Russians in Tbilisi, Georgia face public anger despite their anti-Putin activism

Titova was visiting Tbilisi when Russian forces launched their assault on her homeland, and over the past month she has held events to protest a war that has already claimed thousands of lives, including seven of his friends. Many of his collaborators here come from the country that invaded Ukraine.

“Almost everyone who helps me is Russian or Belarusian,” Titova said. The majority are between 20 and 30 years old. Even before the war, most were fighting the Putin regime. Some had been imprisoned for their efforts. “They were driven out of Russia,” she said.

Yet their current activism does not shield them from public anger and animosity in Georgia, which spent most of the 20th century under Russian or Soviet rule. The country declared its independence in 1991, but less than two decades later it was attacked again by its powerful neighbor to the north. The scars of that conflict are still vivid, and even today Russian troops remain deployed in the breakaway enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – a de facto occupation of one-fifth of Georgian territory.

About 35,000 Russians have arrived since the outbreak of war in Ukraine in late February, according to government estimates. The vast majority are in Tbilisi, a city of 1.1 million where they are now too visible and increasingly unwelcome.

Thousands of people have signed an online petition calling for a visa regime for Russian nationals and stricter immigration rules. Others take a more direct approach, with signs declaring “Russians not welcome” and profane graffiti about them visible on many streets in central Tbilisi. Airbnb hosts regularly post that “Russian occupants are not welcome”. Even the country’s most famous nightclub, Bassiani, known for its ultra-liberal and pro-diversity stance, bans anyone with a Russian passport.

Anna Kuzminikh has been in the city since last summer. Director and member of Pussy Riot, a punk and performance band that has been protesting Putin’s government for nearly a decade, she fled Moscow after she and other members of the group found themselves locked in a cycle of arrest, detention and release, followed almost immediately by a new arrest. She says she was physically abused while behind bars.

Although life in Tbilisi was “incredibly pleasant and comfortable” at first, his nationality now makes him a target. Two landlords refused to rent him an apartment. She was kicked out of taxis twice.

“In one case, I was coming home late after volunteering to help Ukrainian refugees find accommodation. I was exhausted. But as soon as the driver found out I was Russian, he stopped the car in the middle of the street and yelled at me to get out,” she said recently.

“I tried to tell him about the activism we were doing in Russia, the protests, the detentions,” she continued. “He said he didn’t believe me. It was like it was all white noise to him.

Lera Sokova, a journalist from St. Petersburg, arrived in Tbilisi in 2021 after quitting her job to protest her employer’s pro-government editorial stance. A few weeks ago, she was verbally abused while queuing at a bank, where she had taken care to speak only English.

“A man suddenly started shouting and insulting me,” Sokova said. “He wouldn’t stop. Even the guards had to intervene. She ran out of the bank, doubled over on the sidewalk, and threw up. “I couldn’t leave my house for four days. I kept thinking, how can I live in this reality?

She is in the process of finishing an anti-war film and, with others, planning what is envisioned as an “anti-war arts festival” in Tbilisi. “Any Russian who is against the government is now a foreigner everywhere,” Sokova said. “Nobody wants us anywhere. It’s very easy to give up.

These activists admit that their anti-regime views are not shared by all Russians in Tbilisi and certainly not by all their relatives and friends back home, who, according to Kuzminikh, view the destruction in Ukraine as “just a few bombs.”

Yet they want to return to their country at some point – and rebuild it after Putin.

“We hope there will be a regime change. We have to start over, reform our country,” said Egor Stoskov, an actor from Moscow who crossed the border several weeks ago. Over the past year, he had escaped a hearing over his social media posts, including a TikTok video that mocked Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov.

“I realized that I couldn’t stay for [the war] was happening,” he said. Today, he shares a small apartment in Tbilisi with five friends, including two Ukrainians.

Sitting in a cafe ahead of another recent performance event – ​​where she knelt in cold winter winds, holding a bundle of blankets depicting a young child killed in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol – Titova spoke work to come. It keeps her going, she says, and counteracts some of her feelings that she’s betraying her country by not being there to fight back. She does not know when she will return.

“My goal is to ensure that Putin is recognized as a war criminal, not only for what he does in Ukraine, but also for what he has done in the world – killing people in Russia, his war in Georgia, poisoning people in the UK,” she said. “The list is very long.

Friends told him that the burning of Putin’s effigy was the “best event of the spring”. It was staged on the shores of a lake in Tbilisi, and as the head of the effigy fell in flames, the crowd cheered, clapped and chanted.

Titova smiled brightly: “Any day to burn evil is a good day.”

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