Sergey, a twenty-something Muscovite, recalls frantically packing his suitcase, getting ready to flee Russia and the mass mobilization that its president, Vladimir Putin, had just ordered. He fights back tears, overcome by a feeling that he will not be going home for a very long time.
“Since the war in Ukraine started, I felt deep in my heart that the life I knew was ending,” said Sergey. The bespectacled, mild-mannered former office worker did not want his last name to be used for security reasons. “I just tried to postpone this moment for as long as I could. But what can I do now, when my country is forcing me to kill people who have never done anything wrong to us?” he asked.
His parents put Sergey into their car and they sped out of Moscow. On their way, they picked up Sergey’s best friend, Dima. “I had never been out of Russia before and this is not how I had imagined my first trip abroad,” Dima told Eurasianet. “But staying in Russia meant going either to war or to prison. Both of those scenarios would end in my death.”
Like tens of thousands of other Russians, they headed south, to the border with Georgia.
On the same day, 41-year-old Mikhail Linov was on a sleeper train from St. Petersburg to the southern Russian town of Mineralnye Vody. From there, he planned to take a bus or a cab to the Georgian border. “Plane tickets were snapped up in a split second after they announced mobilization, so most people ran toward the land borders,” said Linov who, unlike most of those fleeing mobilization, agreed to use his full name.
“I’ve backpacked a lot and I knew immediately that, as far as land borders go, Georgia was the fastest and safest bet,” he said: Georgia offers Russians a visa-free stay for a year.
After arriving in Mineralnye Vody, Linov learned that police in the Russian Caucasus republics that lay along the road to Georgia had turned the exodus of draftable men into an opportunity to profiteer. “At a checkpoint in Ingushetia police took the passports of everyone on the bus and asked for 20,000 rubles [$340] per person to give them back and let us proceed,” Linov told Eurasianet. “We negotiated it down to 10,000 rubles.”
After bribing their way through the checkpoints or sneaking around them, runaway Russians began bottlenecking into a miles-long car queue on the homestretch to the Georgian border. Realizing that they couldn’t get any further by car, the parents dropped off Sergey and Dima at the beginning of the queue and the men continued their journey on foot.
“It was a total mess there. Cars were in all the lanes and even the sides of the road,” Sergey said. “We saw some VIP people skipping the line, being escorted ahead by police cars. I guess some rich people paid to get through the line faster, but in the end everyone got stuck.”
They ran into a friend who was driving her husband out of the country and spent the night in her car, which was stuck somewhere in the middle of the line. Linov got out of his bus, walked ahead and bought himself a seat in a car that had made it closer to the final checkpoint on the Russian side of the border. “It eventually cost me 30,000 rubles [$500] just to go over the border,” he said.
The next day, Sergey and Dima walked back to buy some food at a roadside restaurant. “There were people sleeping on the floors and in chairs,” Dima said. “People were relieving themselves all along the highway.”
A cool welcome
On the other side of the border, Georgians watched the avalanche of Russian men rolling their way with concern and anger. After all, the last time thousands of fighting-age Russian men had come to Georgia was during Russia’s invasion in 2008.
As the Russians poured into Georgia, many Georgians have come to fear that the emigres somehow could serve as a pretext for Putin to target their country.
“Call it paranoia, but what if Putin later offers a deal to these people, saying that he will pardon them for evading the draft if they stage some sort of sabotage or provocation or provide a political foothold for him here?” Nino Berishvili, an interior decorator in Tbilisi, told Eurasianet. “Given their situation, it wouldn’t be too hard to weaponize these people if Putin wanted to.”
Apart from homeland security concerns, the national debate in Georgia also wrestled with the moral aspects of letting the Russians in. Many criticized the Russians for choosing to run away instead of dragging out of the Kremlin the one man who turned millions of Ukrainians, Georgians, and eventually even Russians into refugees.
