When Bulgarian writer Svetoslav Nahum’s book Escape From Crimea was published in Sofia last year, he expected support from the Union of Bulgarian Writers (SBP) -- a century-old Sofia-based literary organization.
Nahum’s book depicts the tribulations faced by Ukrainians who fled their homes in Crimea after the territory was occupied by Russian military forces in 2014 and illegally annexed by the Kremlin.
Instead of support, the 49-year-old Nahum says, the pro-Kremlin leadership of the SBP tried to undermine the promotion of the book and launched a media campaign in Bulgaria to discredit his work. He resigned from the SBP in protest.
Nahum then sought support from the Bulgarian PEN Center -- the Sofia-based chapter of PEN International, a global nongovernmental organization that champions human rights and freedom of expression.
As a member of the Bulgarian PEN Center’s managing board, Nahum in February proposed a declaration condemning Russia’s seizure and annexation of Crimea.
The declaration denounced “the information war that Moscow is waging against Bulgaria’s national sovereignty” as part of a “hybrid war” that promotes the Kremlin’s geopolitical agenda.
It also called for the immediate release of Ukrainian writers, journalists, and filmmakers who’d been imprisoned in Russia and in Russia-occupied Crimea after they’d opposed the annexation of Crimea.
But the Bulgarian PEN Center’s management board rejected Nahum’s declaration by a 25-4 vote. Some members accused Nahum of accepting payments from the Ukrainian Embassy in Sofia to write what they called “anti-Russian propaganda” -- a charge Nahum dismisses as “ridiculous.”
Nahum resigned from the Bulgarian PEN Center in protest amid calls from key board members for his expulsion.
This month, Nahum’s book came out in Ukrainian. It is being praised in Kyiv as a bold attempt to counter Kremlin propaganda by telling the truth about events in Russia-occupied Crimea.
“We were interested in the fact that, for the first time, a Bulgarian writer has dared to talk about the situation in Ukraine as it really is, and not as our [Russian] neighbors claim that it is,” says the Ukrainian translation's publisher, Mykola Martinyuk, head of the Tverdinia Publishing House.
There were 1,500 copies of the first edition in Ukrainian -- a print run that is nearly sold out after less than a month. A second edition of 2,000 has already been printed.
“Escape From Crimea is getting much more attention this way with a much larger audience in Ukraine,” Nahum says. “I hope this book will also draw attention in the West to the suffering that so many Ukrainians have been through because of the Russian occupation and because of Russia’s military aggression in eastern Ukraine.”
Nahum tells RFE/RL he is relieved that "Ukrainian writers and Ukrainian media have become a kind of natural defense for me against the pro-Kremlin Putinists in Bulgaria who’ve been attacking me.”
In Kyiv, PEN Ukraine says the backlash Nahum has faced from Bulgarian Russophiles in Sofia is “an echo of the powerful information war Russia is leading against Ukraine and the whole of Europe.”
In a letter to the Bulgarian PEN Center, PEN Ukraine’s executive board accuses the Union of Bulgarian Writers of “demonstrat[ing] a downright negative attitude to the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and European choice of Ukraine -- thereby bringing discord in relations between the two countries.”
“We are very concerned that the leaders of major writers’ organizations of Bulgaria have openly taken the side of the aggressor state by condemning Bulgarian colleagues who express their humanitarian position, and who advocate against violence and propaganda from the Russian Federation,” the PEN Ukraine’s letter said.
Andriy Kurkov, the chairman of Ukrainian PEN, notes that the SBP and the Bulgarian PEN Center were both dominated by the Communist Party before 1989.
In fact, the leadership of both organizations are older writers who had been members of the groups during the totalitarian era and still have pro-Moscow leanings.
"We have problems with the Bulgarian PEN Center," Kurkov tells RFE/RL. "Not only the Union of Bulgarian Writers, but also the Bulgarian PEN Center. They are pro-Russia."
Both “still want to show that they have influence,” Kurkov says. “For them, everything Russia says is, a priori, ‘the truth,’ and they support it. But this influence is working against Bulgaria rather than for its future.”
“Although we are supposed to be neighbors and we have normal relations, we must remember there are still countries” that suffer from nostalgic desires for a return to the “Soviet socialist organizations” of the past.
Such “atavisms” are not only a problem for Bulgaria but also in “Serbia and occasionally Hungary,” Kurkov says.
'Acting Like Kremlin GONGOs'
“When Escape From Crimea was first published in Bulgarian, I’d expected support from the Union of Bulgarian Writers,” Nahum says.
He was a member of the editorial board of the union's newspaper, The Word Today, and expected the journal to publish reviews by literary critics "as they had done with my previous books.”
“Instead, they accused me of being a ‘Russophobe’ and they kicked me off the editorial board,” Nahum says. “I didn’t expect to be undermined by political players within a literary organization.”
Rather than a literary organization, Nahum says the union acted like a pro-Kremlin political organization or a so-called GONGO -- the "nongovernmental organizations" organized by the Russian and other governments to influence public debate.
Nahum’s dispute with the SBP leadership began in April 2019 when he staged a book-launch event at the Sofia Press Club.
Ukraine’s ambassador to Bulgaria, Vitaliy Moskalenko, attended and praised Nahum’s work.
“Escape from Crimea reveals the terrible events that we experienced in Ukraine -- the criminal occupation of Crimea," Moskalenko said at the book launch. "Events are described with talent. The written words will not leave anyone indifferent. I am grateful to Svetoslav Nahum for his skill. This is a serious and significant book.”
Two days later, SBP chairman Boyan Angelov issued a declaration condemning Nahum’s book launch for being “political in nature.”
Angelov, a leading member of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, declared that the Bulgarian writers’ union had “never opposed Russia in its entire history, much less allowed itself to agitate for a political idea that would affect relations” between Bulgaria and Russia.
Moskalenko wrote a follow-up letter defending Nahum’s work as an accurate depiction of events in Russia-occupied Crimea.
The SBP responded with an open letter calling for Moskalenko to be expelled from Bulgaria.
Six members of the Bulgarian PEN Center also signed the petition calling for Moskalenko’s expulsion -- including the chapter’s honorary chairman, Boyko Lambovski.
“This petition was shameful and proves that these literary organizations in Bulgaria are a bastion for Russified, pro-Kremlin Putinists,” Nahum says. “Escape From Crimea is a book against a dictatorial regime in Moscow: President Vladimir Putin’s regime. It is the only book in Bulgarian that talks about the tragedies resulting from Russia’s occupation of Crimea.”
The book is based on actual events under the Russian occupation of the peninsula. Nahum says its characters are "fictional" but were "compiled" from stories shared with him by real Ukrainians who fled from Crimea through Bulgaria.
“For writing the truth about the Russian occupation of Crimea, I’ve been persecuted and harassed by an organization that is defending the interests of a foreign state,” Nahum says. “And they are contravening the policies of the Bulgarian state as a member of NATO and of the European Union.”
“I’ve been targeted by a campaign aimed at discrediting me,” he says. “I’ve also been threatened -- indirectly -- with so-called ‘friendly advice.'"
He says an SBP member told him personally after the book launch: "You be careful. You are making a provocation. They are organizing things so you’ll be defeated."
Then, referring to the nerve agent used against a former Russian military intelligence officer who defected to Britain, Nahum says the SBP member warned him: "You might eat Novichok just like Sergei Skripal.”
“But I am walking on the path of truth and I have passed the line of fear,” Nahum says. “I’m not going to give in.”