Name: Alexander Sokolov
From: Kubashev (now Samara), Russia
ALEXANDER Sokolov appeared very much at ease behind his desk at the Russian Cultural Centre in Sofia. He has been working with Bulgarian-Russian cultural relations since the 1970s and considers Bulgaria to be his second home.
"I've made a lot of friends here," he said, cheerfully puffing on the first of many cigarettes. "Bulgarians and Russians have a lot in common because of their shared Slavic roots. They are open hearted and know how to enjoy themselves." He told me that only the previous weekend, a friend from a village near Plovdiv had phoned to invite him over because he was killing a pig. "When I arrived there were about 15 people and only one pig," Alexander laughed. "They just needed an excuse to gather for a party - that's what I like about Bulgarians, and I find it very close to the Russian spirit."
He first visited the country as a tourist in 1968, and then in 1971 became closely involved with Bulgarians through his work with Russian culture at the Komi Republic in south Russia, near the Ural Mountains. As many as
25 000 Bulgarians went to work in the forestry industry there during the 1970s and 1980s, his two sons still live in Komi, but the Bulgarian population has now dwindled to around 1000.
For the past eight years he has managed the cultural affairs department at the Russian Cultural Centre and has found that despite the cooling of bilateral post-communist relations, the Bulgarian appetite for Russian culture is far from extinguished. "Though the young people prefer to visit and study in the West, the cultural centre is no less active or influential than it was," he remarked. "The demand is so great that we can't satisfy it, even with four or five events a day." The centre has two theatres, exhibition halls, cinema screens, and a Russian ballet school, and has maintained a full and lively programme for as long as it has been open. "Funding is never enough," said Alexander, "but that's normal - so we do as much as we can and even more."
I asked if he felt that the attitude of Bulgarians towards Russians has changed since 1989, and he again responded positively. "In my opinion, nothing has changed. There was a very good attitude towards Russians during communism, and it's the same now," he said.
As for the changes in Bulgaria that he's observed over the past three decades, Alexander replied that, though he didn't want to say anything negative, during communism people were much more confident and sure of their future. He also noted that too many people here have very low living standards. "On the other hand," he observed, "I have Bulgarian friends that have successful businesses and are very confident."
"The lives of the ordinary people are hard," he continued, "economic problems suppress people and make them less friendly towards each other. People are living with difficulty, especially pensioners." He agreed that Russia faces similar problems, particularly in rural areas, but pointed out that it has far greater economic potential than Bulgaria.
"I can see my sons' lives improving," he said, "but it appears to me that Bulgarians are stuck on one level." One of his sons is a doctor and the other is a businessman - Alexander noted wryly that the doctor's life is harder, but said that he doesn't complain. Both sons visit Bulgaria with their children every summer and, though they don't speak Bulgarian, they never have any trouble communicating. "The languages are very close," Alexander explained in broken Bulgarian, "if you don't know a word in Bulgarian you can substitute it for one in Russian and the people usually understand."
Apart from his family, the one thing he misses most about Russia is black bread. "It's delicious," he said, "and there's nothing quite like it here." Whenever friends visit, he always asks them to bring a few loaves for him. It won't be long before he has a regular supply as he only intends to continue his work at the cultural centre for another six months or so before returning with his wife to Komi, where he plans to retire.
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