TBILISI, Georgia — While Russian missiles ravaged Ukrainian homes on October 10, a member of a Russian expatriate Telegram channel based here and devoted to discussing byt, or domestic life, posted: “I understand that questions about everyday life are important, but could at least one of you have remarked about the [absolute horrors] our government is committing during these very hours; It’s strange to see, how my compatriots continue to discuss [Georgian phone plans and opening local bank accounts] as if nothing is happening.”
The post generated a few “heart” reactions, and, 20 minutes later, another user asked where he could rent a tattoo studio for a few hours. It was back to business as usual. In Ukraine that afternoon, 19 civilians dead and counting, and thousands without electricity in their homes.
The interaction captured the uneasy and confused psychological state many exiles now living in this city are experiencing. It had been only two weeks since they escaped one of the most traumatic events of their lives, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of “partial mobilization,” which sought to draft at least 300,000 ordinary, non-voluntary men as soldiers to fight in Ukraine. For the first time since Russia’s invasion, the war was brought home in a very tangible way, prompting hundreds of thousands to flee.
Reports about how many Russians fled after mobilization vary: One October article in Russian Forbes claims 700,000, others list numbers closer to 1 million. For those without Schengen visas to the European Union, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Armenia and even Mongolia have served as popular destinations. Of the 700,000 Russians who came to Georgia in September, only 100,000 have remained, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili said.
Prior to this “Septemberist” wave, thousands of Russians had already arrived in Tbilisi just days after their country invaded Ukraine in late February, fleeing for either political reasons or fear of the damage economic sanctions will bring on their economy. Many Russians in Tbilisi have been able to preserve their jobs at home, working remotely as freelancers and programmers. Some have opened local businesses including coffee shops, bookstores and bars. Those unable to work remotely are scratching their heads as their financial reserves run out, hoping a free Russia comes sooner rather than later.
On October 10, just as the new wave of Russian emigres had begun to try to pick up the pieces of their lives and acclimate to a city where “F*** Russia” and “Death to Russians” is graffitied virtually on every corner, their government launched yet another missile barrage at cities across Ukraine. One tragedy eclipses the previous; the struggle of Russian emigres seems insignificant compared to what Ukrainians face daily.
That night, a small group of protesters comprised almost exclusively of Ukrainians and Georgians gathered in the city center outside Georgia’s parliament to express their outrage over Russia’s latest act of aggression. Barely any Russians could be spotted at the protest, or even on the streets that day. Many said they were too ashamed and too frightened to step out of their apartments.
Their fears largely stem from the negative feelings that locals, especially younger Georgians, harbor about their arrival. The Russian military is currently occupying 20 percent of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory, and many Georgians, young and old, have not forgotten the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. Some Georgians I spoke to repeated that Russians should stay home to fight the Putin regime instead of “coming here to eat our dumplings and drink our good wine.” Those fleeing mobilization via the Russia-Georgian land border were greeted with a banner reading: “Russian Deserters, You Are Not Welcome.”
Verkhny Lars Von Trier
Verkhny Lars, a mountain road that passes through the border between Russia and Georgia, will forever remain in the historical memory of young Russians as a place of farce and terror. With its visa-free regime and close proximity to their country, Georgia became a major destination for Russian men fleeing Vladimir Putin’s September 21 mobilization order.
But what many Russians had hoped would make for a convenient exit turned into a hellish trial that stretched for multiple days. Thousands of fleeing cars clogged the Verkhny Lars road and with many people running low on food and water, the situation verged on a humanitarian crisis. Across Twitter and Telegram, Russians sardonically dubbed the experience “Verkhny Lars Von Trier,” in reference to the Danish filmmaker’s relentlessly dark subject matter.
Many who came to Georgia in September were not politically active, and saw the declaration of mobilization as the first time the regime’s actions directly threatened their lives. Among the thousands of young men who crossed the border were Ivan Shemyakin and Maxim Pavlovsky, who would have almost certainly been drafted and sent to the front lines in Ukraine, likely as cannon fodder. Yulya Kalaban, a Ukrainian-born Russian national, was driven from Russia from fear of political persecution, her journey coinciding with the mobilization exodus.
