During the Cold War, the eyes of the West tried to get some insight into the politics and everyday occurrences in the dictatorial Soviet Union and the Eastern European Bloc. After the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, the Collapse of the USSR, and the revolutions of Eastern Europe, political science and economics scholars published several books regarding events during the isolated years. Much focus was paid to party systems, secret police operations, public oppression, and the changes these countries would encounter after the collapse of their old system. However, fewer centered on the role of individuals during Communism. Furthermore, it is now becoming more and more clear that individuals did play an essential part in the evolution of the Marxist-Leninist regimes. Relatives to the Communist leadership did often benefit politically and several in-laws of the top executive gained vast powers. Close family members to the leaders of Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, played key roles in the development of their countries. The importance of Elena Ceauşescu in Romania, Ljudmila Zhivkova in Bulgaria, and Mirjana Marković in Yugoslavia was, due to their influence, central in their respective nations.
Elena Ceauşescu enrolled in the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) at an early age. After marrying another fierce Stalinist, Nicolae Ceauşescu, and following the appointment of the latter as General Secretary of the PCR, she started to obtain degrees and political positions that rapidly turned her into the most powerful woman in Romania - and even the most powerful woman in the Communist Bloc during her time (Lovatt, 2-3).
As her husband’s health became delicate by the mid 1980’s, she gradually assumed more and more power by completely dominating her husband. As a consequence to Nicolae Ceauşescu’s zany plans and ideas, fueled by his most ambitious wife, the Romanian population came to suffer greatly from food and power restrictions, economical stagnation, and police repression. When the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe started to tremble in 1989, Elena Ceauşescu urged the secret police, Securitate, to suppress any kind of uprising with the harshest method: annihilation (Behr, 248). However, as in many other dictatorships, the pressure of the people against the regime became too much and Communist Romania fell. Shortly afterwards, in late December 1989, Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu were summarily tried and executed.
With the wave of de-Stalinization in Eastern Europe in the 1960’s, the Bulgarian Communist Party leader, Todor Zhivkov, started to replace the ‘Old Guard’ communists from important positions in the Party apparatus. Zhivkov believed that only an energetic and professional party cadre could govern Bulgaria successfully. As a result of this, he installed a younger group of party loyalists into positions of power, headed by Ljudmila Zhivkova - his daughter (Lehman, 2).
She became chairwoman of the Commission on Science, Culture, and Art. In this powerful position, Ljudmila Zhivkova became enormously popular among the Bulgarians, by promoting their separate national cultural heritage. By the end of the 1970’s, she was appointed to the Politburo and was aspiring for the presidium as her father’s successor, when she mysteriously died at the mere age of 39 (Janos, 322).
Mirjana Marković was born to Yugoslavian Communist partisans, that had fought together with Tito against the Nazis in WWII. She grew up with her grandparents in Montenegro, where she went to school together with Slobodan Milošević, whom she later married. While studying and obtaining a Ph.D. in Marxism, she always supported her husband’s political ambitions (Djukić, 169). As he gradually became president of the Serbian Communist Party, Serbia, and finally Yugoslavia, Mirjana became increasingly important as she was, and remains, his foremost advisor.
Mirjana, herself politically involved after her husband became the Yugoslavian leader, controlled media censorship, propaganda, and cadre administration. She consequently assigned loyalists, and opportunists, to important political and economical positions in Belgrade (Djukić, 113).
Dubbed ’The Red Witch’ for her intrigues within power during the Yugoslav secession wars, she had a major say in Slobodan Milošević’s decisions. As he lost his grip on power in 2000, Mirjana Marković also lost the importance she had enjoyed. Now, as Slobodan Milošević is facing life imprisonment in The Hague for war crimes, Mirjana remains politically active through the chairwomanship of her, relatively insignificant, Yugoslav United Left party.
