A general view of the Georgian side of the Verkhni Lars customs checkpoint between Georgia and Russia some 200km outside Tbilisi on Sept. 25. Russian authorities acknowledged a "significant" influx of cars trying to cross from Russia into Georgia on Sunday, days after Moscow announced a partial mobilization. Credit - Vano Shlamov—AFP/Getty Images
It’s not hard to understand why Nikolai Shushpan, who is gay, made the decision to become one of the thousands of Russians to flee to Georgia after President Vladimir Putin announced a draft last week. “I’m more scared of being killed by my own army than the Ukrainian one,” he says, referring to Russia’s increasingly anti-LGBT turn, after TIME catches up with him on Wednesday via Telegram. Following Putin’s announcement on Sept. 21, a line stretching thousands of cars has emerged trying to cross the only border checkpoint between Russia and Georgia at Verkniy Lars—long enough to be seen from space.
Amid the desperation, chaos reigns. “I never expected one day I would be in a situation like this. It was like an apocalyptic movie,” Nikolai recalls. At least 260,000 military-aged males have fled Russia since the draft announcement, according to independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and some Western officials, spurred by reports from exiled Russian news sites that Putin could announce a border closure at any moment.
Though Nikolai made it across the border in a relatively quick 12 hours, which he attributes to a Georgian driver willing to scream at police, others haven’t been so lucky. Oleg Gazmanov spent 30 hours in the line without sleep: “I was tired, dizzy, and weak. I couldn’t even remember how to work my handbrake.” He adds that when he finally got to the border checkpoint, a Georgian guard asked, sarcastically, “Why are you leaving the country when it needs you so much?”
The conditions at the crossing are poor. “It’s really difficult to see how hard it is for women with children. Many children go hungry,” says Magamed Dudaev, an IT technician from the predominately Muslim Ingushetia region in southwestern Russia. (Gazmanov and Dudaev are pseudnomys given concerns for their safety.) He also says he witnessed discrimination against non-ethnic Russians like himself, who were taken aside for questioning by Georgian border guards, and that some were turned away despite a conscription drive that disproportionately impacts ethnic minorities. Dudaev’s motivations for leaving are simple: “I don’t want to kill people.”
But these exiles aren’t exactly welcome in Georgia. Streets in the capital, Tbilisi, are littered with anti-Russian graffiti. Not just “F-CK Russia,” but “Russki go home.” As well as memories of the brief 2008 Russo-Georgian war—which ended in a crushing defeat for Georgia and the loss of territorial control in the breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions—ordinary Georgians have pragmatic reasons not to want more Russians here. The roads and subways are far busier than usual. Prices have skyrocketed while salaries have stayed the same. Landlords want to make more money from the comparatively rich Russians, many of whom come from the Moscow middle class. Social media manager Irakli Khekhelashvili is livid that he had to move back in with his parents after his landlord raised his rent. “I could not afford it,” he says.
Dmitry Kolyeva, born and raised in Georgia, is one of those making money from the new arrivals—charging $100 a person for lifts from the border to Tbilisi. He can earn almost the Georgian monthly average salary of $420 in one trip. Still, he says he has no sympathies for Russians. “I would kill them all if I could, but after I get their money,” he says wryly.
A growing exodus
This new generation of Russian émigrés looks nothing like the bearded aristocrats who grew old in the cafés of mid-century Paris following the 1917 Russian Revolution that ushered in communist rule and the Soviet Union. Many are in their early 20s, with dyed hair, tattoos, and baggy jeans.
The latest wave of arrivals join a community of 40,000 Russians who have come since February. With Europe off-limits to most Russians—and because Georgia has long granted one-year visas on arrival to Russians—Tbilisi has emerged as one of the main destinations for exiles. One of those who arrived shortly after the war began was Phillip Smirnov, 21, a left-wing journalist who says he left Russia in disgust. “We wanted to do antiwar protests in Russia, but it clearly wasn’t working. It was pretty devastating. Some of our editors were detained. I was scared. We moved the entire editorial board,” he says, referring to the independent Russian website DOXA News , where he works.
One popular hangout for people like Smirnov is Koshini, set up by an opposition blogger. When TIME visits, on the day Putin announces the draft, it looks like a hip Berlin bar but with Soviet-style carpet hanging on the wall, the Russian songs blasting from the speakers, and stickers saying, “Russians against the war” in the toilets. The mood is tense, even paranoid.
Meanwhile, Daedena, a bar on the bank of Tbilisi’s Mkvari river, asks visitors for their passports on entry. Russians are forced to apply for a “visa” to enter by scanning a QR code and checking boxes that they’ve said “glory to Ukraine,” condemned Russian aggression, promised not to speak Russian, and recognized that 20% of Georgia is still occupied by Russia. Ksenia Sobchak, a socialite turned activist who ran against Putin in the 2018 presidential race, refused to comply, telling her 9.4 million Instagram followers that “unfortunately not everyone understands that being against militarism and violence does not mean wanting to glorify a foreign state.” Few bars have such stringent—critics say Russophobic—rules, but rumors that certain clubs don’t let in Russian passport holders abound in the émigré community.
It’s not just overzealous bouncers that make Russians in Tbilisi nervous. Russia’s much-feared state security service, the FSB, has reportedly sent their people to Georgia to keep tabs on Russian exiles. And the government, led by the Georgian Dream party, has been accused by critics of secretly collaborating with the Kremlin. “There have been more than a few cases of Georgian government or police deporting or turning away prominent Russian democratic opposition members,” says Giorgi Kandelaki, a former MP for the European Georgia party. The Georgian Dream party is run by the country’s sole oligarch and former Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made much of his fortune in Russia—and who critics allege runs the party like a private company, appointing former assistants to senior ministries. Some estimates say Ivanishvili’s wealth alone makes up 35% of Georgia’s GDP.
Sopo Galeva, a disinformation researcher at the Atlantic Council, says that the Georgian government is playing on people’s fears about another conflict with Russia to turn Georgia away from the West. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has joked that his country should have a referendum on starting a war with Russia over the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in an apparent effort to dismiss the idea of Georgia taking an unabashedly pro-Western, anti-Kremlin approach.
“The main message is that the U.S. is trying to drag Georgia into war. These were messages that were coming from fringe, far-right Russian-backed actors but have now been taken up by Georgian Dream,” Galeva says. She sees this as an attempt to distract from Georgia’s faltering E.U. membership prospects. The bloc’s foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell, warned earlier this month that Georgia must ramp up reforms to the rule of law, as well as ensure an independent judiciary and free press before it can be granted the status of an official E.U. membership candidate.
All of this has led to a strained atmosphere in Tbilisi, and Georgia as a whole. Many Georgians say they have suffered for generations due to their proximity to Russia, and as a former Soviet republic. Though some people are making money from the exiles, it is clear that many Georgians do not welcome them. A group of protesters went to the border on Thursday holding up signs that read, “Russian deserters not welcome.” Bar owner Nia Gvatua also has a message for the arrivals: “if you really respect my country, just don’t come here.”