All photos by Masha Udensiva-Brenner.
It’s my first night in Tbilisi, July 2022, and I’m in the backseat of a taxi looking at hills and crumbling ten-story buildings on my way to my friend Masha’s apartment for a dinner party. Nearly six months before, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine and I’m in Georgia to see what it’s like for Masha and the hundreds of thousands of Russian exiles who have ended up there as a result of the Kremlin’s repression both before and after the large-scale war.
Masha, 33 at the time of my visit, is a journalist who fled to Georgia the year before. In her relatively brief career she’s investigated some of Russia’s most high-ranking political figures and business people (including Chechnya’s ruthless leader Ramzan Kadyrov) and climbed a fence with security cameras to take a photograph of a property she believed to be one of Putin’s country estates.
For a while, Masha was able to do her work unscathed. But then, everything changed. On June 29, 2021, the police raided her Moscow apartment. That morning, she had been preparing to publish, for the independent investigative media outlet Proekt, a story 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 the police started pounding on the door. For hours, she refused to answer, throwing her external hard drive out the window and staying put until the police forced their way in and ransacked the place. Two weeks later, Proekt was declared an “undesirable organization,” and Masha’s editors told her to leave Russia.
Masha doesn’t remember much about the day she left. 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. The trip was supposed to be temporary, fourteen days max, to wait things out.
But, Andrey joined her a few days later and she never did return to Moscow. Masha’s father, in his early seventies, crossed the border on foot that December with her dog, Chandler, and two more suitcases with Masha’s winter clothes. He stayed in Tbilisi. The longer Masha stayed, the more repressive the Russian government became and the more Russian exiles joined her.
After Russia launched a 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.
By the time I arrived in Tbilisi, 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.
Masha and Andrey live in a modern building on a narrow street. There are about fifteen people gathered in the 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.
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 who hosts a popular show on the independent news channel TV Rain. That day, she’d 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.Tbilisi was in flux and the situation was completely ephemeral, a snapshot in time.
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?”
Nastia, a pale girl in her early twenties, is sitting in front of me on the couch. She works for an exiled opposition publication too—writes for it anonymously because 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. She says her parents and her older sister have always been conformists. 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,” she says.
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.
Masha and Andrey tell her 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 apartment to pick up her dog, Chandler, (named after the Friends character). 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 beige pants, a beige and brown short-sleeve button-down shirt and black and blue rubber sandals, 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. 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’s 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 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 hands 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?”
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 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 says 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 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.
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.
The same night 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, a former journalist Masha met years ago, 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.”
Inside, I meet Natasha, a graphic designer with faded green hair and a lip ring who shows me the antiwar art she posts to Instagram. She’s slight with a soft, calming demeanor and she 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 completely different paradigms. 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.
Before the war, she was living in Moscow with her husband Yarik (a journalist) and their two cats. They liked their life but 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.
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.”
By this point, Masha and Andrey have left—Masha and her dad are leaving for Batumi early the next morning. 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 an abortion ban. 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 came it would come quickly and suddenly just like the war did for them.
Kuba Kyrgyzov, who is introduced to me by Angela and Vitya from the party, 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, 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 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 that day. The night before, on the way home, he and his friend ran into an acquaintance who invited them to a party; 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. 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.
Kuba says he felt relatively free in Moscow, even after the 2013 propaganda law that banned open discussion of LGBTQ+ issues with 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 contracted 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.
Kuba met Sasha afterward, in 2017 and got to know her family. He 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 because he was scared 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 knew then that he had to leave. He drove with a friend of a friend to Vladikavkaz, a conservative Caucasian town on the Georgian border, but they couldn’t get to Georgia because the roads were blocked by snow. They stayed in the town for two weeks.
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.
For the first two months in Tbilisi 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 refugees sort clothes. 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.
Ksenia Mironova has the saddest eyes I’ve 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 a huge shopping center near her apartment.
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.). Years ago, Ivan Sr. was said to have jumped out of a window of his apartment building. No one believes he jumped—it wasn’t at all his character and he had an important and sensitive story about the Russian military coming out when the supposed suicide occurred. 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.
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. Then they started to ransack 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.
Ksenia never got visitation rights to see Vanya at the pretrial detention center. She’d write letters that she had to send by mail or hand deliver. Send telegrams—faster but limited in word count.
Each time she got a letter from Vanya, she opened them immediately. “All the envelopes are ripped,” she says. Now, when they arrive as a photo on her phone she reads them wherever she is.
Ksenia says she had been keeping two go bags in her apartment at all times for months before the war—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.”
On my last day in Tbilisi I meet Masha in Old Town by the colorful banya. She looks up, her lips painted bright orange. Andrey joins us and we walk into the hills to explore an ancient church.
Masha wants to take me to the dilapidated part of Old Town, where the streets haven’t been restored. This isn’t difficult — only the ones in the very center have been. 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 super markets 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 Masha’s name. We turn to see two friends emerging with groceries from a taxi and stop to chat.
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.”
Adapted from “In Limbo in Tbilisi” published by The Delacorte Review.
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