Elena Ceauşescu, née Petrescu, was born in in 1919 in Petreşti, Olt Judeţ (county), an underdeveloped agrarian region in southwestern Romania. After having flunked out of school at the age of 14, she moved to Bucharest, where she held various short-time positions as a textile factory worker and laboratory assistant (Behr, 68). By the time of WWII, she got involved in the underground, illegal, communist movement. There, she met her husband Nicolae Ceauşescu, who by then was the head of the Communist Youth League.
After the war her husband quickly rose in the party hierarchy, whereas she kept a low profile and held a secretary position at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However she was let go, due to inefficiency and negligence, and instead she began to study evening courses in chemistry. Within a year she obtained a Ph.D. and was appointed head of the ICECHIM, the Romanian Institute for Chemistry (Behr, 140).
Nicolae Ceauşescu became General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party in 1965 and in 1971 the couple visited PR China and North Korea. They returned to Bucharest with great ideas of how to build up their own personality cult. After this trip, Elena’s role drastically changed (Almond, 70). She was soon appointed to the Central Committee of the PCR and shortly after to the Political Executive Committee (Politburo). She also became chairwoman of, among many others, the National Council for Science and Technology, the Section for Chemistry in Romania’s Supreme Council for Economic and Soviet Development, and the National Council for Socialist Culture and Education - some created especially for her (Behr, 182). By 1980, Elena Ceauşescu had reached the top of the Communist Party hierarchy by being voted into the Permanent Bureau of the Political Executive Committee and was assigned the positions of First Deputy Prime Minister and Vice-President - the most powerful individual in Romania after Nicolae Ceauşescu himself. Her greed for power and recognition, however, did not stop at that. Furthermore she asserted her power by becoming in charge of the Party and State Cadres Commission, a position from which she could appoint or dismiss who ever she wanted to a public office throughout Romania (Cline, 2).
As Nicolae Ceauşescu grew sicker with diabetes and other illnesses, in the mid 1980’s, he became more and more dependent on Elena. She, taking advantage of the situation, became the ruling head of Romania. However, rule took a different turn during Elena, as she was an uneducated woman, despite her Ph.D., and was mostly concerned with issues regarding her own personality cult. She demanded to be addressed ’Vice-President, Comrade, Doctor, Academician, Engineer, Elena Ceauşescu’ (Ioniţa, 1). The Communist Party daily ’Scînteia’ worshipped her almost as much as her husband and often published homage poems, ending as follows:
To the first woman of the country, the homage of the entire country,
As star stands beside star in the eternal arch of heaven,
Beside the Great Man she watches over Romania’s path to glory (Fischer, 171).
However, it is worth mentioning that Elena Ceauşescu was one of the few women involved in Romanian politics. In the early days of Communism another star rose, Ana Pauker. She had spent the war years in Moscow with Stalin and was therefore a fierce pro-Soviet supporter. After Stalin’s death in 1953 she fell victim of Gheorghiu-Dej’s purges, as he promoted Romanian distancing from the USSR and anti-Semitism. Elena was after that, and till this date, the most important female politician in Romania (Lovatt, 3). Much of her political work, was however, merely filling her husband’s ego and to distance him from anyone else, leaving her with the ultimate power. Among her ideas was the systematization of the Romanian countryside - eliminating 7000 villages and erecting 3500 agro-industrial centers; elimination of the Romanian foreign debt by starving and freezing the population; demolition of the historic Bucharest in favor of their megalomaniac Civic Center-project; banning abortion, leading to overfull mismanaged orphanages etc (Deletant, 304).
Despite the praise of the Romanian press, Elena Ceauşescu was not popular in Romania. She did not project competence and concern, nor charm or beauty, and the Romanians said Nicolae Ceauşescu at least earned his office, while she was just a beneficiary of his generosity (Fischer, 172). The true feelings the Romanians had for her were clearly shown in her trial in late 1989, where she was ridiculed on national TV and executed without pardon.