They are now trying to adapt to their new surroundings in their own ways. Ukrainians and Georgians call them cowards; the Russian government calls them traitors. But they say they’re willing to carry those labels as long as their own freedom and survival are guaranteed. The detailed accounts of their lives and careers in Putin’s Russia shed light on why many of their generation tolerated Putin’s rule for so long, what triggered their emigration and why they chose to flee instead of stay and fight.
Ivan Shemyakin, 29, born in Divnogorsk, Russia. Rank: Navy seaman
If Russia were to fall apart and Siberia gain autonomy, it would be a prosperous republic of its own. So dreams Ivan, a native of Siberia who is convinced he would become a millionaire overnight if the region were to become independent. “It has mountains, rivers, lakes, a surplus of aluminum and [the major scientific hub] Akademgorodok,” he tells me in a breathy whisper, struggling to contain his excitement as we try to keep a low profile in the quiet, cobblestoned streets of Tbilisi’s old town. Loud, spoken Russian tends to generate all sorts of reprimands and glares in a city increasingly overwhelmed by Russians fleeing the same regime that staged a bloody invasion of Georgia 14 years ago.
“Make sure to note that my comment about Siberian autonomy was a joke,” he later told me, fearing the Russian authorities could take his comment out of context and jail him for “separatist propaganda” if he were to return to his homeland.
When Ivan and I speak Russian together, especially when discussing what will remain of his country after the war, we tend to raise our voices before shushing each other to shield ourselves from a stranger’s rebuke. A city renowned for its warm and hospitable locals, its Art Nouveau balconies and comforting food, Tbilisi is uncharacteristically tense in the days following Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization decree. Whether just the result of anxious projection by the thousands of recently arrived or a palpable adverse reaction by Georgian locals, the “mood” is a topic of hot discussion.
But Ivan, with his intensely sharp cheekbones, piercing blue eyes and a street-style Russian dialect containing a swear word in every other sentence, is incapable of remaining anonymous in these streets under such conditions.
He was born just a year after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union in a central Russian town that is nestled between mountains along the Yenisei River. Soviet authorities built Divnagorsk in 1957 to accommodate the Krasnoyarsk dam. Ivan’s father headed the local sports commission, and, since Ivan was a teenager, would scold him about his long hair and interest in skateboarding.
Now Ivan’s father is a Z-eshnik, a recently coined colloquialism indicating people who support their country’s invasion of Ukraine, symbolized by the branded letter “Z.” Ivan has not spoken to his father for several years and has no hope or desire to change his opinions. “If only there were a point,” he tells me, echoing a sentiment familiar to thousands of young Russians whose relationships with loved ones have been fractured by the war.
Military service is still mandatory for all men between the ages of 18 and 27. Ivan’s mother encouraged her son to join the military after he completed his undergraduate degree in social work at the Siberian State University. Since military recruitment centers contain data only on paper, most men can evade the draft simply by avoiding their registered home addresses during the fall and spring conscription periods.
Some parents bribe their local recruitment centers to receive exemptions for their sons, others pay doctors to fill out “illness” exception forms. But Ivan’s mother, who felt that leading a law-abiding life is the best way to survive in Putin’s Russia, encouraged her son to complete his mandatory service to avoid any problems with the government in the future.
She knew an undergraduate degree would exempt him from having to undergo any heavy-duty service. He spent his year in the army in a town outside Arkhangelsk filing military court documents.
It was also Ivan’s mother who was the first to call her son the night mobilization was declared, begging him to pack his bags and leave the country immediately.
Shortly after completing his year-long service in 2017––during which he never learned to fire a gun and spent most of his days sifting through legal documents, and sometimes marching––Ivan moved to Moscow to pursue a career as a graphic designer. His fiercely Russian facial features caught the attention of a celebrity clothing designer named Gosha Rubchinskiy, who put him up in a downtown apartment just across the street from the American Embassy.
That year, Ivan began to ascend Moscow’s cultural scene, furthering his career as a graphic designer while modeling on the side. Rubchinskiy skyrocketed to international fame by leaning into negative Western media portrayals of Russia, embracing the brutality associated with his country. His models, like Ivan, were men sporting shaved heads and street attire. Ivan began to feel a certain pride in a country that was representing itself culturally on the international stage.
