Victoria Lomasko is an artist, activist, and independent journalist based in Moscow. Her works of graphic reportage, drawn live on the scene, focus on minor or oft-neglected figures on the fringes of contemporary Russian society: migrants, the LGBT community, juvenile prison inmates, sex workers.
The following is an excerpt from “A Trip to Tbilisi” (2015), in which Lomasko visits the Georgian capital. Although Georgia has been an independent republic since 1991, it continues to have a tense and complicated relationship with Russia. Georgia was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1921. On April 9, 1989, the Soviet Army fired on anti-Soviet protesters in Tbilisi, killing at least twenty people. The “Tbilisi massacre” was a turning point in the relationship between the two nations, paving the way for Georgia’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union via popular referendum in 1991. Since the collapse of the USSR, Georgia and Russia have been engaged in a conflict over the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The conflict came to a head in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, which resolved in Russia’s favor, fueling further tension. However, 2012 saw a renewal of diplomatic relations. Russians may now even visit Georgia without visas.
In Tbilisi, Lomasko spoke with historians, artists, journalists, activists, squatters, and a prominent local priest about the country’s political climate. Among the issues facing Georgia are homophobic violence (“I think if they had caught up with us, first they would have raped us publicly, then killed us,” said an activist of the mob that came out to oppose an LGBT rally in 2013), the religious majority’s suppression of women’s rights (“Google is a substitute for gynecologists, priests are a substitute for psychologists,” one art student said), poverty, homelessness, internal displacement, and gentrification. Other Russias, a book of Lomasko’s collected work, is forthcoming from n+1.
— The Editors
The Soviet Past
Almost all Soviet symbols have been dismantled in Tbilisi, so I was surprised to find a militant Soviet monument two steps away from Rustaveli Avenue, in April Ninth Park.
The monument was erected to mark Georgia’s entry into the Soviet Union. Its title, Let Banners Wave on High, refers to the poem by the famous Georgian poet Galaktion Tabidze:
The day has dawned: A sun of fire glides up.
Let banners wave on high!
The soul’s athirst for liberty and right
A friend explained to me that Tabidze wrote the poem in 1919, when Georgia declared its independence from tsarist Russia. The date of the poem was changed in Soviet times to 1921, “the year the Bolsheviks occupied Georgia.”
The Stalin Avlabar Illegal Printing Press Memorial Museum survives in Tbilisi: golden hammers, sickles, and stars glitter on its red gates. The underground printing press operated from 1903 to 1906. Georgian Social Democrats, among them the young Joseph Stalin, descended into an underground vault through a well to print revolutionary newspapers, leaflets, and books.
These days the museum has no ticket office, schedule, or employees. An elderly Georgian man named Soso, who introduced himself as a former KGB colonel, guides the tours. Soso said that when he returned to Tbilisi from Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was unable to obtain a pension or an apartment, so he moved into the museum. He survives on donations from tourists.
“There are sometimes no tourists for two weeks,” he complained.
While we were talking, kids from the neighboring houses dashed into the museum. They said it was the first time they had seen the museum’s gates open, and they wanted to see what was inside. They looked at the numerous portraits and busts of Stalin and Lenin.
“Do you know who that is?” I asked, pointing to a bust of Lenin.
They said they didn’t know.
In parting, Soso advised me to stop by the Stalin Garden Museum, opened by a former cabdriver in the courtyard of an apartment building.
Ushangi Davidovich Davitashvili, proprietor of the Stalin Garden Museum, is 86 years old. When I asked him about life under Stalin, he recalled annual decreases in food prices and showed me display cases in his garden containing printouts of Stalin-era prices for all kinds of goods.
Ushangi Davidovich created the museum by himself. He gradually bought the historic photos, portraits, and busts, made the model of Stalin’s house in Gori with his own hands, and brought Soviet helmets and grenade fragments back from Stalingrad. A stone slab in memory of his dead son also stands in the garden museum. An old photograph of his parents hangs next to a formal portrait of Stalin. The walls are decorated with bunches of garlic and dried flowers and fruits.
Framed black-and-white portraits hang on the wall where the museum display begins. The young, attractive faces in the photos belong to the protesters who were shot in Tbilisi after the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, where Khrushchev famously criticized Stalin. Following the Congress, unrest broke out in Tbilisi.
