by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

One of Sofia's best-known landmarks gets closed over... an alleged spy affair

russian church sofia.jpg

Colourful and gilt-domed, looking like a toy, the St Nicholas the Miracle-Worker church in central Sofia is known to Bulgarians simply as the Russian Church. It is a hot spot for tourists vying to take a selfie with the gold-plated domes, the fairy-tale facade decorations and ornaments, and perhaps join the line of pilgrims in front of the crypt who wait patiently to be able to deliver their wish notes to the tomb of Serafim Sobolev.

Conceived to be the chapel of the Russian Embassy, it was built in 1914 but it lasted as such only until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. During and after the Russian Civil war the church became the focal point of the life of the significant community of Russian exiles. Today St Nicholas belongs to the official Russian Orthodox Church, and is known not only for its prominent architecture, but also for the supposedly miracle-working man buried in its crypt. He is Bishop Serafim Sobolev, the leader of Russian Orthodox communities in Bulgaria in 1920-1950. In 2016, the Russian and Bulgarian Orthodox Churches canonised Bishop Sobolev as a saint.

In the fall of 2023 the Russian Church in central Sofia surpassed its day-to-day fate as a tourist and pilgrimage attraction and became the focal point of a... spy scandal. It was quick to develop internationally and, predictably, was fought mainly on social media.

It started on 16 September when Bulgarians learned that the government of North Macedonia had expelled a Russian cleric, Vasian Zmeev, and three Russian diplomats on suspicion of espionage. Against the background of the titanic pro- and anti-Russian political battles being fought on the Bulgarian Facebook the North Macedonian development would have seemed like a small-time event had it not been for a tiny, yet seminal detail: Zmeev had lived in Bulgaria since 2018 as the representative of the Moscow Patriarchate and was in charge of the Russian Church in Sofia.

The news snowballed especially in the more radical anti-Russian political circles in Bulgaria, the DB (Democratic Bulgaria) and the DSB (Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria). How was it possible, their followers surmised with rage, for a small North Macedonia to intercept an important Russian spy just a year after his arrival in that country while the Bulgarian secret services kept silent? The Zmeev incident fit perfectly with the ongoing narrative of the DB and the DSB that over 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact Bulgaria, a NATO and EU member, continues to be a loyal Russian ally.

A few days later, when the more radical Facebook users were about to turn to other topics, TASS, the Kremlin-controlled news agency, sent out a dispatch quoting the Russian Ambassador in Sofia, Eleonora Mitrofanova, that Zmeev and two other Belarusians with links to the Russian Church were hurdled into a police van and taken to their homes to pack up before being expelled from Bulgaria. Mitrofanova was quoted as saying this was a "unprecedented" act of hostility, especially as the Church was independent of the state and it was unclear how three clerics could have jeopardised Bulgarian national security. Consequently, the Russian Embassy announced it was shutting the church down.

Mitrofanova's statement was immediately picked up by the pro-Russian movement in Bulgaria, epitomised mainly by the Vazrazhdane political party of Kostadin "Kostya Kopeykin" Kostadinov. The colossal Facebook battle between them and the DB-DSB gained momentum.

DANS, the Bulgarian counter-organised crime agency, put out a terse press release that they had uncovered "information about actions by the three persons in question that were related to the realisation of various elements of the hybrid warfare strategy of the Russian Federation to purposefully influence the social and political processes in the Republic of Bulgaria to serve Russia's geopolitical interests."

The Archbishop of Ruse, Naum, told Facebook on 23 September that the Russian Church was not Russian property, and the Russian Embassy had no right to shut it down.

While some (DB-DSB supporters) believed the DANS, others (Vazrazhdane) did not. Pilgrims and tourists might have been saddened that one of this town's landmarks and a place of religious veneration was being shut down, but it was not tourists and pilgrims that gathered for a rally in front of the Russian Church, on 24 September. The crowd consisted mainly of supporters of Kostadin Kostadinov. Volen Siderov, the infamous leader of Ataka, was also in attendance.

On the following day the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Neofit, made a surprise announcement. Traditionally, the patriarch avoids getting caught up in any current affair (as long as there are no gays or Madonna involved). However, on this occasion he produced an order to appoint three Bulgarian priests to serve in the Russian Church. The three were sent to get the keys from the Russian Embassy, but returned empty-handed. Mitrofanova had her orderlies tell them the church would remain closed until "further notice."

Vasian told TASS the Russian Church was Russian clerical property and only the patriarch in Moscow could make appointments there.

The scandal exacerbated further as the incumbent government went on with its Whose-Church-Is-It-Anyway slant, requesting the chief prosecutor to probe who was the legal owner of the Russian Church.

The Russian Church in the 1930s

At the beginning of October the Bulgarian Orthodox Church announced it supported the reopening of the Russian Church, which Bulgarian Patriarch Neofit had requested with a letter to his Russian counterpart, Kiril. Kiril answered that he was devastated by the events in Sofia, but that he hoped the strong links between the two Churches will survive the ordeal. He promised that the Russian Church in Sofia will reopen. On 12 October, the Russian Orthodox Church appointed Vladimir Tishchuk, a Russian cleric of the Orthodox parish of Austria and Germany, to head the church in Sofia. His father, Arkadiy Tishchuk, had been in charge of it in 1973-1975.

Obviously, the ownership doubts and claims on church property look at least ridiculous in 2023, but a little history might help understand the roots of the issue outside the current political sentiments. The church was originally built as a chapel of the Imperial Russian Embassy, parts of which still remain behind. The land it was built on has been Russian property since it was donated to the Russians by the Sofia Mayoralty, in 1898. The current title deed was issued in 1997 by a Sofia notary at the request of the Russian Embassy.

Apart from ownership rights, the story of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church as such is also illuminating. Modern Bulgarians are very proud of their famed clerics through history, but the Bulgarian Church exists as an independent entity since as late as 1953. Until then it was just an exarchate, rather than a patriarchy, because it was excommunicated from most other Orthodox churches over its wayward declaration of independence from the Constantinople Patriarchate, in 1870. The Constantinople Patriarchate lifted the schism in 1945 on condition the Bulgarian Church would not declare full independence without consulting the Greeks. In 1953, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union realised the potential to exercise a sway on international affairs through clerical channels and unilaterally recognised the Bulgarian Orthodox Church as such. The laity in Bulgaria not only applauded, but felt deep gratitude as it saw the restoration of its Church for the first time since the Middle Ages. Both the 1878 liberation and the 1953 Church recognition have been used under Communism as propaganda to manipulate public opinion and instil a sentiment of eternal gratitude and loyalty to Moscow.

Apparently, these historical events continue to come in handy to this day.

Coming back to the Russian Church in Sofia spy affair, perhaps the only common sense voice in the cacophony of anti- and pro-Russian tirades, accusations and counteraccusations came from President Rumen Radev. Radev put it bluntly: If there is a reasonable suspicion of espionage, you don't kick the alleged spies out. You put them under surveillance and you see what kind of networks they belong to and what kind of harm they've done. Then you arrest them and put them in jail, rather than send them home.

Rumen Radev is disliked by the rightwing DB-DSB because they consider him a Russian puppet. He is also disliked by the Vazrazhdane radicals, because they consider him a Western toad.


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