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In Limbo in Tbilisi

Memoir / A reported personal narrative about the Russian exiles in Tbilisi in the wake of Russia's full-scale invasion.

Excerpt (read the full story in the Delacorte Review and an abridged version in LitHub)

In the summer of 2022, six months after Russia invaded Ukraine, I visited my friend Masha Zholobova in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. I’d been planning the trip since the previous summer, when police raided Masha’s Moscow apartment and Proekt, the independent investigative media outlet she worked for, was declared “undesirable” by the Russian government and forced to erase all of its content.

The morning of the raid, Masha had been preparing to publish an investigation about the Minister of Interior, Vladimir Kolokoltsev, and the copious amounts of wealth he’d amassed for his family through alleged corrupt business practices and ties to organized crime. She was home with her boyfriend, Andrey, when officers started pounding on the door, and for hours, refused to answer, throwing her external hard drive out the window and staying put until they forced their way in and ransacked the apartment.

Masha left Moscow a couple of weeks later. She doesn’t remember much about that day. Not how she got to the airport. Not the city she went through to get to Tbilisi (though she thinks it was Istanbul). And not what it felt like to leave the apartment she shared with Andrey. She does remember that she packed the bare minimum for two weeks. And that leaving felt unremarkable — she’d traveled a lot, after all, and this would be no different. She was only leaving because her editors had talked her into it. And she only agreed to go temporarily, fourteen days max, to wait things out.

Masha had never been to Tbilisi. When she landed at three in the morning a social worker enlisted by her editors met her at the airport and took her to a shelter for people fleeing political persecution. She says she was the only one there — an old creaky apartment — and she felt scared. Two days later, she booked an Airbnb and rode there in a taxi. On the way she passed the Stamba Hotel, a big, trendy area in central Tbilisi full of bars and outdoor restaurants, and rode up a narrow street full of small shops with a fruit stand on the corner, lush greenery, courtyards and grape vines crawling up building walls. That’s when it dawned on her that, for the first time in months, she felt relaxed.

Andrey joined Masha in Tbilisi a few days later and she never did return to Moscow. Her father, in his early seventies, crossed the border on foot six months later with her dog, Chandler, and two more suitcases with Masha’s winter clothes. The longer Masha stayed in Tbilisi, the more repressive the Russian government became and the more Russian exiles joined her.

After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, she began to feel as if all of Moscow had relocated to Tbilisi. All of Moscow, meaning those in her bubble: journalists, human rights activists, lawyers, artists, so many who opposed the war and the regime. Since then, Tbilisi has been compared to Istanbul after the Russian Revolution — a transit hub for exiles fleeing the red wave. Or to Casablanca, flooded with expatriates from all over Europe during World War II. Masha’s apartment, in a central neighborhood called Vera, became a gathering place for Russian journalists. Spreads of Russian food (often, as Masha’s friends told me, missing key ingredients she had unwittingly omitted) and bottles of wine shared by friends in her kitchen while talking about home or exile and everything in between.

I’d first met Masha back in 2019. She was a fellow at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University where I work. She was thirty and a rising star in the world of Russian investigative journalism. I was assigned to profile her for the institute’s magazine.

At that point Masha was already working for Proekt. Just before that, she had been at Telekanal Dozhd (TV Rain), Russia’s only independent TV channel, which had been squeezed out of all the TV networks and relegated to an internet-only existence after its coverage of Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity (Euromaidan) and Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbas.

TV Rain was unlike anything I had ever seen in Russian media; the first time I watched it was during the 2011-2012 protests against Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party. Masha had worked for TV Rain for a few years, hosting her own show, “Fake News.” Each week, she sat behind a desk, and spoke to her audience through the frame of a fake TV screen. She was fashionably dressed, bright lipstick, blush, heavy eyeshadow, and bleached blond hair with dark roots styled in various ways to fit the mood of the show. On television, she seemed fierce. But when I met her at Columbia, she was quiet, gentle; almost meek. I mentioned this to her and she confessed that the speech coach at TV Rain had instructed her to act like a bitch. She’d learned how to embrace the persona: MashaFirs is her social media moniker.

Masha and I spent a few days together during her visit to New York. At the time, there was a libel case against her in Russia brought by a mobster and businessman, Ilya Traber, who was part of Putin’s circles in St. Petersburg. It was actually this case, the statute of limitations for which ran out shortly after Masha and I met, that the government resurfaced and used as a pretense to raid her apartment while she prepared to publish the minister of interior story years later. In her brief career as a journalist, Masha had investigated some of Russia’s most high-ranking political figures and business people and climbed a fence with security cameras to take a photograph of a property she believed to be one of Putin’s country estates. She also told me that she’d made a habit of throwing herself in front of cars and yelling at the drivers in Moscow if they dared to drive on the sidewalks.

She stayed in New York for the three weeks of her fellowship and was sorry to leave. We kept in touch. Then, after I found out that the police had raided her apartment and she’d fled to Tbilisi, we started talking on Zoom every week.

I originally bought tickets to visit Masha for early March 2022. But then, Russia invaded Ukraine and the whole world seemed to stop. Masha was working around the clock. My work at the Harriman Institute needed me — and right after the full-scale invasion I started a narrative podcast there about Ukraine. My son was three at the time and my husband and parents were terrified about me traveling to that part of the world during such an unpredictable period. So, I gave up the tickets and put off the trip until summer. I kept talking to Masha regularly, hearing stories about the Russians flooding Tbilisi, about her ongoing depression diagnosed shortly after her arrival in Georgia, about how prices in the city were surging and how, when the war first started, the Russian journalists were being denied apartments and services because no one could tell the “bad” Russians from the “good” ones.

When I finally boarded the flight that July, I felt conflicted. I’d spent the past few months reporting on Ukraine and I knew about all the tensions Ukrainians felt toward even anti-regime Russians. They wanted full-fledged support, a total denouncement of Russia, but some Russian journalists continued to harbor hopes of going home. Back in 2014, TV Rain had even shown a map of Russia that included Crimea (they would make this mistake, and an even bigger one that would cost them their license in Riga after my visit to Tbilisi, in the fall of 2022). Now, many Russian journalists had been declared Foreign Agents by the Russian government and were forced to include a brief text announcing their foreign agent status alongside any social media post, article or podcast they published.

Many Ukrainians wondered why Russian journalists and media outlets continued to comply with the Foreign Agent Law even after they’d fled the country. I would later learn that they did it because they feared for their families. If something happened to their loved ones — if an elderly parent or grandparent got sick, for instance — they wanted the ability to return without being arrested at the border. Emotions ran high and I knew that when I finally landed in Georgia, I’d be entering a different reality, one I wasn’t sure I was prepared for.

At that point, Masha had secured a job in Prague and was waiting for a work visa, planning to leave in September. Many of the journalists and other exiles also planned to leave, while others were still coming into Georgia. Tbilisi was in flux and the situation was completely ephemeral, a snapshot in time.

Read the rest in the Delacorte Review.


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