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Context

Victoria Lomasko: A Trip to Tbilisi

A trip to Tbilisi

Victoria Lomasko

Translation: Thomas Campbell

Even before the trip, I had heard lots of rave reviews about Tbilisi from friends. They had told me about the beauty and hospitality of Georgians, about big meals with sing-alongs, about Tbilisi’s old courtyards. “What can I say about this tourist town that would be new?” I thought.

In the first home in Tbilisi I visited, the date April 9, 1989 came up in the conversation. My hosts were surprised I knew nothing about it. Like many Georgians, they saw it as a turning point in relations between Georgia and Russia. I decided to meet with several people involved in the events of that day.

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April 9

“Everything turned around 180 degrees after April 9,” says Nukri, a driver who attended the pro-independence rallies in 1989. “They beat people with spades, like animals. If only they had shot at us: we had already been through that.” The sniper spades Soviet soldiers used to beat the peaceful demonstrators are displayed in one of the cases at the Museum of the Soviet Occupation in Tbilisi.

Pro-independence rallies kicked off in Tbilisi on April 2. On April 7 and 8, Soviet troops and tanks entered the city. Many people realized there would be a violent crackdown. Catholicos Ilia, the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, urged the demonstrators to go into a church to pray, but his call was not heeded. Several minutes later, the soldiers attacked the crowd with spades and tear gas. Several people were killed, mainly women.

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David, a historian, Orientalist, and teacher who was involved in the events of April 9: “The tanks cleared the roads for the infantry. People broke paving stones and threw them at the soldiers. They felt rage, not fear.”

Eka, chairwoman of the feminist organization Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group (WISG), went to the 1989 rallies with her student friends: “Someone announced over the loudspeaker there were tanks in the city and soldiers had been shipped in. We sat down on the pavement. We wanted to block the tanks.”

04_EkawebEka: “I remember the face of the soldier in front of me, his narrow eyes brimming with hatred. The soldiers chatted, relishing how they were about to attack us.”

“The Georgian police tried to defend us. They had been disarmed ahead of time, but they stood in front of us like a shield. We were herded into the Rustaveli Cinema. We found an emergency exit and got away. Sixteen people were killed then. We felt desperate but not disempowered. We threw stones at the tanks,” Eka recalls.

Mikhail Gorbachev, chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet, refused to take responsibility for the events. At first, the government tried to argue the people had been killed in a stampede.

“I hate big countries. I would like to see all big countries divided into many parts and them stop messing with little countries this way,” says Nukri.

05_GalawebGala Petri: “I realized these bearded men were right, but I found them unpleasant.”

Journalist Gala Petri moved from Irkutsk to Tbilisi in 1984. She recalls there was “more than enough primitive patriotism” in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While before April 9 the Georgian elite had spoken Russian, and it had been fashionable to send children to Russian-language schools, after April 9, children who studied in these schools were abused. Gala transferred her daughter to a Georgian-language school. Gala does not recall any physical violence towards Russians. “Russians left Georgia later, for economic reasons,” she explains.

06_IsrapilwebIsrapil Shovhalov: “When I was demobilized, the only thing I could think about was making it home alive, the atmosphere was so bad. On the train, I told everyone I was a Chechen, which placated people a bit.”

When I got back to Moscow, I asked a number of friends what they knew about the April 9th tragedy in Tbilisi. The only person who could give me an answer was Israpil Shovhalov, editor of the Caucasian magazines DOSH and Woman’s Word. In 1989, he was serving in the Soviet army in the town of Samtredia in western Georgia.

“On April 9, I was patrolling the town with other soldiers. People were gathering in the streets, speaking Georgian, and getting agitated. In the evening, the rumor reached town the soldiers had hacked a pregnant woman with a spade when they were dispersing the rally in Tbilisi. If before April 9, the locals had been kind and fed the soldiers for free, after April 9 they regarded them as murderers.

“Once, soldiers who had been involved in the dispersal of the rally in Tbilisi were seconded to our company. They told us the Georgians had been very old and brazen. They came at the soldiers barehanded, and both men and women had fought them. Not all the soldiers were willing to use spades and tear gas against the demonstrators, and as a result the Georgians had beaten them up.”

