This story is published in collaboration with 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.
I had never been to Tbilisi before but one of my favorite movies takes place there. It’s called Street Days, about heroin addicts caught in the chaos and poverty of the 1990s. It sounds depressing, and it is — the protagonist throws himself off a balcony — but it’s also life affirming. The characters are dynamic, passionate. What I remember from the movie about Tbilisi is the crumbling but beautiful architecture, the courtyards, winding streets, and laundry hanging from windows and balconies.
It’s my first night in Georgia and I’m in the backseat of a taxi looking at hills and crumbling ten-story buildings on my way to Masha’s for a small party she’s throwing. The movie is on my mind. It came out in 2010, just two years after Russia invaded Georgia. Fifteen years later, Russian troops are still in the breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the border keeps inching further south toward Tbilisi. Meanwhile, the current, pro-Russian government in Georgia is uncomfortably neutral toward the war while many storefronts and even banks we pass have signs: Putin is a war criminal. Slava Ukraini (glory to Ukraine). Stay strong like Ukraine.
Masha lives on a narrow street near a construction zone. I’d already been there that afternoon, the first time I’d seen Masha in person in more than three years. When I’d walked into the small, sunny apartment, her boyfriend, Andrey, sat at a square wooden table by the balcony, eating boiled chicken with rice. They’d come back from a vacation in the seaside town, Batumi, the night before, and he’d gotten sick with food poisoning. The five-hour train ride was hell. Andrey used to work for another global consulting firm. Currently, he’s investigating money laundering for a company he prefers I don’t name.
That night, for the party, the place is dim. The rectangular table where Andrey had been sitting is covered by a spread of Russian food: Salat Olivier, blini, a layered mayonnaise-infused salad called herring in a fur coat without the herring (Masha forgot to include it), Russian candies — chocolate with a marshmallow-like inside called bird’s milk — and condensed milk, which I hadn’t tried since childhood.
One of Masha’s friends, Sonya Groysman, sits at a corner of the table eating. She was declared a foreign agent by the Russian government the previous summer (a designation that requires you to declare all of your spending to the Russian government among other things), and has been cohosting a podcast about the experience, and now her exile. It’s called “Hey, You’re a Foreign Agent.” This is Sonya’s penultimate night in Tbilisi; she’s headed for Riga where TV Rain, which was banned in Russia and closed temporarily a week after the war started, is opening a new studio. Half the journalists at the party will be leaving for Europe within days or weeks. Others in August or September. Only a few are staying behind.
Sonya has been in Tbilisi for two months. She spent the first two months in Turkey, with her podcast co-host Olga, but her visa ran out and she came here. She was hesitant at first because of the stories she’d heard about how hostile Georgians were toward Russians. “They were angry, understandably, in the beginning,” she says. “But they cooled down quickly.”
Sonya left behind her partner, Roma, in Russia. They’d bought an apartment together not long before the war started. She’s only seen Roma once since she left. He is a businessman and wasn’t able to leave the country permanently because of work. He is coming to live with her in Riga for a month. She asked him to bring her blue teapot. She says they had an argument about it, but she wanted it in her new home. She’d spent so much time picking it out.
There are about fifteen people gathered in Masha’s living room. The fridge is stocked with wine and Maksim Tovkaylo, a former business journalist, pours me a glass of an amber Georgian wine called Qvevri. It’s bitter and full of minerals and I love it from the first sip. Maksim, a thick man with straight lips and eyebrows and pointy ears, is eager to talk. He tells me about the impossibility of being a journalist in Russia, even a financial journalist. He’s tall, a close talker, and very animated as he recounts a lawsuit filed against him by the Russian petroleum giant Rosneft in 2016 for a story he’d filed. “The bubble has been narrowing and narrowing,” he says.
Maksim left journalism and now works as a PR person and editor — at the same consulting firm Andrey used to work for. He also started a business — a fact-checking website called factcheck.ru. He’s talking a lot about the sanctions against Russia, sanctions he tells me that aren’t targeting the right people — those who oppose the regime, the ones who left, have been the ones most affected. “Our bank accounts are frozen, we can’t rent apartments, visas are denied,” he says. But these are the very people who should be supported, he says; the people cultivated to oppose Putin. Instead, they’re giving up, going back to Russia, and staying quiet. He wishes the West would have handled things differently. Maksim’s father fell ill recently and he had to return to Moscow. It was a disheartening trip. His friends are deeply depressed. They don’t know what to do, where to go, how to act.
An animated blond woman in a black dress with puffy sleeves walks in and sits in the middle of the room. She has striking green eyes and a demeanor that’s simultaneously open and standoffish. It takes a minute before I realize why she looks so familiar — she’s Masha Borzunova from TV Rain. She started hosting Fake News after Masha Zholobova left for Proekt. Because there were so few independent outlets in Russia, everyone has worked with everyone at some point. And almost all of them had at one time or another worked for TV Rain. That day, Borzunova had attended a remote court session in Russia because the Russian government had declared her a foreign agent. “They want to make sure we don’t come back,” she says.
I ask if she’s scared about the government targeting Russian journalists abroad, the way the Belarusian government had targeted the exiled blogger Roman Protasevich in 2021, diverting his plane from Greece to Lithuania while it passed through Belarusian airspace. “Of course it’s a possibility,” she says. “But they probably won’t get to it for a while. And you can’t just go around worrying all the time. What kind of life would that be?”
At that point I’m on the floor sitting in front of Nastia, a pale girl in a long white summer dress. She’s in her early twenties with jet black hair and blue eyes. She works (anonymously) for an exiled opposition publication too, one labeled “undesirable” by the Kremlin, but she asks me not to use their name, or her last name. Her parents work for the Russian government. They are no longer on speaking terms but still, she doesn’t want to get them in trouble. Nastia is planning to move to Europe the following week. It won’t be her first time living there. She spent nearly a decade of her childhood and early adolescence attending a European school. When she moved back to Russia afterward she was shocked to discover that the whole education system was based on lectures and public shaming. Grades were announced publicly to the entire class. All her classmates copied each other’s work and no one cared.
Nastia said that for a long time, she didn’t feel like she belonged anywhere. Then, after she learned about the opposition leader Alexey Navalny, she became a part of Russia’s political opposition. But her parents and her older sister have always been conformists. She was never close with her parents and only became close with her sister that past year. Then her sister posted photos of herself drinking Prosecco with friends just days after the war started. “These are our people being slaughtered and she’s drinking Prosecco?” Nastia says, noting their father is Ukrainian.
“His whole family is there, they speak Ukrainian, yet he supports the war,” Nastia says. She’s the only one in her family who called her Ukrainian relatives after the full-scale invasion started. Before that, she hadn’t spoken to them for years. Even though she’s half Ukrainian, Nastia says she feels Russian. That’s how she was raised. But the war has been tearing her apart.
On February 24, the day Russia launched the full-scale invasion, Nastia went out to protest. She was dismayed by how few people showed up. She left soon thereafter. Yet, she misses Moscow. She said she finally started feeling comfortable there only that year, when she’d met a circle of like-minded people, mostly journalists. But now she can no longer stomach it, or even some of her friends.
The day after the party Masha is exhausted, hungover, and stressed out about a story she’s investigating about Putin’s personal priest, and his efforts to propagandize the war in Ukraine. It’s her first story on the new job at Important Stories, another “undesirable” investigative outlet, and she’s worried it’s going to be bad. She doesn’t feel like she had enough time to investigate as deeply as she would have liked. Andrey is on a zoom call, scrambling to finish a big project.
Their landlady, Lena, walks in and sits on the couch. In thickly accented Russian she asks when Masha and Andrey plan to vacate the apartment. Housing is in high demand and people are willing to pay higher prices, she says — the phone is ringing constantly with inquiries. Masha and Andrey have the place leased until September 20. They’re paying $500 a month. But, with the influx of Russians, comparable apartments are running for at least $1000 — that’s what the Russian woman upstairs is paying, says Lena. She assures Masha and Andrey that she wants them to stay, that it’s her husband pressuring her to pester them. Then promises she’ll only raise their rent to $800 if they agree to pay the higher price for the remainder of their lease.
Masha and Andrey decline. They‘re waiting for their Czech visas and promise to let her know by the end of August when exactly they’ll vacate. Lena leaves, and Masha rolls her eyes.
“She’s here asking us all the time.”
“How often?” I ask.
“Once a week? More. If only that girl upstairs hadn’t overpaid.”
Then, the electricity goes out.
“She wants $1000 for this place and she can’t even keep the electricity on,” Masha says. “What the fuck.”
Masha has to go to her dad’s to pick up her dog, Chandler, (named after the Friends character). He’s been here since he brought her suitcases and the dog. She’s hesitant to introduce me. “He’s weird,” she says. Eventually she relents and we set off together in a taxi.
Masha’s father lives in a rundown building on a narrow street lined with abandoned garages. Until now, Tbilisi hasn’t felt particularly Soviet, but as soon as I walk into the building I feel as if I’m transported back to Soviet times. The lobby is dark and shabby, the steps poorly lit. Masha’s father, a small, stocky, stooped man in khaki pants, a striped beige button-down shirt and sporty black and blue sandals with velcro straps, greets us by the doorway and instructs us to take off our shoes. The dog, a big yellow-brown mut, is barking because he doesn’t like strangers. Masha’s dad yanks him away into the other room.
Her dad has lively hazel eyes and a drooping face. He walks us into a sparse room with herringbone parquet. The only furniture is a white leather couch draped with a tapestry, a television, a book shelf and a tiny square table where he’s laid out two tea cups, and a box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates (which he insists are Ukrainian, because this particular box was made in a Ukrainian factory). There is a yellow suitcase and a bag packed to go.
Masha’s dad will be spending three weeks in an apartment she rented for him by the sea in Batumi. But she’s been telling me that he is nervous to go — “He always gets hysterical before trips.” As soon as we walk in, he tells her he’s been thinking about it, and the right thing to do is stay home; to let me go to Batumi with Masha instead of him. “Let your friend enjoy the seaside,” he says.
Masha is agitated. “Dad, you’re not getting out of this. I already have everything arranged.” He shrugs with resignation. “I really think it would be good for you,” he says. “But, suit yourself.”
