Russia's invasion of Ukraine has made victims of all of us.
Soviet monument to Russian-Georgian friendship on the Russian Military Highway, Georgia..
Ivan and Pavel met on the flight from St.Petersburg to Sochi and paired up for their journey to Georgia where they would be free from Russian conscription into the army. They took a bus to Vladikavkaz, then joined the long, slow, multi-day procession of draft dodgers by car, foot and bicycle to the Larsi border in Georgia, a mere 20 miles away.
My wife and I were among the couple dozen journalists on the other side with cameras, microphones and notebooks trying to interview the stream of exiles walking across with backpacks and bags while taxi drivers trolled them, offering rides back to Tbilisi for around $80 a person. Most of the runaways were reluctant to talk to journalists. Four young men told me they were “tourists” and may go to Goa.
“It is bad in Russia?” I asked.
“War is bad. In Russia it is very dangerous now,” one replied.
A haggle of hacks surrounded Ivan, a 26 year-old nuclear physicist who politely answered questions in English and punctuated a statement with an outburst, arms outstretched. “Georgia! Freedom!” Pavel, a tall, thin, timorous lawyer who speaks little English also in his mid-twenties, stood aside. All of his belongings were stuffed into a knapsack the size of a loaf of bread. As the journalists moved on to their next interviews, Ivan joined Pavel to discuss their options. We offered them a lift to Tbilisi.
The Georgian Military Highway is the only road that links Russia to Georgia that Tbilisi controls. The other two are in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgian break-away territories Russia occupies. The road is an audacious feat of 18th century engineering, slicing 125 miles through the High Caucasus, from Vladikavkaz to Tbilisi. It was commissioned shortly after the signing of the Georgievsk Treaty of 1783, which put Georgia under Russian protection from Ottoman and Persian aggression. We might have mentioned this irony to our passengers but they had fallen asleep before we slipped into third gear.
We were hungry and figured they were too. I had heard there was a “great restaurant” in Natakhtari near the E60 highway and decided it was not Restaurant Emocia (Emotion) because the parking lot was empty. Natakhtari Shkaro, on the other hand, looked busy. The place is all stone, ceramic tile and thick wooden furniture, kind of Georgian hacienda style with the requisite stage and one-man orchestra singing high-decibel Estrada numbers. We grabbed a patio table next to some loafing cats. The waitress smiled and dropped our menus down. We didn’t really need to open them.
“How about some khinkali? You guys have Georgian food up there in Petersburg, right? Yes? Not like this, though.”
I figured nothing could be better than a platter of steaming khinkali after escaping Russian conscription through a gauntlet of checkpoints set up exclusively to extort money and a highway robber armed with two knives in his bloody hands. Except for the brief nap in the car, the boys hadn’t slept for 36 hours. Seduced by the glorious waft of fatty pork roasting over coals, we threw in a portion of mtsvadi.
When protests broke out across Russia after Vladimir Putin announced the mobilization of 300,000 men, social media platforms lit up with two contrasting opinions. One, mostly voices from the west, praised “those brave Russians protesting Putin’s war” and the other, mostly from countries with a history of Russian occupation, berated them for being silent about it until their asses were put on the line. “They are protesting conscription, not the war,” people like me tweeted. “They should stay and be part of the solution to Putin and his war.” I mentioned this sentiment to Ivan.
“I took part in protests from the first day but now if the police catch you they automatically throw you in the army,” he explained. “Before, I was prepared to accept the consequences, a fine, jail. At least I would have been able to apply for asylum after getting released.”
Our waitress brought out the tomato and cucumber salads, with and without a crushed walnut dressing, covered in parsley and purple basil. I bit into a tomato and tasted my anxiety. The season is ending, very soon all tomatoes will taste like this. I was going to mention this to my wife, a refrain I have tortured her with each autumn for 20 years, but I glanced at our two befuddled guests resonating an angst far more existential than my own.
“I just can’t imagine these guys in camouflage with Kalashnikovs,” I said instead. Ivan looked up from his plate with a hesitant grin. We laughed nervously. The Russian army is filling its ranks with lanky, innocuous young professionals just like Ivan and Pavel, predestined to wear lab coats and off-the-rack suits, not the rags the defense ministry dresses them in.
“They started grabbing guys from work, that’s when I knew I had to leave,” Ivan said. “My only other options were to go to prison or to war.” Pavel said his case was the same.