“As one of the Georgians who had their ancestral homes in Samachablo stolen by Russia, I don’t want to see Russians making a home for themselves here,” said Lisa Basishvili, a Tbilisi-based interpreter. (Samachablo is an alternate Georgian name for South Ossetia, whose ethnic Georgian population was largely evicted following the wars of the 1990s and 2008.)
Like most Georgians, Basishvili sees the war in Ukraine as a sequel to their own 2008 conflict and the earlier conflicts in Georgia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia; Russia now stations troops in those territories. “The Russians coming in now did not care about Putin’s war in Ukraine, until the war knocked on their doors,” she said.
Indeed, at least a couple of new arrivals from Russia did not seem opposed to the war in principle and repeated Putin’s line that Ukraine is merely an addendum to Russia. They broadly described themselves to Eurasianet as supporters of what they see as Putin’s plan to create a “unified Russian world,” with Ukraine and Belarus in it, though clearly did not support the idea strongly enough to lay down their lives for it.
But the majority interviewed by Eurasianet, including Sergey and Dima, strongly criticized the war and Putin’s regime. The two friends argued that there is virtually nothing that the average Ivan can do against the massive oppressive force of the Russian system. Even after making it to Georgia, Sergey and Dima were wary of providing their last names, fearing that by openly criticizing Putin they would put their parents back at home in danger.
The traffic jam at the border escalated into what amounted to a humanitarian crisis, with people waiting for days to get out without much food and water, or any means of bathing. Many escapees were caught unprepared for the weather; temperatures in the high-altitude, narrow gorge between Russia and Georgia seesawed between extreme heat by day and very cold by night.
Locals and cab drivers made a roaring trade selling bicycles and seats in cars to the escaping crowd. By law, only vehicular traffic is allowed across the border and people paid exorbitant fees for rusty old bicycles and for spots in vehicles that had made it closer to the checkpoint.
But the Russian border guards eventually loosened the rules and allowed pedestrian traffic through to decongest the crossing. Men who were traveling in their own cars continued on foot, leaving their wives, girlfriends and mothers in the cars. Some solo travelers tried to sell their vehicles.
Watching the miserable scenes – people fleeing on foot, some holding children and pets in their arms – many Georgian hearts softened. But the inevitable whataboutism also surfaced, with reminders that Ukrainians and Georgians fleeing Russian bombs went through a lot worse. One small opposition group staged a protest rally at the border, demanding the introduction of a visa regime with Russia.
When Sergey and Dima crossed into Georgia – sleepless, starving and in a desperate need of a shower – the only people to offer them assistance were a group of previous Russian emigres who had set up a humanitarian aid point by the border. Dima said he was so exhausted that he could not even process the fact that he was making his first steps on foreign soil. “Through the haze of it, I remember enormous mountains and a road winding along the cliffs,” he said.
Linov hitchhiked to Tbilisi. With no money left, he pitched a tent on a wooded hillside just outside the old town. “There is a lovely waterfall there where I took showers. I’d come down to town to ask for food,” he said.
In the lobby of fancy hotel nearby, but on the opposite end of the social ladder, a glamorous beautician from Moscow was busy recording videos for her online followers about the rigors she had endured flying to Georgia via Armenia. “My boys are safe. I have saved them,” she told the phone camera, the boys being her boyfriend and her Pomeranian. “Thank you for all your support,” she added wafting a kiss to her followers.
“We were lucky to get on like the last available plane to Armenia, so I’m making a video about the whole crazy trip,” she told Eurasianet. She asked not to be identified by name. “We will move to Dubai from here,” she went on. “We are just looking for an apartment there. I don’t think we will go back home as long as that piece of shit sits in the Kremlin.”
Sergey and Dima, in the meantime, wandered around Tbilisi, not sure what to do. They strayed into an orientation meeting organized by some in Georgia’s Russian community for their newly arrived compatriots. At the meeting, the organizers offered the newcomers tips on Georgia’s cultural dos and don’ts, some life hacks and best places to visit around town.