Masha’s dad is amused by my Russian — I don’t have an accent because I was born in Moscow but, since I was raised mostly in New York, my intonations are foreign and my conjugations, occasionally misguided. He gives me a skinny book about Russian grammar. “It’s a shame what’s happened to the Russian language,” he says. “It’s become completely mangled! No one knows real Russian anymore.”
The television is on mute, set to a Russian show called Top Secret. Masha’s dad tells me that he’s always thought Putin was a liar, ever since he saw him on television back in 1999. “What no one ever talks about is that even during Gorbachev, and after the coup, the KGB has been running everything.” He sighs. “No one has learned anything from history.”
He moves his chair closer. “I lived during Stalin’s times and I remember what they can do to people,” he says. He recalls the story of a colleague who’d gotten drunk, accidentally knocked over a small bust of Stalin, and was sent to the Gulag for ten years. “Things aren’t much different now.”
He allows me to take a photo of him but only with a newspaper blocking his face.
I ask him if he misses Moscow: “What’s there to miss?”
Tbilisi is full of huge, unruly roundabouts and wide streets. Sometimes there are underground passageways with multiple exits and entrances and other times there’s a faded crosswalk but no traffic light. Cars are expected to stop but they never do, even if you put up your hand. I ask Andrey about it and he says you’re supposed to walk out in front of the cars. “It’s the only way they’ll stop, but look for a slow-moving one so they don’t run you over.”
I navigate the roundabouts and confusing tunnels as I walk to a food court to meet Alexey (Lyosha) Levchenko, a journalist turned civil servant turned journalist, whom I’d seen at Masha’s party.
Lyosha used to work as the political editor for Gazeta.ru, a newspaper my parents read all the time in the aughts and early 2010s, known for in-depth reporting about Russian political life, business, corruption — anything a real newspaper would cover. This was until 2012, when Lyosha and his team covered the protests against Putin and the corruption of the United Russia party. The newspaper faced pressure from the government, which forced them to tone down their content. Lyosha and many of his colleagues left the paper and he decided to leave journalism altogether. “It became pointless to work there,” he said. “Pointless to be a journalist in Russia.” A contact asked him if he wanted a job as a press officer for city public health, education and social services and he took it.
He says he wasn’t conflicted about working for the government; the management was good, and he worked with “normal people,” who let him do his job — and he never had to do anything morally uncomfortable. It was interesting for him to see how things worked on the inside. The biggest surprise, he says, was that as a journalist he’d always assumed government entities were hiding huge secrets, but his department proved to be mundane and the meetings the press couldn’t access were generally boring and bureaucratic.
Lyosha worked there until 2020, when there was a change in management and direction. He went to work for Sberbank, a state bank that’s long been sanctioned by the West. His dream was to start a tourism business. He decided to launch a podcast about unexpected delights travelers could discover across Russia. The first episode was about bars in Kazan, a city in Russia not known for its bar scene, which Lyosha says has the coolest bars. But before he had the chance to publish it, he’d decided to leave the country.
Lyosha had never considered leaving Russia. He loves walking through the countryside, seeing ancient, dilapidated churches past expansive fields; the smell of logs for a banya (a Russian sauna). “I love Russian people,” he says. “But not what society has become.”
He started thinking about leaving after the government poisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny with the chemical weapon Novichok in August 2020. He didn’t make up his mind until the following August, when his former colleague, Roman Badadnin, called and offered him a job at Proekt, the organization Masha Zholobova had been working for when the police raided her house. Taking a job there meant he could never return to Russia, not while Putin was in charge, anyway. It was declared “undesirable” by the Russian government and forced to delete all its content. Working there could mean a prison sentence. When Badanin called, Lyosha was standing on the banks of the Moscow River, just after a swim, feet on the grass, his friends swimming nearby. He said he’d do it. He left two months later. Now, out of nostalgia, he sometimes writes poetry about Russia that he posts on Instagram.
Lyosha has relatives in Ukraine — his father’s mother is from there. When Russia invaded in February, Lyosha was about to sleep after a long night out with friends. But when he got his phone to set the alarm he saw the news. He didn’t sleep that night, and not for another two weeks. Then more and more friends started coming from Moscow. “That made things a little better,” he says. “We supported each other.”
Masha and Andrey take me to a birthday party for a Reuters journalist who’d also left Moscow after the war. The party is at a Russian-language bookstore with a bar and a small performance corner. A Belarusian band (also exiles) plays antiwar songs and in lieu of gifts the journalist asks that guests contribute to a donation basket for Ukraine.
One of Masha’s friends introduces me to a Ukrainian who escaped occupation. His name is Stefan and he’s a tall, tan twenty-four-year old with a goatee and a wide-brimmed camping hat hanging from his neck on a string. We move outside to talk and he tells me, in rapid-fire Russian, how he’d been studying urban planning in Poland and returned home to Nova Kakhovka in Kherson Oblast, in Southern Ukraine, for a two-week vacation in February, against the protests of his parents, who worried about an impending invasion. Stefan didn’t believe an invasion was possible. And, if it happened, he wanted to be there.
Nova Kakhovka is a small port city on the Dnipro River with a population of 50,000 (the same city where a huge Soviet-era dam would be destroyed in June 2023, causing devastating floods and major industrial contamination). The citizens are divided between loyalties to Russia and Ukraine and when the invasion began and Russian soldiers occupied the city, Stefan, who had been a humanitarian volunteer and citizen journalist before, says he organized with a group of friends to stockpile food and medicine for Nova Kakhovka residents. They hid in a basement for forty nights until, he says, someone sold him out to the Russians and he was on a search list.
He fled in a van through Crimea to the Caucasus where he crossed the border into Georgia. It was his first time in Russia and he was struck by the unkempt countryside and the fact that no one smiled. When he got to Georgia he met Masha Borzunova, whom he’d been watching on TV Rain for years. That’s how he ended up at the party. Now they were working together to find a girl from Kherson who was active on TikTok and a month before suddenly went silent on all social networks.
Stefan told me he’d ended up studying in Poland because of corruption at his university in Vinnytsia, in central-western Ukraine. Just the day before we met, that university was bombed and destroyed by Russian rockets. Stefan dreams of finishing his studies in Poland, then traveling Europe to understand urban planning and returning to restore Nova Kakhovka, where he’s already been involved in some projects. He shows me a photo of himself restoring the molding on a 1953 building. “We will win and I will come back to rebuild,” he says with the same certainty I’ve heard from many Ukrainians.
Some time after he escaped, Stefan says he managed to get his mother and brother out of Nova Kakhovka by the same route through Crimea. His father stayed behind to guard their land and property, which he worried would be taken over by Russians. Stefan seems agitated, unsettled. He fiddles with his hat strap as we talk. I ask if he’s getting psychological help. He says he’s seeing a therapist in Tbilisi, through a service for refugees.
Masha drags Andrey and me to another birthday party. We walk into a dilapidated old building by a construction site. But the apartment is nothing like the building — white walls with enormously high ceilings, artful décor, a black wire chandelier with zigzagging lamps. The birthday girl, Lena, whom Masha met years ago working for TV Rain, answers the door in a kimono flung over her shorts and tank top. Lena is turning 29 and Masha hands her a book about 1968 she’d picked up at the bookstore we just came from.
Sitting on the couch is a very stylish group — women with colorful wire-rimmed glasses, dramatic bangs, nose rings, lip rings, green hair, a guy with a braided rattail, another with long hair and a green bandana tied around his head as a headband. A few open pizza boxes are on the table along with beer and wine. Masha and I step out onto a balcony. It’s small and narrow and overlooks the construction site. There are old and new buildings, cars, busy streets, the hills in the distance. A billboard flashes across from us. Periodically a Ukrainian flag comes on the screen with the words Slava Ukraini, “Glory to Ukraine.”
Masha wants a drink. Lena makes her a gin and tonic and we head out to another balcony; dogs bark loudly in the background. Lena is animated with green eyes, short bangs, and a broad, almost rectangular face that feels familiar even though we’ve never met.
She tells me she wanted to leave Moscow immediately after the war started but, for logistical reasons, couldn’t get out until May. In Moscow she felt like she was going crazy. “In my head there was war, and on the streets everything was fine,” she says. “The sanctions I could stand, the bad economy I could stand. But not this.”
For the two months she stayed in Russia, she was always checking her surroundings. Who might be listening? Who might be following? All that, even though she’d left her job as an editor at TV Rain two years before and started working as a project manager for a big tech company.
I tell her even I feel paranoia, just being there with them, and I haven’t lived in Russia since I was a child.
“Do you think your devices are being monitored?” I ask.
“No way,” says Masha.
Lena agrees: “It would be too big an undertaking.”
I ask if Lena misses Moscow. She doesn’t. She’d always loved the city, but not anymore. Not in the same way: “For me, the city is about the people and my Moscow has left. It no longer exists and probably never will again. I have to come to terms with that and move forward.”
Inside, I see Vika Tenisheva and Bogdan Bokaleyko, two TV Rain journalists I’d met at Masha’s dinner party on the first night. They tell me how they became friends at TV Rain and started dating right as COVID hit. How they’d watch movies together and use their press passes to sneak out and drink wine on the banks of the Moscow River. Now they’re in exile living in an apartment in Old Town with a warm and sociable Georgian landlord who was just diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Next to us is Natasha, a woman with faded green hair and a lip ring. She’s slight with a soft, calming demeanor and she, too, reminds me of someone, but I can’t place who it is. Everything about the atmosphere feels familiar, like it’s a party in New York and these are all friends I’ve known for a long time. Except everyone is speaking Russian and we grew up in a completely different paradigm. Natasha is from the Northern Caucasus, a spa town called Kislovodsk surrounded by mountains and beautiful architecture. But she says she didn’t like growing up there — it was provincial and conformist and most people had a brutish mentality she couldn’t relate to. Her husband, Yarik, was from there too. They were in the same class in eleventh grade and liked each other, but had a contentious relationship. They reconnected as university students while Yarik was studying in Moscow and Natasha in St. Petersburg. He’d sent her an accidental message on some messenger service and they started talking. Then she decided to visit him. That was twelve years ago.
