One year after their return from Paris, Sava Popov and Iliya Beshkov started publishing the newspaper Starshel (Hornet). The first issue appeared in December 1940. The format of the newspaper was 35 x 25 cm, 8 pages in length, and it was published every Friday. Over the course of five months, the newspaper increased its audience and was in demand all over Bulgaria and even in neighbouring Serbia. The circulation of Hornet was relatively high for a new publication – 10,000. For comparison, Rayko Alexiev’s famous newspaper Shturets (Cricket) had reached a circulation of 50,000 copies at that time. The two of them had to comply with censorship restrictions, but despite their Aesopian language, the paper was banned after issue 22.
The publication of Hornet started up at an inopportune moment. At the beginning of 1941, Bogdan Filov was elected Prime Minister; pro-German laws were passed, Bulgaria became part of the Tripartite Pact, and society was functioning like a military regime – censorship was even stricter, and punishments were carried out immediately.
The newspaper worked with the Nova Kambana (New Bell) printing house at 5 Macedonia Blvd. in Sofia; this address was also indicated for the editorial office. But in reality, Hornet could not afford its own premises. Sava Popov managed the accounting; we find detailed reports on payments to contributors and expenses for printing and transport. The amounts for advances for the period 30.11.1940 – 30.01.1941 were listed as: advertisement in the newspaper Zora (Dawn) – 130 levs, radio advertisement – 356 levs, in Utro (Morning) – 111 levs, in Dnes (Today) – 63 levs, poster office – 300 levs, Zmey Goryanin’s advance – 250 levs, Beshkov’s advance – 3500 levs. In a handwritten note, accounts are figured up to issue 15, including “…by March 15, Iliya Beshkov was paid 9,750 levs.” It is not clear what amount of work these payments were for, but it is certain that the work of Iliya Beshkov and Sava Popov was not sufficiently compensated. The price of an issue of Hornet was 2 levs.
The newspaper was built around the cartoons of Beshkov – the first and last pages were entirely devoted to them. These were some of the artist’s most iconic works. He couldn’t stand the language of the press, “twisted and distorted by newspapermen’s nonsense,” and he portrayed politicians directly, finding what was funny and compromising about them. His other weapon was playing with clichés – for example, peace and war were the subject of many of his cartoons. The dove and the angel of peace are defenceless in the hands of his Churchill and Filov, threatened by a raven or chased by Mars; the Pope’s olive branch is trampled by a soldier’s boot. Several months before Germany attacked the USSR, Beshkov drew “Equilibrium Maintained,” in which Molotov holds a sack of grain and a barrel of oil, seated in a helmet with a swastika. The Ribbentrop-Molotov
Pact was still valid at the time, and censorship stopped any cartoons that mocked the warring powers, because they sometimes exchanged places.
In just 5 months, the names of more than 100 contributors appeared on the pages of Hornet. The editorial office could also boast of intelligent readers who regularly wrote to them. They thanked, praised, criticized, or gave quite specific and sensible recommendations for the content and distribution of the newspaper. These letters are preserved in the archive.
A student from Svishtov writes to the editors of Hornet
Dear Mr. Popov,
I am in awe of your humorous newspaper Hornet. I’ve been a reader from the very first issue. I especially like the work of our first Bulgarian cartoonist, Iliya Beshkov, whom I already knew from the newspaper Pladne (Noon).
I am writing this letter to express my joy at the appearance of Hornet. I’m already tired of broad humour, so stereotypical and commonplace, as well as Rayko Alexiev’s clumsy caricatures in his Cricket. And when I think that before the publication of your newspaper, we read Cricket and kept up with the quality of Bulgarian humour from it…
I wish you great success and, important for the survival of any print publication, even greater sales. I do not know why, but here, in the city of Svishtov, the beloved Hornet is not sold much. I cannot explain why this is. But it seems that a share of the newspaper’s small sales is also shared by the newspaper distributors from the Strela agency, who did not even place the first issues in a prominent place, but put them between the other newspapers. And I must also tell you that this is the “Cricket kingdom” – the several hundred issues of this newspaper that come here are sold to the one. I will try to distribute it among the students of the academy here, where I myself am a student. But this will happen no earlier than February 25, when we start classes. […]
Lyuben Gavrilov, student in Svishtov, 14 February 1941
One of the most popular columns in the newspaper Hornet was “Cartoon Interview by Iliya Beshkov” on the last page. The artist’s eleven conversations with animals are still considered a kind of benchmark in the history of Bulgarian caricature and satire. In them, the topics of the day are commented on through Beshkov’s dialogues with a raven, a monkey, a donkey, and a rat. In this direct form, classic human flaws such as a love of power, envy, pride, or plain stupidity are touched upon again and again. Smuggled in between the lines are the names of politicians, artists, writers, and current events of the days – air-raids, misuse of finances, speculation, political crises. Their pure humour, the masterful handling of clichés about the qualities of animals projected onto humans, the dialogues taken to absurdity, the mythologems and the references to topical situations make these interviews both funny and bitter.
