Bulgaria capitals

In Bulgaria’s ‘Little Moscow’, Russians help Ukrainian refugees | Russo-Ukrainian War

Pomorie, Bulgaria – In the lobby of the Sunny Bay Hotel in Pomorie, a coastal town in southeastern Bulgaria, dozens of passports belonging to Ukrainian nationals are strewn across a table.

Several refugees are housed here, having fled the war with Russia, and are now heading to the police station – with their passports – to register, in accordance with Bulgarian law.

Mihail Stepanov, a tall man with sunglasses resting on his head, leads a small team of volunteers who will help the new arrivals.

Stepanov, 58, and his wife Elena are both Russian nationals and have lived in Bulgaria since 2019.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, they have helped register 650 families, or about 2,400 people, and continue to donate their time.

“It’s really painful for me to see what’s happening in Ukraine,” Stepanov said. “I hope the war will end soon, but in the meantime all we can do is help in any way we can.”

Pomorie, also known as “Little Moscow”, is home to around 15,000 people and has long been a popular holiday destination for Russian tourists. It is estimated that 70% of hotels and holiday apartments are owned by Russian citizens.

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

Upon hearing that Ukrainians were heading to the scenic resort town, Russians like the Stepanovs – who left Russia after Crimea was annexed in 2014 – made it their mission to help, offering accommodation, making donating clothes and creating a humanitarian centre.

At first, some Ukrainians were hesitant to trust them, Elena said, because they felt uncomfortable dealing with Russians.

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

Gaya Torosyan, 60, a Russian national who has lived in Bulgaria since 2013, arranged for six families to stay in Russian-owned apartments she manages while the owners are away.

When the invasion started, she cried. Since then, she follows the news every day.

“When I first met them [Ukrainian refugees], I apologize for what is happening in their country at the hands of my government,” Torosyan said. “I tell them I wouldn’t be offended if they chose to spit in my face.”

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

Three clocks displaying the times of Moscow, Sofia, and New York hang on the wall of the hotel lobby, a faithful representation of Bulgaria’s delicate 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 maintains close cultural and economic ties with Russia, from which it derives more than 95 % of its gas needs.

But since the start of the war, Russia’s relations with the EU have been close to total collapse and Moscow has repeatedly threatened to cut off gas supplies to Europe.

On Wednesday, Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy giant, cut deliveries to Bulgaria and Poland – in what some observers said was a wake-up call for the rest of the bloc’s members.

A week earlier, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba visited Bulgaria for a two-day visit. While he thanked Bulgaria for taking in refugees, he deplored Sofia’s relative reluctance to send arms, saying the failure to send arms was a way of supporting “Russian aggression”.

Bulgaria’s parliament had not come to a conclusion ahead of his visit, with the fragile four-party political coalition being tested just months after taking office.

Socialists threatened to break with the government if Bulgaria sent arms to Ukraine, while Democrats warned of similar consequences if the country did not.

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

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

Her son and her 20-year-old husband were unable to join them, given Ukraine’s ban on men of fighting age leaving the country.

After living under Russian occupation for 36 days, Gololobova says she came to Bulgaria in search of peace and quiet. She had never set foot in the country, but before leaving home she had dreamed of clear seas, sandy beaches and a glass house – which she said was a Sunny Bay Hotel premonition.

“Finally, I feel a bit calm,” she said. “I am able to think about the future, about my eldest son’s marriage and about the end of this war.”

Gololobova, like others in Sunny Bay, is grateful to the Pomorian Russians who reached out, acting as translators between them and the Bulgarians.

“I’m not surprised at their support,” she said. “We are all human, we have both good and bad traits. It is not fair 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 vandalized with yellow and blue paint – the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

The perpetrators are still unknown, but Uteshev told local media he did not believe the attack was carried out by Ukrainians.

With about a month to go until the holiday begins, some hotel owners have said they will not be able to continue to accommodate Ukrainians as they have pre-booked tourist reservations.

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

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

“I will never come back as long as this government remains,” Torosyan said.

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

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