Bulgarian presidential candidate’s joke about brainless socialists offends socialist leader

Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Kornelia Ninova has called on GERB presidential candidate Tsetska Tsacheva to apologise for telling, during a live television debate, the shaggy dog story about how if you are not a socialist at 20, you have no heart, but if you are still a socialist at 40, you have no brain.

Either it is the first time that Ninova has heard the joke or she just did not like Tsacheva, the candidate of centre-right party GERB and said by polls to have a small but significant lead in the race, telling it.

Variations on the saying go back many decades, and its roots go deeper than a century or two. It has been attributed to Winston Churchill – probably wrongly – among many others.

To add spice, it seems to have changed form, at least in regard to the ideology in question, over the years. Eighteenth-century French prime minister Francois Guizot is said to have said, “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.”

But even earlier than Guizot, US president John Adams is purported to have said, “A boy of 15 who is not a democrat is good for nothing, and he is no better who is a democrat at 20″.

Without exhaustively listing everyone who is said to have used variations of the expression (including those who applied it to being a liberal), it was King Oscar II of Sweden, monarch of that country from 1829 to 1905, who has been quoted as saying, “If a man is not a Socialist at 20 he has no heart, but if he remains one at 30 he has no head.”

Back to Ninova, the target of whose wrath is Tsacheva, not sundry long-dead statesmen.

Ninova said that the quip by Tsacheva – who was debating against BSP presidential candidate Roumen Radev – was an “arrogant and cynical insult to anyone who fights for more justice, solidarity, freedom and an equal start in our society”.

In a Facebook post, Ninova addressed herself to Tsacheva, saying that “the words you say speak sufficiently about your morality and your style in politics. The morality of youth, to make a choice, which later you deny for the sake of careerism. A style of hatred and confrontation.”

Tsacheva had shown the arrogance of a politician with pretences to be head of state and “unifier of the nation” (as the Bulgarian constitution describes the role of the president).

“Mrs Tsacheva, policy ideas are important, but most important is the heart. You do not have ideas. Today you showed no heart to be president of all Bulgarians, but you may at least find the ‘brain’ to apologise”.

Tsetska Tsacheva and GERB vice-presidential candidate Plamen Manushev.
Tsetska Tsacheva and GERB vice-presidential candidate Plamen Manushev.

It cannot go unrecorded that the context of Tsacheva telling the joke was her being asked about the fact that she was a Bulgarian Communist Party member in her youth, but quit the party when communism fell. Now 58, Tsacheva was 32 when the communist regime fell in Bulgaria; perhaps hence Ninova’s barb about careerism rather than conviction.

Ninova is 47.

(The photo accompanying this story is from the website of the BSP, which posted it along with an item on Ninova demanding the apology. Perhaps a photo of her looking amused was not the best choice on the part of her party.)



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.