From the column Radio Hornet
Somewhere in Europe, 10 January
A commission of philologists is finishing up their job. From the published information it is clear that the most used word in popular speech is the word “Basta.”
Heaven, 10 January
Here they continue to systematize the millions of requests addressed to the Lord God for victory over the enemy. The requests are made in various languages, from various peoples and religions, and most of them are written illiterately. The Commission is encountering great difficulty in deciphering them.
Bucharest, 31 January
The spreading of false rumours is still strictly forbidden. Only true news confirmed by the army and the police can be spread.
The numerous regular columns speak to the richness of the content. “Inevitable Contributors” presented writers and humourist poets – Elin Pelin, Dimitar Podvarzachov, Stoyan Mihailovski, Hristo Smirnenski, Ivan Vazov, and stories by Trifon Kunev, S. L. Kostov, Aleko Konstantinov, and Damyan Kalfov. In addition to distinguished Bulgarian authors, texts by international humourists also appeared – Jerome K. Jerome, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Leo Štampar, an others. Auxiliary sections such as “Our Review,” “Radio Hornet,” “Mail,” “Cinema Actors in House Slippers,” “Chronicle,” and “A Spoonful an Hour” provided the opportunity to review events at the theatre, cinema, and opera, but also to publish short jokes and anecdotes from one-time contributors to the paper.
In the “Literature” column, short reviews were published of new humorous (but not only) books from various Bulgarian publishing houses, among which we also see The Devils in the Cellar and Grandfather God Walking the Earth by Sava Popov, with illustrations by Iliya Beshkov. In the column “Tales about Womankind,” feuilletons satirized various feminine shortcomings, from a man’s point of view. The different nations were also described with clichés, in the spirit of wartime humour – how they love, how they fight, to what extent they are stingy or gluttonous.
Beshkov’s drawings were everywhere on the pages of the newspaper. Satirical portraits of political figures such as Pétain and General de Gaulle, conversations between villagers, gatherings of urban women, animals and children, self-portraits with Konstantin Petkanov and his household. His style is unmistakably recognizable among the cartoons from the foreign press, most often reprinted from newspapers in Zagreb, Belgrade, and Paris.
From December 1940 until April 1941, 22 issues of the newspaper Hornet came out in 5 months.
Recollections of Sava Popov
I have in my personal archive his manuscripts from his “interviews” from Hornet 1940–1941. They were all written in my presence. Because of the exceptional political situation, because of the strict censorship and the special watching and interpretation of these interviews, because they each carried addresses and their own content, we were careful about every word and symbol. Written as they were by Beshkov in pencil, by hand – with all the corrections on them, for lack of a typewriter and time, I carried them directly to the censors. There they greeted them not just with official interest, but most often with enthusiasm at the wonderful drawing and the successful joke, and they would forget their official position… They would pound down their stamp. Because of such superficial or unconscious “omissions” of the censor, we were summoned several times to the police headquarters, the printing division, so we could give explanations and they could issue a warning that Hornet would be stopped, with steps taken against the editor and the author.
How Sava Popov distributed the newspaper is attested by a hard-cover notebook labelled “Book of Subscribers for Hornet magazine. 5 Macedonia Blvd., Sofia, tel. 73-91.” Why the publication is identified as a “magazine” and not a newspaper, as it also appears in bibliographic references, we do not know. In the notebook we find a list of subscribers who have been designated as “Provided Hornet gratis.” The addresses
are throughout all of Bulgaria – from Sevlievo and Provadia to Raykovo and Dolna Beshovitsa. Some belong to cultural centers: in the Tutrakan region, there are 3 – in the village of Kamel-kyoy, in Asvat- kyoy, and in Dardzhilar. Three copies have been allocated for the police department, and 13 for the office of Press Control in Sofia. For his friend, the publisher Filip Chipev, at 47 Gurko St., for Jacques Navon of Sofia… At the end of the list of addresses we find those of some hundred newspapers – from the national papers Mir, Slovo, Zarya, and Dnes, to local newspapers in Pavlikeni, Oryahovo, Ruse, Razgrad, Varna, and even Belgrade and other cities in Yugoslavia. Some of the subscribers are scheduled to receive the newspaper “up to 50,” but the Hornet was published from December 1940 to April 1941 and only reached issue 22. The archive contains censored pages from the last issue as a document of the end of one of the most interesting and quality humour newspapers of the 1940s.
Recollections of Iliya Beshkov
Question: Where, when, and how was your Hornet published?
“Our newsroom had a street, but no street number. The editor’s bag was flung open on the pavement. We would stay in a perpetual rush, putting the international situation in order, and one of us would carry the bag across the street – to the censors’ office.”
Question: And why did you choose the year 1941 in particular to make a newspaper?
“What do you mean, why? The Germans were already walking down our streets! With Sava, who had already graduated from the Popovo High School, he and I took on this job, but we couldn’t find a third person and… we got stuck with it.
(“Beshkov’s Word”, publ. Bulgarian Artist, Sofia, 1965)