Russian immigrants to the South Caucasus: runaways, enthusiasts and ping pong balls
Katya Chigaleichik is Sociologist and Anthropologist. She currently resides in Tbilisi, Georgia, and works in a research group called “Exodus-22”.
Emigration from Russia for political reasons took place even before the start of the new war in Ukraine, but after February 24, the departure from Russia began to be massive. There were mostly politicians and political activists, journalists, ethnic activists, employees and partners of undesirable and prohibited organizations, who left Russia before the war for reasons of insecurity. They felt the threat of reprisals or strong disagreement with the political regime. A much wider circle of people left Russia after the start of the full-scale invasion. It includes people of different professions and fields of activity.
The number of those who left Russia and the main destinations. Attempts to calculate the number of those who left Russia with the outbreak of the war fail due to the number of reasons. One most note the impossibility of determining the purpose of leaving the country (tourism, temporary departure or emigration), as well as the fact that during the year many of those who left visited home (to see relatives and friends, deal with documents and real estate, etc). Thus, it makes no sense to analyze the Russian statistics of border crossing, as well as to compare the number of departures with the same periods of previous years — in 2020 and 2021 covid restrictions were still applied.
In March, a team of researchers from the «Ok.Russians» project estimated the number of people who left at least 300,000.At the end of the winter and in spring time the most popular destinations were Georgia, Turkey and Armenia. The choice of these countries is explained by transport accessibility, visa-free regime (and, in the case of Armenia, the option of entry without a foreign passport) and the possibility of a long period of stay for Russian citizens (90 days in Turkey, about a year in Georgia and Armenia).
Thе number of emigrees increased significantly after the announcement of mobilization in Russia on September 21. According to a study by the media “Paper” published in November 2022, the number of people who left the country for a long time could be estimated at approximately 700,000 people. Kazakhstan became one of the most popular destinations, along with Georgia and Armenia.
Number of Russians in Georgia. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia, between March and September, 1,018,912 Russians crossed the Georgian border. Around 112,000 of Russian citizens stayed in Georgia as of October 3rd.
According to the results of the spring survey of Russians in Georgia and Armenia, conducted by the research group Exodus-22 (ex-After24), 14% of respondents expressed a desire to stay in Georgia. Based on the total published by MIA Georgia, it turns out that about 15,000 Russians have plans to stay in Georgia for a long time.
The high percentage of uncertain answers reflects the state of the respondents for the March-April period when the data were collected. Many people found it difficult to answer any questions about the future, for obvious reasons: an emergency departure, insufficient time to orient themselves in a new life situation. However, among those who left at the end of winter or beginning of spring there were many who were already thinking, planning and preparing to leave the country long before the full scale attack. In their case, the outbreak of war only push them to accelerate the implementation of their plans. Survey of those who left Russia after September 21 is still in progress.
We are trying to discuss those who plan to stay in Georgia. However, we do not know exactly what "stay" means in this case. What period of time do we consider as "staying"?
We asked those who indicated their willingness to stay in their current country of residence more detailed questions. Their answers show that the majority planned to stay for up to a year. A small percentage — about 17% — were going to stay for a period of one to three years, and 4% - even longer.
These data support the popular conception that the countries of the South Caucasus are largely a transit spot for Russian immigrants. Respondents named a wide range of countries as places of further emigration: Israel, EU, countries of South Asia or Latin America.
General characteristics of Russian immigrants in Georgia. It is possible to identify the main characteristics of Russian immigrants in the South Caucasus using the data of «Ok.Russians» for a wide range of countries and the data of «Exodus-22» for Georgia and Armenia.
The vast majority of those who left are people born in the 1980s and 1990s, which is quite expected: these are active members of society and those who had the opportunity to “afford” emigration, that is, had a remote job or profession that allows one to move to another country in emergency conditions.
A third of those who left Russia for different countries are IT specialists («OK Russians»). The survey of «Exodus-22» indicates that the digits could be even higher, up to 47% of respondents were IT specialists. Then, by a wide margin, there are representatives of creative professions (culture, art, design), employees of other service industries and education.
