Night Wolves in Sofia: Pictures at an Exhibition for Peace
The interior of St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the second-largest orthodox temple in the Balkans, was filled with unusual words on Friday afternoon, ones that rarely reverberate in a house where God and worshipers are supposed to meet.
"Terrorists, terrorists," chanted a crowd waving flags of the EU, NATO and Ukraine, standing on the footsteps, and police opened the doors of the cathedral to usher some of the protestes in, preventing a clash with the other group, across the security cordon.
Armed with Russian and Soviet union flags, the other group, gathered meters away on the cathedral square responded with even more insulting words, not suitable at all for this website, the least indecent one being "Brussels scum".
The two antagonized groups had little to do with the cathedral itself - only that on the "anti-Brussels" side, priests and women in traditional garments were waiting for a motorbike procession to arrive, filling their time listening to the Russian choir and and other pieces of local folklore.
They were all waiting for two dozen bikers.
The Night Wolves, a motorcycle club known for ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, arrived in Bulgaria on June 30, led by Andrey Bobrovsky – the deputy to Alexander Zaldostanov, who heads the club and who was blacklisted by the US and Canada over the gang's involvement in the conflict in Ukraine.
In Sofia, the anticipation of their arrival sparked clashes between a couple of hundred supporters of “the EU” (and Ukraine) supporters and around fifty “nationalist” (and pro-Russian) fans of the motoclub, an hour before the bikers were actually on the square. Just a day earlier, another group of nationalists, in camouflage uniforms, had beaten several demonstrators waiting for the Night Wolves to reach Burgas, in Eastern Bulgaria – the first big city on their way (also one with a growing population of Russians buying seaside holiday properties) after entering Bulgaria from the Turkish border. Who provoked whom in front of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral could grow into an issue of endless disputes if raised.
Security was stepped up as the Night Wolves were to arrive. “If I tell you their route I have to kill you later,” a police officer told a TV crew, far from the protesting and counter-protesting crowds (the second one being a de facto reception committee).
As the four Russians, in a group of 25, arrived along with bikers from Germany, Slovakia, Poland, Slovenia, and Serbia, they were received by priests who sprinkled them with holy water, but also by the cheerful group of Bulgarian bikers and supporters.
"Your gay parade is over," cried out someone from the reception committee. "This is not Moscow," replied the other side.
It might have been Moscow, though. At the press conference, Andrey Bobrovsky and his fellow bikers only spoke in Russian, which is no problem for most of older Bulgarians but somewhat puzzling for part of the younger ones, especially since (being held at the Russian Culture and Information Center) it had the backing of the Russian Embassy and therefore had some “diplomatic” flavor – even despite the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry's announcement the motorcyclists had entered Bulgaria on Schengen visas.
At the press conference, it was peace that mattered: apart from hailing President Putin as a “great leader”, the club reminded the audience of the ultimate goal of their visit: a pan-Slavic march for peace through Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina (which on their website exists as "Bosnia" and "Herzegovina", two separate state entities), Serbia, and Bulgaria.
On their website, they point out [RU] that "the goal of [Slavic world 2016] is to strengthen dialogue among Slavic peoples, remind [them] of the centuries-long friendship, of common pages of history and to bring forward the features of Russian culture and language". Bobrovsky himself is quoted as saying the idea is to "show will for unity" of the Slavic peoples, as people “have to know their beginnings”. Separately, a spokesperson of the group had told B92 they intended to "connect Orthodox countries of the Slavic world."
Pure as their intentions might be, according to their own statements, the only thing they did was raise an issue of post-Slavic identities, in a way that, judging from the result in Bulgaria, only resembles yet another scene of the battle between Russia and everyone else around.
Neither is it clear whom the Night Wolves sought to unite with the “rest of the Slavic world” in Bulgaria. Looked from a distance, the gathering of supporters and protesters might have been anywhere along the bikers' route across Eastern Europe.
Both rivaling multitudes at the Alexander Nevsky square were (in their majority) Bulgarian nationals claiming to assert the affiliation of their country to either "side"; but the only high-waving Bulgarian flag was on a pole just next to the square. The few Bulgarian ones shyly hanging from motorcycles or in the hands of enthused anti-Night Wolves demonstrators looked oddly out of place.
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