A year in the military, in an “informational vacuum” where he was exclusively fed state propaganda, also helped push Ivan’s sympathies toward his government. But a sequence of traumatizing encounters with the authorities, on which Ivan would not elaborate for reasons of personal safety, extinguished his short-lived patriotism.
In 2021, he was one of several thousand young Muscovites who took to the streets to protest the arrest of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny. When Russia invaded Ukraine the following year, Ivan recorded a video of himself on Instagram condemning the “party of criminals and warmongers” he said was hurling two countries toward ruin. Shortly after, he fled to Armenia, fearing his status as a military reservist could send him to the frontlines. But he returned to Moscow just three months later as his resources began to run out and the initial threat of mobilization abated. He spent the summer of 2022 in Moscow, where he felt that life was still tolerable despite the ongoing war.
Ivan Shemyakin stars in a promo teaser for a Gosha Rubchinskiy show
A race against time
On the night of September 21, when Vladimir Putin declared partial mobilization, Ivan sat glued to his chair in his Moscow apartment. In disbelief at first, he tried to downplay the severity of the situation. He had made what he now believed to be the mistake of leaving his home prematurely a week after Russia declared its “special military operation” in Ukraine in February.
But his year in the army meant he was considered a military reservist, and in the Kremlin’s bid to draft an additional 300,000 men to fight in Ukraine, he would be a primary target. Within hours of the declaration, all of the women closest to Ivan––his mother, his sister and even an ex-girlfriend––called him begging him to leave. Rumors began to swirl that the borders would imminently close.
After just two hours of sleep, Ivan woke the following morning believing inaction now would mean probable death later. Word came around that two friends were planning to drive to Georgia because plane tickets out of the country were quadrupling in price. He packed lightly, moved quickly and was on the road by nightfall.
By morning, the trio had arrived at the border of North Ossetia, an ethnic republic of Russia that borders Georgia across the Caucasus Mountains. From that point, Ivan and his friends entered what he described as a “hellish microcosm of all the problems in our country.”
Police checkpoints allegedly set up without any approval from higher authorities cluttered the road, manned by officers looking for bribes. A local Ossetian driver flagged down Ivan and his friends, warning that federal security officers were patrolling the road ahead for draft dodgers. He offered to guide them through a detour for 10,000 rubles ($162).
With no better information on which to rely, the three young men placed their trust in the driver. But he took them straight to a police checkpoint, where officers demanded the trio pay a combined 15,000 rubles ($243) to proceed. Having paid two bribes, the men joined a long line of traffic leading to the border. Rumors that the authorities had set up mobile recruitment centers at the border were populating social media.
A pedestrian line began to form, too. Draft dodgers were abandoning their cars and heading toward the border by foot; others by bike and scooter. By nightfall, the trio’s Skoda was a mere eight miles from the border. But that promised an eternity for Ivan, as the car was edging forward only a half a foot an hour.
The night was static and by morning Ivan again felt he needed to act. As the only passenger in his car who had served in the military, he decided to abandon his travel mates and go on by foot. Misleading rumors and collective panic swirled around him as he entered the line.
There, Ivan continued to inch closer to the border hour by hour. Fatigue and hunger were tormenting him; he would sometimes lie on the ground using his backpack as a pillow for just a few minutes of rest. At one point, he encountered a young man who had been turned away at the border. He was also a reservist and warned Ivan would likely face the same.
Just a quarter of a mile from the border with nightfall approaching, a border guard announced through an intercom that the pedestrian road would close for three hours. The vehicle road would remain open, so Ivan approached the closest car and knocked on the window. An Armenian couple sat in front, among hundreds of random travelers who had found themselves in the melee.
When Ivan asked if he could join them, they shrugged him off. He looked at the woman and, with tears in his eyes, begged. “Please, it’s a matter of life or death!” Their eyes met and the woman nodded in approval.