Religiosity

Eka and Natia, the co-chair of WISG, were among the activists who decided to hold a LGBT rally in downtown Tbilisi in 2013. On May 17, a mob of between twenty and thirty thousand people, led by priests, came out to oppose the hundreds of LGBT demonstrators. The police could not cope with the onslaught of the crowd and evacuated the LGBT activists in buses and shuttles. Many of the LGBT activists were badly injured. Only four of the assailants were punished: they were fined 100 laris each (i.e., less than 40 euros).

“There were five of us in that bus, and the mob gave chase. Most of the attackers were men aged between seventeen and forty. I think if they had caught up with us, first they would have raped us publicly, and then they would have killed us,” says Natia.

07_NatyawebNatia: “A priest burst onto our bus. I was making plans to kill someone before they killed me.”

“There was not a single window on the bus that was not broken. Three people got concussions. For a long time afterwards, I could not use public transportation. I would think about who among the people next to me had thrown rocks at me then.”

Nino, a journalist, also remembers the events of May 17 well. She covered the demonstration as a correspondent for the magazine Liberali and attended it as an LGBT-friendly person to support her activist friends.  She was with a gay journalist colleague. Friends gave her a placard emblazoned with the inscription, “I have the right to love.” Nino recalls that when the mob began attacking the march, she threw down the placard and thought only about how to escape the crowd alive and get her colleague away from there.

08_Ninoweb

Nino, a journalist: “To this day, when I see a bearded man, I think, ‘Could he have killed me?”

Several days after our conversation about the rout of the 2013 LGBT march, Nino wrote to me that her seventeen-year-old son, a stylish youngster with long hair, had been taken for gay by some men on the street who had beaten him up. He had been chatting on the phone with his girlfriend. When he was getting off the phone with her, he said, “I love you.” The men immediately attacked him, shouting, “How dare you, faggot!”

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This piece was produced at the master class “Feminist Stencils on Paper,” which I taught to a group of Georgian female activists in Tbilisi.

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The stool is almost a symbol to people in Tbilisi. One of the priests who attacked the May 17 LGBT march used a stool as a weapon.

The main topic the women in the class wanted to tackle was control of female sexuality by society, the family, and the Church. They talked about how difficult it was in Georgia for sexually active young single women to get treatment from gynecologists (“Google is a substitute for gynecologists”) and the lack of psychological assistance (“Priests are a substitute for psychologists”).

11_MichailwebMichael: “It was a strange business. But I don’t intend to stop.”

Religious Georgians are willing to control not only women’s behavior.

In 2015, a co-organizer of the activist library Campus was assaulted. “Guys from the neighborhood” would come to the library, and during a lecture on the novel Thus Spake Zarathustra, one of them was put off by the quotation, “God is dead.” “A gangster came in, found out who had organized the lecture, and stabbed me in the heart with a knife,” recounts Mikheil, who miraculously survived. When Mikheil was released from the hospital, he moved the library to a different spot and has continued the lecture programs.

Some Georgian artists have attempted to criticize the Church. Activist Irakli talked about a protest action in 2015.

12_IraklyiwebIrakli: “Here the Church eats up twenty-five million laris of the state budget. On the Patriarch’s birthday, artists painted the inscription ‘25,000,000’ on the pavement in front of his residence. They were asked to report to the police the next day.”

Religious Georgians were outraged by artist Lia Ukleba’s painting The Virgin with a Toy Pistol, which depicts a pregnant Virgin Mary pointing a gun to her head. Despite the Church’s enormous prestige, the damage to the artist was limited to attacks on the web. Georgia does not have the equivalent of the Russian laws on “inciting enmity or hatred” and “insulting the feelings of religious believers.”

There are lots of newly built churches in Tbilisi, particularly in the Saburtalo district. For example, this church, the Church of the Assumption on Panaskerteli Street, was built in 2003 on a lot confiscated from a public kindergarten.

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“Why did no one protest when a large part of the kindergarten’s lot was taken away?” I asked an acquaintance who lived on the street. She explained to me that the residents of the area would themselves have attacked activists willing to oppose construction of the church.

