When famous Russian journalist Leonid Parfyonov got on stage in Tbilisi to speak to a house full of fellow Russians, his opening line was: "Welcome to the relocation capital." He then proceeded to take his audience down memory lane, offering a witty overview of life in the Soviet Union. But the gathering itself offered a sidelight on the current life of runaway Russians.
Georgia indeed emerged as a top relocation destination for Russians who did not want to be part of their nation's war on Ukraine or whose business was affected by international sanctions, or both.
At his April 24 show at a theatre in Tbilisi, Parfyonov spoke to a capacity crowd of dissidents, digital nomads and draft dodgers. It was an odd mix of Gen-Zers with their hair chalked in fluorescent colors, affluent-looking couples who went slightly overboard with facials and just ordinary families – all brought together into one country and one hall by circumstance.
"I always wanted to listen to him live, but it is so strange that it had to happen in Tbilisi. It is generally very odd that I find myself living outside Russia," one of the spectators told Eurasianet. She explained that she had to follow her husband, who, like many others, escaped to Georgia last fall to avoid getting sent to the war in Ukraine.
Georgia has a long history of serving as a place of exile or escape for Russians, be they literary giants of the 19th century, escapees from the Bolsheviks in the early 20th century or anti-Kremlin activists of the century at hand. This time around, dissidents and activists were the first to roll in. But by now there is a whole carnival of life coaches, yoga instructors, instagrammers, street musicians and programmers taking up residence in Tbilisi and in Batumi, Georgia's main seaside resort and port.
The growing Russian community in Georgia began attracting Russian celebrities, especially those who are at odds with the Kremlin. Georgia thus became a stage where runaway Russian celebrities and runaway audiences reconnect.
This year, the Georgian capital saw a streak of performances by prominent Russian musicians, authors and stage artistes. Rock legends like Boris Grebenshchikov and Andrey Makarevich held concerts and celebrity comedian Maxim Galkin came to do stand-up. In between, there was a whole raft of second-tier performers – musicians, poets and bloggers – and more are coming.
"They are cool grandpas," a young Russian told Eurasianet at the April 7 concert of Andrey Makarevich and his band Mashina Vremeni at the Tbilisi Philharmonic Hall. "We would not necessarily go to their concert back in Moscow, as it's not my kind of music, but here I take anything," he said.
Georgians are conspicuously absent from the Russian gatherings. Although Parfyonov is well-known across the former Soviet Union for his history documentary series Namedni, there were barely any Georgians in the house when he spoke. Comedian Galkin made the effort to say a whole bit in the Georgian language during his show, but there were hardly any Georgians in the house to laugh at these lines.
Much of Georgian society is frustrated to see Russians casually filling shops and restaurants (and opening some of their own) at a time when the Russian army brutalizes Ukraine. Plus, Russian troops are stationed in a gunshot away from the Georgian capital, in the breakaway regions that Moscow helped carve out of Georgia proper.
Squeezed between the Russian army and Russian army dodgers, many Georgians feel they are being crowded out of their own country. Many Georgians do benefit from the inflow of Russian cash, but others are now even planning their nights out or vacation trips specifically to avoid the crowds of Russians.
Russian émigrés are thus left to operate in a bubble, where they try to emulate their old lives in a new place. They go to Russian musical performances, Russian stand-up nights and Russian book launches; gather in Russian-run or Russian-friendly bars. "I guess we are trying to have a Russian life outside Russia," said one 30-something Muscovite as he spoke to Eurasianet at a Russian-owned restaurant in Tbilisi's old town.
Despite living in one country, Georgians and Russians largely live in parallel worlds. When these worlds collide, sparks often fly.
Many Georgians who stray into the mushrooming Russian cafes in Tbilisi and Batumi, storm out in a huff after realizing that the staff does not speak Georgian or English, and then fume about it on social media. The lack of effort to pick up either the local language or the global language is perceived as a manifestation of deeply ingrained imperialism, with Georgia being still perceived as a colony where everyone should speak Russian.