“I could see in her eyes that in that very moment, she saw in me her own son running for his life,” Ivan told me. The couple risked backlash from the hundreds of pedestrians still trapped in the line, and even worse, trouble from the border authorities for harboring a draft dodger. The man behind the wheel instructed Ivan to say he was a ride-share passenger they had picked up before entering the border line.
The moment of judgment approached. When their time to cross came, guards instructed the passengers to exit the vehicle one by one. Hands shaking, Ivan handed the Russian officer his passport. The guard flipped through it, and to Ivan’s surprise, immediately stamped it. Before handing it back, he asked him only two questions: Ivan’s age and name.
That was it. Ivan had successfully escaped the draft and was now on his way to a vast open world with few prospects and even less money. He continued to cross the neutral border zone by foot and upon entering Georgia several hours later, saw the Armenian couple in their car. They embraced, the mother wept and her husband, who runs an American visa center in Yerevan, gave Ivan his business card. “The experience exposed a full spectrum of human instincts: from deceit and exploitation to aid and solidarity,” he told me.
Ivan continues working remotely as a graphic designer in Tbilisi, but worries that any country bordering Russia could erupt in conflict. For now, he’s leaning on his artistic talents and charismatic personality to charm his way into European creative circles. At art shows here, he bravely approaches foreign NGO workers and European curators, attempting to leave an impression with his articulate English and Siberian exoticism. His eagerness to breach social boundaries sets him apart from his many compatriots in Tbilisi who stay isolated in their apartments or huddled in segregated groups.
“Dude, I’m telling you, I would thrive in New York; I’d seduce some wealthy curator who’d put me up in her Upper East Side apartment,” he jokingly quipped as we left an art opening. He’s a would-be Russian Joe Buck, the central character in the film Midnight Cowboy, who moves to New York City from Texas with the hope of charming his way up the socioeconomic ladder with his piercing blue eyes and “cowboy” dialect.
And if it doesn’t pan out in New York City for Ivan, and Siberia secedes from Russia, he’ll make a triumphant return to his very own independent Texas. But for as long as the current regime holds power, Ivan does not plan to return home. Evading mobilization is now punishable with a 10-year prison sentence. “Going back means either dying on the front or sitting on a bottle in jail,” he says about the brutal and pervasive culture of rape in Russian prisons. “Jail isn’t an option for me; I’m too pretty.”
Maxim Pavlovsky, 30, born in St. Petersburg, Russia. Rank: Army lieutenant
There was a certain belief among many Russians born after the Soviet collapse that gradual modernization would eventually rid their country of its residual totalitarianism. Maxim “Max” Pavlovsky, who grew up in a St. Petersburg household where chatter on the liberal radio station Echo of Moscow woke him up and lulled him to sleep, was among this sect of Russian millennial believers. “Evolution, not revolution,” he tells me. His parents are both teachers––his mother a film teacher at a private school and his father a corporate English language teacher––who hold “standard Russian liberal views,” as Max calls them.
Since he was a teenager, Max says, he always strived to be self-made and pragmatic. In 2011, he earned a scholarship to pursue a degree in mathematics at St. Petersburg State University. The Soviet education system prided itself on its strong mathematics departments, and, according to Max, was one of the disciplines that had preserved its prestige after the collapse.
During his four years at university, he joined the so-called military department program, offered at universities across the country as an alternative to mandatory conscription service. It requires attendances at weekend lectures in tandem with students’ undergraduate education, as well as a month-long physical training program at a military base. For many young men across Russia, where a higher degree from a deteriorating educational system counts for little, such avoiding of the draft provides a major motivation to stay in college. And while Max had no fears or doubts that a bribe could have granted him immunity from mandatory military service, he wanted to do things the honest way.
For their month-long military training during their final year of university, Max and his peers were sent to a base at the Luga District south of St. Petersburg and just east of the Estonian border. Unlike the horror stories of hazing and brutality that Max had heard from ordinary conscripts, his month-long training felt like summer camp. The trainees woke up early, spent a day doing physical training exercises and ate home-cooked meals.
There were conscripts at the base too, but they were kept separate. Peering through slits in the shared wall of their barracks, Max saw that their living conditions were significantly worse. After completing the training, Max was awarded the rank of a commissioned lieutenant. He never anticipated it would one day pose a risk to life as he never imagined his government would launch a war of the current scale.
