'We’ll all go back when the regime falls'. How Tbilisi become a hub for Russian political emigrants


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Russians at an anti-war rally in Tbilisi. March 12, 2022

In the first weeks after Vladimir Putin announced his “special military operation” and invaded Ukraine, tens of thousands of Russians flew to Georgia, despite there being no direct flights there from Russia. Many continued on to other countries, but about 12 thousand have stayed. One of those 12 thousand Russians, reports on what problems these Russians have faced — and how Georgians have responded to the Russian influx.

Tbilisi

I first meet Vladimir Dubovsky outside of Kashveti Church on Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue, right across from the Georgian parliament building. Vladimir moved to Georgia in August 2021, after some police officers hinted to his girlfriend that he was going to be prosecuted for financing extremist activity.

Dubovsky previously worked as a coordinator in Alexey Navalny’s Vladivostok office; he’s been involved in politics since the aughts. His first big protest involved burning a portrait of then-President Dmitry Medvedev during the Russo-Georgian War in August 2008. According to Dubovsky, who was only 17 at the time, he was taken to a police department after the protest and beaten.

After years of participating in various opposition movements, Dubovsky knew he had to leave the country. His girlfriend, Alina Savelieva, went with him. On February 24, when the Russian army invaded Ukraine, Dubrovsky, who was by then fully settled in Ukraine, offered assistance to people fleeing the regime. “My fellow countrymen, if you decide to leave Russia and you manage to end up in Georgia, know that I’m always ready to help by taking several people into my home. My resources are limited, but I can definitely give you a place to sleep and something to eat,” he wrote on Twitter on February 24. Since then, according to Dubovsky, he’s helped accommodate 56 Russians.

“I’ve even run out of friends of friends. There’s far from enough housing. One girl came with no education and no work experience, just 200 dollars in her pocket and a toad in a jar. I called a Georgian friend who owns a hotel, he called his friend, and that friend had a relative with another hotel. They gave the girl a bed, a small salary, and an administrative job,” he tells me.

Vladimir Dubovsky

Right now, Dubovsky’s main task is to unite the Russians living in Georgia. In conversation, Vladimir tends to use the same word the Georgians do for the country: Sakartvelo. He spends practically all of his time working to create a local diaspora community. According to him, even Russians with completely opposing political views have managed to find a common language and organize in exile. For example, he says, even far-left feminists and members of the far-right have managed to work together in Georgia to gather humanitarian aid for Ukraine.

“I started to worry for the other Russians here. I realized we needed to unite and speak out against the war as Russians. Right now we’re planning to register a non-profit here. I’m an advocate of political subjectivity. Not for the purpose of participating in Georgia’s domestic politics, but for the purpose of uniting Russians. We go to protest rallies [against the war in Ukraine], organize humanitarian aid collections, and recognize Georgia’s rights in Samachablo [the Georgian name for South Ossetia] and Apkhazeti [the Georgian name for Abkhazia]. We want to show everyone in Sakartvelo that we’re different. Some Russians are objectively bad — those who support Putin and the war. But we’re different, and there are a lot of us,” explains Dubovsky.

Russians in Tbilisi protest against the war in Ukraine. March 12, 2022. The rally took place outside of the Swiss embassy’s Russian Interests Section, which closed at the beginning of the war.

Our conversation is interrupted when the Kashveti church bells ring and a young woman in a white dress appears, traces of blood painted on her face . She has a cross around her neck and the Ukraine flag draped over her shoulders. She begins carefully placing icons, children’s toys, and framed printouts of news stories about the bombing of Mariupol on the ground.

The woman gives Dubovsky a bouquet of carnations, takes a doll wrapped in swaddling clothes in her arms, and turns on a Ukrainian lullaby. Along with the doll, she’s holding a photograph of the destruction in Mariupol with the words “Virgin Mary, save MARIupol” written on it. The woman cries as she rocks the doll in her arms. Dubovsky starts handing out flowers to people on the street, and they place them on the improvised memorial. When a gust of wind carries the icons away, the woman falls on her knees and begins to cry. A passerby places his coat over her shoulders.

The woman in the dress is Lada Titova, an activist from the Lviv-based women’s rights group Femen. Titova is half Ukrainian and half Georgian. On February 29, after the war had already begun, she came to Tbilisi for what was originally supposed to be a short visit. Now, however, she’s unable to return home; her ticket has expired, and the Ukrainian sky is closed to commercial aviation.