In the 1960’s Todor Zhivkov replaced the old, Stalinist, communists with younger, and better educated, cadres. Among the leaders of these was his daughter, Ljudmila Zhivkova. She was a talented, serious, and industrious woman educated at Oxford University (Rothschild, 216). She was soon elevated to the party’s Central Committee, the Politburo, and the Council of Ministers where she was in charge of Culture, Education and Science, through which she spurred and conceived the party’s nationalist line. Ljudmila’s political and cultural career rose in a meteoric way, and she became the undisputed master of the Bulgarian cultural life (Rakowska-Harmstone, 203).
Ljudmila Zhivkova was a rather unusual communist personality, more into Bulgarian and Asian mysticism than Marxism-Leninism. She spoke more about ‘beauty’ and ‘light’ than class struggle. Creating an international assembly called ’Banner of Peace - Unity, Creativity, Beauty’, promoting peace and with special concern for children in need, Ljudmila believed that everyone possessed an inner fire as a driving force, and wanted to be perceived as a fire herself (Zhivkova, xvi).
During her period in power over the cultural life, every artist could count with at least one chance. This was an era when a lot of effort and money was spent on the celebration of the 1300th anniversary of Bulgarian statehood in 1981, promoting Bulgarian culture both domestically and internationally. However, this was an event she never got to see as she died weeks before the inauguration.
Ljudmila Zhivkova’s ambitious work was also reflected in her father’s reputation, that grew significantly domestically, as she bolstered national pride and Bulgaria’s international cultural image (Lehman, 5). However, even though she was highly and widely liked and respected, her career was a result of her father’s nepotism. This tendency was made even more obvious after her death, when her less competent brother, Vladimir, was appointed the new Minister of Culture (Rakowska-Harmstone, 203).
Ljudmila Zhivkova’s sudden death at the age of 39 caused much surprise, and until the fall of Communism the causes remained secret. Speculations of suicide or heart attack were rumored, but the truth was nothing of the kind. Ljudmila had, for years before her death, been intimate with Alexander Lilov, the head of the Politburo Section for Ideology. Lilov had been Ljudmila’s lover and he used her to climb the ladder of the Party hierarchy. As he was responsible for the orthodoxy in the media and the arts, she used him to extricate writers and artists from the prisons of the Bulgarian Secret Police, called The Sixth Directorate (Shayler, 1).
Lilov was closely attached to Moscow, and it is believed that the KGB supported him as Zhivkov’s successor. Being the daughter of Todor Zhivkov, Ljudmila obstructed the Soviet’s intentions of having Lilov installed as a puppet after Zhivkov. Lilov managed to convince Zhivkova that by calling an extraordinary meeting of the Politburo, in her father’s absence, she would be able to seize power (Shayler, 1). This plan was revealed to Zhivkov who had a furious confrontation with his daughter. However, to Lilov’s discontent, father and daughter reconciled, which meant the end of Alexander Lilov’s political career and a disruption in the plans of the Soviets. Nevertheless, before this could happen, a decision to poison Ljudmila Zhivkova by means of a perfume presented by Lilov, was taken and she quickly fell ill and died within hours (Shayler, 2).
Mirjana Marković grew up in Montenegro where she met her husband Slobodan Milošević at an early age. Both, children of partisan communists, they had their ideological thoughts well gathered already from the beginning. After high school they went on to the University of Belgrade, where Mirjana studied and obtained a Ph.D. in Marxism.
Following the completion of her doctorate she continued working at the university as a lecturer in Marxist ideology, while her husband begun his rise in the Yugoslav Communist Party. After heading state companies Technogas and Beobanka, Slobodan Milošević was appointed head of the Serbian Communist Party (Djukić, 13).
Always hungry for recognition and power, Mirjana strongly and openly supported everything her husband did. In turn, he returned to her for advise and counseling. She had a dream since their early days of courtship: her husband should become what Tito once had been - President of Yugoslavia (Djukić, 11). Mirjana’s ambitious supporting of her husband gave fruit and he was elected President of Serbia. At the same time as this appointment took place, Communist Europe began its decline - much to Mirjana’s despair, as her Marxist ideals went into the grave together with the collapse of the Eastern European regimes.