“There were rallies at the monument to Stalin every day,” recalled Ushangi Davidovich. “We demanded explanations. On March 9, Khrushchev ordered the troops to open fire on us. They fired without warning. I had stepped away to get a bite to eat, so I survived. Twenty-seven people were killed; the youngest was 15. There is nothing in the history textbooks about it.”
He began to assemble the Stalin museum immediately after these events.
Ushangi Davidovich invited me to his flat to drink homemade chacha (Georgian vodka) and warm up. He showed me one of his museum’s eighteen guest books, featuring comments from Stalin’s daughter and tourists from all the Soviet republics. When I came to visit a second time, Ushangi Davidovich wasn’t home. He was at a meeting of a new communist party, Russia Is Our Friend.
Whenever I addressed someone in Russian, elderly Georgians took it as an occasion to chat about relations with Russia. In Tbilisi, there are many pensioners working as cabdrivers, and almost all of them said something like this during our ride:
Seventy percent of Georgians believe it is better to side with Russia than with Europe or America. The West sends subsidies, but they all end up in the pockets of the ruling elite, not ordinary people. There is nothing to do in Tbilisi because of unemployment: nearly all the factories are idle. In Soviet times there was work, and people were taken into greater consideration. Is it possible to live on a pension of 160 lari?
The cabdrivers would ignore my remarks about the economic crisis and political crackdown in Russia: “Would that we had a president like Putin!”
One pensioner, a refugee from Sukhumi, struck up a conversation with me on the bus:
In Soviet times, I was not a Communist, and I criticized the regime. Now, looking back, I realize it was better. Free education and medical care for everyone. My son fought [in the Abkhazian-Georgian war] and was shell-shocked, but the state did not give him medical treatment. I am very angry at the authorities.
The guard at one of the European organizations in Tbilisi wanted to talk with me. He asked that I not give his name or draw him in uniform. Working in security was tiresome, he said, but there was no other work to be had.
“I don’t want a visa-free regime with the European Union. I want a visa-free regime with Russia,” he said.
When Georgia was part of the Soviet Union, the guard said, he didn’t like that all decisions concerning Georgia were made in Moscow. He dreams of good relations between Georgia and Russia, but on equal footing.
When older people wanted to interact, they gave me a gift or treated me to some food. When young Georgians heard me speak in Russian or in Russian-inflected English, on the other hand, they often behaved in a deliberately cold way.
I mentioned this pattern to Nino, director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation office in Tbilisi, who offered a possible explanation:
Russians have a lopsided attitude toward us. Either they embrace us and say, “Remember what good friends we used to be?” or they accuse us of falling out with them. It is a postcolonial complex: we enlightened you, but you do not appreciate us.
Armenians in Tbilisi
Georgians and Armenians converse differently. During my trip to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, I noticed that Armenians tended to analyze all phenomena: they immediately noticed when an argument lacked logic or the facts did not add up. What matters in Tbilisi, by contrast, is to entertain and be entertained, to be lively and artistic. My new Armenian friend Luz, who had recently moved from Yerevan to Tbilisi, agreed with this impression.
I showed my portrait of Luz to Georgian friends. Here are their comments:
Yes, it is forbidden to be sad in Georgia. Anger is the only negative response that is more or less acceptable. We have not learned to cope with sadness. If you delve into your emotions, you might find even more terrible things.
Acting happy is part of your social status. If things are OK, you don’t whine or cry.
Georgians don’t like weak people. It’s part of the culture.
Armenians are the second-largest ethnic minority in Georgia. They make up 5 percent of the population, while Azerbaijanis make up 6 percent.
The ancestors of many local Armenians were refugees from the genocide in the 1910s. Yana is an Armenian woman born in Tbilisi: her great-grandparents fled to Georgia during the genocide. Yana grew up in a Russian-speaking family. She learned Armenian and Georgian in college.
Modern Georgians have a chilly attitude toward Armenians. In my conversations with Georgians, the most common explanations went something like this:
Before the revolution, there were more Armenians in Tbilisi than Georgians. They controlled commerce, and Georgians came from the countryside like migrant workers and worked for them.