Unlike Moscow churches, the churches in Tbilisi bear little resemblance to state institutions served by bureaucrat-like priests. There are benches round the entire perimeter of the churches, and during services anyone who likes can sit, not only sick people and old people. I was not forbidden from drawing. I noticed some women wore jeans and were not wearing headscarves. Before and after the service, the parishioners interacted vigorously with the priests.

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Georgia did not stop being a religious country in Soviet times. Most of the elderly people with whom I spoke, including convinced communists, said they were religious and went to church during Soviet times.

Friends in Tbilisi advised me to speak with Father Guram, renowned for holding more liberal views than the majority of Georgian priests. Here is a snippet of our conversation:

“Does the church in Georgia help the homeless, the poor, and the needy?”

“Unlike the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church is more about mysticism and preaching than charity.”

“What can you say about the attack on the LGBT march in 2013, an attack led by priests?”

“The Georgians are a hot-blooded people. They could have killed someone. But we had the right to express our disagreement without violence. Can a traditional country really be ready to accept this? It is difficult even for Europe.”

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Father Guram: “People matter to me, not the ‘nation’ or the state.”

I told Father Guram how in 2008 I had sketched the trial of the curators of the exhibition Forbidden Art, a trial engineered by Moscow Orthodox activists. I told him about the threats and insults they had made, and how after the trial I felt an aversion to the Church. When I had finished, he suddenly hugged and kissed me, anointed me with myrrh, asked me to wait a second, and came back with a bouquet of violets.

Not for Tourists

There are beggars everywhere in downtown Tbilisi: Roma women with children, pensioners, and homeless people. Aside from refugees from Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region (now the partially recognized Republic of South Ossetia), some of whom still live in former dormitories and barracks, there are many internal migrants in Tbilisi, people who have relocated to the capital due to the hard life in the hinterlands. The homeless and needy include people who have been unable to pay back loans or were swindled when buying apartments.

16_homeless_catwebThe homeless take over old buildings that have been in disrepair since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The city has around four hundred squats. The government gives the squatters a choice: either move out or give up their social benefits. There have been cases when squatted buildings have been officially recognized as legal housing.

A sociologist from the human rights organization EMC who was doing fieldwork took me with her to one of the largest squats. People had settled into the dilapidated buildings, which had once been a hospital and cardiology institute, in 2012.

17_homeless_with-toyswebPeko, Elena, and Bela

The women did not speak Russian, so the sociologist translated for me. Many of them had run away from home due to domestic violence. The homeless are limited in their opportunities and contacts, and they mainly marry among themselves. I saw many young children who had been born at the squat.

Among the residents of the squat there are people with higher educations who worked in their professions and rented apartments. At some point, they lost their jobs and ended up on the streets. According to official statistics, unemployment in Georgia is around twelve percent, but according to a survey carried out by the National Democratic Institute in the US, it is over fifty percent.

18_homeless_young-familywebA young family living in the squat

I was able to speak in Russian only with one young man. He had lived for several years in Petersburg and even managed to do time in a Russian prison. “I walked on the wild side: girls, heroin,” he said.19_homeless_ManuchawebAt the squat: “When the lights, water, and TV work, everything is fine.”

Water is carried into the squat in buckets: there is a tap with free running water in the yard. The electricity is stolen. The residents tap into the street lighting network, but the police routinely cut the wires. The sewage flows into the basement of the house. Small stoves provide heat.

For Tourists

Whole neighborhoods are dilapidated in the old quarter of Tbilisi. Only some façades were restored under Saakashvili.

Above the old, dilapidated buildings rises a strange building of glass and metal, erected on Sololaki Hill. It is the residence (and business center) of ex-prime minister and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. When I tried to go through the Botanical Garden to get closer to the residence, a security guard emerged from the shrubbery and told me it was private property from there on.

The guard introduced himself as Georgy. He said he had moved from Gori, because there was no work there. At first, he worked on building the residence, and then he stayed on as a guard.

Not only squats have problems with heating in Georgia. The central heating system was switched off in 1991 during the civil war in Tbilisi. Back then, poverty forced people to dig up the pipes and sell them as scrap metal. New houses are now built with their own heating systems, while residents of old buildings use space heaters in winter.

20_gardenweb“In 2001, the site was under intensive construction, and since 2008 it has been a modern business center. The Tsavkisi Valley is nearby, and the natural surroundings and air are quite good. There is a gorge in the business center and a huge oval space.”