During Russia’s 2012 presidential elections, Max registered as an election monitor at a local St. Petersburg voting station, expecting his participation would help ensure a free process and validate his belief that his country was on a democratic trajectory. That year, Putin was campaigning for a third term after having stepped down for a cycle. The result, which was blatantly falsified, spurred the largest nationwide protests in Russia since he had taken office a decade earlier.
Max witnessed the falsifications firsthand. In the initial, valid results on which he signed off, the presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov––an oligarch who once owned the Brooklyn Nets basketball team––was neck-and-neck with Putin. Max was waiting for the results to be transferred to the central voting commission when a man in civilian clothing entered the polling center and blocked off access to the room where the ballots were stored.
Realizing something illegal was probably happening, Max ran outside to grab police officers, who escorted the man out. But it was too late. By the time Max returned, he saw the women employed by the commission photocopying the signatures of the election monitors to attach them to a fake ballot. He tried to confront the women, who grabbed the papers and locked themselves in an office.
“It was such a shameful moment,” Max told me. “You walk up to two older women and see how they worriedly scramble away from you, clearly aware that they’re breaking the law.” The blatantly fabricated election and brutal authoritarian crackdown on the protests that followed left Max and many of his generational peers disillusioned.
Still, he believed Russians could at least continue to enjoy the benefits of free enterprise. If the absence of a democracy was not a pathway toward freedom, then capitalism surely was. His love of cinema and desire to develop an entrepreneurial acumen prompted him to open his own production studio in St. Petersburg after graduating.
Unlike in the West, where an undergraduate degree is often the bare minimum needed to become a professional, Russia’s young market economy possessed little competition and barriers to entry. In a matter of months, Max’s studio was producing commercials for the natural gas monopoly Gazprom and state-owned Russian railway company RzhD.
Max had no qualms with taking on such clients, believing that injecting such dated institutions with fresh and creative ideas would wash away their Soviet-era rust. In 2017, Max moved to Moscow to head the video production team at a state-owned library. With a young team, he helped transform the library into a progressive intellectual space that hosted lectures on critical theory, feminism and other topics.
However, lectures discussing the state, especially tinged with oppositional tone, were prohibited. Later, Max helped found a hip-hop label with a former colleague from his production studio devoted to promoting Russian artists, although he has little interest in the music itself. “I’ve always been drawn to the idea of creating something out of nothing,” he told me. “Filling our societal vacuum with interesting projects.”
Two days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Putin assembled Russia’s Security Council and had every member pledge public support for the forthcoming special military operation. Every member of Russia’s political elite expressed complicity in Russia’s invasion or Ukraine and could be tried as war criminals. Max watched the broadcast on his computer, glued to the screen and dumbstruck. He immediately sensed it was the beginning of something horrendous.
When the war began two days later, he mulled over his options, deciding that it was still safe enough to stay in Russia. He had just purchased his own apartment, married and had his own business; he was not ready to part with the life he had worked hard to build for himself.
Together with a colleague from the hip-hop label, Max created a project called CmonCmon, a non-profit designed to help Ukrainian refugees learn English free of charge. By investing his time in helping Ukrainian refugees, Max rationalized his continued participation in the Russian economy.
Max sat in a steam room in St. Petersburg the night Putin declared partial mobilization, contemplating how a restorative trip to the bathhouse was just one of the luxuries with which he was about to part. If his money were to run out, perhaps he would master recipes with grechka, or buckwheat, the cheap Russian staple.
A few hours later, his parents saw him off on an overnight train to Moscow, where he was to board a plane to a Russian airport near the Russo-Georgian border the following evening. From the airport, he would travel by taxi to Tblisi. That same night, thousands of parents across the country were embracing their own conscripted sons boarding buses headed straight for Ukraine.
With only a few hours left to pack in Moscow the following morning, Max paid a final visit to his apartment. As he gathered his belongings, he felt a strong pang of resentment toward his government, which he felt was seizing his property from him.