This wave of emigrants is a very educated group of people. More than 70% have a basic higher education (bachelor's degree and higher). 52% have specialist or master’s degree or higher (postgraduate / PhD).
Only 18% of emigrants who have based on the South Caucasus have children. In general, a third of all respondents have children.
The data on the place of previous residence also testify that emigration from Russia should be regarded as a “privilege” (understood as an option not available to every citizen). 50%. of respondents moved from Moscow, 25% more from St Petersburg. that is, three quarters of people came from the two largest cities. Most frequently it is the residents of large cities who are not only the most wealthy and educated, but also have the experience of traveling abroad and have a foreign passport. This is an important factor for making a decision to leave the country easier, especially in conditions of total uncertainty and fear of the future.
The structure of the immigrant community. In Georgia, the immigrant community is active and sociable. Russians meet at various public venues that opened before or after the war began. These meetings cover a wide range of communication: from political discussions to only educational lectures and classes for children and adults. Also, a large number of cafes, coworking spaces and bars function as a full-fledged social hubs for immigrants as well. Common everyday difficulties, similarities in personal histories, political views, and participation in civic activism unite immigrants rather than divide them. It is also important to note that the Russians have created more than one initiative to help Ukrainian refugees in Georgia («Motskhaleba Foundation», «Choose to help», «Volunteers Tbilisi», «Emigration for action», etc). The teams of these projects are largely mixed, consisting of Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Georgians, etc.
Connections with the host community are much more limited. The spring survey data shows that many had no contact with Georgian society at all or knew at most a couple of people. In interviews that were taken in summer and autumn 2022, informants say that they communicate with Georgians mainly in taxis and shops, occasionally in cafes and bars. Mostly these are superficial, short contacts. Only rare cases describe friendship, partnership or relationship.
75% of respondents rated the attitude towards Russians in Georgia as “friendly” or “rather friendly”. However, in-depth interviews reveal the difficulties and fears of almost every informant regarding communication with Georgian society. Among the main points of tension: a contrasting attitude towards visitors from very friendly to sharply negative, with condemnation of "escape" from Russia, causing constant background anxiety ("in the street, I feel that I annoy everyone with my presence"); fear of bringing negative consequences (“prices are rising because of us”) and political issues (in autumn there was a lot of news about Russian activists, j journalists and other people who were not allowed to cross the Georgian border).
Also, some informants note background tension due to the uncertainty of what language to use in communication. In some cases, it is polite to start a dialogue in English, in others it can be regarded as an attempt to “hide” the Russian origin and may cause a negative comment.
Plans for future. In the spring, most Russians did not expect and did not plan to return to Russia for permanent residence. Many of the emigrants said in interviews that they thought about leaving Russia even before February 24, and the outbreak of the war only accelerated the implementation of these plans. Other people did not plan to leave Russia before the war, but the war drew a red line, forcing them to emigrate uggently by any means without the hope of returning to their former lives.
Many people tried to leave along with their families, the factor that superimpose the level of stress and obligations. Relocation of those Russians who left the country due to the instruction of the company they worked for felt much more easier. IT Companies gave their employees an opportunity to take their family members with them.
The spring survey shows that the number of those who would like and consider it possible to return to Russia was very small — only 3% of respondents. The number of those wishing to return in principle, was 38%. And a third of the respondents did not want to return back to Russia at all.
Our respondents answered considering their vision of possible future of Russia. There is a number of common factors that informants cited as mandatory for them to return. These could be the death of Putin, the change of the political regime (more substantial than a mere change of head figures), the release of political prisoners (in particular as a sign of regime change) and the abolition of repressive laws.
According to observations and surveys of acquaintances, among those who arrived after the announcement of mobilization, one can note a larger percentage of those who have already returned back to Russia or are going to do so in the near future. The departure of the autumn wave was much more spontaneous and more forced by the feeling of fear than the spring one. Many had no idea where they would work and how they could survive, many were separated from their families who did not want or could not leave.