Now, they’ve been married for two years. Before the war, they were living in Moscow with their two cats. They liked their life but Natasha felt claustrophobic in Moscow because of all the concrete. They talked about leaving Russia, especially if the political situation deteriorated. When the war started they knew they had to do it immediately.
“I grew up reading Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva and I knew if there was a chance of the borders closing, I’d be out of there. That sort of thing sends chills down my spine,” says Natasha, referencing two Russian poets who lived during the pre-Revolutionary Silver Age into Stalin’s purges.
Natasha and Yarik searched frantically for a place that would back-vaccinate their cats so they wouldn’t have to wait a full month to leave. The place ended up being a government clinic that took a bribe. They left right away and are happy to be around the mountains again, but depressed about the circumstances. Natasha works as a graphic designer. She also makes antiwar art and posts it to Instagram.
A girl in a hot pink dress with colorful triangular patterns comes up to us. Her name is Sasha and she’s a designer too. She has pale skin and pale blue eyes and she’s agitated and shaky — I get the feeling she might shatter to pieces from the slightest disturbance. She’s from St. Petersburg where she just bought an apartment and was beginning renovation when the invasion started. She packed two suitcases and left. She didn’t know anyone in Tbilisi — all but two of her friends left Russia but headed for different places around the world — and she’d never wanted to leave home. She misses the architecture. But, after a few months in Tbilisi, she realized just how hostile Russian society was.
“Here people smile, they wish me well,” she says, describing a shop-keeper who has been keeping track of her progress since she first landed from Russia three months before. “‘Every week he tells me, you’re looking better and better. More and more beautiful every day.’ And I get all confused, I’m not used to this sort of thing. I say, ‘yes?’ and he says, ‘don’t you think so?’ I say, ‘then I wonder what will happen in another month.’ He says, ‘in another month you’ll be the most beautiful woman on this street.’”
Sasha tears up. “I just never encounter this sort of thing at home. And I want to feel that life can be benevolent. In spite of the fact that my country has become fascist. It’s a complicated feeling.”
Back in Russia, Sasha says, you could get punched by a babushka on a bus just because you needed to get through. Yet, she still wants to go back there one day. Once all of this finally ends. And she doesn’t consider herself an immigrant, just a person living in limbo.
Sasha tells me her favorite books are about the Gulag. She loves Evgenia Ginzburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind most of all. “I don’t know what it is about the Gulag that draws me but I find escapism in it,” she says. By this point, Masha and Andrey have left — Masha has to accompany her dad to Batumi early the next day. And the narrow balcony Sasha and I had migrated to slowly fills up.
Angela and Vitya, a couple in their mid-thirties, lean against the railing, lighting up cigarettes. Yarik and Natasha are out there too. We all squeeze in and everyone is asking me about my life, who I am, what I’m doing in Tbilisi, why I have such curious Russian. I tell them I left the Soviet Union as a small child, shortly before the collapse. That I’ve only been to Russia once since, in 2008. But I’ve been reporting on Russia — Russian exiles, specifically — most of my adult life.
“Your Russian has the melody of the American language,” Vitya says pensively, leaning against the balcony railing smoking, his pale skin blending with his beige shirt and his sand-colored hair.
“I can’t imagine what you must think of us, how this must look, all of us here at a party as the war rages on,” Sasha says.
We talk about the guilt we feel having any fun moments during the war — though, honestly, it doesn’t feel like any of them are having fun. Then we talk about U.S. politics. Abortion. Gun control. Natasha says that she had always thought her breaking point for leaving Russia would be if they banned abortion. Then she looks over at me. “I can’t believe that, of all places, they’ve banned it in the United States.”
“What is the breaking point for you?” Sasha asks. “What is it that would make you leave?”
I’m not sure what my breaking point is but I have a feeling that if it comes it will come quickly and suddenly just like the war did for them.
Andrey takes me to Old Town, the colorful banya district with mosaics on the building facades. He walks me down a path to a waterfall cascading down a sandstone cliff. It’s surreal and remarkable to be there. All around us Russian speakers are taking photos. We get ice cream from a grocery store — a Snickers for me and an Oreo bar for him — and end the night at a restaurant in the courtyard behind the building where Andrey and Masha lived for their first few months in Tbilisi (her dad lived there through the winter, then moved to his current apartment after the landlord raised the rent).
Masha and Andrey had loved the apartment for its charm, a grape vine snaked up the building and they used to pick grapes through their window and eat them. The courtyard has birds and beautiful trees. But the apartment lacked heat and a real kitchen. That’s why they moved. Masha’s dad endured a very cold winter there. The restaurant has an outdoor patio and turquoise window panes. It’s extremely charming yet Andrey says they’d never eaten there before because it was right in their yard and felt like a boring choice.
Andrey met Masha at an investigative journalism conference in Cape Town a couple of years before. He wasn’t a journalist, he worked as an investigator for a bank, but a friend invited him and he decided to go. He saw Masha smoking a cigarette outside the airport by the van taking conference guests to their hotel. What struck him was her hunger for adventure. When he suggested they put their bags down and go exploring, everyone in their cohort was too tired except Masha. They hung out a lot in Cape Town and started dating when they returned to Moscow.
Andrey tells me about his old friend Sasha. Andrey remembers going to Sasha’s dacha one weekend, getting back only to see Sasha arrested on extremism charges because he’d called for a referendum to make public authorities more accountable. Sasha spent nearly three years in prison and was released in 2018.
Andrey was at Sasha’s dacha again the weekend before their apartment was raided by the police in Moscow. He’s struck by the coincidence.
He’s also struck by the fact that after the raid, Masha was ready to stay in Russia and go to prison. She’d told him, “Eh, I’ll sit in a cell and read for a few years, what’s the big deal?” (She’d said this to me once, too, back when we first started talking on Zoom). Andrey told her that Sasha had been in a cell with twenty others and lived in constant cigarette smoke. Masha was shocked. “What? They allow smoking in prison?” Andrey laughs as he recounts the story: “Mashka has a very naïve understanding of Russian prison life.”
The younger sisters of Angela and Vitya, a couple I met at Lena’s party on Friday night, just arrived for a visit from Russia by way of Yerevan and they’re all at a café called Sol. The place is airy, trendy, it could be anywhere in the world. The four of them are sitting at a light wooden table in front of a white brick wall with modern chairs, light blue wood trim and lamps made of white wire. Angela and Vitya sit across from their two sisters, whose suitcases are resting against the window behind them. Angela’s sister, Diana, lives in Nizhnyi Novgorod, a sizable city about two hours away from Moscow, where they are all from and where Angela and Vitya lived until they left for Tbilisi, ten days after the war started.
Diana has a short boyish cut, round, black rimmed glasses, full lips and densely painted lashes. She’s twenty-three, studying to be a computer programmer. For now, she wants to stay in Russia, finish her studies. But if things get worse — if she finds out the borders may close — she says she would leave right away. Go to Canada maybe, since the climate is similar to Russia’s. Vitya’s sister, Vera, a soft-spoken blonde in a denim jumper, is twenty-four with understated body language and facial expressions.
Vera lives in Moscow and works for a Russian company. She has no thoughts of leaving, not even if the borders close. She opposes the war but plans to stay in Russia no matter what, to be close to friends and family. And life, for now, is fine. She doesn’t even mind the sanctions — though she’s happy to be in Tbilisi where Apple Pay works and where she can get some shopping done because most of the clothing shops she liked in Moscow are closed.
Angela and Vitya are married. They were vacationing in Yerevan when the war started. Right away they started researching ways to stay, but decided to return to Nizhny Novgorod and pack their things. Vitya’s round glasses with metal rims magnify his deep-set blue eyes. His dark blond hair is short in front with a braided rat tail draped over his left shoulder, reaching a good six inches past the Izod logo on his pink polo shirt. He’s thirty-four, an IT specialist whose job offered to transfer employees to Tbilisi. He and Angela bought a ticket for early March. A few days after the war started, his company called him to say that a spot had opened up on an earlier flight, leaving that evening.
The offer sent Angela into a panic. They weren’t ready to leave. Had to gather belongings, say goodbyes. If they didn’t get on the flight that night, would the borders close? They decided to wait. They flew to Yerevan in early March as planned and crossed the border into Tbilisi by car. Angela says that had the company not arranged a transfer, they may have stayed in Russia a little longer. She’s not sure, though. There was great panic and no one knew what would happen. She couldn’t have stayed in Russia long with the full-scale war. She has a lot of friends in Ukraine. Traveled there often. Loves Lviv, Kyiv, the people. She never felt even a bit of anti-Russianness while traveling there. Not even in Lviv.
“All the propaganda is bullshit,” she says. “There’s no fascism there, no extreme nationalism.” When the war started she posted about it on Instagram. But the company she worked for asked her to take it down. She said, “listen, I can’t do that. This is very personal for me.” The job wouldn’t let her work remotely and she quit when they left for Yerevan. At the border they had no issues, no one had any problems with them leaving. Vitya said he’d been worried. That in the past he did have problems because of his profession; the border guards always asked him whether he was taking any microcircuits out of the country. “It must be a relic of the 1980s, I have no idea what they’re talking about. Microcircuits? Everything has microcircuits, my phone has microcircuits,” he says. This was the first time he left the country without being asked that question. “I got the feeling they just wanted everyone who disagreed with them to leave so they could have a more amenable population,” he says.
Angela is thirty-three. She has big white teeth and lips as thick as her sister’s, the bottom one pierced in the middle with a hoop. She has dirty blond hair, dramatic bangs, black-rimmed glasses, and a subdued manner. She’s a veterinarian by training and wasn’t political for most of her life. Didn’t participate in the anti-Putin protests that took place in 2011 and 2012 (Vitya did). But she’s started to care much more about politics in recent years. “How can you not?” she says.
Vitya’s also traveled around Ukraine and has many close friends there. He says the biggest form of protest is leaving Russia and not paying taxes to support the war. Since coming to Tbilisi, Vitya and Angela have gone back to Russia once. They were scared but pleasantly surprised that there were few Zs around and that at all the hipster bars and cafes, people were talking about the war.
