In the Georgian capital, Russian émigrés are trying to make sense of the country they’ve left behind.
Alexis Self meets some of the many young Russians who have fled to the Georgian capital.
“It’s a special Russian feeling. You feel a bit empty and lonely, and you look out the window and there’s a lot of snow.” I’m sitting in the café of the Georgian Museum of Fine Arts in Tbilisi listening to a 24-year-old Youtuber explain the Russian soul. To be fair, Anna Vilenskaya isn’t your typical Youtuber: she makes humorous videos about classical music that have won her thousands of fans across the Russian-speaking world. Fearing that Vladimir Putin was about to declare martial law, and that her husband would be drafted, in early March she fled St Petersburg, travelling first to Istanbul and then here, to the Georgian capital, where she hopes to continue making videos that will “inspire my fans, especially those living in Ukraine”.
Vilenskaya is just one passenger on the philosophskiy parokhod or “philosophical steamship” – so called because many of its constituents are members of the intelligentsia – that has left Russia since the war began. Hundreds of thousands of them arrived in cities such as Istanbul, Yerevan and Tbilisi. In March, Georgia’s finance minister, Levan Davitashvili, said that about 30,000 Russian citizens had entered his country in the first two weeks of the war. Recent estimates put the figure at two or three times that amount. The world’s attention is, rightly, on Ukrainians fleeing the violence but Russia is also haemorrhaging souls. On 22 March I left a London reawakening to the colours of spring and landed in Tbilisi at 04.00 in a snowstorm. Slaloming into town, my taxi driver, Alex, joked that – along with pets, children and wads of hastily withdrawn dollars – the Russians had brought the weather with them. Some have received a welcome in tune with the frosty climate. “You have the war and the last war but also the price of everything – rent, food, even a taxi – is going up,” Tornike, another cabbie, told me. You don’t need a degree in economics to work out what happens when tens of thousands of affluent homeless people suddenly move to a city of 1.1 million.
Russians have been heckled in the street; while Bassiani, the techno-mecca nightclub that put Tbilisi on the hipster map, temporarily banned them from its hallowed dancefloors, introducing a stamp for entry that read “Russia is an occupier”. Putin’s war has made his countrymen pariahs across Europe but especially in Georgia, 20 per cent of which is still occupied by Moscow’s troops following the 2008 invasion. If they weren’t already feeling unloved, these new émigrés must make their way through streets daubed with anti-Russian graffiti (“fuck Russia” is a common one) and plastered with protest stickers (a white, blue and red pig with the word “occupier” on its back). All are trying to make sense of where they’ve come from and where their country is going to. Hence all this talk of soul.
Or, more precisely, Russkaya Toska, a term familiar to every Russian, which Vilenskaya is trying to explain. Toska roughly translates as ennui or melancholy of a type particular to Russia. It is attributable to the country’s vast size, hostile weather and dark history. These interminable factors have been compounded by more than 20 years of Putin. Most of the Russians I meet in Tbilisi came of age in a country backsliding towards dictatorship, where people are “scared to ask police for directions”, special agents “search your house for literature like it’s drugs” and donos (snitching on your neighbours) is back in fashion.
For many, 24 February was the final straw. “I woke up at 05.00 because my phone was going crazy with messages and calls from friends saying it had begun,” 27-year-old artist Schwarz tells me. “After walking around Moscow in a daze, on 26 February I decided to leave.” Schwarz has been active in opposition circles for years and recently created a series of illustrations titled The Alphabet of Modern Russia, in which each Cyrillic letter is represented by an object ubiquitous in the country (“A” stands for avtozak: “paddy wagon”). Russia’s police state has recently taken on new dystopian proportions; using the word ‘war’ to describe what’s going on in Ukraine can now earn someone a 15-year prison sentence.