Observing the fate of its brother parties all over Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, Milošević decided to dissolve the Yugoslav Communist Party (Djukić, 33). From its death bed arose the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), headed by Milošević. Uniting many of the Communist fractions that did not join the SPS, Mirjana created the Yugoslav United Left - a party always loyal to the leader of the SPS. Nevertheless her party never received more than 1% of the votes, but Mirjana was more influential than any other political leader in Yugoslavia (Djukić, 174). As a result of her marital position, Marković was for years the most powerful Serbian woman ever, far more than anyone merely elected to office (Djukić, 174).
As Slobodan Milošević became the President of Yugoslavia, Mirjana’s desire for power grew steadily. She was given more possibilities to have wider ranging power. She fiercely opposed the secession of other republics from the Yugoslav federation and urged her husband to intervene. And so he did. A violent civil war blew up in Bosnia-Hercegovina, killing and displacing thousands of civilians before it was over. The international community dubbed Mirjana Marković ’The Red Witch’, as her work behind the scenes was clearly noticeable - she was the prime advisor to Slobodan Milošević, the man in charge. She was equally involved in the ethnic cleansings of Kosovo, where she urged the Serbian population to take a solid stance against the Albanian ’intruders’ endangering Serbian sovereignty in a land so historically important to all Serbs (Djukić, 51).
In Belgrade, Mirjana was not less influential. She headed the propaganda and censorship apparatus for her husband, and she did a good job. Journalists, politicians, economists, technocrats - all in favor of her husband were promoted, or simply installed, at important positions through which Mirjana Marković could control the Serbian society (Djukić, 64). She published weekly monologues in a Belgrade newspaper, stating her Marxist ideals and how the Serbs and Serbia as a country must act in order to become a harmonious Marxist society (Djukić, 66). Mirjana was also very talented in making the Milošević-Marković family a very wealthy one. Millions of dollars were stashed away in accounts abroad, taken directly from the Serbian and Yugoslav national funds (Djukić, 173).
As sanctions and NATO bombings had devastating results on Serbia and its population, protests begun. Slobodan Milošević and Mirjana Marković tried to fight back with all their powers. However, it did not work. Forced to call out for elections in 2000, Milošević lost to the opposition and Vojislav Kostunica. Not willing to give up power, Milošević and Marković tried to go for a second round in the presidential elections, but were met by a raging Serbian population and they had to acknowledge their defeat.
As Slobodan Milošević has been sent to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, The Netherlands, he now faces lifetime imprisonment for the crimes committed against humanity in the Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo wars. However, Mirjana Marković remains in Belgrade enjoying freedom together with the rest of the Serbian population, chairing her Yugoslav United Left party.
In comparing these three influential, Balkan, women, it is clear that they have all certain assets linking them to power. First of all, they were all Communist, however, to different degrees. Mirjana Marković was the specialist in the area, holding a Ph.D. in, and teaching, Marxism. She was also the one dreaming of a communist utopia, if one is to consider her multiple columns in the Yugoslav press. Elena Ceauşescu was aggressively referring to Communism and its prosperity in all of her undertakings. Her specific interpretation as a chemist was what she and Nicolae labelled ’scientific socialism’ (Sipos, 128), that was heavily inclined towards industrialization. Ljudmila Zhivkova was also a Communist, and she often referred to Lenin in her speeches. However, she talked little about class struggles and referred more to inner beauty, fire, and light - her belief in individuals was bigger than that of the collective society (Rakowska-Harmstone, 203).
In all the Communist countries, there was an admiration and special attention paid to education. Obviously, the leaders of the country needed to be educated - the more the better. Those leaders, and they were many, that did not have an academic education, arranged one for themselves (Behr, 138). An interesting fact is that both Elena Ceauşescu and Mirjana Marković held Ph.D.’s, in chemistry and Marxism respectively, while Ljudmila Zhivkova was the highest learned of the three women here studied, holding degrees from both the University of Sofia and Oxford University. She skillfully used her knowledge when planning and drawing up the guidelines for Bulgaria’s successful cultural and national enrichment (Lehman, 5).
