Editor’s Note: Natalia Antelava (@antelava) is the co-founder and editor in chief of Coda Story, which reports on the roots of global crises, including historical revisionism and propaganda wars. She is a former BBC correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
“Tbilisi is filled with Russian refugees,” read the 18-year-old woman’s diary entry. Soon after it was posted on social media in Georgia, it went viral, summing up the popular mood.
What’s striking about these words is that they were written in 1920, by a writer whose diary is a record of an era of uncertainty and hope. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution had finally given tiny Georgia a chance at independence from the Russian empire. It also turned it into a refuge for thousands of Russians.
“They are running from the Bolsheviks and they are all coming here,” wrote Maro Makashvili as the newly-born liberal Georgian democracy opened its doors to thousands of Russians fleeing the revolution and the civil war it triggered. “We host them, we accept them.”
Over a century later, Russians are once again fleeing tyranny at home for safety in their former colony. Tens of thousands of Russian citizens, mostly men, queued for days to get into Georgia after President Vladimir Putin announced partial mobilization for his war in Ukraine. They were following an estimated 50,000 Russians who arrived in the weeks following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February.
Today, as I walk under Tbilisi’s carved balconies, many adorned with blue and yellow Ukrainian flags, Russian is all I hear. Hipsters from Moscow crowd the city’s bars, a friend’s Pilates class recently switched to instruction in Russian, and for the first time since the Soviet days there is a demand for Russian language schools.
For Georgians, the mass arrival of Russians has, confusingly, triggered both desperately needed economic growth and a very tangible sense of deep, historically rooted anxiety about yet another Russian takeover.
Georgians, like Poles, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, or anyone else who has been on the receiving end of Russian colonialism, generally see it as the root cause of the war in Ukraine. But the rest of the world doesn’t.
Because as the story of Russians in Georgia shows, the story of historical oppressors seeking refuge in their former colony doesn’t really fit the established narratives of migration and colonialism and it challenges our understanding of both.
“They are victims,” a British journalist friend covering the Russian exodus, argued at a recent dinner party in Tbilisi. “They are, but they are also the perpetrators,” said the host.
The confusion stems partially from the nature of Russian colonialism. Over the centuries, while European powers conquered overseas territories, Russia ran a land empire that absorbed its neighbors. While Europeans instilled the notion that their subjects were “different” from them, Russians conquered using another device: “sameness.”
“Russians chose ‘sameness’ as an instrument of domination. The message of Western colonialism was: ‘you are not able to be like us,’ while the message of Russian colonialism was ‘you are not allowed to be different from us,’” explained Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko at the recent Tbilisi Storytelling Festival (ZEG) co-hosted by Coda Story, the newsroom that I run.
The idea of “sameness as an instrument of domination” also explains why most well-meaning Russians I meet seem weirdly unaware of their country being perceived as a colonial master.
“They are oblivious to the fact that they are coming to a place that has suffered because they chose to go along with their government’s imperialist ambitions,” says Kristo Talakhadze, the owner of Ezo, a popular Tbilisi restaurant.
Angry with the Georgian government for refusing to impose a visa regime for Russians, Kristo, like many other business owners, has taken it upon herself to filter her Russian customers by giving them a history lesson.
On every table in Ezo there is a “manifesto” in Russian that reminds customers that Georgia has been the victim of Russian aggression for centuries, that Moscow engineered and fueled separatist conflicts in Georgia the same way it is doing in Ukraine today and that Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and has since occupied 20% of the country’s territory.
Are they listening? She doesn’t think so. Over the years, many Tbilisi restaurants, including Ezo have come under cyber attacks, as Russian citizens grouped together to leave negative reviews accusing owners of “russophobia” and bringing down restaurant rankings on Google.
There are, of course, exceptions. Like Russian journalist Andrey Babitsky, who told me how a few months after coming to Tbilisi he went out for dinner with friends from Moscow and discovered that after months of being here, not a single one of them knew how to say “excuse me” in Georgian.
“I’ve read my share of colonial studies, but to see colonialism acted out in front of you with every cup of coffee you buy at a local counter is another matter.” he wrote.
But in my experience, even the most liberal Russians I know seem utterly disinterested in engaging on the issue of colonialism.
“We are not colonialists!” said an editor-in-chief of a prominent Russian TV station that now operates in exile. He seemed genuinely upset by my suggestion that the war in Ukraine was an opportunity to finally introduce the topic of Russian colonialism to his liberal, Russian audiences.
“When British and Indian journalists speak to each other, their history is the context to their conversation. When will it become context to ours?” I asked him.
“Why should it? I don’t believe in collective responsibility,” he shrugged.
One reason why the debate about colonialism is missing from the Russian liberal discourse is because Russia is missing from the debate about colonialism in the West. Yermolenko, the Ukrainian philosopher, believes it is because when it comes to colonialism, the Western intellectual elite went from one extreme in the 19th century to another in the 21st.
“They went from saying ‘we are the best and no one can compare to us’ to saying ‘we were the worst and no one can compare to us,’” Yermolenko said during a panel discussion at ZEG.
At the heart of this inability to understand, accept and analyze other forms of colonialism, lies “paradoxically, the West’s own colonial mentality” argued Georgian historian Lasha Bakradze. “This is where skeletons of Western colonialism are really buried,” he said.
For two decades, these self-imposed limits of Western debate about colonialism have given the Kremlin an enormous propaganda advantage, enabling Putin to position Russia falsely as an anti-colonial power, and himself as the champion of all the victims of European colonialism.
The war in Ukraine may have seriously undermined the Kremlin’s narratives, but it didn’t shatter them. This is why, across Latin America, Asia and Africa, in places where the Soviet Union was linked to liberation movements from European colonialism, Russia continues to work hard at its image as an anti-colonial power, reaping benefits in the form of UN votes and trade agreements.
At the same time, as kamikaze drones kill civilians in Kyiv, many Western intellectuals provide fodder to the Russian state propaganda machine as they continue to argue about the rights and wrongs of the NATO enlargement and not the fact that a sovereign country has the right to break away from its colonial masters.
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“At last my poor country will be blessed with freedom,” Maro Makashvili wrote just before Russians began to pour into the country, fleeing the Bolshevik revolution, in 1918. For the following years, she documented the birth of one of the most liberal, most progressive democracies in Europe, a place where women could vote and minorities were granted rights.
But few knew about Georgia’s ambitious democracy, or how tragically it ended.
Maro was killed, along with thousands of others, when the Red Army invaded in 1921 occupying Georgia for the following 70 years. In Georgia today, she is a national hero. But unless her story becomes part of the global anti-colonial narrative, Putin or whomever succeeds him in the Kremlin, will continue to win.