As we were chatting, a huge waterfall began gushing from the cliff. It turned out the cliff and the waterfall were artificial. The waterfall could be turned on at the request of the owner.

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Ivanishvili plans to build a gigantic, hi-tech tourist complex on Sololaki Hill in the coming years. Three more hotel-and-business-center complexes are planned for other historic quarters of the city. According to Ivanishvili, the project, dubbed Panorama Tbilisi, will attract more tourists to the city.

22_Panoramaweb“No, no, Panorama!”

The project’s opponents believe Panorama will disfigure the city.

On February 27, I went to the latest rally against construction of the project. Several NGOs, architects, cultural preservationists, environmentalists, feminists, animal rights activists, the cycling community, and members of other grassroots groups attended it. The young people of the Saakashvili generation look stylish and confident. Many of them came with small children.

Despite the fact the rally was well attended, the government ignored it. Construction has already commenced in some places.

The Soviet Past

Almost all Soviet symbols have been dismantled in Tbilisi. So I was surprised to find a militant Soviet monument two steps away from Rustaveli Avenue, in a park that used be called October Revolution Park, but is now called April Ninth Park.

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Let the Banners Wave on High

The monument was erected to mark Georgia’s accession to the Soviet Union. Its title, Let the Banners Wave on High, refers to the poem by the famous Georgian poet Galaktion Tabidze.

The day has dawned: A sun of fire glides up…

Let the banners wave on high!

The soul’s athirst for Liberty and Right

A Tbilisi friend explained to me that Tabidze had written the poem in 1919, when Georgia declared its independence. In Soviet times, however, the date of the poem was changed to 1921, “the year the Bolsheviks occupied Georgia.”

The Stalin Avlabar Illegal Printing Press Memorial Museum still survives in Tbilisi, golden hammers-and-sickles and stars glittering on its red gates. The printing press operated from 1903 to 1906. Georgian Social Democrats, among them the young Joseph Djugashvili, would descend into the underground room through a tunnel in a well. They ran off revolutionary newspapers and leaflets on German printing presses.

24_museumweb“What can I say to great Russia from the American colony of Georgia?”

Nowadays, the museum has no ticket office, schedule or employees. An elderly Georgian man named Soso, who introduced himself as a former KGB colonel, guides the tours. Soso says that when he returned to Tbilisi from Moscow, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was unable to obtain a pension or an apartment, so he moved into the museum and survives on donations from tourists. “There are sometimes no tourists for two weeks,” he complains.

While I was chatting with Soso, children from the neighboring houses dashed into the museum. They said it was the first time they had found the museum’s gates open, and they wanted to see what was inside. The children looked at the numerous portraits and busts of Stalin and Lenin in the room. “Do you know who that is?” I asked, pointing to a bust of Lenin. The children did not know.

25_LeninwebMisha, Georgy, and Nika. Nika: “Is Lenin a poet?”

In parting, Soso advised me to stop by the Stalin Garden Museum, opened by a former taxi driver in the courtyard of an apartment building.

Ushangi Davidovich, proprietor of the Stalin Garden Museum, is eighty-six years old. When I questioned him about Stalin’s time, he recalled annual decreases in food prices and showed me display cases in his garden containing printouts of Stalin-era prices for all kinds of goods.

Ushangi Davidovich created the museum by himself. He gradually bought the historic photos, portraits, and busts, made the model of Stalin’s house in Gori with his own hands, and brought Soviet helmets and grenade fragments back from Stalingrad. A stone slab in memory of his dead son also stands in the garden museum. An old photograph of his parents hangs next to a formal portrait of Stalin. The walls are decorated with bunches of garlic and dried flowers and fruits.

26_Ushangiweb“I ask my neighbors, who are afraid of being fired, ‘Is life good for you under capitalism?”

Framed black-and-white portraits hang on the wall where the museum display begins. The faces in the photos are young and attractive. They are the faces of protesters who were shot in 1956.

