Russians abroad are not the enemy

People see us as the representatives of the Russian state, but most of us are just refugees escaping Putin’s war.

Georgians attend a rally in support of Ukraine in Tbilisi
Thousands of demonstrators gather around the parliament building during a protest against Russia's attacks on Ukraine, on March 04, 2022 in Tbilisi, Georgia [Davit Kachkachishvili/Anadolu Agency]

The surreal thing about your country being in an offensive war is that you can continue with life as normal. You can go to work, do your shopping and water your plants as if nothing is happening. You can even go to a party, if you can stomach it.

So since Russian troops started encircling Ukrainian cities and shelling Ukrainian homes, hospitals and government buildings, that is what most Russians have been doing. They have been going to work, doing their shopping, playing with their kids, making small talk with acquaintances … as if a brutal war is not being waged in their name against their neighbours.

Sure, some act this way because they support the actions of the regime, or because they simply do not care about what is going on beyond the country’s borders. For many others, however, continuing with business as usual is a defence mechanism – a way to avoid experiencing guilt, mental anguish and anxiety over something that they cannot control. They know the war is unjust, unnecessary and brutal, but they cannot raise their voices, protest, work to expose the truth, for one reason or another.

For them, acting as if nothing is happening is a valid mental health decision.

If I was not working in the business of news, I would have perhaps tried to do the same. But it was impossible to ignore the unfolding catastrophe while going through over a thousand updates a day on my country’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. The stress and frustration gradually became unbearable, especially as I was not even allowed to use simple words like “war” and “invasion” to describe what was happening. The Russian media has been reduced to what it was in the Soviet era, and eventually was only allowed to spread state propaganda. On the seventh consecutive day trying to cover a war that was supposedly not a war, my body gave up – I spent hours on the toilet puking my guts out.

I was not only disgusted and physically exhausted by the state of affairs, but also fearful – as I had made my views on the “special operation” clear online and attended protests, I knew the police would eventually knock on my door. So my partner and I decided to leave Russia before it was too late.

We did so urgently and covertly, without even saying a simple goodbye to our loved ones.

When we reached the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow, the sense of urgency that greeted us made us realise we were not alone – thousands of others, carrying multiple suitcases, pets, and even small pieces of furniture, were also heading out. It all seemed like a mass evacuation, and perhaps it was – we were all escaping from a war, even though its front line was miles away.

It soon become clear that we were right to leave when we did. While we were still en route to Georgia, President Vladimir Putin introduced a bill that allows for a 15-year prison sentence for “discrediting the Russian armed forces” – it was now officially a criminal offence to call the war a war, share information that contradicts the official position of the state, and protest against it.

Throughout my journey to Georgia, I thought of not only those suffering in Ukraine, but also those suffering in Russia – brave Russians who continue to protest knowing that they risk going to prison for years every time they do. And those everyday people who had no say in what the Kremlin decided to do, but are now struggling to feed their families. I couldn’t help but feel guilty for leaving, and immensely lucky to be able to do so.

But as soon as I arrived in Georgia, and started heading towards Tbilisi, I realised that I am not lucky either – that I did not really manage to “escape” this war. I realised that Russians, even those of us who are in the opposition and who are against the invasion, are not welcome in Georgia.

I realised that in the eyes of most Georgians, we are all guilty, simply for having Russian passports; we are all responsible for what Putin is doing; we are all sponsoring the war with our taxes. And more importantly, we are responsible for the war in 2008 that devastated their country.

Today, Tbilisi looks gorgeous covered head to toe in Ukrainian flags – it is inspiring to see an entire nation standing in solidarity with a country in distress. But it is equally heartbreaking to see this show of solidarity also includes overt hostility against us, Russians who are trying to find a safe haven in this beautiful country. Between Ukrainian flags it is common to see graffiti on walls that read “Russians go home”, “return to your ugly country”. It will not be the oligarchs who actually support and fund Putin’s war who see these hurtful words – they are weathering the crisis in their palatial homes in Switzerland and London. These words will hurt only us, Russians who came to Tbilisi to escape the same aggressor. Russians who know – like me – that they may end up in prison if they return home.

On our first day in Georgia, one of our friends was physically attacked simply for talking Russian. After that incident, we decided to communicate only in English anywhere public. But Russophobic attacks from members of the public are the least of our worries in Georgia.

For us Russians – and also Belarusians – in Georgia accessing the most basic services is a massive struggle.

The Bank of Georgia, for example, demands that Russian citizens sign a special form with their application to open a bank account. “I condemn Russia’s aggression in Georgia and Ukraine. I agree that Russia is an occupant that invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. I agree that I won’t share Russian government propaganda and help fight against it,” the form says, noting that a violation of these terms will result in a termination of the bank account. Even if a Russian citizen wholeheartedly agrees with these statements, signing this document may mean agreeing to never return home. Indeed, Russian prosecutors could easily classify signing this form as an act of treason.

In the end, we managed to open accounts with another Georgian bank without signing our death sentences, but securing accommodation proved to be even more difficult. Most landlords simply refused to rent to us because of our nationality. The ads we saw in newspapers and online had warnings on them explaining that Russians and Belarusians should not apply. Under my post in a Facebook group asking for help with finding a long-term rental, a landlord suggested that I “search for an apartment in Kharkiv instead” – the Ukrainian city under heavy Russian bombardment.

We of course understand that there is a tragedy unfolding in Ukraine, and Georgians are rightfully upset. We even accept that Ukrainian refugees should be given priority when they apply for accommodation in Georgia. But we just want Georgians to understand that we are not the enemy – that we also need help. Sure, our homes have not been destroyed by missiles, but many of us have no chance of returning to them in the foreseeable future. Yes, Russians have to speak up and tell the truth about the war, but we cannot do that from a prison cell.

Thankfully, the Georgian government seems to understand our predicament. It is currently considering making amendments to the law on consumer rights to ensure businesses in Georgia do not deny services to anyone based on nationality. Such initiatives make us feel welcome, but we also want the Georgian people to start seeing us for who we really are: neighbours in need.

All this is not to say that my experiences in Georgia have been entirely negative.

In the hostel we are staying in, there is also a Ukrainian family who fled Kyiv. I did not know how to act around them at first. I prepared an apology in my head and hoped to work up enough courage to approach them and explain that I, too, hate this war. But, somehow, they already knew. When she noticed us, the mother just smiled sadly. She then made us cups of tea and sandwiches and gave us a block of cheese. Later that day, I met a taxi driver who asked me how I was faring in Georgia. I told him how I was struggling to find a rental. He immediately offered to accompany me to my next viewing and explain to the landlord in Georgian that “I am not a supporter of Putin’s aggression”.

As Russians, we know that any pain or inconvenience we experience in Georgia and elsewhere is insignificant compared to what that family from Kyiv and countless other Ukrainians are going through today. But we, too, are victims of this senseless war. Russia’s aggression also devastated our families, crushed our sense of being and made us homeless. All we want is just a little understanding from our neighbours.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.