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 get registered, as per Bulgarian law.
Mihail Stepanov, a tall man whose sunglasses rest on his head, leads a small team of volunteers who will help the newcomers.
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, roughly 2,400 people, and continue to volunteer their time.
“It is really painful for me to see what is happening in Ukraine,” said Stepanov. “I hope that the war ends soon, but in the meantime, all we can do is to help in any way we can.”
Pomorie, otherwise known as “Little Moscow”, is home to about 15,000 people and has long been a popular holiday destination for Russian tourists. An estimated 70 percent of the hotels and holiday apartments here are owned by Russian citizens.
Upon hearing Ukrainians were heading to the picturesque resort, Russians like the Stepanovs – who left Russia after the 2014 annexation of Crimea – made it their mission to help, by offering accommodation, donating clothes, and setting up a humanitarian centre.
At first, some Ukrainians were hesitant to trust them, said Elena, as they felt uncomfortable dealing with Russians.
“But after some time, they saw that we were doing everything out of love.”
Gaya Torosyan, 60, a Russian national who has lived in Bulgaria since 2013, organised for six families to stay in Russian-owned apartments that she manages while the owners are away.
When the invasion began, she cried. She’s been following the news every day since.
“When I first meet them [Ukrainian refugees], I apologise for what is happening in their country at the hands of my government,” Torosyan said. “I tell them that I wouldn’t be offended if they choose to spit in my face.”
Three clocks displaying the times in Moscow, Sofia and New York hang on the wall in the hotel lobby – an accurate representation of Bulgaria’s delicate position between east and west.
The former communist country is the European Union’s poorest member, and while 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 neared total collapse, and Moscow has repeatedly threatened to halt gas supplies to Europe.
On Wednesday, Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy giant, cut deliveries to Bulgaria and Poland – which some observers said was a warning shot to the rest of the bloc’s members.
A week earlier, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, travelled to Bulgaria for a two-day visit. While he thanked Bulgaria for hosting refugees, he lamented Sofia’s relative reticence in sending weapons, saying a failure to ship arms was a way of supporting “Russian aggression”.
Bulgaria’s parliament had failed to come to a conclusion before his visit, with the shaky political coalition of four parties being tested just months into its leadership.
Socialists threatened to break with the government if Bulgaria sent weapons to Ukraine, while the democrats warned of similar consequences if the country did not.
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 seven.
Her 20-year-old son and husband could not 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 stepped foot in the country, but before leaving her home, she had a dream of a clear sea, sandy beach and glass house – which she believes was a premonition of the Sunny Bay hotel.
“Finally, I feel a bit calm,” she said. “I am able to think about the future, about my eldest son’s wedding and the end of this war.”
Gololobova, like others at Sunny Bay, is grateful for the Russians in Pomorie who have extended a helping hand, acting as translators between them and Bulgarians.
“I am not surprised by their support,” she said. “We are all humans, we have both good and bad traits. It is not right to associate people with their government.”
But not everyone in Pomorie has 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 vandalised with yellow and blue paint – the colours of the Ukrainian flag.
The perpetrators are yet unknown, but Uteshev told local media that he did not believe the attack was carried out by Ukrainians.
With about a month to go until the holiday season starts, some hotel owners have said that they will not be able to continue housing Ukrainians, given they have pre-booked tourist reservations.
Gololobova wants to return to Ukraine when 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 go back as long as this government remains,” said Torosyan.
The group recently celebrated Orthodox Easter at the Sunny Bay hotel, with the guests and the Bulgarian hotel management baking a traditional easter cake along with painted easter eggs.
“I hope that Ukraine will be free and that all the people who’ve fled will be able to return to their homes,” said Elena Stepanova. “But until then, we can try and make it feel a little bit like home for them.”