“We’ve held these kinds of meetings before, but what you can see now is that the attendees are mostly men,” said Darya Zubkova, a coordinator at Frame, a non-profit Russian émigré group that organized the meeting.
Half-jokingly, Georgia’s growing Russian community divides itself into three categories: Dovoinyonok, Fevralyonok and Sentyabryonok (the pre-war guy, the February guy and the September guy).
The February guys are those who came to Georgia following the launch of the Russian invasion on February 24. Some of these people left in protest, others fled persecution for their politics and still others were driven out by the international economic sanctions against Russia.
“Moving to Georgia was a leap of faith for me and my husband too, but many of us who came earlier were freelancers and digital nomads, and we could do work remotely from here,” Zubkova said. “It’s going to be much harder for this new crowd, which is a mix of everyone.”
Sergey and Dima – September guys – did not have jobs they could pack away and take to the next country. “I have no idea how to live abroad; Russia is the only thing I know,” Dima said. “We have savings that will last us for a couple of months, but we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
Anton, a 36-year-old Russian journalist who arrived in Georgia as a tourist but chose to stay after the mobilization announcement, said he was planning to learn to code to sustain himself and his wife in Georgia. “As a Russian journalist you don’t really have many job options here. You need to have skills that are in demand internationally,” he said. “I’ll try my luck with coding. If I can’t get the hang of it soon, I’ll have to go back to Russia and hope for the best.”
Apart from financial worries, many are concerned about local attitudes toward Russians.
The subject of Russians has long been controversial in Georgia. One part of Georgian society welcomes visitors from the north, as it benefits from Russian business and tourism. The post-war influx of Russian migrants, businesses and tourists has in fact given a leg up to some sectors of the pandemic-battered Georgian economy and helped balance out economic pressures created by the war.
Other Georgians feel it’s in poor taste for Russians to move to or vacation in a country that has already suffered much at the hands of the Russian military. The tension has only gotten worse since September, as the new cohort includes a larger share of people more oblivious to Georgia’s sore spots.
But Russians say they don’t encounter much face-to-face hostility and that, overall, Georgians treat them hospitably.
“In my experience, everyone here understands our situation and even feels sorry for us,” said Zubkova. “People here are very friendly. Only once someone cursed at me and my husband at the deserters’ market.” (Ironically, in the light of recent events, Tbilisi’s largest market is known as the “Deserters’ Bazaar.”)
Many Georgians direct their ire not at the Russians but rather toward their own government, which has maintained a laissez faire approach to the mass influx. The government’s policy has long been oriented toward a normalization of ties with Russia via trade and tourism. The war in Ukraine has not altered that, to the chagrin of the many Georgians who want their government to take a stronger position supporting Ukraine and isolating Russia.
Faced with such criticism, the authorities have been trying to play down the volume and the impact of the Russian arrivals. Political opposition figures, meanwhile, are doing the opposite.
Official figures show that nearly 800,000 Russians came to Georgia from March through August, though the large majority of them have reportedly left. The Interior Ministry did not respond to Eurasianet’s request to provide precise data on exits over that period.
Some of the “September” Russians told Eurasianet they hoped to relocate to Europe or the United States. After spending eight days in a tent, Linov teamed up with a few other Russians and headed to Turkey, where he plans to join a hippie commune.
Sergey and Dima are unsure what they will do next. “We have savings that can probably last us for about three months, so we need to figure out very quickly how to sustain ourselves or where to go next,” Dima said.
Anton, the journalist, hopes to go back home, but he is pessimistic about the future. “Looking back at history, I have few reasons to hope that Russia will ever truly change,” he said. “Even if this war ends Putin’s rule, it will only take so much time for another iron hand to take over and Russians are going to allow it to happen. So I don’t expect to see a democratic Russia in my lifetime, but I will still try to go back. It’s still home.”