He always felt that his freedom was embodied in his ability to own things. Now a government decree was forcing him to leave them all behind. He washed his dishes, feeling an urge to “take care of my [his] belongings one last time.” After bidding his wife farewell, he boarded his flight to Mineralnye Vody, a town just 150 miles north of the Verkhny Lars crossing.
By some miracle, Max was seated next to a young man also fleeing mobilization who had an “arrangement” with police officers manning the checkpoints leading to the border. He had been married to an Interior Ministry officer who had made a series of calls to secure his safe passage. I’ll call him Virgil, a reference to the poet-guide from Dante’s Inferno, to preserve his anonymity for security reasons. The two agreed to travel the rest of the way together.
Virgil’s ex-wife had already reserved two scooters at a sports store near the airport. With news circulating about the several-mile car line traffic jam at the Russo-Georgian border crossing, many fleeing men were using scooters and bicycles to bypass it. Purchases in hand, they ordered a taxi that would take them past the checkpoints straight to the border.
They hit their first major obstacle at the final checkpoint before the passport control booth when the announcement was made that the pedestrian roadway would close for three hours. Virgil offered a bribe that enticed an officer, who offered to take him and Max further in the back of a pickup truck.
An eavesdropping bus driver intervened by offering a ride for significantly cheaper, irritating the border officer, who yelled back, “it sounds like somebody here is engaging in illegal smuggling!” Virgil offered the border officer an “appeasement” bribe. He accepted.
Max is now learning Georgian. He tells me that given the unpredictable nature of Russia’s war in Ukraine, it is wholly impractical to plan for more than a few weeks ahead. For now, he believes the best way to psychologically adapt to his new surroundings, whether they be temporary or permanent, is through assimilation. He pines for his native country but is also enthusiastic about the prospect of living as a citizen of the world.
He also continues to debate the ethics of working remotely in the Russian market. According to his latest rationale, if free-thinking individuals like he continue influencing Russia, whether through social activism or creative projects, some semblance of a social structure will remain for rebuilding if the current political establishment falls.
Yulya Kalaban, 30, born in Novyi Rozdil, Ukraine; raised in St. Petersburg, Russia
We sit on a bench by a small willow in the garden of the Lurji Monastery, perched on the side of a cliff overlooking the right bank of Tbilisi’s Mtkvari River. Yulya tells me a small willow grew outside the window of her childhood Soviet-panel home in a Ukrainian village near Lviv. She’s not sure if the tree is there anymore; a Russian missile struck her childhood home that morning of October 10.
Yulya’s upbringing was a common story of post-Soviet poverty. A stark economic depression drove male life expectancy in Ukraine down to an unprecedented 64 years. In 1996, just three years after Yulya’s birth, her father died of a heart attack. She lived with her grandmother while her mother would travel to Poland weekly to work at a sewing factory.
When Yulya’s aunt invited her sister to live and work with her daughter in a town outside St. Petersburg, she didn’t think twice. Although economic disaster was also gripping Russia, life near a major capital felt like it could offer more prospects for social mobility.
The move meant both Yulya and her mother would have to forfeit their Ukrainian passports. But at that moment in Russia-Ukraine relations, economic security took precedence over national identity.
For the majority of her life, Yulya stayed out of politics. It wasn’t until Russia invaded Ukraine that she began to really grasp that an authoritarian and militaristic party ruled over her country. A major accomplishment of Putin’s rule has been to convince a large swathe of younger Russians living in St. Petersburg, Moscow and other urban centers that life under his leadership is not so bad. Of the millions who populated St. Petersburg and Moscow, only thousands would regularly emerge for protests. Financial comfort and a veneer of modernity convinced many Russian millennials, especially from underprivileged backgrounds, that there was little about which to complain.
Even for Yulya, who maintained close relations with relatives in Ukraine and has spoken the language her entire life, Russia’s 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea amounted to little more than a news item. If many millennials associated their childhoods in the 1990s and early 2000s with crime, abject poverty and single mothers, they felt their young adulthood lives were characterized by career opportunities, an influx of foreign cuisine and a thriving independent cultural scene. Yulya’s colorful life in St. Petersburg––including a degree in art history, museums and bohemian friends––provided a tonic after her difficult childhood. But it also offered a distraction from her political reality. She now feels guilty for her ignorance, assuring me it wasn’t willful.