Angela has been posting against the war to social platforms but while she was in Russia she refrained from it, she was too scared. I noticed a Ukrainian flag pin on her black tote bag and asked whether she had also worn it in Russia. She laughs and says, “No way!” Her sister chimes in that people are even scared to wear blue and yellow clothing. “I saw one guy with blue and yellow sneakers,and thought, wow, you’re so brave,” Diana says. She unsubscribed from all the opposition channels before heading for the border but no one checked her phone.
I ask Angela and Vitya if they miss Russia and they both say they feel like Russia — all the parts they like about it, anyway — had moved to Tbilisi. “Our lives really aren’t very different here,” says Angela. “Except for the fact that I no longer have my job.” Of course, they miss their parents and siblings and want to come back to Russia as soon as possible. “We’re staying the next few months, at least,” Angela says.
“What would make you go back?” I ask.
“A new government.”
“You think that will happen in the next few months?”
Angela laughs and shakes her head. “No, that’s unlikely. Maybe a couple of years.”
Vitya shakes his head and says, “probably another five.”
“Sasha, our friend you met at the party, she thinks it will take ten to twenty,” Angela says. “We all have our own projections. For now, we will stay here.”
Andrey and I head to the train station to pick up Masha, who is returning from Batumi. When she finally emerges, she looks tired and angry. Andrey tries to take her backpack but she barely looks at him and waves him away. Her article is due in three days and she feels lost and uncertain about its direction. “It’s crap Masha,” she says. “I can’t believe I have to hand this in.”
She tells me that in spite of his huge suitcase, her dad only managed to pack one t-shirt and one long-sleeve for Batumi so she had to buy him more shirts. He also yelled at a cashier in the local supermarket for taking too long, and she’s worried the cashier will stop serving him and that he won’t be able to get groceries.
Masha says I made an impression on her dad: he’s decided I work for the CIA. “He says your Russian is too good. How could you possibly speak such good Russian?”
“But I was born there.”
“I know. That’s what I tried to tell him, but he calls you CIA Masha now. He always does this,” she says, pointing to her boyfriend. “He’s KGB Andrey.”
Lena, the woman who’d thrown the birthday party a few nights before — the one who used to be an editor at TV Rain and now works for a big tech company — tells me that when the war started she fell into a deep depression. Her former colleagues at TV Rain were told they should get out of the country and take their kids and even though she no longer worked there she was terrified that something would happen to her, too. Laws were changed seemingly every day. She was too afraid to speak out against the war on social media, except on her closed Instagram channel, but she feared that just by having worked for an opposition channel she was at risk. She received a text from a former colleague telling her that he was on the plane in tears leaving Moscow and that she should leave as soon as she could too.
She bought a ticket to Istanbul in mid-March, but the flight, with Pegasus air, was canceled because the airline had stopped working in Russia. Her clothing was strewn all over the floor of her studio apartment. She’d divided everything into two piles — things she would want ten years from then and things she wouldn’t. But when she found out about the canceled flight she felt relief. She knew she would leave but she wanted time to get her life together, to vaccinate her cat so she could bring her, to say goodbye to her parents in Tula. She wanted to leave because she had chosen to do it, not because she was forced to flee. She didn’t clean up the stuff on her floor. It stayed there until she left nearly two months later.
The two months in Moscow were hell, but Lena says she didn’t realize how bad they really were until she got to Tbilisi. She went to the office. She swam at the outdoor pool in the center of Moscow where she would overhear old ladies in elegant swimming caps breast-stroking alongside each other with full makeup, discussing the positioning of Russian troops. “I was amazed by how little people seemed to know about the atrocities in Ukraine but how well they were absorbing the propaganda,” she says, “how much they knew about what the troops were doing, or what the state said they were doing.”
At work people were horrified by the war but didn’t seem to understand the depths of what was unfolding. Colleagues would ask her questions like, “So does this mean we’re at war with the United States?” She says she had to cut them some slack. Not everyone was involved in journalism the way she had been. Many Russians had tuned out everything political for years now because things felt so hopeless.
Lena’s father was ill; immobilized by damaged joints. The last time she saw him, in late April, the world was discovering the massacres in Bucha. By then she had already bought her ticket for Tbilisi. She couldn’t sleep all night and in the morning she went into the kitchen and showed her parents a photo of the atrocities committed by Russian troops, thinking, Now I’ll convince them that this is real. But instead her parents yelled at her. They didn’t believe the Russian government was capable of such things; said the whole thing was staged by the media. Lena says they screamed at each other for a while. Finally she went for a walk. Then spent the evening with her parents because they knew it would be the last time they would see each other for a long time.
She found roommates in Tbilisi through a friend of a friend. Landed in the middle of the night. On the first morning she went to Sol for breakfast, the same café where I met Angela and Vitya and their sisters. She says she ordered her breakfast and started weeping. “That’s when I realized how scared I’d really been,” she says, “how much weight I’d been carrying on my shoulders in Russia.”
I’m waiting for Masha and Andrey at a restaurant. Masha shows up alone and upset. I ask where Andrey is but she waves her hand dismissively and says they are fighting. She apologizes for being late, says that on her way over to meet me she saw a stray kitten and went to two different stores looking for cat food. When she couldn’t find cat food she settled on a tub of sour cream but by then there were more cats and she had to divide the sour cream between all of them.
She’s still stressed out about her article and having trouble concentrating. She’s terrified of the pressure to perform. At Proekt she’d had much more time for her investigations; but she couldn’t return there because things had ended tensely with her former boss. “He didn’t understand why I didn’t want to cut all ties with Russia and work for him,” she says. “But I have parents, a sister. It isn’t so simple.”
Anna Nemzer is a public intellectual. A famous Russian journalist, novelist and documentary filmmaker from a well-established Moscow family (her dad, Andrey Nemzer, was a prominent literary historian at the Higher School of Economics until recently, when he resigned because of the war). For the past eight years she’s had her own political talk show on TV Rain.
Anna is rail thin with a dainty face and eyes and lips that look like they’ve been refracted through a magnifying glass; a short earring decorates one ear and a long one the other. She’s Jewish but says that in Moscow everyone always assumed she was Chechen or from the Caucasus because of her dark hair and, after the second Chechen war started in 1999, she had to leave an extra five to ten minutes to get anywhere because she knew she would always be asked for documents. When the authorities saw she was Jewish they would let her go. Once they told her, “Jews, we like Jews, we have no problem with them,” before letting her pass. She says the racism was based on directives from the top, and the current climate has been favorable toward Jews and unfavorable toward those from the Caucasus.
Anna ordered a coffee and ran out to buy cigarettes. She says she’d quit ages ago but when her mom died of cancer the year before she started smoking again. Now with all the stress of leaving Russia, and being separated from her loved ones she isn’t able to stop. She blew the smoke from her nose and folded the discarded cigarettes neatly into the foil on top of her cigarette pack.
Almost everyone I met in Tbilisi chain-smoked. Smoking is not allowed indoors but outside it’s everywhere. Masha quit smoking two years prior (at Andrey’s behest) but all the stress has caused her to buy a pack, too. The night before, she’d sat across from me pulling out one skinny white cigarette after another.
Anna tells me she’d been politicized since childhood, starting with the Chernobyl disaster, which happened when she was five. School felt brutal and dehumanizing and when she was in the second grade she says she lay down on the couch and cried and couldn’t get up for six months.
She always felt like the Soviet Union was not her country. “Like we were over here and they were over there,” she says, stretching out her arm and putting her hand at a ninety-degree angle to mimic the separation between the intellectual circle she and her parents inhabited and the rest of the country and the authorities.
It was only after the country started opening up and, eventually, the Soviet Union collapsed, that she felt like the country she inhabited was hers. It wasn’t perfect, but she was part of it.
When Russia invaded Chechnya for the first time in 1994, Anna says she took it personally. While she could distance herself from authorities during Soviet times, this time she felt accountable (she made a documentary dedicated to the memory of the two Chechen wars in 2020). She remembers the shock and horror she and those around her had felt about the war. But, at least the media was still independent then, still covering the conflict from both sides. It wasn’t until a few months after Putin came to power, during the Kursk disaster in 2000, when a navy submarine with 118 Russian crew members sunk during military exercises and the authorities tried to cover it up by consolidating much of the media under state control, that Anna started to feel, once again, like Russia wasn’t her country. “I could feel them lying to me through the television screen, the same words and intonations [as in Soviet times], and suddenly the country belonged to them again,” she says.
As years went on, things became worse. Anna got into journalism out of university, participated in the Bolotnaya protests, which started right when her daughter was born. After the police started detaining people, she and her husband took turns participating so that both wouldn’t be detained at the same time.
In 2014, Anna’s friend Mikhail Zygar invited her to work for TV Rain. This was right after the station had been banned from the networks; salaries were lower than ever, no one knew where things were headed. She’s been there ever since.
Anna says that it’s always been in the back of her mind that she might have to leave Russia. She even obtained Israeli citizenship just in case. She flew to Tel Aviv with her husband and daughter the day before the full-scale war in Ukraine started to complete some paperwork required to maintain her citizenship. But once Russia invaded, they couldn’t bring themselves to deal with bureaucratic matters. Or anything else they had planned. They were glued to the news and working constantly. A few days later they received instructions not to come back to Russia, from a source none of the journalists would reveal. They moved to Tbilisi with the tiny suitcases they’d packed for Israel.
They went there because that’s where their closest friends had gone. And it wasn’t until that day, right before our interview, that Anna had finally made it to the Israeli consulate to finish the paperwork she was supposed to have taken care of in Tel Aviv back in February. But, she doesn’t plan to move to Israel. In January, a few months after our meeting in Tbilisi she will fly to New York with her family to help create the Independent Russian Media Archive at Bard College and PEN America.
Kuba Kyrgyzov tells me to meet him at his apartment where he will be dyeing a friend’s hair. When I arrive I stand in the courtyard garden of a behemoth block building that reminds me of the buildings in my grandmother’s bedroom community in Moscow — a sooty gray, u-shaped structure with balconies and below, in the u’s center, a network of stone-tiled paths cutting across green spaces with wooden benches and random cars strewn about.