Lada Titova’s anti-war protest in Tbilisi

Titova explains her performance as an attempt to attract as much attention to the war in Ukraine as possible and to appeal to people’s humanity. “I implore moms all over the world to go out onto their cities’ streets and ask [their leaders] to close the skies of Ukraine, accept it in the EU, and declare Putin a war criminal. Right now, my city is a shield for the entire world. People need to understand this and to do everything possible to strengthen it. We can’t talk about humanity while NATO is using little children as a shield,” says Lada.

Her protest lasts for about 20 minutes. After that, she collects her props, gives an interview to some local TV reporters, and leaves. She plans to continue protesting in Georgia.

Graffiti and bots

Georgian society has had a sharp reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In Tbilisi, Georgian flags hang from balconies on almost every street; on official government buildings, they hang next to Georgian flags. Many cafes and restaurants give discounts to Ukrainian citizens.

The support for Ukraine has been accompanied by anti-Russian sentiment. Graffiti with phrases like “FUCK RUSSIA” and “RUSSIANS GO HOME” is common, and the words “Putin’s bunker” are written on many trash cans. Stickers posted on utility poles called for people to avoid buying Russian products by looking at barcodes in stores: anything that begins with the numbers “460” was produced in Russia. Grocery stores are full of these products — Georgia gets everything from dairy products to canned goods from Russia.

Tbilisi

In the initial weeks of the war, more than 30 thousand Russians entered Georgia, according to Georgian Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri. Since then, at least 17 thousand of them have left. According to the 2020 census, Georgia has a population of about 3.7 million, 1.15 million of whom live in Tbilisi. That means Russians who fled after the war in Ukraine began now make up about one percent of Tbilisi’s population, since a number of them have moved to Batumi.

Many of the Russians who are preparing to move or already moved have created mutual aid groups online. The messages they get there aren’t always kind. Anastasia, a Russian woman from Rostov-on-Don, for example, posted a message asking for help transferring money from Russia to Georgia in a group of several thousand people. Almost immediately, she received multiple messages with almost identical content: “We don’t want you here, you filthy occupiers. You won’t get an ounce of Georgian land. Go work on your own country’s problems.”

According to Vladimir Dubovsky’s own research, nine out of ten of the people who send these kinds of messages are located in Russia, and the messages in Georgian have been translated from Russia using Google Translate, though his conclusions are difficult to confirm. The stickers and graffiti throughout Tbilisi also suggest that at least some Georgians do oppose the influx of Russians.

Tbilisi

Dubovsky says he’s never once been the target of Georgian chauvinism since moving here. According to him, Georgian citizens generally don’t have much patience for nationalist outbursts, and they try to discourage those who do.

Anton Mikhalchuk, a coordinator for the Free Russia Foundation, has had a different experience. He left Russia three years ago after some other members of his foundation were targeted by the authorities for working with “undesirable” organizations.

According to Mikhalchuk, the war has scared absolutely everyone — and some people have responded with aggression. “I don’t believe it’s a global issue. It’s more like a lot of small stories that have combined into one big one. Individual people might exhibit aggression, but it’s not a systemic problem,” he said.

Anton Mikhalchuk, coordinator of the Free Russia Foundation, recording a training video for activists at his office in Tbilisi.

Not one of the twelve Georgian Tbilisi residents Meduza spoke to for this story expressed any hatred towards Russians. The older generation in particular was quick to encourage Russian emigrants and reassure them that Georgians are happy to have them here.

According to 62-year-old Tbilisi resident Nugzara, in “his time,” it was common for people of different nationalities to be friends, and there was no hostility. Today, too, he believes that “there aren’t bad nationalities, just bad people.” “Anyone who says that all Russians are bad is a moron. That’s how children think. You have a bad president — so? Is that your fault? Here in Georgia, we don’t think that way,” said Nugzar. “We’re happy to welcome anyone who’s happy to come here.”

Other Georgians still remember the Russo-Georgian War of 2008. They’re not eager for a repeat.

“You’ve all run away — who’s going to save your country?” said Kote, a 45-year-old Tbilisi native, as he waited for his daughter outside of her school. “If something like that happened in my country, I would immediately take to the streets in protest. And you’re running away. If everyone leaves, what will happen to your country? I understand that there’s a predator running your country, but if you all leave right now, he’s going to come for us next. And none of you will help us, you’ll just run further. We all remember 2008.”

