The flood of Russians changes the life of the countries that welcomed them
YEREVAN, Armenia — It would be easy to confuse Tuf with a hip club somewhere in Russia. A meditative indie band played, a family of Muscovites sold homemade cosmetics, and a tattoo artist from St. Petersburg drew a seal on someone’s arm.
But Tuf is in the capital of Armenia. It grew out of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent exodus of Russians, many of whom are still reeling.
“Here you understand that you are not alone,” said Tatiana Raspopova, a 26-year-old Russian who helped found the club.
Armenia and Georgia share history with Russia, but in just a few months the influx of people has changed cities like Armenia’s capital Yerevan and Georgia’s Tbilisi.
“Yerevan is almost unrecognizable,” said Raffi Elliott, 33, an Armenian tech professional.
It hasn’t always been easy. The Russians have supported local economies – Tbilisi now offers its first hydrotherapy classes for dogs – but they have also driven up the cost of living.
And war threatens everything, even a techno dance club in Tbilisi called Dust which has described the band’s music as a “force for an end to a horrible war”.
At Tuf, Ms Raspopova said the idea was not to replicate her homeland but to forge links with the locals. “Our goal,” she said, “is to unite.”
Sometimes transplant recipients reinvent their new communities. Sometimes they reinvent themselves.
Pavel Sokolov offers hydrotherapy to help dogs overcome trauma, but in his native Moscow he was a marketer. Adjusting to a new life was difficult, he says, but it ultimately gave him confidence.
The state of war
- In the first line : From Kupiansk to Bakhmut, Russian forces are attacking along a 160-mile arc in eastern Ukraine in an escalating struggle for tactical advantage ahead of possible spring offensives.
- War crimes cases: The International Criminal Court intends to open two war crimes cases related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The cases accuse Russia of abducting Ukrainian children and deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure.
- Testing Swiss neutrality: The Alpine nation manufactures weapons that Western allies want to send to Ukraine. Swiss law prohibits it, sparking a national debate over whether its concept of neutrality should change.
“We realized that we were competent people and that we weren’t going to starve,” Mr Sokolov said.
Others arrived with their work tools.
Two colleagues came to Tbilisi from St. Petersburg with suitcases full of theater props and decided to open a small puppet theater for children. They called it Moose and Firefly.
“The only thing we can do at this stage of life is drama,” said 31-year-old Dasha Nikitina.
Dmitri Chernikov, a 32-year-old tailor from Moscow, has opened a salon in Tbilisi where he makes bespoke suits.
“I started from zero in Moscow,” he said. “I thought I could do the same here.”
The growing Russian footprint has angered some locals, especially in Georgia, which waged its own war against Russia in 2008. In Tbilisi, some walk out of the Otkhi ceramics factory when they find Ukrainians working side by side with Russians.
“We believe our mission is to expand people’s worldview,” said Vlada Orlova, 37, one of the co-founders.
Many Russians, aware that their situation is sensitive, try to tread carefully. They keep a low profile and contribute to local communities by providing new services and volunteering.
In Yerevan, Natalia Yermachenko, 36, opened a school of osteopathy, teaching mainly people who had fled Russia and needed a new profession.
Some are trying to repair their country’s aggression against Ukraine.
After Mikhail Kondratyev arrived in Tbilisi from Moscow with his brother Aleksei, they visited a kindergarten for Ukrainian children and were struck by the lack of toys.
The brothers decide to carve small wooden villages: small trees, fences, houses, to help the children feel at home. Displacement, after all, is a feeling they know well.
“It’s as if a new life has started, as if you were a child,” said Kondratyev, 34.
Others have taken up environmental activism and other local causes.
Some Russians tried hard to make their new neighbors understand that their country’s war was not theirs.
Prohibited from protesting the invasion at home, they sometimes hold up signs at anti-war rallies in their adopted countries.
In Yerevan, Moscow restaurateurs have raised money for Ukrainian refugees through a renovated mansion they call the Aesthetic Joys Embassy. The hip spot features immigrant-themed cocktails, a vintage clothing boutique, and a courtyard for sunbathing.
Yet it is not uncommon to hear complaints about newcomers. According to one estimate, the average Russian household in Tbilisi earns more than six times as much money as the average household in Georgia. Graffiti there bears witness to anger.
Some Russians, however, marvel at the warmth they found.
Dmitri Sorokin arrived in Tbilisi with few resources, just an idea to open a restaurant. Her landlord gave her a fridge and three metal tables, and a neighbor gave her a professional blender. That was enough to open Aut Vera, a small street cafe selling hummus and falafel.
“I have never received so much help as here,” said Mr Sorokin, 38. “I haven’t seen a more welcoming place.”
Many expats came from the more entrepreneurial stratum of Russian society. They have pumped millions of dollars into their new hometowns, filling cafes and bars, some of which have waiters who no longer speak Armenian or Georgian, only Russian.
“A lot of these people were displaced overnight, and they are trying to recreate what they had lost,” said Mr. Elliott, the Armenian tech professional.
But some, like Pavel A. Yaskov, left Russia with little more than a desire to get out. He arrived in Yerevan shortly after President Vladimir V. Putin announced a major conscription for the Russian army in Ukraine.
Hailing from a small town near Moscow, Mr. Yaskov came with a backpack and a sleeping bag, ready to spend his first nights in a park. He soon found a job at a fast food kiosk and shared an apartment with other Russians like him.
Back in Russia, 22-year-old Vyacheslav Potapenko worked for a film production company as an assistant director. Now, in Yerevan, he earns his living by delivering food.
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