Tbilisi, Georgia – The tree-lined Rustaveli Avenue of Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, is filled with young men lugging backpacks and suitcases, trying to orient themselves around this new city.
Occasionally accompanied by wives or girlfriends, they have fled their homes in Russia to escape the partial mobilisation ordered by President Vladimir Putin for more manpower on the battlefields of Ukraine.
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Those who have previously served in the military, even as conscripts, and are now registered in the reserves, are the likeliest to receive a summons, but even older men with no experience have been called up.
“Four days ago, we didn’t think either of us would be here,” said Alexey, a 24-year-old would-be draftee, in a restaurant on the cobblestone streets of Tbilisi’s Old Town.
Georgian officials say more than 10,000 Russians are crossing the border each day and images widely shared on social media show lines of cars snaking towards Georgia and Mongolia.
The prices of direct flights out of Moscow have skyrocketed.
Alexey managed to buy a ticket to Vladikavkaz in the Russian region of North Ossetia, just north of the Georgian border.
On the morning of September 24, the queue at the Upper Lars Russia-Georgia border crossing was 2,000 cars long, so, he hired a scooter to cut across.
“I was carrying a 20kg (44-pound) backpack, so I attached it with a rope and dragged it behind,” Alexey said.
On the way, a policeman checked his documents. Alexey said he was going on vacation.
“OK, run, run, but you can’t run from your conscience,” the officer grumbled before letting him pass.
At Upper Lars, crossing the border by foot is not allowed, so local drivers are offering their services for free. A pile of abandoned scooters and bicycles lay by the border posts.
‘They tried scaring us’
Volodya, another 24-year-old at the Georgian restaurant, and his partner, with their little dog in tow, were also stopped at a police checkpoint.
“They tried scaring us, saying they’ll drag us to the enlistment office, telling us the border is closed – typical military humour,” he said.
“For every question I answered, the major would reply: ‘Great! We need you in the army!’ ‘Where do you work?’ I’m a painter-decorator. ‘Great, you’ll paint our shoes!’”
After a 16km (10-mile) trek through the mountains on a rainy night, which mangled the wheels of Volodya’s suitcase, they reached the Upper Lars and had their passports stamped with no further questions, although they noticed other travellers, young men from the North Caucasus regions, such as Chechnya and Dagestan, being held back far longer.
Georgia, a mountainous nation on the Black Sea wedged between Russia and Turkey, has always been a favourite destination for Russian tourists, famous for its food, wine and scenic Caucasus mountains.
Unlike several states in Eastern and Northern Europe, it has remained open to Russian citizens, and the relaxed visa system and locals’ familiarity with Russian has meant it was easy to settle in.
But the two neighbours share an uneasy relationship because of their turbulent past.
Georgia was conquered from the Ottoman and Persian empires in the 19th century and absorbed by tsarist Russia, then briefly won independence during the 1917-1923 Russian Civil War before being occupied by the Bolsheviks.
During this period, Georgian revolutionary Iosif Jughashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin, ruthlessly rose to the top of the Soviet leadership.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, a civil war erupted in Georgia in which two separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, broke away with Moscow’s help.
In 2008, Russia fought a brief war on behalf of the separatists, and Russian forces are still stationed on what is internationally recognised as Georgian territory.
“We have a lot of tragic history, and this is not only going back to 2008,” said Georgian journalist, Lasha Babukhadia. “We had the war in 1991 when Abkhazia and South Ossetia was [originally] occupied by Russia, so every decade we’ve had a war with Russia. We always tried to be independent, and support Ukraine because they are trying to be independent from Russia.”
The Georgian public has been firmly behind Ukraine, and yellow and blue flags hang from the windows of many apartments.
At the same time, some Georgians have bemoaned the influx of Russian exiles and draft dodgers.
They say certain Russians exhibit colonial attitudes, insisting on speaking Russian as if Georgia is still part of the USSR.
Others see them as potential spies or troublemakers on Moscow’s behalf.
A few bars, nightclubs and restaurants have banned Russian customers.
“One time, we were sitting in a bar and there was a fellow there, he was drunk and shouting: ‘Don’t speak Russian, don’t speak Russian, only English!’” said 25-year-old Bogdan from Moscow, who flew to Tbilisi on February 25, a day after Russia invaded Ukraine.
“We told him, We’re against Putin, as well!’
“As we were leaving, he followed us and told us not to speak Russian; he told us all Russians are swines and took a swing at us.”
Bogdan worked for an NGO which has been blacklisted as a “foreign agent” in Russia and said that most of his friends are activists at odds with the Kremlin.
Other Russian arrivals in Tbilisi have set up Emigration for Action, a group gathering aid for Ukrainian refugees.
“We see people coming into Georgia who are against the Russian government,” said Lasha Babukhadia.
“The problem is that it’s not only these people coming. There are Russian people who support Putin and his regime but they don’t want to sacrifice themselves.
“And some of them, I don’t mean all of them, try to show that Abkhazia and Ossetia are not occupied. This is a red line for Georgians. You are here. If you don’t recognise our nation and country on its borders, why are you coming here? Go to Kazakhstan or Belarus.”
‘I love my country’
Back at the restaurant, Alexey and Volodya shared their thoughts on Russia’s vision.
“My position is the DPR and LPR were to some extent mistreated [by Ukraine] so I understand why fighting broke out, but I don’t want to die for someone else’s imperial ambitions,” said Alexey, referring to the Russia-backed separatist statelets in Ukraine that are currently voting in referendums on whether to join Russia.
“I love my country, I consider myself a Russian patriot,” said Volodya, “but I don’t involve myself in politics and my family wants me alive. So between them and a situation [the war] I’m not certain about, I choose my family. At the same time, I’m ashamed I’m not there to watch my brothers’ backs.”
Volodya’s partner, who requested anonymity, struck a different tone.
“This isn’t our war, Ukrainians are our brothers – they smile, walk their dogs just like us,” she said. “If Moscow was attacked, we would defend it in just the same way.”
Meanwhile, as Georgians get used to more Russians, they have also been busy navigating inflation woes.
“After the war in Armenia, almost all of the Russians living in Armenia came to Georgia and made prices higher,” Lasha said, referring to recent conflicts between Yerevan and Baku.
“The flat owners are raising prices, and people can’t pay the rent at the same price. So that’s a really big problem.”
And the cost-of-living crisis has not ignored Russians either.
“We got lucky, we arrived while rent prices were still reasonable and we found a place for $400 a month,” said Bogdan. “But in a month, our landlady asked us for $500, and we struggled to find anything cheaper. Georgians didn’t want to rent to Russians any more, anyway.”
But not everyone plans to stay.
From Georgia, it is easier to travel to Europe and other regions that can no longer be reached by air from Russia.
“I’ll try to go elsewhere because this is already the second wave of emigration [since February] and everything is so expensive because of Russians,” said Alexey. “I’ll try to find remote work somewhere.”
Volodya chimed in, “After tomorrow, we plan on heading to Kazakhstan and from there, we’ll see. Maybe Colombia, South America.”