Kuba, a tall, slight man with bleached-blond hair he likes to color frequently (in my two-week trip I also saw it dyed pink), lots of tattoos, and a big silver earring dangling from his right ear, comes down to greet me with a hug. Kuba fled Russia shortly after the war started and now works for G.Bar, a Ukrainian hair salon in Tbilisi where he offers free haircuts to Ukrainian refugees. He’s wearing shorts and a t-shirt with faded pictures of spaceships. He warns me that he’s out of it — the night before, on the way home, he and his friend ran into an acquaintance who invited them to a party and they didn’t get home until ten that morning. He leads me up to a large, sparsely furnished apartment. A woman is lying on the couch with her long legs up against the wall, barely looking up from her phone to say hello. It’s his friend Sasha visiting from Tel Aviv.
Kuba is from a small town in Kyrgyzstan where he grew up the fourth of six siblings with an alcoholic dad and a mom who spent most of his childhood as a migrant worker in Russia. When he was eleven, his grandfather died and he was sent to live with his grandmother in a bigger town to help her run the grocery store she owned. He would wake up, open the store, go to school, and come back to work at the store again until closing. His grandmother didn’t let him hang out with other kids. Instead, he took up hobbies like sewing and drawing. He was also good at writing essays, so good that he wrote them for other classmates.
He wanted to study design but his family couldn’t afford to pay for university and he didn’t get into any free ones. He moved to Moscow in 2008, at eighteen, and supported himself with menial jobs. It was only there that he could finally admit to himself he is gay. He told his mother over the phone when he was twenty-five and she accepted him, but told him not to tell his dad. He only told one sibling, a younger brother, and the brother accepted him too, but told him not to tell their mom. Kuba didn’t tell him he already had.
Kuba says he felt relatively free in Moscow, even after the 2013 propaganda law that banned open discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in front of minors. He made friends at the clubs, but says not many of them were close. He fell in love once. They dated for a year but then his partner died of HIV, which Kuba didn’t even know he had. Later, Kuba would contract it too, from someone else. One of the things he loves about Georgia is the free HIV meds, which are much better quality than the ones he got in Russia.
After his partner died, Kuba fell into depression and had trouble getting close to people again. He and Sasha met in 2017 and he got to know her family. Her younger brother is also gay, but he’s only come out to friends and siblings. Sasha says her brother has always looked up to Kuba and would ask him to dye his hair.
Kuba says life in Moscow was good but the bubble he lived in was becoming smaller and smaller. Navalny’s poisoning and imprisonment was a big blow, but Kuba didn’t attend the protests for fear of being deported to Kyrgyzstan. Sasha did, and she left for Israel once the protests became violent.
When the war started Kuba didn’t care about getting deported anymore and he came out and protested with other Muscovites. He also knew then that he had to leave. He found out about a friend of a friend who was driving with her dog to Georgia. She didn’t want to go alone and he told her he’d come. They drove to Vladikavkaz, a conservative Caucasian town on the Georgian border, but they couldn’t get to the border because the roads were blocked by snow. They stayed in the town for two weeks. It’s a dangerous place for a gay person, especially one that likes to dress as stylishly as Kuba. But no one touched him and he even went on a few internet dates with local men, which Sasha admonished him for because it’s incredibly dangerous. He thinks it was his stylishness that saved him. Kyrgyz men don’t dress the way he does and he thinks that people mistook him for a different kind of foreigner — Japanese or Chinese. If they’d known he was Kyrgyz, they would have probably attacked him, he says. Sasha nods in agreement.
When he left Russia, Kuba didn’t have papers. He didn’t even have an external passport (Kyrgyzstan, like Russia, operates on a two-passport system where you use one for internal affairs and another for traveling abroad). The only way to get out of Russia was to seek asylum. He looked up Georgia’s asylum laws and decided he would apply based on his sexual orientation. Just in case, he brought a leaflet with him for a human rights organization that helps people seeking asylum at the border. He knew that without an external passport he would likely be detained so his travel companion went ahead with the car and left him some money. He went alone the next day in a taxi.
He was right, the Russian side detained him for six hours and when he told them why he was seeking asylum, the border guards laughed. They let him cross though and the same thing happened on the Georgian side, but the Georgians didn’t want to let him in. He called the number on the leaflet (thankfully his Russian sim card still worked) and a few hours later, police showed up and allowed him to pass through. “Thank God I had that leaflet,” he says. But he isn’t sure if that was what helped or if it was standard protocol for the police to come.
For the next two months Kuba says he was in a haze. He stayed in a hostel and didn’t care about finding an apartment or any physical comforts. All he could think about was the war. He went to a volunteer center and helped sort clothes for Ukrainian refugees. That’s where he had the idea to cut refugees’ hair for free. One time, he made a house visit to a family from Mariupol. They had been hiding in basements before they could escape the shelling. The grandmother watched Russian television and believed the propaganda. She told him the war was Biden’s fault and Kuba says he almost left.
We end up sitting on the balcony for hours. Each time I make to get up and catch a taxi Kuba offers me more wine, saying, “come on, just a drop.” He and Sasha chain smoke and show me tattoos they got together in Moscow from a friend after a night of drinking.
Finally, past two in the morning, I get ready to leave. But Kuba and Sasha decide to go to a club, one that reminds Kuba of a gay club called Propaganda they frequented together in Moscow. Kuba has to work at the salon at 9 am the next day but he says he can function on no sleep, and, anyway, Sasha only has a couple of nights left before returning to Israel. They’re both sad she’s leaving.
“Maybe I’ll move to Georgia one day,” Sasha says. “That’s the dream we came up with.”
Maksim Tovkaylo and Farida Rustamova have been working on a Substack newsletter together. They call it Faridaily. Farida, a striking woman who wears black sunglasses on top of her head, used to work for TV Rain but left last December because it felt pointless to work as a journalist in Russia. She was having trouble sleeping, always imagining someone would come knocking on their door and raid their apartment. Maksim says he felt fine, and was sleeping well. But Farida looks at me with her head cocked: “Men, they can be climbing a tree in their underwear and still say everything is fine. He wasn’t fine. Of course, he wasn’t fine.”
To alleviate the anxiety they booked a trip to Sri Lanka for mid-February. They would take surfing lessons, English lessons, read books, and ignore the news.
“Of course that didn’t happen,” says Farida. “We took a few surfing lessons.”
“Maybe five,” says Maksim.
“Otherwise we were scrolling our phones. I knew there would be a war.”
“I thought you were crazy.”
“I had an online cart full of items, matches, bread, buckwheat ready to go.”
“I dismissed it as paranoia.”
But the news kept getting worse. Not only that, but there was also a growing economic crisis in Sri Lanka. Gas shortages all over the country. They had trouble finding food. Farida says they learned about the war while in Colombo.
“Actually, I don’t even remember where we were. I know we’d been making our way toward the airport,” she says.
Maksim doesn’t remember either. The week felt like a blur. Farida ordered the items in the cart to their Moscow apartment. They sat in cheap hotel rooms all day and read the news. They are both political reporters by training and started calling their sources in government. That’s when Farida thought of starting a Substack newsletter — something the Russian government couldn’t block — about the mood of the Russian political elite. She says she wasn’t really thinking about what she was doing, just wanted answers. Maksim helped her get them. He recalls talking to one of his sources, a Soviet-era civil servant, and crying on the phone. The civil servant heard him crying and reassured that everything would be over soon.
Faridaily came out a week into the war. The first post was about the complete shock Russian government officials felt when the war started — no one had any idea it was coming. It was translated into English, and it went viral. I remember reading it in New York. Since then, Maksim and Farida have decided to build up Faridaily and turn it into a bigger media project.
Maksim and Farida stayed in Sri Lanka for two more weeks. One night, after they learned that Master Card and other credit cards would stop operating in Russia, they booked a flight to Tbilisi and reserved the first hotel they could find before the policy would go into effect. When they landed in Tbilisi it was cold and snowing — a very rare occurrence — and they only had the summer clothes they’d packed for vacation. They couldn’t afford to buy anything else so they only left their hotel room by taxi, which is very cheap in Tbilisi.
Farida says she has to take tranquilizers to sleep; “half of Moscow and most of my friends here are taking them.” She has many friends in Tbilisi but doesn’t feel like socializing. It’s hard to listen to other people’s emotional problems when she has so many of her own — everyone wants to use each other for therapy, and that only makes things worse. She wants to leave Tbilisi because she’s scared. It’s too close to Russia.
People have spotted FSB agents and she spotted an “eshnik,” slang for members of Russia’s “anti-extremism” division, at a public interview she gave. I ask her how she knew he was an eshnik and she says they’re easy to spot: everyone else was clearly there to listen, and he looked like a Russian thug eating the free food.
Farida says another hardship about being in Tbilisi was the anti-Russian sentiment in the first months. Her parents are Azerbaijani so she doesn’t look Russian, but she says she forgets it. The hostility she felt reminded her of the hostility she’d experienced as a child for looking different; back then she had to try extra hard to fit in. “Now it’s the reverse,” she says. “I want to hide that I’m a Russian speaker.”
Maksim says he’s done with Russia. This isn’t Putin’s war, it’s Russia’s war and he’s written off the whole country. Farida says she’s more optimistic about Russian society, that she feels at least a third of the population genuinely opposes the war and another third doesn’t understand what they’re supporting. She is motivated to be a journalist again because she doesn’t want the Russian people to think she’s abandoned them.
Masha Borzunova is in a hurry. She sits in a black office chair in front of a wooden desk with two computer monitors showing the Russian-language Georgian TV channel Formula Studios where TV Rain’s Tbilisi operations are based. A few days before, TV Rain aired its first broadcast since its closure in Russia. Borzunova says it felt strange to watch. The main studio, which is located in Riga, looked a lot like the one in Moscow. But it wasn’t in Moscow, and Borzunova says this felt deeply unjust.
“You watch and you wonder why it has to be this way,” she says. “We’re supposed to be working in Russia and why the hell do we have to move and reopen the channel in Latvia and other countries?” They’ve been waiting for TV Rain to come back for a long time and for many of her colleagues, she says, it was an uplifting moment. But for her it was an acknowledgement that they wouldn’t be going back to Russia any time soon. “We’ve relaunched the company, I’m leaving for Europe, I’ll be working in Europe. The past four months, you could look at it as a long business trip,” she says. “But now you understand that this isn’t a long business trip. This is your new life.”