Unrest broke out in Tbilisi after the Twentieth Party Congress, at which Khrushchev criticized Stalin. “There were rallies at the monument to Stalin every day. We demanded explanations. On March 9, Khrushchev ordered the troops to open fire on us. They fired without warning. I had stepped away to get a bite to eat, so I survived. Twenty-seven people were killed; the youngest was fifteen. There is nothing in the history textbooks about it,” recalls Ushangi Davidovich. He began putting the Stalin museum together immediately after these events.

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He invited me to his flat to drink homemade chacha (Georgian vodka) and warm up. He showed me one of his museum’s eighteen guest books, featuring comments from Stalin’s daughter and tourists from all the Soviet republics. When I came to the garden museum a second time, I did not find Ushangi Davidovich at home. He was at a meeting of a new communist party, Russia Is Our Friend.

When I addressed someone in Russian, it was quite often an occasion for elderly Georgians to chat about relations with Russia. In Tbilisi, there are many pensioners working as taxi drivers, and almost all of them said something like this during our ride.

“Seventy percent of Georgians believe it is better to side with Russia than with Europe or America. The west sends subsidies, but they all end up in the pockets of the ruling elite, not ordinary people. There is nothing to do in Tbilisi because of unemployment: nearly all the factories are idle. In Soviet times, there was work, and people were taken into consideration more. Is it possible to live on a pension of 160 laris?”

The taxi drivers would ignore my remarks about the economic crisis and political crackdown in Russia. “Would that we had a president like Putin!”

28_SuhumiwebRefugee from Sukhumi: “The people who said, ‘Georgia is only for Georgians’ are to blame for the war.”

A pensioner, a refugee from Sukhumi, struck up a conversation with me on the bus. “In Soviet times, I was not a communist, and I criticized the regime. Nowadays, looking back, I realize it was better. Free education and medical care for everyone. My son fought and was shell shocked, but the state did not give him medical treatment. I am very angry at the authorities.”

29_securityweb“I’m against the European Union, because to join it you have to accept same-sex marriages.”

The guard at one of the European organizations in Tbilisi wanted to talk with me. He asked that I not give his name or draw him in uniform. Working in security was tiresome, but there was no other work to be had.

“I don’t want a visa-free regime with the European Union. I want a visa-free regime with Russia,” he said. In Soviet times, he did not like the fact that all decisions concerning Georgia were made in Moscow. He dreams of good relations between Georgia and Russia, but on an equal footing.

When older people wanted to interact, they would give me a gift or treat me to some food. Young Georgians, on the contrary, when they heard my Russian or poor English with a Russian accent, often behaved in a deliberately cold way.

30_Nino_Bollweb“Even human rights activists come to Georgia as if they were coming on holiday: girls, wine, and khachapuri . . . All the clichés.”

Nino, director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation office in Tbilisi, commented on my story about socializing with Georgians as follows. “Russians have a lopsided attitude to us. Either they embrace us and say, ‘Remember what good friends we used to be?’ or they accuse us of falling out with them. A postcolonial complex is still present: we enlightened you, but you do not appreciate us.”

Armenians in Tbilisi

Georgians and Armenians converse differently. During my trip to Yerevan, I noticed that Armenians tended to analyze all phenomena. They immediately noticed when an argument lacked logic or the facts did not add up. What matters in Tbilisi is to entertain and be entertained, to be lively and artistic. My new Armenian friend Luz, who had recently moved from Yerevan to Tbilisi, agreed with this impression.

31_armenian_LuswebLuz: “If I let my guard down I’ll turn into an outcast. It’s forbidden to be sad here.”

I showed my portrait of Luz to Georgian friends. Here are their comments.

“Yes, it is forbidden to be sad in Georgia. Aggression is the only negative reaction that is more or less acceptable. We have not learned to cope with sadness. If you delved into your emotions, you can be faced with even more terrible things.”

“Merriment is part of your social status. If things are okay, you don’t whine or cry.”

“Georgians don’t like weak people. It’s part of the culture.”

Armenians are the second largest ethnic minority in Georgia. They make up five percent of the population, while Azerbaijanis make up six percent.

The ancestors of many local Armenians were refugees from the genocide. Yana is an Armenian woman born in Tbilisi: her great-grandfather and great-grandmother fled to Georgia during the genocide. Yana grew up in a Russian-speaking family. She learned Armenian and Georgian at university.