The young Georgians Meduza spoke with were less concerned by the arrival of Russians than by the political track Russia’s now on.

19-year-old Georgy works in a bar in Tbilisi that’s popular with expats, including Russians. “I have no problem with Russian people. I love talking to them, it’s an interesting experience. I understand perfectly that the people coming here don’t support Putin and don’t reflect his politics,” said Georgy. “I understand you all are treated very badly there, and you didn’t just come here on a whim. The only thing I’m worried about is that after this, he’ll decide he needs to ‘liberate’ us, too.”

Eleven.Window, a cafe in Tbilisi where emigrants from Russia and Belarus often gather and work.

The three main problems for emigrants right now, according to Anton Mikhalchuk, are accommodations, work, and socialization. In his view, the solution is to strengthen the Russian diaspora community. He believes the diaspora will become especially active in the coming months, not just in Tbilisi but around the world. A lot of people see Georgia only as a transit point, he said, with the majority quickly moving on to places like Europe and Turkey. Others are waiting for the war’s active phase to end so they can return to Russia.

“I think the flow of emigration is at its peak right now and will fall in the next two or three weeks. The people who have come here are social groups who were most afraid: Moscow people who went to rallies and got hit with clubs. I think a lot of them will go back. But the people who escaped persecution won’t go back [anytime soon].

Apartment problems

Yevgenia, a sales manager, and her husband, Sergey, left St. Petersburg a week after the war began. Sergey was born in Ukraine’s Chernihiv region and moved to Russia in 2006, but he didn’t apply for Russian citizenship because he wanted to remain a citizen of Ukraine. A month before the invasion, Sergey visited his family in Chernihiv one last time. He currently talks to his relatives who are still in Ukraine on the phone almost every day.

Yevgenia spent the last few days before their departure waiting in line for diabetes medicine, which was almost impossible to find in St. Petersburg at that point. “We realized there was no reason to stay on the first day of the war. I don’t think sane people will be able to have much of a life in Russia. Most of our friends in Russia support the “special operation,” she said.

They chose Georgia because of its easy entry laws: Russian and Ukrainian passport holders can stay visa-free in Georgia for 360 days. After that, all they have to do is cross the border into another country, and then they can come back. Georgians, however, do need a passport to enter Russia.

The couple reserved a guest house in Tbilisi for two weeks before they left Russia, hoping that would give them enough time to find a place to stay longer term. Since moving, however, none of their attempts to rent an apartment have been successful. Because of the huge inflow of migrants from Russia and Belarus, rent prices in Tbilisi have almost doubled.

Tbilisi
Tbilisi’s Chugureti district

The price to rent a one-room apartment starts at about 250 dollars a month. The average monthly salary in Georgia, according to Georgia’s National Statistics Office, was about 440 dollars in 2021. Most landlords want rent for the first two months immediately, and some require the first three or four months. Some property owners categorically refuse to rent to Russians. As a result, Yevgenia and Sergey were unable to find a place for their first two weeks in Tbilisi.

So they moved to Batumi — just like several other Russians Meduza spoke to. There, it’s still possible for Russians to find an affordable apartment.

Some people have used sneakier tactics to rent apartments. 23-year-old Vera was planning to pursue an academic career in Moscow, but after the war began, she decided to emigrate. When she was still in Russia, she said, she didn’t feel she could keep silent about the war, but she also didn’t want to endanger her parents, who work in the public sector.

After moving to Tbilisi, Vera and her boyfriend, Sergey, hired a Georgian person to negotiate the apartment rental process for them. When speaking to landlords, the man introduced himself as the relative of some potential tenants, and ultimately managed to rent an apartment for the couple.

Vera and Sergey weren’t able to look at the apartment before moving in, and it turned out to be more rundown than they’d hoped. They didn’t want to invest in repairs, and decided moving to a different apartment would be the best option. The man they’d hired as an intermediary, however, refused to give them the landlord’s contact information; he said the landlord would immediately evict them if he found out they were Russian.

Valentina and her eight-year-old son Misha left Nizhny Novgorod for Georgia on March 1, after buying their tickets on the first day of the war; Valentina immediately decided she didn’t want to live in an “aggressor country.”

Valentina and her son, Misha

Valentina got in touch with a Russian woman who had been living in Tbilisi for six months but was planning to return to Russia. They got everything approved by the apartment owner, a Georgian woman who lives in Germany. Valentina sent a month’s worth of rent to the Russian card of the previous tenant; the next morning, she got a call from a real estate agent who asked if she was really interested in the apartment. When she told him she had already rented it, the agent tried to dissuade her.