Borzunova has been working as a journalist since she started interning with TV Rain as a college student in 2014. She met Masha Zholobova there back in 2016, when Zholobova first started at the channel. They quickly became friends. “We’re two small blond girls named Masha; we’d joke that we were sisters.”
Borzunova says Zholobova seems calmer since she’s been in Tbilisi. “She doesn’t have all the anxiety we have,” she says. “She left earlier and it’s as if she’s looking at all of it from the side now. As if she’s already grounded.”
Borzunova is petite and blonde and posts selfies and photos of her travels on social media. In Moscow, she’s a celebrity. Her show, Fake News, which Masha Zholobova had launched back in 2016, is very popular among opposition-minded citizens, and she’s recognized on the street and asked to pose for photographs (Kuba, the hairstylist, used to work in a salon near the TV Rain studios had proudly shown me a selfie with Borzunova that he’d posted to his Instagram account after running into her on the street a few years before). Even in Tbilisi people recognize her and stop her on the street asking her to pose with them.
The night before the full-scale invasion, Borzunova came back from a reporting trip in Rostov Oblast, where residents of the self-declared LPR and DNR republics in Donetsk were evacuated ahead of the war by the leaders of these self-proclaimed republics. “All of it looked like some sort of spectacle,” says Masha. “It wasn’t clear that a war would start but everything was headed that way.”
While she was on the trip Putin signed a decree recognizing the independence of LPR and DNR. She returned to Moscow on the night of February 23, one of the last flights out of Rostov-on-Don. “Afterward they’d stop because of the war,” she says. When she arrived home the leaders of the self-proclaimed republics asked Putin for official military help. Then everything became clear: “They needed an official pretext to send in their military.” Borzunova was on a group chat with her colleagues when it happened. “I wrote, ‘the war will start now.’ But they said, ‘no.’ I said ‘yes.’” But, Borzunova says that she was saying it on autopilot, without a real understanding of what it meant. When she thought about “war” she thought about escalation in the East. “The maximum I could imagine is that they would bring troops into the self-proclaimed DNR and LPR and try to conquer those territories,” she says. “I did not think I’d wake up to see them bombing Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities.”
The following morning, she was supposed to go on air to discuss her reporting trip. She set an alarm for 7:30 am but at around 7 o’clock a former colleague called. She silenced him, then realized he wouldn’t be calling unless it was dire. She grabbed her phone and saw the news. The next week felt like it lasted a month. Borzunova and her colleagues worked around the clock, sleeping at the studio when they needed rest. The only time she left was to go to antiwar protests, from which she’d stream for the channel. On the third day of the war, she filmed an interview with the father of a Russian soldier whose child was a POW in Ukraine. The Russian state channels had already shown his photo and said it was a fake. Hers was one of the first interviews to say it wasn’t. After publishing it, she knew that she’d just made it very dangerous for herself to stay in Russia, where official channels continued to call the war a “special military operation” and deny that they were bombing outside Donbas.
But Borzunova couldn’t bring herself to acknowledge that she would leave soon. Instead, she kept adjusting the parameters for what would make her do it. And she kept receiving signals that the time was approaching: one person she knew, with sources in government, warned her that the state would soon pass a new law and start publicly imprisoning journalists who broke it. The next day, a new law was enacted, banning the spread of “fake” information about the “special operation in Ukraine.” Then more friends started writing, telling her: “Masha, leave. Leave, leave, leave.”
She wanted to hold out. I ask why. “Because it’s my country and I don’t understand why I have to leave it,” she says. “I want to work in Russia. It’s my home. I don’t want to live in any other place. You understand the truth is on your side and what the hell?”
Even after they banned TV Rain, she planned to stay. But it was becoming clear that her freedom would go if she did. And her loved ones were urging her to leave, asking her to think about them; not sacrifice herself for her principles. The more information leaked — about police raids and show trials and new laws — the clearer it became that staying wouldn’t do any good.
On the night of Tuesday, March 1, Borzunova and her remaining colleagues decided to leave. They bought tickets to Istanbul for that very evening. She said goodbye to her parents, her sister, close friends, ran home, threw belongings in a suitcase and went to the airport. She told herself she was leaving for only a couple of months. “But in my head, I knew perfectly well that it wouldn’t be just a couple of months,” she says, “ this was immigration.”
She flew with her friends Sonya Groysman of the Foreign Agent podcast and Misha, another TV Rainer. They’d heard rumors that border police would interrogate them and confiscate their phones; they frantically deleted various messaging apps before heading to the airport. But they were allowed to leave without problems.
When Borzunova and Groysman arrived in Istanbul, friends who’d caught earlier flights awaited them. Borzunova spent a week and a half there. “The whole time in Istanbul is shrouded in some sort of fog,” she says. “Walking the streets. Running from ATM to ATM trying to take out money. I tried to perceive it as some sort of quest: what do you need to do today? And I’d do whatever that thing was.”
Then Borzunova left Groysman behind and headed to Tbilisi. Those first weeks, she says, feel like a horrible dream. Not because Georgians were unwelcoming — they weren’t — but because she couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that she wouldn’t be returning to Russia.
She spent a month living with friends. Then rented an apartment with Ksenia Mironova, another TV Rain journalist.
Since she’s been in Tbilisi, Brozunova has left Georgia only a few times. Each time she left or reentered she was delayed at the border for 20 or 30 minutes. There’s a consensus among the Russian journalists that the Georgian government must have some sort of list of people in the Russian opposition. Some, like journalist Misha Fishman, weren’t allowed into the country at all. Neither were certain colleagues of the imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Borzunova says she wasn’t too scared about it. “So they’ll send me back to Istanbul, so what?” she says. “In general, you’re in the sort of state where it doesn’t really matter where you end up because wherever it is, it won’t be home.”
Borzunova says that in Tbilisi, she’s been in a fog too. “You know it’s just a transit point,” she says, “and you can’t build your life. I still can’t say the phrase, ‘I live in Tbilisi,’ because I don’t live here.’” The only thing that makes life in Tbilisi a bit more bearable is streaming her show, Fake News, which she resumed on YouTube in April. At least it gives her a sense of purpose.
When she was still in Istanbul, a friend had told her to look at her life as a startup — a chance to rebuild. The advice helped, but only to an extent.
I ask whether, if it had been possible for her to give up journalism in exchange for staying in Moscow, she would have done it. She pauses and thinks about it: “I don’t know.”
Ksenia Mironova has the saddest eyes I have ever seen. Big light blue eyes accentuated by mascara that are either downcast or looking into the distance. She meets me at a French cafe on the third floor of City Mall, a huge shopping center in Saburtalo, not far from the Formula studios where TV Rain is based.
She’s striking in the Hollywood way — tall, lean and bleached blond in a black blazer and black bicycle shorts — like she’s about to go on a runway. She hasn’t seen her fiancé in two years because he’s a political prisoner.
I’ve read about him. Ivan (Vanya) Safronov, a former military journalist just like his father (Ivan Sr.). Vanya wanted to continue his father’s legacy but left journalism to work for the government space agency RosCosmos, after every media outlet he worked for succumbed to government pressure. Even though he left, it didn’t end well for him either. On July 7, 2020, he was apprehended outside of his apartment by the FSB never to be seen or heard from again except through letters and from a courtroom cage.
It happened a few months into his government job, after he left their apartment to drop something at his new office. Ksenia says that usually they would say goodbye for the day but this time Ksenia was still in bed when he left and they didn’t even kiss. They thought they would see each other shortly. Ksenia had recently quit her job at the independent media outlet Meduza. She was in the midst of planning a personal media project. That morning she had a call scheduled with a new gynecologist. She was only twenty-two at the time and she and Vanya were only together two years but they already wanted to have a baby and she was shopping around for the right doctor.
It was still the height of the pandemic, right as Moscow emerged from complete lockdown. She recalls their time in quarantine as a blissful period — breakfast together on the balcony, walks around their building at night, making dinner together. “Some couples had a really hard time during quarantine, a lot of people broke up,” she said. “We didn’t even fight.”
She was still in her pajamas when she heard someone pounding on the door. She wasn’t expecting anyone so she looked through the peephole and saw a gang of big men. She’d been born into ugly times — Yekaterinburg, 1998; a real gang town. Her first thought was that these men planned to rob her and she took a picture of the view through the peephole and sent it to Vanya. She didn’t know at the time that Vanya had already been taken into custody. The men kept pounding and suddenly she heard a key slide into the lock and the knob started to turn. They walked in and told her they were from the FSB.
The officers asked her to leave. Instead she sat on a poof in the middle of the floor while they ransacked the apartment. The search lasted six hours and Ksenia says she kept her cool the entire time. She remembered her rights, talked to the officers about the law, citing relevant documents. During the search the FSB officers told her that Vanya’s brother had been arrested too; it turned out he was deemed a witness in the case, but he was still taken in handcuffs from his home. Vanya called Ksenia from detention. She regrets that they spent the time talking about logistics. Had she known that she wouldn’t see him again for many years, she would have handled the phone call differently. She would have told him how much she loved him.
After Vanya’s arrest, Ksenia couldn’t stop crying. Then she went on antidepressants and didn’t cry for the next year-and-half. She never got visitation rights to the pretrial detention center. She’d write Vanya letters that she had to send by mail or hand deliver. She sent telegrams, which were much faster but limited in word count.
Each time she got a letter from Vanya, she opened it immediately. “All the envelopes are ripped,” she says. If she received a letter at work (Vanya’s sister would forward them by courier) she’d summarize it to her colleagues. Now, when the letters arrive as photos on her phone passed on to her by friends who are still in Russia, she reads them wherever she is.
She saw Vanya eight times in court, but this was through the defendant’s cage, behind glass and only for a couple of minutes. The first couple of times, she was able to reach through a hole in the glass to hold his hand, but then the authorities stopped allowing it, making her stand in the back. One time a young man who worked at the court approached Ksenia and told her that he’d been following the news and felt terrible about what she was going through. He told her which exit Vanya would be escorted through. She went there and waved as they pulled him away.
