“The first few days I cried. Right then (February 24 – note) I was sick with COVID-19 and with a very high fever. This morning I looked at my phone, read that Russia had invaded Ukraine, and thought I was going delirious. After a few hours I looked at the news again and only then did I begin to understand what was going on. What have we done as a country!”.
As she tells me, Marina’s (name has been changed – note) voice trembles.
Her relatives, some of whom have Polish roots, are still in Moscow. Some of her friends are there – from those with whom she shared a table, and who today are on the other side – those who support the war.
Marina has lived in Bulgaria – with small interruptions, for more than three years. He arrived here to study after several semesters at universities in Belgium and the Netherlands. Part of her life is spent in Spain.
In our country, apart from education, her husband, who is Bulgarian, is holding her back. However, he has been writing in English on social networks for several months.
Olga, who moved to Bulgaria more than nine years ago and has long been perceived as a “Russian from Varna, not so much from Moscow”, wrote mainly in English after the war.
Olga and I have known each other for years – by chance, but from those acquaintances that you feel with your heart and sometimes feel closer than your closest blood relatives.
“My soul sings when I see you,” he tells me in one of our meetings before the war.
Today, Olga’s soul does not sing.
“She is filled with rage!”
“A furious, furious anger that I don’t know if you can imagine…”
There are dozens like her, probably thousands. Exactly how much no one knows.
There are no official data on the number of Russian citizens permanently residing in Bulgaria. Even more about their political leanings or the reasons for their emigration.
Until recently, the most numerous foreign diaspora in our country, after February 24 they are the second largest community of citizens from 3rd countries (and even from the European Union) after Ukrainian refugees.
Encapsulated in the realization that they are part of an aggressor state that has caused the worst war and refugee crisis since World War II, despite Russophile sentiments among Bulgarians, Russians massively avoid their identification.
“I’m ashamed!” says Anton (name changed – note), who deals with the logistics of goods in Bulgaria. Ukrainians among its employees are more than Russians and Bulgarians even before February 24.
“The first few days I couldn’t look them in the eye. I have known some of them for more than ten years, and our children sit in the same class at school.”
“All of us, the Russians in Europe, and Bulgaria in particular, are currently open traitors to Russia because we are helping the Ukrainians. In Russia, a law was passed that if you do this, you are a traitor to the motherland,” says Alexander, who otherwise very much wants “to preserve the Russian man, not the Russian beast.”
A writer and artist who graduated from one of the most prestigious Russian universities – for culture and art in St. Petersburg, he emigrated about ten years ago – first to the Czech Republic, and has been in Bulgaria for two years.
“Half of me is from Moscow, and the other half – from Berdyansk, in Ukraine…” Alexander tells us in one of the conversations in which we discuss the drops of Ukrainian blood in our veins.
On Monday – August 8, the court in Varna allowed the extradition of Alexey Alchin, who has been permanently residing in Bulgaria for nearly five years. Accused of tax crimes in Russia, several years after leaving it, Alchin burned his passport in protest against the war in Ukraine back in February outside the Russian consulate in the city.
Politically embarrassed even for that act alone, with a company supplying the Ukrainian military – according to evidence presented to the court by his defense, Alchin is also among the examples of “angry” Russians who disagree with official Russian policy.
The issue is not simply the fate of Alchin and the admission of extradition to a country that has withdrawn from the European convention for the protection of human rights, and in which all supportive Ukrainians are treated as traitors.
“It’s about the fate of all political Russian immigration in Bulgaria,” says former Russian MP and currently living in Bulgaria Gennady Gudkov from the organization “For a Free Russia”.
Both Alexander, and Olga, and Anton, and the detained Alexei Alchin are from the 40+ generation.
“We – says Olga – were brought up in a frenzied fear of war, but also with the idea of brotherhood between nations. So now we are living our worst nightmare, which is getting worse because most of us have relatives and friends in Ukraine.”
Every single day, war takes away a part of their past. It takes away their stories, their songs, their friendships, their history, their essence, but also the subtle nuances of feelings, stripping us to a basic level with the primal fear, anger, grief.
“Like every person, I need to feel,” Olga, who in Bulgaria deals with the so-called slow travel/slow tourism – which emphasizes the connection with local people, food, culture, etc., and also organizes free tours for Russian-speaking Ukrainian refugees, but also for Russians, Kazakhs, etc. in Varna.
“No matter where they are from, from which country they arrive and from which side of the border they are, they are in Bulgaria because the war has caught up with them.”
She has a friend from school who works with volunteers from all over the world to move Ukrainians from dangerous to safe places to live.
“You can save the peace even when you are on the sofa in Moscow and thanks to your phone,” points out Olga.
Marina, who believes that only now in Bulgaria is a mass distinction being made between the ethnicity of Russian speakers – until recently, they all went under a common denominator, in search of fulfillment in work as a freelance translator and language teacher of Bulgarians.
Alexander continues to draw and write books, although “right now, right in Russia itself, the Russian language is used by not the most well-read people.”
“I will always be a Russian, but…a Russian in emigration.” Part of the ‘traitors’ for some, part of the ‘rapists’ for others,” says Anton with bitterness in his voice. Compensates by helping refugees from Ukraine.
In our common world and after months of war, he has already learned to look at his Ukrainian colleagues again, but “shame and guilt are eating me up.”