The perspectives and the mood of the immigrant community. The Russian immigrant community is extremely heterogeneous, what makes generalizations difficult. However, there are a few traits that can be defined with a high degree of certainty. The first is the Russians who arrived before the start of a full-fledged war and after that form a common field without stratification. New arrivals are included in existing structures, which often specifically help newcomers (from creating guides on solving everyday issues and norms of respectful communication to recruitment). Secondly, the common field includes all Russian speakers, that is, many Belarusians and Ukrainians too. Recall that in Georgia on October 3, it was reported about more than 25 thousand Ukrainians and more than 13 thousand Belarusians. Belarusian citizens have been actively moving to Georgia since 2020. Thirdly, it can be said that the Russians who came to Georgia adhere to oppositional views, which are usually called liberal in Russian politics, and oppose the war in Ukraine and the Putin regime. However, the activity of expressing these views and the readiness to participate in political and social activities and even conversations varies greatly.
In general, the Russian-speaking community can be described as a rather rigid “bubble” within the Georgian society. In terms of integration and the demand of intercultural dialogue, Russians are divided into two unequal subgroups. One group includes journalists, activists, NGO workers, former municipal deputies, artists, cultural figures. These people are actively involving in building bridges and contacts with Georgian society, they are interested in the history, cultural and political life of the country. They are ready to share their experience and accept the Georgian experience and keen to build mutually beneficial cooperation, no matter how long they are going to stay in Georgia. They are ready (and often able) to return to Russia only after a regime change in the country.
Such people are able and need to build an active civil society, develop social institutions and cultural initiatives beyond ideology and propaganda. This was one of the factors for leaving Russia: someone's civic activities were too visible, and this led to pressure and repression against them. In other cases, these people realized clearly that the efficiency and quality of activity, which is crutial for them, is no longer feasible in modern Russia.
The other part of the 15,000 Russian immigrants are people who also left because of the threat of political repression, increasing censorship, fear for themselves and their relatives, and because of their unwillingness to live in a country waging an unjust war. However, often these people, by their way of life and character, are not inclined to any integration whatsoever. Many do not want and are afraid to come into contact with the local society - both because of social tensions and because of unclear prospects. Often these are digital nomads with different specialties, but in general the range of social portraits is wider.
An important point about the "immigration bubble" is that it takes effort to get out of it — it doesn't happen naturally. Dialogue and even just communication, a little more than everyday, requires targeted steps in this direction. Many do not take these steps because of fear. The fears are mainly caused by the negative informational background: the media often cover exactly the points of tension or the conflicts that have occurred, and people also pass such news to each other. However, even those respondents who expressed extreme anxiety and feelings of being "undesirable occupiers" reported that no one had told them this in person. Also the disorientation in the public sentiment is one of the reasons for the passivity of Russians in entering into a dialogue, as well as the uncertainty of plans for the future.
Another point of concern is participation in political activity. Many Russians are afraid of both problems from the Russian secret services and from the Georgian state for its overly pronounced opposition Kremlin’s rhetoric. One of the respondents, who came to Georgia after 21 September, described the common feel of Russian immigrants in Georgia on the regional political agenda as “ping-pong balls”. Russian propaganda uses the topic of migration for its own purposes in Russia. Various Georgian political forces “juggle” the story about Russian immigrants for their various purposes in Georgia as well, which makes one feel like an information object. On the other hand, part of Russians are trying to be actors in this field: they go to rallies and speak openly on the social media. However, the repercussions are rather limited. Firstly, what is written remains in the Russian-language information space, and secondly, Russian rallies are far from being attended by the majority of Russian immigrants (including those in Tbilisi).
Possible dialogue and intercultural bridges. Like any other migrants, Russians bring with them their habits, attitudes, as well as some trends. Among them are the eco-trend (ecological thinking, concern for the environment, eco-activism), the development of inclusive practices (e.g. inclusive dance performances, inclusive workshops for children), the digitalization of culture, the development and implementation of online services. Also an important activity, which is one of the centers of solidarity and building the identity of Russians in Georgia, was the anti-war agenda and assistance to Ukrainian refugees.
