powerful motif in Bulgarian poetry and literature since the 19th century when it was part with the struggle for national liberation from the Ottoman Empire.


Nostalgic Love

Two blue eyes

stared at me so astonished

as if I'd flown here

from a country unreal.

And you were all gripped by anxiety,

confusion so sincere

as if you had in front of you standing

a woman from another planet.


But I was bringing the whiff

of Thracian grain fields,

and crane's bill from the Balkan

that you as a kid would gather.

Through me you saw

close to yourself – both -

your mother inconsolable

and your sister deceased.


Though me you saw

in the blurry distance

the new fatherland's

risen unknown image.

And deeply depressed

and perhaps already extinguished

a new nostalgic craving in you

like a geyser started to boil.


You poured before me

full baskets with the most fragrant

and sappy fruits

never before by me tasted.

You surrounded me with tropical

bright flowers unknown,

with palm tents,

with eucalyptus woods.


Towards gold diggers' centers,

towards farms, hamlets,

age-old jungle forests

hurdled along our way.

In colorful Brazilian hammock

under a coconut shadow

you swung me -

and you entrusted me with your life and love.


But the hour came

for my return journey.

You were as if dazzled

by an opium cloud.

You talked about a last,

last love un-experienced.

You talked – and your blue eyes

burned before mine.


I listened to you and listened -

and was watching the world above -

this sky southern and foreign,

with these foreign stars.

I believed you and didn't,

and deep, deep down understood,

I was the receiver,

you, motherland,

were the sender.

Elisaveta Bagryana pictured in front of the home of Petar Rusev, Dilma Rousseff's father, and his family in Belo Horizonte in Brazil in 1960. This photo was provided by former Bulgarian diplomat Rumen Stoyanov who got them in the 1970s from Dilma Rousseff


"Azalea" is an allegoric poem, which might have been meant to "explain", in a sense, why Petar Rusev's poetic endeavors stopped as he was struggling with his immigrant life. In it, Bagryana explains how her flower, an azalea died because it was away from its homely soil and air – unlike the wild azaleas she saw in Brazil.

The poem does mention that the azalea was a present "from a beloved person, I don't hide it" – could it have been a flower in a pot she got as a present from Rusev in their youth? Such a suggestion is probably too much of an overstretch, even though it could be a mention reminding him of their romance. In any case, she seems to be saying the immigrant life brought Rusev unhappiness – a motif seen in all poems in her Brazilian Cycle connected with him – in spite of the fact that, as the poems acknowledge – he got a wonderful wife and new family and home in Brazil.



You are asking about the poet? – Listen:


I got as present – for my name day,

or for some different occasion,

a present very dear to me –

an azalea in a pot.

She is imported plant at home

(she was from a beloved person, I don't hide it)

and made me very happy

with its pink decoration.


I placed her on my table –

so she has direct sunlight,

and put a lot of care every day

into the warmth she needs,

and proper moisture.

As if from gratitude, she

also started shining with new blossoms,

and blossomed the entire winter.


But then, she faded in the second one,

subsided she her pale blossoms,

and in the third year,

in spite of all my hearty care,

my azalea died.


And I didn't understand what caused her death...


And here I saw today blooming

azaleas next to your yard.

Azaleas – entire trees –

much, much above my height.


They've opened their blossoms in their own air,

and in their own soil they have their roots,

They are so wanton with sap and powers,

unlike their sister –

my azalea who died...


Her death I only understood today.

Did you understand my answer?



Bagryana wrote "A Handful of Snow" upon receiving a telegram with the news about Petar Rusev's death. The poem is especially powerful with its memories of their conversations and a promise that Bagryana made as a joke to Rusev to bring him in a flask a handful of snow from Bulgaria.

"How I crave a handful of snow... And to have been with you,/ right there,/ in the winter -/ I would give half my life for that...," Rusev says in the poem dreaming of his native Bulgaria. But is it just his homeland and its snowy winters that he misses, or perhaps he also refers to some moments in his youth when the two of them were together?


A Handful of Snow

A telegram is flickering in my fingers.



For five days already?

And the drama ended in your soul

with this suddenly resolved finale?


Deaf above the tropic and equator

flew this black piece of news,

and through the Atlantic

and Europe,

it landed in my hands today.


The radio says -

on the squares,

in the heat – fifty degrees in shadow -

there people were dying of sun strokes.

You feel

no heat,

no ice.


And here it is 20 below zero,

and there is awesome bluish snow falling down.

Do you remember that night below the tower

how I told you about Boyana once again?


Three nights and three days I was trapped inside

by myself in the drifts and blizzard,

thinking that the house above

was crashing down on my in the darkness of the night.


You uttered

hardly audibly:

"How I crave a handful of snow...

And to have been with you,

right there,

in the winter -

I would give half my life for that...


I made a joke:

"I promise you -

that if I fly over for a second time -

in a flask

brought from Vitosha,

a handful of snow will be my gift for you.


And now you are pressed forever

under the heat of foreign,

fatherly coast.

And I am throwing over you only in my thoughts

the handful of snow

I promised you once.




I am leaving it to the readers of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) to judge by these poems what kind of a relationship Bulgaria's most talented poetess Elisaveta Bagryana and Dilma Rousseff's father, the Bulgarian-Brazilian entrepreneur Petar Rusev had. I for one am convinced that the poems cited above are a testimony of a firm and deep emotional bond the two of them rediscovered in 1960 that most likely matured from a powerful 1930s French romance.

If anybody knew for sure and could tell to world the story of the love romance these two extraordinary individuals most likely had, which later developed into a deep and meaningful friendship at an older age, this might well turn out to be one of the most beautiful stories of the 20th century, all the more so as it was happening against the backdrop of global political upheaval...



Pedro Rousseff (right) with his wife Dilma and their kids Igor and Dilma Vana, Brazil's future President, in the 1950s.


I would like to complete this article – specially for the people in Brazil who will read it – with the poem that Bagryana explicitly dedicated to Brazil in her Brazilian Cycle. This is the way she saw Brazil in 1960.


The Eyes of Brazil

Through the ocean

flying alone,


in the huge land,

I was coming,

a stranger unknown,

with heart open for your


and searching -

not for your luring gold,

but for your real,

good face -

with the color of a dark,

unrevealed lily,

with your mysterious eyes,


Through all the windows,

and doors,

and through invisible slits,

you burst gasping close to me -

with tropical

sparkling sky,

with your soil

red hot,

with what,

that you still were not,

but that I felt,

hidden in abundance

for tomorrow's day,



but everywhere you were,

and I gathered your features:

through your cities

of many millions,

in the hotels -

on the 20th floor,

on the power-steamers,

weighting thousand tons,

on the blue Capacabana beach,

in the Serton's joyless idyll.

And you were everywhere,

and you were not,


But today to you

with open sails

and with your

waving banners

reached you

the ship of freedom.

You made way for it

in your waters

and let it

fly winged

into your expanse

under the southern stars.


Now I perceive

your image


and the secret in your eyes,



Novinite.com's article on "The Amazing Story of Dilma Rousseff - Brazil's Bulgarian President" READ HERE

You can download the above translations of the poems in PDF HERE

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Tags: France, poetess, Elisaveta Bagryana, Petar Rusev, Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, Brazilian President


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