Assen Zlatarov (1885-1936)
Cultivating the hearts

He was a chemist, the founder of biochemistry in Bulgaria, and a populariser of scientific knowledge. His lectures were widely popular. Born in Haskovo, he studied chemistry in Geneva, went on with a specialization in Munich, earned a doctoral degree in the University of Grenoble and became a professor at the University of Sofia. He was the editor of popular magazines, a literary and art critic and a talented writer using the pen-name Aura. He published two books of poems, a novel, memoirs, travel notes and other fiction. He was made famous by his book In the Soviet Union. Assen Zlatarov died of cancer in Vienna shortly after surgery. Funds were raised for the repatriation of his body to Sofia.

"We are craving and yearning for such personalities, so complete and harmonious, so captivating and inspiring as Assen Zlatarov." These were the words of Nikolai Fol in 1932, at the 25th anniversary of the career of the amazingly popular scientist. At that time Zlatarov was forty-seven, a professor of organic chemistry in the University of Sofia. By that time, with his articles and books, but most of all with his public lectures and speeches, he had penetrated all spheres of intellectual life in Bulgaria. He edited and published Botev's poetry and translated Rabindranath Tagore, and spoke at the funerals of both Pencho Slaveykov, and the writer Vassil Pundev, who had fallen victim to the mutually destructive struggles in the Macedonian revolutionary movement. His speech on the occasion of Anton Strashimirov's anniversary became a landmark in Bulgarian political history. Furthermore, he founded scientific societies and magazines, fought alcoholism, studied nutrition in Bulgaria as well as cancer and its aspect as a bio-social problem, attempted to find a cure for tuberculosis and made unique discoveries in the treatment of diabetes. He wrote articles about poetry, theatre, music and art as well as about soybean as a food of the future. He popularised world culture, from Goethe to Henry Barbusse and Maxim Gorky. His idol was the French socialist Jean Jaures who "hypnotised with his moral genius: never any lies, never any tricks". His motto was Blaise Pascal's words: "Man is born to think". His favourite subject: "The problem of happiness. The art of living."

Zlatarov's personal life was as unique as his intellectual universalism which, in Attanas Dalchev's words, "defied all categories". He was totally devoted to two women: his mother Theophana and his wife Evdokia (Dunya). Assen Zlatarov came back form his studies in Geneva "reeking of books", having seen nothing of the bohemian way of life. His friends recalled his face, "drawn as a monk's" at five o'clock in the morning at the brightly lit table piled up with books. However, he fought constantly against the "armchair scholars", against self-sufficient hermetism. His love for books never prevented him from filling his daily schedule with intense social contacts.

His socialist views or, to be more precise, his sever love for socialism, never made him part of partisan struggles. His protest against the impending threat of a new war, against "the excesses in Germany" and against Hitler's race theory which he described as "cynicism in science", was the protest of an independent democrat and intellectual, not a reflection of an affiliation to a political group.

He was in the focus of social conflicts without being an ideologist or a politician. Though disunited, the intelligentsia unanimously recognised him as "the most alert cultural conscience in this country". The students found in him "a father and a patron", the workers "a champion of truth, a fighter for freedom and a man who was always affable, showing the way to a wonderful life", and the political prisoners called him "a defender struggling for pardon". As for himself, he was convinced that "mankind has a right over the scientist, and his solitude or egoism constitute a violation of that right".

Faithful to the style of his time, Assen Zlatarov filled the ten thousand pages of his works with strong and beautiful language. This was equally true of his novels, the blank verse, the essays, and even his scientific articles. To him, inspiring language was particularly important, for he was one of the few Bulgarian intellectuals to whom "style makes man". Delicate and refined in his manners and clothing, a scientist and an aesthete, he succeeded in fulfilling in his life the ideals he believed to be essential for the human condition. Those ideas he formulated loftily as "service and sacrifice", "humanity and progress", "incorruptibility of the proud and brave souls, moral supremacy over pettiness and selfishness, yearning for self-assertion".

In the great figures of the National Revival and the first founders of new Bulgaria he saw first and foremost strength of character and impeccable morality. He was convinced that the Bulgarian people constituted a moral community to which "democracy is an aspect of character, a product of the nation's potential, a typical and distinctive feature". He taught that "Bulgarians could be valuable only as Bulgarians in the Balkans, not as Prussians, French or Japanese". However, what they needed most was a "culture of the heart". "The lack of this is the cause of all our national misfortunes, and it makes our life oppressing and cheerless. Isn't it time to consider the culture of the heart as an issue?" Immediately after the tragic massacres in 1923 and 1925, that question sounded like a challenge. However, Assen Zlatarov's answer to it through his public activity and scientific work was even more challenging.

His tireless activity in science, literature, philosophy and art was, in fact, an attempt to fill the lives of Bulgarians with meaning and higher values. Perhaps that was the reason why an enormous multitude of Bulgarians felt so close to the unusual professor. They understood what was at the core of his effort to cultivate the heart.

{Spiritual Leaders of Bulgaria}

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