The older generation of Georgians still remember the time when during their visits to Moscow the city natives nit-picked at their Russian skills, rolled their eyes and said "ponayekhali" – "everyone comes here these days," to use a loose translation. Now the tables have turned.
After several unpleasant encounters, some Russians have begun picking up Georgian and learning about the tormented history of Georgian-Russian relations. "I can already take an order in Georgian, but I still need to work on conversation," said Kirill Danilov, an 18-year-old from St. Petersburg, who works in a Belorussian-run coffee shop/co-working space in downtown Tbilisi.
Danilov spends his free time skateboarding in the park called Deda Ena (Georgian for Mother Tongue, incidentally). He made friends with Georgian skateboarders and communicates with them in a mix of Georgian, English and Russian.
In their defense, some Russians say that they were not taught English in school and came to Georgia unprepared as they had never planned on emigrating until the war in Ukraine began. Danilov argues, however, that learning basic English and Georgian, and understanding local cultural sore spots is the least Russians owe a country that, even if reluctantly, helped tens of thousands of them escape likely death.
"Two of my classmates were sent to fight in Ukraine," Danilov said. "One of them blew up on his own landmine."
Many Russians describe themselves as refugees. Georgians can only shrug at such a description. Thousands of Georgians displaced by Russian invasion in 2008 now live in miserable conditions in makeshift rural settlements and scores of Ukrainian refugees barely survive off humanitarian aid in Georgia. The Russian émigrés hanging out in bars, restaurants and co-working spaces thus elicit little empathy.
One Russian called himself a "forced expat," but most use the term "relokant," a person who relocated.
Some maintain connection with Russia – and also make some cash while at it – by chronicling their lives in Georgia online. Reams of videos are being posted on YouTube where the new Russian expats tell their audiences back home about sights in Georgia, the best urban areas to live and how to properly eat khinkali, Georgia's famed dumplings.
Russian tourists, who are now unwelcome in (or can't afford) many of their former stomping grounds in Europe, also head down to Georgia and make videos about their adventures. They do spot the anti-Russian graffiti, but visitors who don't venture beyond the universe of hoteliers, restaurateurs and tourist attractions, may not even realize the depth of the anti-Russian mood in their host country.
But those who came to settle do. "It is a very unpleasant feeling to know that you are not welcome and disliked by many," said Olya Pelikova, a 19-year-old Muscovite who works in a coffee shop in Tbilisi.
"After my boyfriend and I began learning Georgian, we started overhearing conversations in the streets," she said. "We know that people complain about us, even if they don't say anything to our faces. But I find it understandable. Even if some of us did put up resistance to the Russian government, of course Georgians and Ukrainians think that whatever we did was not enough, and they are probably right."
But Pelikova said that, overall, Georgians' natural disposition for hospitality prevails over grudges. "I was really concerned at first, but then I realized that even the people who complain about you will go above and beyond to help you out, if you ask for help," she said. "My boyfriend and I met some of the nicest people here, like my landlady and her family are incredible. They treat us like a family, feeding us all the time, sharing everything they have with us."
Danilov had a similar experience. "When my older brother and I ran away, we first arrived in Batumi," he said. "We rented a small apartment, but our landlords cared less about cash and were just excited to have guests. They took us to dinner parties, showed us around and helped us out with everything they could. It was very hard for us to tear ourselves away from those people and move to Tbilisi. After all the madness of trying to escape from Russia they were like a breath of fresh air. I will always remember them."
It is unclear what's next for the runaway Russians. Some plan on staying in Georgia in the long term and have already bought apartments, others hope to proceed to Europe or the United States. Few hope they can return to Russia soon. Many say that even if Russian troops are forced out of Ukraine, the Kremlin will probably double down on repressions to silence the anger even government supporters are likely to have over the senseless waste of lives and resources.
"Things will get worse before they get better, and it is impossible to plan anything right now," Pelikova said. "Until last year, I would have never imagined that I'd be living outside Moscow and learning the Georgian language, but here I am."