June 03, 2022

Vetting Russians in Georgia

Vetting Russians in Georgia
A scene from Tbilisi, Georgia neiljs on Flickr

A Russian entering a café in the Republic of Georgia a few weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine might have been confronted by the café owner: “‘Hey, do you support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Yes? Then you are not welcome.’”

Zviad Adzinbaia, a 30-year-old International Security and Digital Diplomacy Fellow at the Fletcher School’s Security Studies Program who is living in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, said the question is about clarity.

“As a citizen, I’m proud of that clarity, because Georgia has a heavy past, and a continuous pain when it comes to [the] Russian invasion and so-called Russian compatriots abroad,” Adzinbaia said.

Such incidents were relatively rare, said Alena Zaitseva, a 33-year-old Russian who works in marketing and moved from Moscow to Tbilisi five years ago. She runs her own Telegram channel, which she started before she moved to Georgia, to educate Russian speakers – not just Russians, but also Ukrainians, Belarusians, or anyone else – about Georgian culture.

Georgia has welcomed Russian tourists for decades and is home to small communities of ethnic Russians, about 60,000 in Georgia proper and perhaps another 60,000 in the breakaway region of Abkhazia. Adzinbaia and Zaitseva agree that Russians have been well received in Georgia over the years.

Zaitseva explained that it is easier for Russians to come to Georgia than it is for other nationalities, in part because of a shared past. “There’s also a shared religion that has a lot of influence here. And these stereotypes that we’ve always been told about Georgians, that Georgians are our brother people…

“But if you move to a country to live, you need to learn everything that happened before and what kind of relations there are between the countries [where you live and are moving to],” she said.

Zaitseva has heard how some café owners ask Russians about their opinions on the Ukraine war before serving them, but she said that neither she nor any of her friends have experienced it first-hand. Such confrontations have spread largely through rumors. If anything, Zaitseva said she views such instances as “a personal sanction.”

“It’s happening everywhere all over the world, some kind of sanction,” she said. “If I have an apartment, and I want to protest this way, I’ll support the citizens of Ukraine this way, to not welcome Russians. Yes, it happened, and it was in different spheres. And it still exists. There’s one nightclub in Tbilisi, Bassiani…  Even now they don’t let Russians in, even if Russians have lived here for a long time, have residence permits. If it’s written on your ID card that you’re a resident of Russia, they won’t let you in.”

However infrequent such instances may be, they reflect general attitudes of many Georgians.

“At this point, there is no ethnic anger against [Russians],” Adzinbaia said, “but there is one thing, given the Ukraine war and Georgia’s absolute commitment, absolute sharing of the pain, sharing of the past, sharing of the future with the Ukrainians: national empathy.”

Georgian banks require Russians opening accounts to sign a statement that they do not support the war. The Caucasus Research Resource Centers program found that two-thirds of Georgians believe their government should impose sanctions on Russia; others are calling for bans on pro-Kremlin media. Many Georgians also want to screen the Russians who came to their country in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

“We don’t know exactly how [many] there are… but my estimate is 20-30,000 new Russians,” Adzinbaia said. “Pretty much Gen Z and Millennials. And… we don’t exactly know their intentions.”

cliffs in Tbilisi
Cliffs of Tbilisi | Clay Gilliland on Flickr

The backdrop for current caution is the history of Russian-Georgian conflict.

In the melee of the Soviet Union's breakup, two Georgian regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, sought independence from the newly independent Republic of Georgia. Sporadic conflict destabilized the country for much of the 1990s.

While Russia, South Ossetia, and Georgia signed a ceasefire agreement in 1992, the following year the conflict between Abkhazia and the Georgian state turned into a full-scale war replete with human rights violations and a quarter million refugees.

The simmering continued on all fronts. Then, in the summer of 2008, Georgian soldiers again clashed with separatist forces from South Ossetia, and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sent troops to quell tensions. On August 8, believing that the West "had his back," Saakashvili initiated an air and ground campaign against the territory’s capital, Tskhinvali. The same day, Russia invaded on the pretext of protecting South Ossetia from Georgia’s “aggression” and “genocide.” Russia took the region in only five days.

Later that month, on August 26, Russia recognized the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Whereas Russia claims that it entered South Ossetia to aid its citizens, entities in the West – including the US government, the United Nations, and OSCE – maintain that the two territories are occupied.

Russia had strengthened ties with South Ossetia before Saakashvili sent troops into South Ossetia. Daniel Fried, a Distinguished Fellow of the Atlantic Council, has argued that “Putin wanted the war. In the summer of 2008, he kept provoking then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili until, against US advice, Saakashvili gave the order for Georgian forces to push back Russian-controlled South Ossetian forces that were shelling Georgian villages. The Russian army, prepared and with its pretext in hand, crossed into Georgia in strength.”

