In Bulgaria’s ‘Little Moscow’, Russians Help Ukrainian Refugees | News about the war between Russia and Ukraine

Pomorie, Bulgaria Dozens of passports of Ukrainian nationals lie scattered on a table in the lobby of Hotel Sunny Bay in Pomorie, a coastal town in south-eastern Bulgaria.

Several refugees are housed here who fled the war with Russia and are now going to the police station – with their passports – to be registered under Bulgarian law.

Mihail Stepanov, a tall man with his sunglasses resting on his head, is leading a small team of volunteers who will help the newcomers.

Stepanov, 58, and his wife Elena are both Russian citizens and have been living in Bulgaria since 2019.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, they have helped register 650 families, approximately 2,400 people, and continue to do volunteer work.

“It really hurts me to see what is happening in Ukraine,” Stepanov said. “I hope the war ends soon, but in the meantime we can only help where we can.”

Pomorie, also called “Little Moscow”, has about 15,000 inhabitants and has long been a popular holiday destination for Russian tourists. An estimated 70 percent of hotels and vacation rentals here are owned by Russian citizens.

Two Ukrainian boys play with a ball on the Pomorie beach [Antoaneta Roussi/Al Jazeera]

When Russians like the Stepanovs, who left Russia after Crimea’s annexation in 2014, heard that Ukrainians were moving to the scenic resort town, they made it their mission to help by offering shelter, donating clothing and a humanitarian center set up.

Initially, some Ukrainians were reluctant to trust them, Elena said, as they felt uncomfortable dealing with Russians.

“But after a while they saw that we do everything for love.”

Gaya Torosyan, 60, a Russian citizen living in Bulgaria since 2013, arranged for six families to stay in Russian-owned apartments, which she manages while the owners are away.

When the invasion began, she cried. Since then she has been following the news every day.

“When I first meet her [Ukrainian refugees], I apologize for what is happening in your country by my government,” Torosyan said. “I tell them I wouldn’t be offended if they spit in my face.”

The Sunny Bay Hotel in Pomorie, Bulgaria, which houses a group of Ukrainian refugees. [Antoaneta Roussi/Al Jazeera]
The Sunny Bay Hotel in Pomorie, Bulgaria, where a group of Ukrainian refugees are staying [Antoaneta Roussi/Al Jazeera]

On the wall in the hotel lobby are three clocks showing the times of Moscow, Sofia and New York – an accurate representation of Bulgaria’s precarious position between East and West.

The former communist country is the poorest member of the European Union, and although it joined NATO in 2004, it has close cultural and economic ties with Russia – from where it gets more than 95 percent of its gas needs.

But since the war began, Russia’s relationship with the EU has almost completely collapsed, and Moscow has repeatedly threatened to cut off gas supplies to Europe.

On Wednesday, Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom halted supplies to Bulgaria and Poland – in what some observers called a warning shot for the rest of the bloc.

A week earlier, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba traveled to Bulgaria for a two-day visit. While thanking Bulgaria for taking in refugees, he bemoaned Sofia’s relative reluctance to send arms and said failure to send arms was a way of aiding “Russian aggression”.

The Bulgarian parliament had not come to a conclusion before its visit, as the shaky four-party political coalition was being tested just months after its leadership.

Social Democrats threatened to break with the government if Bulgaria sent arms to Ukraine, while Democrats warned of similar consequences if the country failed to do so.

Svetlana Gololobova with her 7-year-old son, originally from Borodyanka, Ukraine, in the Sunny Bay Hotel canteen. [Antoaneta Roussi/Al Jazeera]
Svetlana Gololobova with her seven-year-old son, originally from Borodyanka, Ukraine, in the Sunny Bay Hotel canteen [Antoaneta Roussi/Al Jazeera]

Svetlana Gololobova, 42, arrived in Bulgaria on April 19 with two of her three children, aged 10 and 7, from Borodyanka – a devastated town near the capital Kyiv.

Her 20-year-old son and husband could not join them because Ukraine prohibits men of military age from leaving the country.

After living under Russian occupation for 36 days, Gololobova said she came to Bulgaria in search of peace and tranquility. She had never set foot on land, but before leaving home she had a dream of a clear sea, a sandy beach and a glass house – which she says was a foreshadowing of the Sunny Bay Hotel.

“I’m finally feeling a little reassured,” she said. “I can think about the future, my eldest son’s wedding and the end of this war.”

Gololobova, like others in Sunny Bay, is grateful to the Russians in Pomorie who reached out a helping hand and acted as translators between them and the Bulgarians.

“I’m not surprised by their support,” she said. “We are all human, we have both good and bad qualities. It is not right to associate people with their government.”

But not everyone in Pomorie supported the charity of the Russians.

Konstantin Uteshev, a retired Russian military engineer who has lived in Bulgaria since 2016, offered several apartments to Ukrainians on the coast in March, only to have his car painted yellow and blue – the colors of the Ukrainian flag – vandalized.

The perpetrators are still unknown, but Uteshev told local media that he didn’t believe the attack was carried out by Ukrainians.

About a month before the start of the holiday season, some hotel owners have said they will no longer be able to accommodate Ukrainians as they have pre-booked tourist reservations.

Gololobova wants to return to Ukraine after the end of the war. But if that doesn’t happen by the end of May, she has no idea where she and her kids will go.

Meanwhile, Torosyan and the Stepanovs have no plans to return to Russia any time soon.

“I will never return as long as this government exists,” Torosyan said.

The group recently celebrated Orthodox Easter at the Sunny Bay Hotel, where the guests and the Bulgarian hotel management baked a traditional Easter cake together with painted Easter eggs.

“I hope that Ukraine will be free and that all people who fled can return to their homeland,” said Elena Stepanova. “But until then, we can try to make it feel a little bit like home for them.”

About admin

Check Also

North Macedonia parliament speaker rejects referendum on termination of deal with Bulgaria –

North Macedonia Assembly spokesman Talat Xhaferi rejected a call by opposition party VMRO-DPMNE to hold …