And then Ksenia orchestrated another way to see Vanya. In September 2021, she volunteered to be an independent election observer at the pretrial detention center where Vanya was. She figured the authorities would catch on and stop her, but they never did. The week before, she sent Vanya a cryptic telegram telling him that voting was a civic duty. Then she showed up in a mask (the pandemic) and worked all day, waiting for Vanya to arrive. Finally, after about four hours, he did. By then it seemed that the detention center employees caught on to who she was. When Vanya came into the room she lowered her mask and he saw her right away. But just as he got to her, the chair of the elections commission told her to raise her mask and blocked her view. It was the first time they’d seen each other outside the courtroom setting.
“You’re inches away, no glass or cage, but you can’t touch each other,” she says. “Your mind just explodes. It’s horrible.”
Ksenia says that for months before the war started she kept two go bags in her apartment at all times — one in case they came to take her to prison and another in case she had to flee the country. Yet she didn’t want to leave. She wanted to be in the same place as Vanya — how could she send him packages? How would they communicate? She says that if Vanya hadn’t been in prison, she would have stayed. She still feels the urge to return, spend a week, and write about what’s really happening in Russia. But her mother, she says “She doesn’t deserve that.”
When Ksenia arrived in snowy Tbilisi that March, after about a week in Istanbul, everything was gray, and she felt very lonely. “Some people came in couples,” she says. “I had friends here but I was alone.” Life got easier only after she started working again. TV Rain didn’t have a studio yet and she did everything from her apartment, recorded under blankets. It was good to reunite with colleagues.
Ksenia moved into a sublet with a girl she knew and and having the place lowered her anxiety a lot because it still had the owner’s stuff in it and felt like some semblance of a home. Eventually, her roommate left and Borzunova replaced her. This was in April. “It got even easier then, knowing there was someone at home.”
At the end of April she filmed a segment about people in Tbilisi who’d escaped from Mariupol. One person she interviewed was Anya, a Ukrainian woman who’d just arrived in Tbilisi the week before with two kids — a nine-year-old and an infant born a month before the war started. Ksenia saw that Anya had nowhere to leave her baby and offered to help with babysitting. She ended up helping out nearly every weekend and the two women became close friends. Sometimes they would meet up to take a stroll. “She was so lonely, I was so lonely, and we became a sort of family,” she says. “From the moment we started spending time together everything normalized a little.”
Vanya’s birthday was in May and he wrote Ksenia a letter describing another prisoner who’d figured out how to make him a cake and burned some paper to simulate a candle. Since she’s moved to Georgia, Ksenia has been sending photos of her handwritten letters to Vanya to friends who print them and mail them to him from Moscow. Her friends send her photos of Vanya’s letters in return. She’s also been having them send telegrams.
Ksenia tries to write articles and essays in addition to her work at TV Rain. Sometimes her colleagues come over and they all work together. At night she and Borzunova usually stay home. In the beginning, when they were first in Tbilisi, she says she saw friends all the time. “It was scary and you had this feeling that if you didn’t see your friends every day something would happen to them or they would just disappear,” she says. She has weekly English language practice with a British guy on Skype and is also taking weekly German lessons. Now that her future is so uncertain she feels she needs to work on her foreign language skills. “I can’t expect everyone to know Russian.”
As she prepares to depart for Riga, Ksenia started a social media campaign to help Anya, her friend from Mariupol, and has managed to raise some money. Once she arrives, Ksenia says she plans to leave TV Rain. For a long time she’s had a dream of starting a nonprofit to support families of political prisoners in Russia. In the beginning, she says, everyone thought she was crazy; that it was unnecessary. Now that there are so many more political prisoners, she’s gotten support for the idea and will work with journalist Ilya Krasilchik to do it. He’s based in Tbilisi and she doesn’t need to leave to start the organization, but since most of her friends are leaving she’s decided to go with them. “There’s no rational explanation for why I’m going. I don’t know where I want to live. I want to be in Moscow with Vanya, but this is impossible so…everyone’s going to Riga and I’m going to Riga,” she says. “If they decide to go somewhere else, I’ll go there.”
Still, she says she’s sad to leave Tbilisi. She had never spent so much time in a sunny place. But she’s not nostalgic; she has no energy for that. She’s just weary from living in limbo. She feels like an orphan.
On her inner forearm, Ksenia has a tattoo. It’s a mirror image of the words freedom and strength printed twice one above the other. Even before Vanya’s imprisonment, she corresponded with political prisoners. The tattoo comes from one of her correspondents: Alexey Navalny’s imprisoned brother Oleg, who’d created a project called “tattoos from prison.” She’d asked him to design something feminine about freedom long before Vanya was arrested. She had the mockup sitting in a drawer for a long time. She got the tattoo six months after they took Vanya. On her right wrist, she has another tattoo — a heart with an arrow through it. Vanya draws the image on every letter he sends her.
I’m sitting at the outdoor terrace at Sol. Two Russian men and women one table over are talking about what everyone is always talking about: immigration. Where you can get a work visa. Whether Poland is more expensive than Tbilisi. What sort of work you can get there. What the taxes are like. The difficulties of transferring money from Russia. The high conversion rate. How expensive everything is in Tbilisi. I think of Lena, who now works for the tech company and constantly has to figure out creative ways to get her paychecks from Russia into her Georgian bank account. Every few words these Russians say are peppered with curse words. Usually blyad (bitch). Sometimes pizdetz (fucked up), or huynyovaya (fucking), or zayebal (fucked).
I head to Masha’s apartment and find her rushing to get ready. She’s wearing bright green eyeshadow that matches her chunky crocs and a tight, burnt orange, flamenco-style dress with the straps tied in knots on her shoulders. She’s still feeling sick from a stomach bug she’d gotten the day before but insists that we can walk the hour to the botanical garden. The heat has finally let up, but her stomach is still hurting so she asks me to remind her to buy medicine.
It’s not long before we end up in a taxi. It deposits us in front of a narrow, cobblestone street with a barricade and we walk uphill, through one of the renovated parts of Tbilisi’s old town, with freshly painted wooden balconies in blue-toned pastels and sloped red roofs. Along the sides, vendors peddle wine-flavored soft serve ice cream and urge us to enter restaurants. A few people approach to ask if we’re interested in guided excursions and Masha looks offended, turning to me and saying, “I’ve been here a year, I think I can be considered a local.”
That night we go to another birthday party. This time for Volodya (Vova) Romensky, another TV Rain journalist. Romensky hugs each of us as we walk in. He’s a small, energetic guy in his mid-thirties. The same guy who made me cry a few months before as I watched him on the final broadcast of TV Rain, when the Russian government shut them down less than a week after the war started. He’d stood up and given an impassioned speech about how they would never give up on their work.
Now, he’s hopping around his pirate-themed birthday party, gesturing wildly with his hands and smoking endless cigarettes. I’m happy to see Yarik and Natasha, the couple I’d met at Lena’s birthday party the week before. Lena’s there too, sitting at the end of the table showing people the digital versions of film photographs she’d had developed from her party.
Natasha sits across from Ksenia Mironova rolling a cigarette. Suddenly she looks up, gives her a gentle smile, and squeezes Ksenia’s hand, telling her they would all get through it. That she can barely function either.
Masha sits on the bench next to me chatting with Rita, a journalist who’d just arrived in Tbilisi, awaiting her Latvian visa. She’s come from Yerevan and is telling animated stories about Armenians, where, she said, even the young, hip citizens are staying silent about the war. The rationale, she explains, is that they’d felt abandoned by the world when they were attacked by Azerbaijan just the year before, and only Russia had helped. Rita says the country had pretty strong pro-Putin sentiments and it had made her uncomfortable. Also, the drivers are all mad. Even crazier than the ones in Georgia. And if you wear a seatbelt they look at you funny.
Across the patio from us at a small table there are two big Georgian men wearing black. Andrey turns to us and says, “they’re taking photos of us, look. His camera is pointed this way and the flash keeps going off.” We all start looking at each other, talking, are they FSB? But they’re Georgian? But look, they really are taking photos! Then Andrey gets up and goes behind them, looks over the guy’s shoulder as he types on his phone. He comes back laughing. “The guy’s just texting some girl and his flash is going off because it’s a feature on his phone.” We all laugh, too. Relief.
Romensky, wearing a pirate hat and an eyepatch someone has brought him as a gift, is still going from group to group, talking and smoking. Ksenia Mironova leaves early. There’s another American there, a Russian-born American like me who’d been living in Moscow when the war started. His name is Evan Gershkovich, and everyone says we should talk but we never get to it.
Before we head out, Yarik recommends some antiwar music from an experimental Russian rock group called Shortparis that made him cry. When I listen a few days later, in the airport, it makes me cry too.
On my last day in Tbilisi I meet Masha in Old Town by the colorful banya. She looks up, her lips painted bright red. Andrey joins us and we walk into the hills to explore an ancient church.
Masha doesn’t want to go in. She says it’s too depressing, all those old women in their headscarves. But eventually she joins us. The smell of the church is one I haven’t smelled since childhood: sweet wax and oil. Elaborate candelabras with thin yellow candles, dripping and leaning in various directions, their lights burning faintly in the dimly lit space.
Masha wants to take me to the dilapidated part of Old Town, where the streets haven’t been restored. This isn’t difficult because only the ones in the very center have been — there the short, intricate designs of the Russian imperial buildings are free of cracks and freshly painted in vivid pastels. They look like toy houses or ones from a movie set and, to Masha, they are lacking in character. We walk up the winding streets past colorful glassed in wooden porches attached to brick buildings with crumbling stucco facades.
“Andrey, we should have lived in Old Town,” Masha says for at least the tenth time that day.
“Why? There are no supermarkets here. Any time we need anything we would be miles away.”
“So we’d take a taxi,” Masha says. “Imagine waking up and walking out into this!” she gestures around us, pointing toward a stone wall with a big wooden door and lush plants and flowers pouring over the top. “Look, that could be our home.”
She huffs and puffs and Andrey dismisses her. “We’d be cold and the places around here are all falling apart.”
“And rats,” I say. “I’ve been told there are lots of rats.”
Masha shakes her head. “Look at how much character there is.”