In general, Russians learn the opinion of Georgian society about themselves via two main channels. It could be the sporadic contact with the people who are on the “borderline” of communities: taxi drivers, bartenders, and other service employees. The second channel is a limited set of Russian-language media, mainly Telegram channels. One should acknowledge that the representations of the Georgian society and the Russian community about each other will be largely mythologized until a sufficient number of platforms for mass communication (both online and offline) appear.
The active part of immigrants participating in political, social, intercultural activities, have the potential, competencies and desire to build a new, democratic Russian state. Most of these people want to return to Russia if they can do all the above. And there is no doubt that they will become active members of civil society. Russians maintain many ties with Russia, continue to monitor the political agenda, and many are hard pressed by the decline in their ability to influence on russian civil society after leaving the country. They keep in touch with those who have remained in Russia, as well as with those who have left Russia for other countries. Many who funded human rights, opposition or charitable organizations are now funding similar projects abroad.
Those immigrants who were active members of civil society in Russia tend to delve into the agenda of the countries where they arrived. There is a massive problem that immigrants really want to be “good Russians” and quickly learn some formulas that need to be postulated in Georgia for this: “20% of the territory of Georgia is occupied by Russia” along with a basic “test of political views”: who is Putin and where the Russian warship should go. Similarly in Armenia: "Artsakh is Armenia." However, the problem is that many do not know well the history of conflicts in Abkhazia, the Ossetia region and Artsakh. Few explore the issue beyond slogans. Also, many Russian-created venues that hold public events do not invite Georgian speakers to lectures on the history and culture of Georgia. This again shows how in the offline space there is no "puncture of the bubble" where it is expected.
A deeper dive into the context of Russian-Georgian relations among immigrants in the mass is yet to come. Obviously, the people using Georgia as a mere transit point are much less inclined to inquire the history of the region or learn the language than those going to settle down in Georgia for a longer period of time. As well as those who started their own business in Georgia.
It is also important to note that more and more Russians start to reflect on their imperialist habits and attitudes towards people surrounding them. Gradually, this becomes a kind of “norm for a decent person.” We assume that the success of this reflection is also highly dependent on personal contacts of immigrants with the local community. Many Russians in different countries study local languages, including in Georgia. However, as the results of our survey demonstrate, only few people are ready to learn Georgian in such a way that they can communicate fluently. Nevertheless, this factor shows the interest of immigrants to the countries in which they ended up, their readiness to change and adapt.
At the moment, the situation that we are describing has not settled down. The dynamics of social processes is very high: some Russians continue to come to Georgia, others leave. Some temporarily, and some permanently. There is also a high probability of a new influx - both from Russia (in case of a second wave of mobilization), from Turkey (due to the toughening of the rules for issuing a residence permit) and Kazakhstan (due to the changing the rules of staying since January 27). How Russian-Georgian relations within Georgia will change in this regard depends both on the actions of the Georgian government and on the behavioral strategy that the majority of immigrants and the majority of representatives of Georgian society will choose. In the current consensus of partial distancing, we see that a lot depends on who will take the first steps towards establishing a dialogue.
 that are going to stay in Geogia.
 M. Tysiachniouk, A. Konnov. Relocation from Russia to Georgia: Environmentalists in Exile. Russian Analytical Digest No. 288. p. 12-18.
 «In March 2022, 60% of respondents reported being willing to learn the local language. In September 2022, 48% reported that they are already learning it» — OutRush research. https://re-russia.net/expertise/045/
 Now a long-term rental is no longer considered a basis for issuing a residence permit in Turkey. Russians can stay without it for up to 90 days during each period of 180 days. Also constantly appear evidence of refusal of a residence permit even for people who meet the official criteria.
 Previously, citizens of the Eurasian Economic Union could cross the border once every three months and immediately legally enter back into Kazakhstan. It is now allowed to stay no more than 90 days during each period of 180 days.