A blond woman with tired eyes looked through me before opening a glass door. It was a cold March day in New York. The one-bedroom apartment at Brighton 6th was empty and dim. The bright daylight covered a thin layer of dust by the window in the living room. In a small kitchenette off the entryway, two kids leaned over the sink fixing tea for me. A plate with cookies sat in the middle of a table covered with off-white lace and plastic.
Lesya, a forty-five-year-old immigrant from Ukraine, was looking through the bag of toys and clothes I brought with me. Our common friend who introduced us sent me a message with some information before I went in to interview Lesya for an article I was thinking of writing at the time. Lesya came to New York with her twelve-year-old twins, Stefanie and Nikolay, a couple of weeks after Russia launched the war in Ukraine. Some friends of friends in New York let them stay in their place for a month. Lesya and her kids shared the space with four other people. Her husband remained in Ukraine and joined a battalion protecting key infrastructure. She is unsure if they will ever be able to meet again. It was a dry, factual briefing. I knew nothing about Lesya.
I pressed my back against a wooden cabinet and waited for Lesya to get comfortable. Instead, she tirelessly walked around the room, setting up the space for me, pouring tea into the cups, rearranging plates on the table, and then exhaled into the air: “I was in Kyiv that day, nothing special planned…”
She rushed through the recollection of her journey to the States as if trying to forget about it: after days in Kyiv bomb shelters, Lesya drove with her children and seventy-year-old mother south to the Slovakian border. There was a snowdrift in the Carpathian Mountains, abandoned roads, dozens of hours of driving without sleep, and a setback at an overcrowded border. Eventually, Lesya reached Poland in her narration, and I reached my journalistic peak longing for more but feeling as if I do not have a right to disturb. Behind the curtain of numbness, Lesya was hurting. And it showed in her shaking voice and the distance she carefully established between us.
Not taking a breath, Lesya shifted in space and landed on a chair next to me. “I think if I knew what would happen to me on the way out, I wouldn’t leave Ukraine. When you don’t know what to expect, you don’t paint some pictures of the future. Yet, when you imagine your emigration, the fear of the difficulties stops you,” she said. Unlike her mother, Lesya and her kids held US tourist visas and managed to catch a flight to New York to escape war-torn Ukraine. Her mother had to remain in Warsaw in a shopping mall converted into a refugee camp with thousands of other Ukrainians.
Right before my visit, Lesya had a phone call with her husband. He asked her to buy body armor, she told me, as I let myself break the ambiance of the room and moved from my corner to a brown squeaky sofa under a Ukrainian flag, the only bright element in the gray living room where the three refugees slept at night.
The Department of Homeland Security launched a resettlement program (https://www.dhs.gov/ukraine) for people like Lesya, yet most of the promises were still to be kept at the time when I spoke with Lesya: there were no clear dates or application rules in March for the newcomers from Ukraine. The independent Russian-speaking group RUSA LGBTQ+ (https://rusalgbtq.org) fundraised $5,000 for Lesya, Nikolay, and Stefanie.
Lesya’s visa would expire in a couple of months. Her face went blank as she started speaking again. «I am now on my knees. But I know I have to stand up, I am responsible for my kids. I know if I don’t get off the ground, no one is going to pull them up or help them. It’s my burden to carry.»
Stefanie opened another pack of cookies. I tried to refuse—it was not me who was in need. «Wait, what are you saying? Even if I am homeless, I am still a human.» Lesya changed to a patronizing but kind mother and passed a cookie. I could not swallow.
«If only we were in Kyiv now, I would have made borscht before your visit,» she smiled. And I broke into tears for the first time since Putin launched the war.
One year ago, a wrecked minibus became a shelter for seven Russian tourists and myself. Wobbling in the wind of dust and dirt, I stuck my head out of the window leaf, trying to see the mountain range. It was hard to predict whether I would be back in Russia at that point—my attempts to bring some change to a cursed country forced me out. I could not see properly anymore. Lake Sevan (Armenia) has passed me with its peaceful rapture. Since then, hundreds of Russians have taken the same route to Tbilisi (Georgia)—not for the vacation, but to save their lives from the escalating destructive power of the Russian government.
«The first days after the start of the war, you just cry and can’t work. And then you face reality— unimaginable fines for the protests against the war, administrative arrests. And then many people choose their life and future,» a friend, Nestor Rotsen, says.
Rotsen, who is twenty-three, is a fashion designer and activist from Moscow. The week after the war began, he managed to book a flight to Yerevan (Armenia) and then escape to Tbilisi with $100 in his pocket, a suitcase, and a sewing machine.
More than a quarter of a million left Russia in the first month of the war, with some 20,000 landing in Georgia. Even this number alone is ridiculous compared to the last 20 years when five million Russians chose to leave voluntarily. Russians have piled across the border to neighboring states since President Vladimir Putin ordered a draft for the war in Ukraine on the 21st of September (https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/where-have-russians-been-fleeing-since-mobilisation-began-2022-10-06/). The main destinations are Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Georgia, with Turkey, Israel and UAE also on the map. It is unclear how many people had traveled to the third countries or planned to after their immediate escape from Russia. And I can only assume how many more are about to flee the collapsing grounds.