It has been much debated whether Elena Ceauşescu, who dropped out of elementary school at the age of 13 due to failing grades, could have earned a doctorate genuinely. The fact that the law for doctorate disputation was changed a week before it was her turn, making it possible to send in a written essay, instead of proving your thesis in a hearing (Behr, 141). Furthermore, officials at ICECHIM came out after her death, revealing that all the projects she ever produced from their institute were pre-fabricated. The only thing she attributed to the assignments, was her signature (Behr, 184).
Mirjana Marković did, however, hold a Ph.D. in Marxism at Belgrade University and taught at the same institution. That her degree was more honestly achieved than that of her Romanian counterpart is evident. Having taught at university level and furthermore also publishing weekly articles on Marxism and its co-existence with harmony in the Yugoslavian press, proves her degree authentic. However, it has been debated in Belgrade how competent the wife of Slobodan Milošević was to take part in such important issues as war and international affairs (Djukić, 83).
The power both Elena Ceauşescu and Mirjana Marković held over their husbands was substantial, giving them full access to power in both Romania and Yugoslavia respectively. Elena Ceauşescu completely dominated her husband, especially throughout the later years of their rule. As he became sicker, he relied on her for everything and she took advantage of the situation and arranged the Communist apparatus so that everything addressed to Nicolae Ceauşescu had to pass through her. Her reason for setting up the leadership in such a way suggests her aiming at the supreme position of the country after her husband’s death (Pacepa, 337). This was Nicolae’s biggest mistake, as Elena was not suitable nor for such power nor such great responsibilities. Her mismanagement of Romania was what ultimately lead to the bloody uprising and revolution in 1989 ending with the execution of the couple.
Mirjana Marković’s influence on Slobodan Milošević mattered greatly in their own destiny and in that of Yugoslavia. First of all, her advise on how to handle the seceding republics when Yugoslavia started to fall apart, turned out catastrophically. Civil wars broke out, resulting in the killing and displacing thousands of Bosnians, Kosovars, and Serbians. Furthermore, the pressure of the international community and the sanctions the country faced for over a decade resulted fatal for both their regime and the Yugoslavian economy. Mirjana’s intriguing and appointing loyalist cadres for all important positions throughout the Serbian and Montenegrin societies was what helped her and her husband to remain in power for such a long time (Djukić, 88). After they stepped down, one can reflect over how much good versus bad Mirjana Marković brought about, trying to strengthen her husband’s hold on power. The damage bred, outnumbers by far those few good things she managed to produce, if any for that matter.
Ljudmila Zhivkova was the only one of the three that did not have a dominant, nor personal, influence on her father’s rule. She was appointed by him to handle the cultural affairs of Bulgaria and she became powerful through her positions in the party and politburo. Nevertheless she was groomed to be her father’s heir on the communist throne but never got to that point as death came before her (Janos 322).
Recognition was something all three craved, however to different extents. Elena Ceauşescu was the one that most extensively announced her astuteness, demanding to be addressed ’Vice-President, Comrade, Doctor, Academician, Engineer, Elena Ceauşescu’ (Ioniţa, 1). She also held more political positions than Ljudmila Zhivkova and Mirjana Marković did together. Being chairwoman of more than 15 national councils and institutions; member of the Central Committee, Political Executive Committee, and the Permanent Bureau; first deputy prime minister, and vice-president, Elena’s hunger for political and personal recognition can easily be perceived as insatiable.
Ljudmila Zhivkova enjoyed her father’s nepotism almost as much as Elena Ceauşescu benefited from her husband’s generosity. She was chairwoman for the Committee for Culture; member of the Central Committee and the Politburo; chairwoman of the Commission for Science, Culture, and Education; People’s representative (M.P.); member of the Council of Ministers, the list is long (Zhivkova, 311). However, she did have an international double degree to lean back on, and she did not crave for public recognition in the same way Elena Ceauşescu did through the media.
