demonstrator holding the Ukraine flag around their body

Russians in Georgia help to evacuate Ukrainians  

Hundreds of Russian dissidents and members of civil society who have challenged Vladimir Putin’s government have settled in nearby Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. The country’s relaxed visa rules and low cost of living have attracted artists, activists and journalists. Some who’ve settled there are now working to support their fellow Russians and protest the war from afar.

The World

A demonstrator holds a Ukrainian national flag in front of the Georgian Parliament during an action against Russia's attack on Ukraine in Tbilisi, Georgia, March 1, 2022. Some Russians who've resettled in Georgia are now helping Ukrainians evacuate.

Shakh Aivazov/AP

In a spacious office in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, a group of young volunteers, hunched over cellphones and computers, works to evacuate Ukrainains fleeing the war.

“This is a place where people come alive,” said volunteer Alina Muzychenko, 36, a Belarusian who spent most of her adult life in Russia. “We’re all in shock about what’s happening, and for our team, it’s a way to mobilize our energy and do something.”

Members of the grassroots group Helping To Leave, founded by activists, journalists and artists on Feb. 24, the day the war in Ukraine started, are here around the clock to aid Ukrainians looking for safety, psychological support, financial aid and more.

Related: Ukraine is now urging people to evacuate the Donbas. This Ukrainain American pastor is risking his life to help.

Many of the volunteers are Russians who recently left their own country for safety reasons. They are part of an outspoken generation who fear they could be jailed for opposing the war.

“[They’re] the young voice of the revolution.” 

Alina Muzychenko, Russian activist and volunteer with Helping to Leave in Tbilisi, Georgia

“[They’re] the young voice of the revolution,” said Muzychenko, who moved to Tbilisi last year after she faced intimidation in Russia for her work.

Alina Muzychenko, 36, and Egor Eremeev, 34, protest the war in Ukraine from their new home in Tbilisi, Georgia. `

Alina Muzychenko, 36, and Egor Eremeev, 34, protest the war in Ukraine from their new home in Tbilisi, Georgia. Many Russian activists say they can do more productive work abroad where they no longer face the risk of arrest for their work. 

Credit:

Courtesy of Vasya Krestyaninov

At least 20,000 Russians have arrived in Georgia since the war in Ukraine started in February. Hundreds of them are activists and journalists fleeing a recent crackdown on dissent inside Russia. Thousands of Russians have been arrested for protesting the war. Even just calling the conflict a “war” is a criminal offense in Russia.

Related: Body armor factories in the Americas are sending gear to war-torn Ukraine

Muzychenko left Russia in June 2021 as a part of a growing wave of Russian dissidents who started leaving in the months before the war started. While living in Moscow, Muzychenko helped found Kultrab, an artist collective and clothing brand that works to raise awareness about issues like Russia’s crackdown on LGBTQ rights.

a woman in pink shown in a distorted perspective drinking out of a thermos

A model working with Kultrab poses with a new line of merchandise to raise money for a Russian organization providing legal services to protesters detained by authorities. Since its founding, Kulbrab has used fashion to fundraise for independent organizations in Russia. Kulbrab’s founders eventually left Russia because of their work. 

Credit:

Courtesy of Zhenya Filatova

In addition to activism and art, Kultrab also designed clothing to raise money for the independent media outlet Mediazona, which focuses on Russia’s judicial and prison systems.

Since Kultrab was founded in 2017, Muzychenko said that officials from Russia’s Center for Combatting Extremism started showing up at Kultrab’s events and following them on social media. Their collective came under more pressure last year when Russia started labeling independent media outlets as foreign agents.

That growing list of media organizations eventually included Mediazona.

Muzychenko said that she felt compelled to leave Russia because collaborating with organizations deemed by the government as “undesirable” is a criminal offense in the country.

“We understood that the young people who we work with might run into danger,” Muzychenko said. “That's why we decided to leave.”

These days, Muzychenko devotes most of her time in Tbilisi to Helping to Leave.

Related: Refugees find a welcome in Catalan Guissona’s ‘Little Ukraine’

Irma Fatianova, 32, who previously worked with jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny before leaving Russia for Tbilisi, helps with fundraising for the project.