At the end of February, St Petersburg became a focal point for opposition protests against the war. This, as Vilenskaya told me, is partly due to its architecture: “There are lots of narrow lanes and courtyards for you to hide from the cosmonauts [police] in.” On Moscow’s grand boulevards, protestors didn’t even have a chance to make a stand before being arrested. V, a 30-year-old film-maker, who asked to remain anonymous, travelled to Moscow’s Pushkin Square on 27 February to attend an anti-war protest with her partner and a friend. As she stepped out of her taxi, wearing a mask printed with the words “No War”, all three were arrested. “They said we needed a permit to protest,” she says. “I guess in Russia, three’s a protest.” A few days later, V, her partner and a friend got into a car with their dogs and drove non-stop for three days until they reached Tbilisi. She feels guilty about leaving: “I still have the urge to run back and try to do more.” But, she concedes, “It was unclear where we could continue the fight – whether it was better to stay there getting arrested or try to change things from the outside.”
Mikhail Pletnev, a 20-year-old student at Moscow’s Academy of Choral Art, also found it difficult to express dissent. Since 2019 he helped to organise protests on the outskirts of the city, to show it wasn’t only affluent liberal Muscovites who were anti-Putin. When the war began, Pletnev organised a demonstration inside the academy but the police were called and he was arrested. It was then made clear to him that he would be expelled from the institution. “Most of my teachers and professors are against the war but they are afraid they will lose their jobs, so they didn’t say anything,” he says. “The head of the university is very pro-Putin; he even wanted to add a ‘Z’ to the school’s insignia.” It’s difficult not to associate the ubiquity of this ominous symbol, which has become indicative of pro-war sentiment due to its use by Russian forces in Ukraine, with an almost cartoonishly Orwellian state. Well, difficult for me at least.
“I still have the urge to run back and try to do more. It was unclear whether it was better to stay there getting arrested or try to change things from the outside”
In a restaurant with Talking Heads playing from the speakers, 25-year-old Denis Klimov, a producer from St Petersburg, shows me a photo that his friend sent him of a coffee cup that was bought from a Lukoil petrol station with a black “Z” printed on it. Klimov and three of his friends drove for six days with a white alsatian called Rus, bribing border guards in Abkhazia en route to Tbilisi. Why did they leave? “The first reason: not to fight.” They now live with seven other young Russians in a three-bedroom ground-floor apartment. On my last morning in Tbilisi, I walk up the steep slushy streets that fringe the Georgian capital to discover a familiar scene: young people sitting around, drinking coffee and working on laptops. They are full of coy vigour – especially when the camera comes out – and thinly veiled trauma.
Tolstoy’s toska-soaked masterpiece Anna Karenina begins, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But my Russian interlocutors all describe families unhappy in very similar ways. The war has entrenched the country’s already deep generational divide. Kseniia Shabalina, a 31-year-old creative director from Pskov, had to stop talking to her Ukrainian-born mother about the war. “My mother says, ‘The government in Kyiv is fascist but everything is OK because Russia will fix this,’” she says. There is a neologism for those who unwaveringly support the war: vatniki. Their fervour is mostly attributable to government propaganda from the Kremlin’s media machine but also a remembrance of the 1990s: a time, immediately post-communism, when the state had collapsed and violent crime was endemic. For those old enough to remember, Putin, who restored order while leveraging energy exports to raise the standard of living, is a saviour.
However, as so often in their country’s history, Russians were sold a false dawn, and Putin has turned out to be a pretty bog-standard tyrant: vain, paranoid and hubristic. In a cruel irony, by attempting to aggrandise Russia and degrade Ukraine, he has achieved the exact opposite. The Russians I met in Tbilisi are members of a lost generation, in every sense of the word: their future now as solid as the steam from a metaphorical ship. While Ukraine’s post-Soviet identity has been galvanised by the blood of its people, Russia’s has been dissolved by it. The only question now is, how will it end? “It’s not quite good to say but I hope he will die,” says 29-year-old scriptwriter Aislu Baisova, with a flash of her doleful brown eyes. A more frightening alternative is proffered by Klimov: “The last time a country was so consumed by a cult of suffering was 1930s Germany.”
photographer: Rena Effendi