Masha climbs up a small stone staircase onto a dirt path that leads into a small front yard filled with grape trees. She pops a grape into her mouth and makes a face. The grapes are sour. The trees are low and graze the tops of our heads. Masha walks toward the blue stucco house in the back, lime green curtains peering from behind the window panes. From across the way, we hear her name. It’s another journalist she used to work with standing on his porch. We walk over and he shows us around his beautiful, dilapidated apartment.
Afterward, Masha and Andrey want me to see one more thing: another lobby — a spooky one. They take me down a side street into a building next to a long stone staircase. Masha sticks her hand in through a wrought iron door and unlocks it. Inside it’s pitch black. I try to turn on my phone flashlight but Masha stops me — we have to move through the dark to get the full experience. We can use the flashlights later. I grasp for the iron railing and walk slowly along the stone steps, the only light coming from a bleak streetlight that’s managed to filter in. The walls are covered in graffiti. We reach a landing with an exit to a courtyard and Masha sprints forward as we follow her down the stairs. Suddenly we hear a chorus of barking dogs nearing closer. Andrey and I turn and run back up the stairs, closing the door. Masha stays there, looking through the opening, talking to the dogs.
“I don’t think they seem that bad,” she says. We are both on the next landing already yelling at her to keep the door closed as the dogs continue barking.
“Really,” she says. “This one dog in front is really small. She’s probably nice.”
On our walk back to Masha and Andrey’s neighborhood we hear someone yell “Firs!” We turn to see Vova Romensky and Marfa Smirnova emerging with groceries from a taxi. Just that morning my mother admonished me on the phone for not telling Vova that his impassioned speech during TV Rain’s last broadcast in Russia had made me cry. It seems like fate has thrown him here just to please her. I force myself to tell him, I even include the part about my mother. He looks at me and shrugs; that’s the end of it. We hug Marfa and Vova goodbye.
As we walk away Masha looks wistful. “I don’t want to go to Prague,” she says. “It won’t be like this. Running into friends every few steps.”
It’s now been more than a year since I visited Tbilisi. Masha and Andrey finally got their visas for Prague in October 2022. They left in the middle of the month, a few weeks after the Russian government announced the “partial” mobilization of its citizens and started conscripting males all over Russia to go fight in Ukraine. Masha and her friends fell into even deeper depressions. Not only did they have friends and family members who didn’t have the option to leave Russia, but also the whole thing was another reminder that they couldn’t go home, probably for a long time.
More and more Russians flooded Tbilisi. Masha said it felt triggering, like the first days of the war all over again — disoriented Russians walking around the streets, numb and unsure of what to do. She had friends at home who couldn’t leave and she worried herself sick about them. Immersed herself in work even more and stopped leaving the house almost entirely.
Kuba, who’s still in Tbilisi, told me the mobilization triggered panic attacks — the first he’d ever had — and depression. For an entire week, he was too scared to leave the house. Couldn’t even muster the strength to call the Ukrainian hair salon he worked for and explain why he wasn’t showing up to work, couldn’t even answer their calls and texts. Thankfully, they didn’t fire him. He resumed working eventually, but only part time, and the depression and panic still haunted him when we spoke many months later.
After the mobilization, rents in Tbilisi skyrocketed yet again. There was an atmosphere of collective grief and confusion. Some of the Russians in Tbilisi opened their homes to the newly-displaced. All gave advice to the newcomers — how to get settled; to extract money from their Russian bank accounts; to not get ripped off finding apartments. “It was amazing to help people from the second wave; help them with the knowledge you earned with your own sweat,” Yarik, who is still in Tbilisi, told me. There was an uptick in hostility toward Russians. There was also a fear of leaving Georgia and not being allowed back in — this was happening more often now, and not just to journalists.
Lena, the former TV Rain journalist, was in Istanbul when we caught up in March, and even she worried about getting back into Georgia after the trip. She was out of town, in Batumi, when the mobilization happened, but she said Tbilisi was a chaotic place to return to after a week away. Things have calmed down since but she isn’t enjoying Tbilisi as much as when I met her last summer. She says she feels more jaded now. And that the anti-Russianness is wearing on her. Tbilisi doesn’t feel permanent, but she isn’t sure where she can go next. Her EU visa will run out soon. Turkey only allows you to stay for three months at a time. “I guess I’ll just have to be a nomad,” she said. “And there could be something beautiful in that, but it’s hard to get excited about it.” Lena recently turned thirty and she said she feels like the year plus of displacement had worn her down. “A friend took a photo of me recently and I looked at in horror. I didn’t just look older, I’d aged,” she told me, describing gray hairs she’d noticed, wrinkles.
On their last evening in Tbilisi, in mid-October 2022, Masha and Andrey hosted a gathering — their lease ran out and this was their second Airbnb in two weeks, a studio penthouse apartment with a beautiful terrace and a view of the city and surrounding mountains. It had drizzled that evening but by the time everyone came out on the terrace, the stars were out.
The gathering was small — Maxim and Farida came, along with Lyosha and a couple of other friends. Masha says she felt exhausted from all the moving. Farida and Maxim told me that Masha’s exhaustion showed. Farida said they talked for a long time about how tired they were of moving, having to lug around the same stuff to different places; the lack of permanence in their lives. None of the people at this gathering remain in Georgia. Farida and Maksim finally got a visa to live in Germany. Lyosha is in Prague. The other two friends are somewhere in Europe.
When Masha left Tbilisi, she had to leave Chandler, the dog, with her dad. She finally brought him to Prague by train early the following year. That’s when her dad went back to Moscow. Now he’s stuck there, unable to access the antiwar news channels he was used to because of the government bans, and waiting to join Masha in Prague if she can figure out a way to get him a visa and affordable medical insurance. Masha and Andrey share a beautiful apartment in Prague but they don’t have much of a social life, mostly they just spend their days working. Masha’s depression is slightly better but she’s still working too much and not getting out as much as she’d like. She says she misses Tbilisi: “It felt more like home. This feels like a business trip.”
In December 2022, TV Rain lost its broadcasting license in Riga. They’d had many missteps since settling there, but the one that got them banned was when Alexey Korostelev, host of a show called Here and Now, had to fill airtime between segments by advertising TV Rain’s hotline for Russian draftees where they could send tips about conditions on the frontline and other questions, and said that the station would help soldiers with “equipment and basic amenities at the front.” The station provides no such help and Alexey (Lyosha) insists he misspoke. He was quickly fired, but the damage was done, and it didn’t help that the station’s owner, Natalia Sindeeva, decided to make a public announcement expressing her regrets for firing him without consulting the editors. I spoke to Anna Nemzer, who left Georgia for the US with her family in January 2023, and she said that the editors had no choice but to fire Korostelev — she’s a friend of Lyosha’s and believes him when he says he misspoke (he is outwardly antiwar and live broadcasting is stressful and can lead to various gaffes) — keeping him was impossible after such a misstep. Younger journalists (and former journalists) I spoke with — Masha Zholobova, Ksenia Mironova, Lena — said that firing him was a callous move. Masha Zholobova thinks the Latvians were looking for a reason to strip TV Rain’s license and they would have done it whether TV Rain had fired Lyosha or not. Also, TV Rain operates like a family: there are no boundaries and mistakes are made constantly. Lyosha had worked at the station for ten years and to fire him because he misspoke was a betrayal, these younger journalists said. “Live broadcasting is absolutely brutal,” said Masha. “Everyone knows that.” Shortly after the incident, Vova Romensky, who is still in Tbilisi, quit in protest. Masha Borzunova quit soon thereafter and moved to Berlin to start her own YouTube channel (a version of Fake News with a different name).
Ksenia Mironova, who no longer works for TV Rain, stayed in Riga the longest of all her friends. She wanted to move to Berlin, too, but told me she couldn’t afford the living expenses. Instead, she got a journalism fellowship in Prague and moved there in September 2023, a year after her fiancé, Ivan Safronov, was sentenced to 22 years in prison for allegedly spying for the Czech government. Another friend, the U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich (the one I saw at Romensky’s party in Tbilisi but didn’t talk to), was charged with espionage, too, and has been detained in a Russian prison since March 2023. His sentencing keeps being delayed, and he could face up to 20 years.
Masha is friends with Evan too. She wrote to him in prison. Told him, among other things, that when he gets out and, inevitably, writes a book about it, he’d better not forget to put her in it.
In late July 2023, I learned that Marfa Smirnova, a journalist I’d met in Tbilisi, received threatening messages on her mobile with audio recordings of her family in their Moscow apartment and details about their daily whereabouts. In mid-August, another exiled Russian journalist, whom I’d met years ago at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute where I work (she’d completed the same fellowship as Masha Zholobova), revealed publicly that she and her doctors believe she had been poisoned while traveling from Berlin to Munich to renew her Ukrainian visa back in October 2022. She is one of three Russian exiled journalists to suspect they’ve been poisoned. The other two were based in Prague and Tbilisi. Galina Timchenko, the CEO and founder of the Riga-based outlet Meduza, where Kostyuchenko worked at the time of her poisoning, mentioned at a recent Harriman Institute event that there have been other suspected poisoning attempts of Russian female journalists in Europe that have not yet been publicly revealed. As a result, Russian newsrooms-in-exile are asking their journalists to take extra precautions, especially while traveling. (The day after the talk Meduza published an article revealing that the Israeli spyware Pegasus had been detected on Timchenko’s phone — the publication is unsure where the spyware had come from, but it seemed like it could have been planted by a European government).
The last time we spoke, Masha was planning a trip to Turkey to meet her mother for the first time since she’d left Russia. I asked whether her newsroom had given any safety instructions. She told me they had — order wine by the bottle, wait until the last minute to make travel arrangements, don’t order takeout. But, none of this feels realistic to her, and she isn’t sure how to protect herself. She’s not planning to cancel the trip, or stop traveling, though. What kind of life would that be?
Masha Udensiva-Brenner is a writer, journalist, and audio producer. She hosts and produces Voices of Ukraine and edits Harriman Magazine at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. Her work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered, as well as in Guernica, New Republic, the Awl and other publications. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School where she received the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship that made reporting for this story possible. She also received the Joan Konner Award for broadcast journalism. Read select work at mashaudensivabrenner.com.