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

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TBILISI, Georgia — The president’s effigy was propped on a pole, stuffed with straw and dressed in a suit brimming with bills. Dozens of people gathered, some with lit torches. Within moments they set Vladimir Putin on fire.

“We want it to burn for a long time,” said Lada Titova, a performance artist from Lviv, Ukraine.

Titova was visiting Tbilisi as Russian forces launched their attack on her homeland, and over the past month she has staged events to protest a war that has already claimed thousands of lives – including seven of her friends. Many of your employees here are from the country that invaded Ukraine.

“Almost everyone who helps me is Russian or Belarusian,” said Titova. The majority is between 20 and 30. Even before the war, most were fighting against Putin’s regime. Some had been imprisoned for their efforts. “They were expelled from Russia,” she said.

However, their current activism does not protect them from public anger and hostility in Georgia, which spent most of the 20th century under Russian or Soviet rule. The country declared independence in 1991, but came under renewed attack from its powerful northern neighbor less than two decades later. The scars of that conflict are still visible, and even today Russian troops are stationed in the secessionist enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – a de facto occupation of a fifth of Georgia’s territory.

According to government estimates, around 35,000 Russians have arrived in Ukraine since the war broke out in late February. The vast majority are in Tbilisi, a city of 1.1 million people, where they are now all too conspicuous and increasingly unwanted.

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

Anna Kuzminikh has been in town since last summer. A film 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 became embroiled in a cycle of arrest, imprisonment and release, which was almost immediately followed by another arrest. She says she was physically abused behind bars.

Although initially life in Tbilisi was “incredibly beautiful and comfortable”, her nationality now makes her a target. Two landlords refused to rent her an apartment. She was thrown out of taxis twice.

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

“I tried to tell him about our activism in Russia, about the protests, the arrests,” she continued. “He said he didn’t believe me. It was like everything was 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 attacked while standing in a bank line where she had been careful to only speak English.

“A man suddenly started yelling and swearing at me,” Sokova said. “He didn’t want to stop. Even the guards had to intervene.” She ran out of the bank, curled up 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 completing an anti-war film and is planning an “Anti-War Festival of Arts” in Tbilisi with others. “Any Russian who is against the government is now a foreigner everywhere,” Sokova said. “No one 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, dismiss the destruction in Ukraine as “just a few bombs”.

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

“We hope there will be regime change. We need to start over, reform our country,” said Egor Stoskov, an actor from Moscow who crossed the border a few weeks ago. Last year he dodged a court hearing over his social media posts, including a TikTok video mocking Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov.

“I realized I couldn’t stay any longer [the war] went,” he said. Today he shares a small apartment in Tbilisi with five friends, two of them from Ukraine.

Sitting in a cafe within sight of another recent protest – where she had been kneeling in cold winter winds, clutching a bundle of blankets depicting a young child killed in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol – Titova spoke about the work ahead. It keeps her going, she said, and counteracts some of her feelings that she is betraying her country by not being there to fight back. She has no idea when she’s coming back.

“My goal is to ensure that Putin is recognized as a war criminal, not just for what he’s doing in Ukraine, but for what he’s been doing around the world — killing people in Russia, waging war in Georgia, the poisoning of people in Britain,” she said. “The list is very long.”

Friends have told her that the burning of Putin’s effigy was the “best event of the spring”. It was performed on the shore of a lake in Tbilisi, and when the effigy’s head fell into the flames, the crowd cheered, applauded and sang.

Titova smiled brightly: “Every day that evil is burned is a good day.”