After the invasion, however, Yulya’s bond with her grandmother in Ukraine grew stronger and her relationship with her frightened and disoriented mother, and Putin-supporting step-father, became more fraught.
In the weeks that followed the invasion, she formed an organization with close friends aimed at helping Ukrainian refugees in Russia find safe passage to Europe. For the security of those still in Russia, she asked that the group remain anonymous.
A participant in anti-war protests, Yulya witnessed the brutal crackdown. She escaped one demonstration with bruised arms and a gash on her head. Her friends were chased by riot police into a coffee shop where they were detained and imprisoned for several weeks.
Operating with violence and impunity, protected by a judicial system that can imprison a people for 15 years if they speak out against the war, the Russian authorities have extinguished hope that public protest can work in their country. The late February protests in which Yulya took part were some of the last mass demonstrations Russia has seen.
Having specialized in architecture in her studies, Yulya also felt compelled to somehow apply her expertise to help Ukraine. Three months into the war, she began working at a construction firm with the quiet mission of returning to her homeland to help rebuild its devastated infrastructure.
But her outspoken support for Ukraine soon drew disdain at her new job. One colleague threatened to report her to the authorities, and her boss, who would tease her about her national allegiances, eventually fired her. Left without a job and fearing for her own safety, Yulya planned to make an escape to Georgia. She did not anticipate that her plan would coincide with Putin’s mobilization order.
Yulya-Djan and her giant suitcase
Yulya was already struggling to fasten her 165 pounds of luggage the morning of the announcement. With no plans to return, she packed everything she could carry for an indefinite period of time. She would fly to Vladikavkaz, Russia’s closest major city to the Georgian border, and board a bus that would take her straight to Tbilisi. But by the time of her departure, the exodus through the border was already in full flow.
Yulya’s journey took three days and three buses. She refused to continue by foot, determined to bring her luggage to Georgia and convinced that as a woman she would not be turned back at the border. The second bus was full of Armenians who brewed her coffee and gave her cognac; they called her “Yulya-Djan,” an added Armenian suffix that translates loosely to “dear.” Shared jokes and games of chess helped put her nerves to ease as the hours grew long and tiresome.
Stores lining the road were empty and Yulya spent many hours without food or water. On the second day, she helped unload a produce delivery truck to earn some free food and water for her Armenian companions. Traffic finally started to ease up on day three as Russian federal agents arrived to put an end to the corruption holding up the line.
In Tbilisi, Yulya tried to obtain a Ukrainian passport in the hope of returning to her childhood village and volunteer in humanitarian aid projects. However, the Ukrainian embassy told her the country is not granting citizenship to new applicants as long as the war continues. It was difficult news. With her Russian passport, she is barred from Ukraine.
Once while Yulya and I were strolling through the streets here, a Georgian woman castigated us for speaking Russian. “Fascists, Putin-lovers, occupants!” she called us. I protested, explaining that I am an American citizen and Yulya is Ukrainian.
Yulya told me she would not have bothered reacting. “Some people are just distressed and do not have the capacity for nuance right now; it’s understandable,” she said.
For now, she does what she can remotely to aid her birth country through volunteer work at the organization Helping to Leave, a non-profit that offers guidance for Ukrainian refugees fleeing war. And with paid work at School for Conscripts, a non-profit that offers Russian men legal services for evading military conscription, she believes she’s also helping the country that raised her.
Ivan, Max and Yulya continue living day-by-day. Given the war’s fluid nature and the possibility their government may collapse and trigger a violent struggle for power, they are unable to make long-term plans. For now, their primary goal is to preserve their own sanity, whether through network-building, working long hours or dedicating themselves to humanitarian projects. They take the insults from locals on the chin, believing they’re doing their part, however small, to help Ukrainians and spread awareness of their government’s atrocities. One thing is certain, however: They will not be going home anytime soon.
Top photo: Anti-Russian graffiti on the streets of Tbilisi; the second tag reads, “death to Russians”