Ivan described people in Russia as being “patriots” who believe Ukraine is full of Nazis and those who have made a good living since Putin came to power and keep their heads buried in the sand. Why disrupt the status quo? The other segment of society - the opposition to Putin - are in disarray. Their leaders get murdered or like Alexei Navalny who survived a poisoning, are imprisoned for being enemies of the state.
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Georgians tolerated Russian tourists because they would spend money and leave. Still, the steady stream of arrogant northern neighbors grated on locals who do not appreciate being spoken down to in Russian. “Why is your menu not in Russian?” these visitors complained. Signs began appearing on the front doors of businesses reminding guests that Russia is an occupier. Stickers, too, were slapped on everything from lamp posts and cars to ATM machines and trashcans: “Russia is Occupant.”
Things came to a head in June 2019, when Georgian lawmakers invited Russian MP Sergey Gavrilov to address an international congregation of Orthodox Christians from the Speaker of Parliament’s chair. The act sparked an immediate protest as thousands of angry citizens rallied in front of parliament, outraged that a Russian MP was allowed into their governing chamber. Putin responded to the Tbilisi protests by closing direct air traffic to Georgia and the Georgian government cracked down violently. Tolerance towards Russians and a government perceived to be sucking up to the Kremlin was wearing thin.
While Georgia’s relationship with Russia has always been contentious, the modern beef began in 2004, when the Georgian government pooh-poohed Putin’s sphere of influence and fully embraced a policy of western integration, including NATO membership. This culminated in the Russian invasion of 2008 and the subsequent occupation of 20 percent of Georgia’s territory. Today’s government was elected in 2012 on a platform of placating Russia and the Kremlin reacted graciously by moving the South Ossetian border deeper into Georgian territory, an activity it continues to do whenever the mood strikes.
The Russian shelling of Ukraine triggered a collective war trauma in Georgia, which had warned the world of such a scenario back in 2008. For weeks, the Tbilisi vibe was numb, tense, bewildered, frightened, angry. Georgians channelled their uneasiness by helping the thousands of Ukrainian refugees who were arriving in Tbilisi and by displaying Ukrainian flags and spraying graffiti everywhere. Tens of thousands of citizens protested the government’s failure to take a stronger stance to support Ukraine and join western sanctions.
At the same time, thousands of Belarusians and Russians were arriving, escaping political persecution and economic sanctions. But few in Georgia bother to differentiate between the two types of exiles, seeing the Russians as a massive fifth column. Putin’s template of invasion is based on the chicanery of “protecting Russian citizens.” For every Russian who burns a passport in front of parliament, it seems there are dozens at local restaurants who unabashedly make toasts to Putin, or to their “guys” at the front, or refuse to denounce the war when confronted. Exacerbating the situation are greedy local landlords evicting tenants who cannot afford the sudden doubling of rent for Russian exiles.
Tbilisi has become awash with Russian speakers, although National Tourism Agency stats indicate there were twice as many in 2019 than now. Most visitors to Georgia can stay visa-free for a year. Between February and August, some 250,000 Russians arrived and registered 6,400 new businesses in Georgia. In early September, the government estimated around 60,000 have become residents but the last wave Ivan and Pavel were part of brought a reported 25,000 more - and they are still coming, we just don't know how many are staying. Whatever the numbers, we have never seen more Russians in Georgia than now.
While the population seethes with frustration, City Hall sends out cleaners with the Sisyphean task of covering up the multiplying anti-Russian graffiti all over the city and government leaders accuse the west of dragging Georgia into a war with Russia, a fictitious accusation straight out of the Russian rhetoric manual. It is as if the Georgian government is betting on Russia to win instead of joining its western allies to throw its support behind Ukraine.
We briefed Ivan and Pavel on the situation in Tbilisi, of how most people their age here don’t speak Russian or in some cases refuse to. This wouldn’t be an issue for Ivan as he was moving on to Dubai in a few days to stay with his fiancé’s uncle. There will be no more nuclear reactors in his life. He aims to pursue his dream of being a videographer. Pavel, however, was staying, although he has no real connections in Tbilisi. One phone number may get him a gig doing some IT work for a Russian company.
“I understand how Georgians must feel. My country invaded them,” Ivan said as the waitress set two steaming platters of khinkali on the table. I was a bit disappointed these dumplings were the size of young figs and not of butcher fists. We were in khinkali country, after all. They were also a bit dry. A good khinkali should have about a tablespoon of broth to slurp out before you gobble it down. These facts were lost on the Peterburgians who put them away with good manners, but also as if tomorrow’s meal might never come.