Putin is now speaking to 77% of the population (https://www.newsweek.com/putin-approval-ratings-suffer-first-fall-since-start-ukraine-war-russia-1747743). The praise of the tsarist ambitions from blind Russians most likely will vanish as soon as the wave of sanctions hit their fridges and wallets. When the living costs rise, and there is a shortage of goods, they might see through a veil of propaganda and brutality of the political machine. Yet, it might be too late.
Every other person in central Tbilisi now seems to be Russian. Locals fairly understand, knowing the two countries’ history. Though recently, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili said that the “liberal” visa regime for Russian citizens that “does not correspond to the Russian aggression [against Ukraine]” might change amid the influx (https://www.rferl.org/a/georgia-russian-visas-change/32088182.html). After the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, thousands of Georgians were forcefully removed from their homes in the republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and many have been killed in the war. «People are open, although sometimes the ground beneath you starts shifting when you see graffiti or posters saying “Russians, go home” on the streets of Tbilisi, but there is a strong feeling that these are isolated cases to seed some doubts into the heads of Russian immigrants,» Nestor Rotsen explains to me over the phone.
By the memory of my days in Tbilisi, we bid farewell in the Georgian language. To show respect and gratitude, Nestor started integrating the language into his everyday conversations with locals. Yet this is not the case for every Russian who chooses to move to a neighboring country. The colonial past gives Russians a sense of entitlement. Despite the fact they rely on the hospitality of a nation they chose to ask for shelter from, they still push their agenda for the language used in their everyday lives.
When crossing a border between Armenia and Georgia in the first weeks of the war, 22-year-old Ksenia from Moscow, received a message from her Airbnb host in Batumi with a cancellation notice: «Sorry, Xenia! Slava Ukraine (Glory to Ukraine)!» Ksenia, who asks to refrain from mentioning her surname and an IT company she works for, fled Russia with her team. Some of her colleagues chose to stay in Armenia, as she continued to pave her path.
During the check-in in the hotel in Tbilisi, where Ksenia rented a room, a man who claimed to work for the Georgian security services, briefly waved his ID at her face and asked for her purpose of stay, if she arrived by herself or a part of a group and for the details of her trip to the country. «Where were you before, and now suddenly remembered about Georgia?»
Ksenia was honest: she left for a short period and still aimed to go back to Russia. When she asked the purpose of the interrogation, he explained that they are concerned for all the newly arrived Russians who work in IT and oppose their government. Later, Ksenia found out that her friends from Belarus had also been questioned in the same manner upon their arrival in Tbilisi.
I chose an odd place to live once I moved to Georgia: the stereotypical area of Tbilisi by the Medical University was full of night shops, tiny cafe-like corners, and stray dogs. I took my time with this journey before landing in New York. My what-seemed-smooth immigration brought me to the point of deep depression. It is hard for me to imagine the extent of doubts and fear those who leave their homes now are experiencing. We have to give it to the Russian dictator: he picked the most obscure time to measure swords, eliminate freethinkers, and occupy neighbors.
Now, being in the United States, I feel somewhat free, though I am still terrified and tired of all the things to witness on this road to rebuilding my life. It is easy to judge people’s choice to stay or to leave from the comfort of your extra-soft couch. Yet, once you have embarked on a journey of emigration, you have to give yourself up. As someone who has lived in an inner emigration all those years in Russia, I was fairly prepared to be a failed implant to my country’s body. Russia rejected my eagerness for change. Under censorship in Russia, it became impossible to reach the audience. The state declared multiple media outlets “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations,” banned the websites, and forced independent journalists and newsrooms out of the country. Resistance was hard to maintain in the hostile environment established by the Russian government.
There are hundreds like myself seeking an escape from repression. It is frustrating to see the Council of the European Union fully suspend the visa-facilitation agreement between the European Union and Russia as part of sanctions imposed due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine (https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-european-union-visas-travel-ukraine-invasion/32080584.html). Will Russians be isolated in Soviet style? Will it bring change and spark a revolution? What would that mean for those who are vocally opposing the government? Would they be able to do anything at all? And what could have happened to me if I had not fled last summer?
I have not fully unpacked my suitcase for a year, constantly moving flats, hotel rooms, cities, and continents. I was homeless, and it showed: my mental health went places. It was a curse—to softly enter other immigrants’ apartments with semi-unpacked suitcases. A few months ago, I signed my first lease for a year at Red Hook, NY. Tiny town gently hugged me with all of my belongings; giving me a promise, hope even.
The first morning, I took a long stroll by myself in the neighborhood. By the time I got back, all of my clothes were patiently waiting for me in my new wardrobe. The sense of belonging was finally tucked tidily on the shelves of Fisk St.