Tbilisi architecture
The Orbeliani bathhouse in Tbilisi | Violator1 on Flickr

The Georgian government’s response to the war in Ukraine has been calculated, in part, to avoid provoking Russia’s ire. The Georgian Dream party, which gained power in 2012, sought to normalize economic and trade relations with Russia, and now seeks to balance its relations between Russia and the West. Georgia has yet to join Europe in sanctioning Russia, has refused entry to the country by members of Russia’s opposition, and has prevented Russian citizens from flying to Ukraine to fight.

Yet many Georgian citizens are passionately anti-war and have called for stricter responses to the influx of Russians. On February 24, in Tbilisi, some 30,000 Georgians demonstrated in support of Ukraine and in protest of their government’s response to the war.

When asked to express her thoughts on the war, Zaitsev held back tears. “It’s horrible. It’s the genocide of a people. The worst to me is that every Ukrainian had relatives in Russia, every Russian has relatives, family, someone for sure. It seems to me like every second person has a Ukrainian in the family. And I can’t wrap my head around it.”

Zaitseva said she empathizes with Georgians and can understand why some would hate Russians because of their government’s occupation of their country. “Everyone has been saying for a long time, it’s not connected to the war in Ukraine, that it would be great that if, on the borders, Russians would be given a piece of paper to sign stating that they agree that 20 percent of Georgia is occupied."

“It’s a needed piece of paper, but there still isn’t one,” she said.

The question of discrimination, Zaitseva said, is a complex one, but there was certainly an increase of Russophobia after the war started.

“There was discrimination, you can’t deny this,” she said. “But it wasn’t as horrible as it looked in the media at that moment. At that moment it looked very bad. That is, in Georgian media it was very hyped. Now it’s all calmed down, and the number of Russians coming here has decreased.”

Most imptorantly, Zaitseva said, it is best for Russians “to explain their position” regarding the war. “If a person hears this, he’ll understand… that the person doesn’t support Putin. The questions will disappear for this person.”

tbilisi clock
A clock in Tbilisi | neiljs on Flickr

While some intend to stay, Adzinbaia said, many Russians are using Georgia as a transit country, since they can remain in Georgia for up to one year without a visa. Given the political context, he said he believes it is crucial for the Georgian government to monitor who is crossing their border.

“I’m very mindful as a citizen, as a security professional," he said, "that if they stay here for a long time with a lack of clarity from the Georgian authorities, and with the lack of information we have, they may always be used as a weapon by their government.”

Adzinbaia communicates with colleagues in Georgia to understand how life is for the new Russians who have come to his country. “We are constantly exchanging views on what’s going on," he said, "[and talk to] our Georgian-Russian friends here who [hold] Georgian passports." Most Russians, he said, are keeping to themselves, though they frequent popular destinations like restaurants and cafes. Many work in the IT sector, and Adzinbaia said this might be beneficial for Georgia if they are “skilled, open-minded, and not so pro-Putin.”

Zaitseva said that Georgians, of course, respond differently to the “new” Russians. Some were afraid that Georgia would be the next country Putin comes for, and that colors their views. Others see the economic benefit of Russians coming and spending money. Some also believe that the Russians might bring something useful to Georgia, as most are progressive – including journalists, human rights workers, and activists.

Nevertheless, it is difficult for the Russians who have arrived, Zaitseva said. “Some [of the Russians who come] are in very difficult psychological situations because the war in Ukraine puts pressure on everyone. And people who understand even a little bit of what’s happening, like me, as a Russian citizen, I feel responsibility for this act, and feel guilt.”

Many Russians are simply trying to figure out next steps in their lives, and some are returning to Russia because they cannot find work in Georgia. “It’s really hard to build a life here," Adzinbaia said, "if you’re a cameraman for example, or a lawyer. The camera operator positions are full, [the working language is] Georgian, you’re not really needed here.”

Even now, Zaitseva said, Russians living in Georgia are nervous.

“[Russians] are mainly isolating themselves,” she said. “We can call it Russophobia, at one moment there was active Russophobia, and they were afraid to integrate. Because no one knows what kind of reaction they could get from Georgians, and [there’s also the question of] language. It’s always simpler to close yourself off in your diaspora. It’s really a problem, and it existed before the war in Ukraine, but from the beginning of the war, because of their situations, because of attitudes toward them in other countries, I think they’ll be isolated for much longer.”

church tbilisi
The Metekhi Church in Tbilisi | Violator1 on Flickr

A vital question is whether the Russians who have come to Georgia can adapt to the country's values and “respect basic human rights,” Adzinbaia said.

It would also be helpful for Russians arriving in Georgia to try to understand the country and the bilateral history, he said, “learning more [about Russia’s occupation of Georgia] and getting the facts right and asking critical questions of their government.”