Mirjana Marković was the most ’humble’ when it came to titles. She held a Ph.D. in Marxism and was the leader of the Yugoslav United Left party. She was more prompt at elevating her husband and children to higher positions in the Serbian and Yugoslav societies, than coming forward herself. However, her wedding ring was her absolute mean of power. She needed no other titles than that of ’Mrs. Milošević’ to be heard (Djukić, 174). Her craving for recognition was shown in another way. Mirjana published a series of books on Marxism, that were not particularly renowned - not even in Serbia. Nevertheless, once Slobodan Milošević became the president of Yugoslavia, all bookstores displayed all her works and they even went into print abroad (Djukić, 66-67) . When not having any specific, important, political position, this was her way of receiving recognition (Djukić, 166).
Elena Ceauşescu and Mirjana Marković had another thing in common. They were both in charge of propaganda, censorship, and cadre appointments during their husband’s regimes. Elena was particularly fond of installing cadres she found at her own intelligence level (Pacepa, 251). Naturally, they also worshipped her more than the Romanian press did. She skillfully built up a system that, once she became the Romanian leader, would be 100% loyal to her and her ideas. Elena managed to fill the Romanian bureaucracy with untalented opportunists, that did nothing but run Romania into the fatal collapse it faced in 1989.
Mirjana Marković was equally keen on installing loyalists, and opportunists, into important positions throughout Serbia. Anyone that was pro-Milošević and that did not mind her intervening in their business was welcome to apply for a job. It was not rare that she ended up in quarrels with her appointees and quickly dismissed them, to later replace them with other loyalists (Djukić, 110). Not only did Mirjana seek those that would be loyal to her husband’s regime, but also for those that would provide the Milošević-Marković family with money, spending special attention to their quasi-Mafioso son Marko Marković’s business interests.
Not surprisingly, Mirjana Marković and Elena Ceauşescu were not appreciated in their respective countries. The ousting of the Ceauşescu regime in December 1989 and the following execution of Elena Ceauşescu, after a mock trial, was a result of amassed hatred towards her and her husband’s policies throughout the decades they had been in power. Mirjana did not greet death after her husband was overthrown. Not far less important, all her importance vanished and her husband, whom had provided her with the power, was sent to prison - most probably never to return to the family home again. This was a devastating blow for Mirjana, that had become dependent not only on dominating her husband, but also on his power (Djukić, 174). Ljudmila Zhivkova was, despite being a Communist leader, appreciated by the Bulgarian public. She provided them with a strong nationalist feeling and elevated their cultural heritage, not only domestically, but also, internationally (Lehman, 5). However, other’s aspirations for power sat a stop for her continuous work and leadership, death was bestowed upon her.
In conclusion it is clear that Elena Ceauşescu, Ljudmila Zhivkova, and Mirjana Marković did play key roles as individuals in their respective nations during Communism. The effects they had on each leader, or their close family ties to the latter, were vital for their remaining in power. Ceauşescu and Marković skillfully used their dominant nature over their husbands to get what they wanted, although their goals were not the same. While Elena Ceauşescu was mainly aiming at promoting herself and show off her ’intelligence’, Mirjana Marković was more working on how to strengthen her husband’s position in power, and to nurture her family’s economy.
Ljudmila Zhivkova was the only one of the three that actually had less egoistic goals as main objectives. She put effort into building up a strong Bulgarian national feeling and to enrich the country’s cultural life and heritage. However, she was still the daughter of Todor Zhivkov and she was believed to become his successor. It is also most probable that if someone obstructed her way, she responded with the same method her colleagues over the border did - secret police intervention.
As of the general importance each of these Balkan women had in politics, everyday life, and all spheres of their respective societies, it is clear that they were very, very powerful and influential. Nevertheless their hunger for power and recognition grew too strong and they all ended up, by different means, loosing what they once achieved.
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