During the past three years of living in the Black Sea port of Varna in Bulgaria, I’ve certainly developed an ear for languages. Alongside Bulgarian, various other languages can be heard when walking the streets of this beautiful city such as English, Turkish, German, and Hebrew. One of the most prevalent, however, is the Russian language. After my recent visit to the stunning, ethnically Russian fishing village near me called Kazashko populated by descendants of Cossacks, I was spurred to answer the question: Why Are There so Many Russians in Bulgaria?
One of the most interesting facts about Bulgaria is that after Bulgarians, Turks, and Roma Gypsies, Russians comprise the country’s fourth-biggest ethnic group. The majority of them are spread across the major cities of Bulgaria such as Varna, Sofia, Burgas, and Plovdiv. Even where I live it doesn’t take long to spot the Russian presence in Bulgaria whether it’s the dedicated Russian shop near me or the enormous monument to Bulgarian – Soviet friendship. But where did all of these Russians come from? The story is a fascinating one.
Cossacks And Old Believers
Russians have had a presence in Bulgaria for centuries. Some of the first Russian ex-pats to make Bulgaria their new home arrived in the 18th Century when the country was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Many of these Russians were Nekrasov Cossacks and belonged to the Old Believers. These were Orthodox Christians who rejected the religious reforms of Patriarch Nikon of Moscow that took place between 1652 and 1666. As a result, they were heavily persecuted by the Orthodox Church and forced into exile.
“Russians refer to the split between the Old Believers and the New Believers as raskol which translates as literally cleaving-apart.”
In 1674, these Old Believer Nekrasov Cossacks founded the village of Tataritsa in the Bulgarian Province of Silistra. Situated in the valley of the Danube river, it is now a part of the village of Aydemir. There is still a functioning church of the Old Believers that was constructed in the mid-1700s. There is also an Old Believer village outside of the Blac Sea Port city of Varna which I recently visited. Amongst Bulgarians, the Old Believers and their descendants are referred to as Lipovantsi.
The Russian Turkish War
The next phase of Russian immigration to Bulgaria took place in the final Russian Turkish War of 1877 and 1888. The bulk of this conflict raged across Bulgarian territory and many Bulgarians sided with their Orthodox Russian allies to free themselves from the chains of Ottoman oppression. Bulgarian liberation and subsequent independence were achieved in 1878.
The Russian Prince Alexander Mikhailovich Dondukov-Korsakov, who fought heavily in the conflict against the Turks, set up a transitional Russian administration in Bulgaria and helped to write Bulgaria’s first constitution known as the Tarnovo Constitution. During this era, many Russians who had helped liberate Bulgaria settled in the country. It’s not uncommon to meet Bulgarians with Russian heritage who can trace their lineage to this part of the country’s history.
Cossacks From the Russian Civil War
What was arguably the largest influx of ethnic Russians into Bulgaria came during the turbulent years of the Russian Civil War. Due to Bulgaria being a Russian-friendly monarchy, it was soon eyed up as an ideal place of refuge for people who found themselves on the losing side, such as the Cossacks of the White Guards.
In 1922 the Red Guards, a revolutionary paramilitary organization largely made up of factory workers, peasants, Cossacks, and some soldiers defeated the White Guards who were the armed, anti-Soviet organization opposed to them. In order to escape the brutally violent retributions of the Bolsheviks, around 29,000 of these White Guards made their way to Bulgaria as refugees.
Communist Bulgaria and Now
Over 20 years later, Bulgaria was absorbed into the Eastern bloc after World War II. Despite not being a part of the Soviet Union and having its own brand of Communism, the country became a very close ally of Moscow. As well as being a vital Black Sea Port, Communist Bulgaria was a vital hub of manufacture especially when it came to electronics. It was also a luxurious vacation hub for various nationalities across the Eastern Bloc. During this era, a huge number of Russians emigrated to the country.
In 1991, Communism collapsed in Bulgaria and despite initial economic depression, the country soon gained membership of the European Union and began a gradual climb back to economic normality. These days, Bulgaria is more of an attractive destination for Russian holidaymakers and Russian businessmen rather than the Cossacks of the old days. The main attraction is the eligibility of receiving an EU Bulgarian passport under certain conditions like investing over $250,000 into the country.
Modern Bulgaria is home to tens of thousands of Russians or Russian speakers. As a result, there are various organizations set up to represent them such as the Union of Compatriots, the Union of Russian Citizens, the Society of White Guardsmen, and the Russophiles movement. However, this cultural mix is not without controversy with the Bulgarian government accusing the leader of the latter movement of treason and espionage in September 2019.