32_YanawebYana: “Tbilisi in the nineties was like adjapsandal, a dish in which all the vegetables are mixed together. Nobody knew anyone’s ethnicity.”

There is a chilly attitude to Armenians in modern Georgia. In conversations with Georgians, the most common explanations of this were as follows.

“Before the revolution, there were more Armenians in Tbilisi than Georgians. They controlled commerce, and Georgians came from the countryside like migrant workers and worked for them.”

Almost all the activists and artists whom I met in Yerevan travel to Georgia several times a year. There are many more western foundations in Georgia and therefore more prospects. Many of my young friends in Tbilisi had never once been to Armenia. When I asked them about Electric Yerevan in 2015 and other protests in Armenia, they would reply that they read more about Turkey or had followed the protests in Greece.

In Tbilisi, I was involved in the project Working Agenda of Amirani/Mher. One of its aims was strengthening cultural ties between Georgia and Armenia. The Georgian participants said it would be wrong to be separated from Europe. “We must appreciate the European experience. We have a global future.”

 

33_armenian_georgianwebArmenians and Georgians. Armenian woman: “We were supposed to make presentations about how well we learn from the west?”

“In all the discussions, the Armenians have to recognize the European way is the right way and it is bad to be dominated by Russia,” Zara, an activist from Armenia, said after the discussions. Young progressive Armenians have a negative attitude to Russian influence in Armenia, but they do not idealize Georgia’s dependence on Europe.

Azerbaijanis in Tbilisi

The Armenians invited their Azerbaijani friends to the project’s farewell meal. In Tbilisi, I heard repeatedly from Armenian friends that despite all the conflicts, Armenians and Azerbaijanis understand each other better than they do Georgians, while the Azerbaijanis had said there were no people closer to them than the Armenians.

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Among the Azerbaijanis who joined us was the writer Seymur Baycan. He gave me his book Gugark, about the Nagorno-Karabakh War. In Gugark, Seymur recalls the first skirmishes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in his hometown of Fizuli, the outbreak of hostilities, the town’s transformation into ruins, and his family’s move to Baku. What was hardest to read was not the war scenes, but the scenes of domestic violence. The beating of wives and children in Azerbaijani families is described so casually.

35_friendshipwebSeymur

Seymur was part of the Baku cultural scene in the noughties. Since 2009, the regime has been pushing active members of the creative intelligentsia out of Azerbaijan.

Later, I met Seymur’s friends, a young married couple forced to leave Baku due to pressure from the authorities. Günel Mövlud is a journalist and poet, while Haji Hajiyev is a doctor.

Günel started out as a blogger. After a series of critical texts on the problems of Azerbaijani society, she became one of the most widely read writers in her country. Günel now works as an editor at Meydan TV, an online media platform created by Azerbaijani dissidents in Berlin.

36_azerbaijan_familywebGünel, Haji, and Nadir. Günel: “Azerbaijani women in Georgia are completely isolated from public life by their families. You only see them selling herbs at the market or working as nannies or maids.”

Most of Günel’s reports deal with women’s rights in the South Caucasus. “The lives of Azerbaijani women living in Tbilisi are different than those of Georgian women,” she says. “Azerbaijani girls are taken out of school by their families in the ninth grade and married off at the age of fourteen. If Azerbaijani girls resist, it is suicide. Our child’s nanny became a grandmother at thirty-two. Talk to her.”

Their nanny, Renka, agreed to pose for a portrait and talked a little bit about herself. She was married at the age of thirteen, and had a daughter when she was fourteen.

37_RenkawebRenka: “It was hard. I had help from an older girlfriend, who had a child already, and a little from my husband.”

At the age of nineteen, she had a second child, a boy. For a long time, Renka kept house and took care of her children, going out into the city only with her husband. She began working as a nanny recently. She really likes her job. Renka said this of unmarried women who earn their own money. “She has money, and she lives the way she wants. In my opinion, this is better.”

In the Caucasus, there is a term denoting correct behavior on the part of the individual in society: namus, in Azerbaijani and Armenian, and namusi in Georgian. For men, namus means honor and conscience. For women, namus is bound up only with their sexual behavior, with their availability to men. In the North Caucasus, it is believed that a man whose female relative has been sleeping around can cleanse his namus only by killing her.