“Georgians are not an uncivilized populace," Adzinbaia said. "They’re good toward Russians, but that does not mean that they approve of Russian occupation of their land. And they are welcome to Georgia as a member of the European family of values. Don’t tell me that they want Georgia as a kitchen. Georgia is not a kitchen, Georgia has a great cuisine, but Georgia is a state, is a nation, is an old nation. They are welcome if they have that in mind.”


You Might Also Like

The Valley of the Dead
  • March 01, 2021

The Valley of the Dead

A severe, remote valley in Ossetia inters the remains of one of Russia’s most revered film stars... and the mingled bones of countless ancients.
Pearl of the Caucasus
  • May 01, 2017

Pearl of the Caucasus

The Republic of Georgia is a land of exquisite paradoxes that are sometimes lovable, sometimes infuriating.
Prose of the Mountains
  • September 01, 2015

Prose of the Mountains

A section of three excerpts from the Central European Press' new translation of the works of Aleksandre Qazbegi, which vividly bring back the spirit and feel of the Caucasus of the 19th century.
  • August 23, 2016


Natalia Airiyan leads us on a short visit to Kabardino-Balkaria, in the Caucasus mountains, an area rich in ethnic diversity.
An Immigrant's Story, with Cake
  • November 25, 2020

An Immigrant's Story, with Cake

Polina Chesnakova's family moved from Russia to Georgia, then from Georgia to Ukraine, and to the US. A cookbook author and cooking instructor, Chesnakova keeps her family traditions alive through cooking and baking, and inspiring others.
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Marooned in Moscow

Marooned in Moscow

This gripping autobiography plays out against the backdrop of Russia's bloody Civil War, and was one of the first Western eyewitness accounts of life in post-revolutionary Russia. Marooned in Moscow provides a fascinating account of one woman's entry into war-torn Russia in early 1920, first-person impressions of many in the top Soviet leadership, and accounts of the author's increasingly dangerous work as a journalist and spy, to say nothing of her work on behalf of prisoners, her two arrests, and her eventual ten-month-long imprisonment, including in the infamous Lubyanka prison. It is a veritable encyclopedia of life in Russia in the early 1920s.
93 Untranslatable Russian Words

93 Untranslatable Russian Words

Every language has concepts, ideas, words and idioms that are nearly impossible to translate into another language. This book looks at nearly 100 such Russian words and offers paths to their understanding and translation by way of examples from literature and everyday life. Difficult to translate words and concepts are introduced with dictionary definitions, then elucidated with citations from literature, speech and prose, helping the student of Russian comprehend the word/concept in context.
At the Circus

At the Circus

This wonderful novella by Alexander Kuprin tells the story of the wrestler Arbuzov and his battle against a renowned American wrestler. Rich in detail and characterization, At the Circus brims with excitement and life. You can smell the sawdust in the big top, see the vivid and colorful characters, sense the tension build as Arbuzov readies to face off against the American.
Russia Rules

Russia Rules

From the shores of the White Sea to Moscow and the Northern Caucasus, Russian Rules is a high-speed thriller based on actual events, terrifying possibilities, and some really stupid decisions.
Driving Down Russia's Spine

Driving Down Russia's Spine

The story of the epic Spine of Russia trip, intertwining fascinating subject profiles with digressions into historical and cultural themes relevant to understanding modern Russia. 
Fearful Majesty

Fearful Majesty

This acclaimed biography of one of Russia’s most important and tyrannical rulers is not only a rich, readable biography, it is also surprisingly timely, revealing how many of the issues Russia faces today have their roots in Ivan’s reign.
The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar

The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar

The fables of Ivan Krylov are rich fonts of Russian cultural wisdom and experience – reading and understanding them is vital to grasping the Russian worldview. This new edition of 62 of Krylov’s tales presents them side-by-side in English and Russian. The wonderfully lyrical translations by Lydia Razran Stone are accompanied by original, whimsical color illustrations by Katya Korobkina.
The Little Humpbacked Horse

The Little Humpbacked Horse

A beloved Russian classic about a resourceful Russian peasant, Vanya, and his miracle-working horse, who together undergo various trials, exploits and adventures at the whim of a laughable tsar, told in rich, narrative poetry.
Steppe / Степь

Steppe / Степь

This is the work that made Chekhov, launching his career as a writer and playwright of national and international renown. Retranslated and updated, this new bilingual edition is a super way to improve your Russian.
Moscow and Muscovites

Moscow and Muscovites

Vladimir Gilyarovsky's classic portrait of the Russian capital is one of Russians’ most beloved books. Yet it has never before been translated into English. Until now! It is a spectactular verbal pastiche: conversation, from gutter gibberish to the drawing room; oratory, from illiterates to aristocrats; prose, from boilerplate to Tolstoy; poetry, from earthy humor to Pushkin. 
The Samovar Murders

The Samovar Murders

The murder of a poet is always more than a murder. When a famous writer is brutally stabbed on the campus of Moscow’s Lumumba University, the son of a recently deposed African president confesses, and the case assumes political implications that no one wants any part of.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602