“Before, it was just Navalny and his associates [who were at risk], but now, the threat falls on anyone who expresses their opinion publicly,” Fatianova said. “So, it makes sense to leave Russia and do something useful on the outside.”

Many Russians choose Georgia because they don’t need visas, and lots of Georgians speak Russian. In Tbilisi, there are now people dedicated to helping them.

“It changed from 12 hours a day of work to 22 hours a day of work immediately after the war started,” said Egor Kuroptev, director of the South Caucasus Office of the Free Russia Foundation, an organization that has been offering assistance to Russians arriving in Tbilisi in addition to other tasks like countering misinformation about the war.

Roman Dmitrienko sits in a detention center outside Moscow

Roman Dmitrienko sits in a detention center outside Moscow after he and Kultrab’s co-founder, Egor Eremeev, were arrested for attending a rally in support of Alexei Navalny in March 2021. Eremeev left Russia and moved to Tbilisi, Georgia, shortly after his release. 

Credit:

Courtesy of Vladimir Rumyantsev

Kuroptev’s office has received requests from thousands of Russians, Belorussians and Ukrainians seeking assistance since the war started. He said that some of the Russians coming to Georgia are activists, but there are also lots of working professionals.

Related: Reliable death tolls from the Ukraine war are hard to come by — the result of undercounts and manipulation

“They want to leave because they're under sanctions, their bank cards are not working, they cannot receive payments from abroad,” Kuroptev said.

The Georgian government has downplayed the significance of Russians coming here, saying the numbers are about the same as Russian tourists who visited Georgia before the pandemic. But hundreds of dissidents have now settled in Georgia. Kuroptev said that the Kremlin puts constant pressure on Georgia, which makes the authorities in Tbilisi consider all possible risks and sometimes act unpredictably.

“When any country around Russia sees that some maniac can start a war without any single reason, they're afraid,” Kuroptev said.

Some Russians in Tbilisi say they’ve been mostly welcomed here. But anti-Russian graffiti has turned up on the streets and some landlords have posted online that they won’t rent to Russians.

“After the war, there started to be way more Russophobia, and it makes total sense.”

Yulia Lutikova, Russian artist and volunteer with Helping to Leave in Tbilisi, Georgia

“After the war, there started to be way more Russophobia, and it makes total sense,” said Yulia Lutikova, 19, a Russian artist who moved to Tbilisi last year who also works with Helping to Leave.

Lutikova said that she sympathized with Georgians who are likely to judge Russians by the behavior of their government. For Russians like Lutikova, even just getting in a Tbilisi taxi and conversing with the driver in Russian  — which usually means having to explain whether you’re from Russia — can feel extremely uncomfortable.

two people hugging

Egor Eremeev, 34, and Alina Muzychenko, 36, are the co-founders of Kultrab, an artist collective and clothing brand that works to raise awareness about issues like Russia’s crackdown on the rights of the LGBTQ community. They relocated to Tbilisi in 2021 after facing intimidation for their activism in Russia. 

Credit:

Levi Bridges/The World

But despite the occasional awkward moment, Lutikova said that she’s doing things in Georgia that she never could in Moscow. She went to a rally in support of Ukraine recently and held up a big poster denouncing Russia’s leadership.

“Before, that would have been like a dream,” Lutikova said. “Here [in Georgia], free speech exists everywhere, it doesn’t matter what it’s about.”

Even though Russians in Tbilisi are far away from home, Russian dissidents remain committed to returning home when the government changes.

Muzychenko, the co-founder of Kultrab, said that she and her friends hope to return to Russia someday.

“We love Russia, we love Belarus, we love Ukraine, and we really want people from all these countries to be able to have a say in politics or go to a peaceful protest without being in danger,” Muzychenko said.

For the moment, Muzychenko and other young Russians in Tbilisi have focused their energy on helping Ukrainians. Russian activists feel they can do much more important work in Georgia than they can from a prison cell in Russia. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Alina Muzychenko as a Russian citizen. She spent most of her adult life in Russia but is Belarusian. It has been corrected.

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