“She said, ‘We didn’t agree on anything, you must have misunderstood something. Nobody’s going to return your deposit, and now the apartment costs 900 dollars, not 500. Prices go up — you understand.’ I wrote to the owner and explained the situation — I have a child, I’d declined all my other offers, and I didn’t have anywhere else to live. She told me I needed to talk to the agent. The Russian woman ended up returning 30 thousand of the 50 thousand rubles I’d paid,” said Valentina.

In the end, Valentina and her son managed to rent a small apartment near the center for 650 dollars. They had to make their decision right away; the landlady warned them that more potential buyers were coming to look at it right after they left, so she signed a lease immediately. “When it’s just you and your kid, you don’t get to choose,” she said.

Her son, Misha, is a third-grader; the two left in the middle of his school year. Valentina plans to talk to the director of his old school about online classes until the summer, and if that doesn’t work out, she’ll search for a Russian school in Tbilisi.

According to Valentina, the move has been harder for her than for her son. In the two weeks they’ve been in their new country, he’s matured a lot and tried to support her however he can. Right now, he’s trying to think of a good place for her to look for a job. He often tells her about her strengths.

Valentina and her son, Misha

Lines at the bank

Another problem Russians abroad have faced is money. In late February, Russian banks practically ran out of dollars, and Visa and MasterCard have stopped supporting Russian cards abroad, which has made emigrants’ lives significantly harder. Georgian banks have also stopped expedited issuance of cards to Russians.

Georgia’s two largest banks implemented a new process for Russian citizens fairly quickly. At Bank of Georgia, any Russian who wants to open an account was initially required to sign a form that says the following: “I agree that Russia is an occupant that invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. I support the territorial integrity of Georgia and I acknowledge that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are parts of Georgia. I agree that I won’t share Russian government propaganda and will help fight against it. I understand that any violation of these rules will entail the cancellation of my account.”

Now, according to Russians who have tried to open accounts at Bank of Georgia, the form is no longer required. Getting an application approved, however, can still take several days; before the war, it only took several minutes.

In one online group, emigrants organized and filled out an online questionnaire about their experiences at various banks (Meduza has a copy of the data). According to that data, about half of the Russians who have tried to open an account at TBC or Bank of Georgia have been denied. Another bank, Credo, however, allows Russians to open an account in a single day.

A line at Credo bank

Credo opens at 10 in the morning, but by nine thirty, there’s already a line of about 40 people. All of them are from Russia and Belarus. Some of them are on their third day of trying to open an account.

When the bank opens, only four people at a time are allowed to enter, and they’re given tickets with their virtual line numbers. Some people can immediately tell they won’t manage to open an account today and leave. Others stay and wait.

“Hey, familiar faces,” says one woman, noticing her neighbors in line are the same people she waited with the previous day.

“Today we’re 642, and yesterday we were 695! Maybe we’ll make it,” someone answers.

“Everything depends on the bank’s management. If they open up a few more service windows, then maybe. It usually takes about thirty minutes per person,” says another woman in line.

Usually, Credo stays open until five thirty in the evening, but recently its employees have been working overtime, often staying past seven.

One of the last remaining ways for Russian emigrants to transfer money from their Russian accounts is cryptocurrency.

Russians at Ravestag, a cryptocurrency exchange company
Russians at Ravestag

According to Irakli, an employee at the Georgian cryptocurrency exchange company Ravestag, the number of clients the company has seen in the last few weeks has almost doubled, but they’re keeping up with the increased demand so far. “Since Visa and Mastercard left Russia, we’ve had to find new ways to withdraw money,” he said. “One way is to purchase USDT — the cryptocurrency whose value is always equal to the dollar.”

***

Most people Meduza spoke to aren’t planning on staying in Georgia for long. Valentina, Yevgenia, and Sergey are all thinking about moving to other countries in Europe; none plan on returning to Russia. Anton Mikhalchuk, on the other hand, like many Russians fleeing political persecution, is waiting for one thing: regime change in Russia.

“When the regime falls, we’ll all go back,” he told Meduza. “I’m not trying to get political asylum or permanent residency here or in Europe. That would deprive me of the moral right to be associated with Russian politics. And I want to stay in this fight until the end — I don’t care how long it takes.”

Story by Gleb Golod, reporting from Tbilisi.

Translation by Sam Breazeale





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