Seymur says that namus can be bought in Azerbaijani society. If a woman, an actress or singer, brings a lot of money home to the family, she can come back late at night and bring a different man with her every time

38_namuswebWriter Seymur and journalist Günel. Seymur: “Namus is for the poor.”

Günel told the story of a girlfriend, an unmarried university student. The guys in the neighborhood monitored her appearance and threatened violence if she did not observe namus. Once, when the young woman was being walked home by a male acquaintance, they were both beaten up. These same guys completely ignored other female neighbors, who wore mini-skirts and had silicone breasts. They were the kept women of rich men.

Not all young Azerbaijanis are willing to lead the lifestyle imposed on them by society. Four kindred spirits—Ruslan, Lala, and Emin, from Baku, and Elvin, from Tbilisi—have organized an activist project called The Thinking Citizen. They rent a space in Tbilisi and hold educational lectures there twice a week. They are interested in grassroots efforts and cultural development in the South Caucasus, as well as such taboo topics as the role of Azerbaijani women in society and domestic violence.

39_azerbaijanwebEmin, Lala, Elvin, and Ruslan. Elvin: “In the nineties, we were doubly stigmatized, as a different ethnic group and as Muslims.”

Elvin says that even Georgian journalists find it problematic to do stories about Georgia’s Azerbaijanis, since it is such a closed society.

Russians in Tbilisi

Friends in Tbilisi have noticed that young people from Russia, disappointed and unhappy with events at home, have begun settling in the city in recent years. For now, they are few in number. The ones with whom I spoke had chosen Georgia because Russians do not need a visa to travel to Georgia, it is warm, cheap, and close to home, lots of Georgians speak Russian, and there is much in common between the culture. They were not sure they could put down roots in Georgia, but they were not ready to go back to Russia, either. Jan, a former Moscow activist, is one such semi-immigrant. “Georgia is like one big village. The mores are patriarchal, and relations between people are more heartfelt than in Russia. There is less aggression, but the irresponsibility of Georgians is annoying,” says Jan.

40_Yan and AniwebJan and Ani. Ani: “Most Georgian men are sexists.”

Jan rents a flat with his girlfriend Ani, whom he met in Tbilisi, and her brother Nodar. Like many young Georgians, Nodar does not speak Russian, and our conversation did not go well in broken English. I asked Nodar to write his thoughts about Georgian society on the drawing.

41_russian_Yan-and-NodarwebJan and Nodar

42_russian_the yardweb

Jan reads the news from Russia more and more rarely, but when he does he is glad he managed to escape the “total madness.”

Russians can always be found at the Kiwi Café in downtown Tbilisi. Georgia’s first vegan café, it was opened in 2015 by a international crowd: Georgians, Russians, and Iranian man, and a Swedish woman. The original idea was to cook very simple and cheap food, but gradually the café has turned into a tourist hotspot. Activists from Russia, hanging out in Tbilisi indefinitely, work part time in the kitchen there.

The Kiwi Café holds regular screenings and discussions of films, and talks and lectures on social and political topics. I attended a lecture on the struggle of the Kurds for their rights, which was given by Alexei, an activist from Yekaterinburg.

43_KiwiwebLecture at the Kiwi Café. Alexei: “Barzani is like Putin. He’s also permanently in power.”

Alexei had come to Tbilisi with a group of friends. “We have been here for two months already, and not once have we encountered a policeman or an official. In Russia, you get the feeling they are everywhere, and you are superfluous.”

A former Moscow journalist, Oleg is a co-organizer of the Kiwi Café.

He spoke about his last two trips from Georgia to Russia. The first time, Oleg crossed the land border at the checkpoint in the village of Verkhny Lars. “I was led away with my stuff for a special check by the FSB. They suspected I was an Islamic State fighter.” The second time, he flew into Moscow with a Ukrainian friend. His friend’s Ukrainian passport, Transcarpathian registration address, and tattooed body were sufficient grounds for detaining and deporting him.

“You haven’t even managed to enter the country before you realize where it is you’ve come back to!”

44_russian_OlegwebOleg: “I haven’t been homesick for Moscow once these two years. But if a chance appears to get back my homeland, I’ll return.”