Georgians do not live in Armenia, but lots of Armenians live in Georgia. They own real estate and businesses. The large Armenian diaspora is a potential threat.
Almost all the activists and artists I met in Yerevan travel to Georgia several times a year. There are many more Western foundations in Georgia and therefore more prospects. Many of my young friends in Tbilisi had never once been to Armenia. When I asked them about Electric Yerevan in 2015 and other protests in Armenia, they said they had read more about Turkey or the protests in Greece.
In Tbilisi, I was involved in Working Agenda of Amirani/Mher, a project organized by the Georgian artist Lali Pertenava to strengthen ties between artists and activists from Georgia and Armenia. The Georgian participants said it would be wrong to be separated from Europe.
“We must appreciate the European experience. We have a global future.”
“In all the discussions, the Armenians were pressured to recognize that the European way is the right way and that it’s bad to be dominated by Russia,” Zara, an activist from Armenia, said afterward.
Young progressive Armenians have a negative attitude toward Russian influence in Armenia, but they do not idealize Georgia’s dependence on Europe.
Azerbaijanis in Tbilisi
The Armenians invited their Azerbaijani friends to the project’s farewell meal. In Tbilisi, I heard repeatedly from Armenian friends that despite the ongoing conflict between their countries, Armenians and Azerbaijanis understand each other better than they do Georgians. There were no people closer to them, the Azerbaijanis told me, than the Armenians.
Among the Azerbaijanis who joined us was the writer Seymur Baycan. He gave me his novel, Quqark, about the Nagorno-Karabakh War. In Quqark, Seymur recalls the first skirmishes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in his hometown of Fizuli in the early ’90s: the town’s transformation into ruins, and his family’s move to Baku. The hardest passages to read were not the war scenes but the scenes of domestic violence. The beating of wives and children in Azerbaijani families is described so casually.
Seymur was part of the Baku cultural scene in the ’00s. Since 2009, the regime has been pushing active members of the creative intelligentsia out of Azerbaijan.
Later, I met Seymur’s friends, a young married couple forced to leave Baku under pressure from the authorities. Günel Mövlud is a journalist and poet. Haji Hajiyev is a doctor.
Günel started out as a blogger. After publishing a series of critical texts on the problems of Azerbaijani society, she became one of the most widely read writers in her country. Günel now works as an editor at Meydan TV, an online media platform created by Azerbaijani dissidents in Berlin.
Most of Günel’s reports deal with women’s rights in the South Caucasus.
“The lives of Azerbaijani women living in Tbilisi are different from those of Georgian women,” she said. “Azerbaijani girls are taken out of school by their families in the ninth grade and married off at the age of 14. If Azerbaijani girls resist, it’s suicide. Our child’s nanny became a grandmother at 32. Talk to her.”
Their nanny, Renka, agreed to pose for a portrait and talked a little bit about herself.
She was married at 13 and had a daughter when she was 14.
At 19, she had a second child, a boy. For a long time, Renka kept house and took care of her children, going out into the city only with her husband. She began working as a nanny recently. She really likes her job.
Renka said this of unmarried women who earn their own money: “They have money, and they live the way they want. In my opinion, that is better.”
In the Caucasus, there is a term for correct behavior on the part of the individual in society: namus, in Azerbaijani and Armenian, and namusi in Georgian. For men, namus means honor and conscience. For women, namus is bound up only with their sexual behavior, with their availability to men. In the North Caucasus, it is believed that a man whose female relative has been sleeping around can cleanse his namus only by killing her.
Seymur says that namus can be bought in Azerbaijani society. If a woman — an actress or singer, for example — brings a lot of money home to the family, she can come home late at night and bring a different man with her every time.
Günel told the story of a girlfriend, an unmarried university student. Guys in the neighborhood monitored her appearance and threatened violence if she did not observe namus. Once, when a male acquaintance was walking her home, they were both beaten up. The same guys completely ignored other female neighbors who wore miniskirts and had breast implants: they were the kept women of rich men.
Not all young Azerbaijanis are willing to lead the lifestyle imposed on them by society. Four kindred spirits — Ruslan, Lala, and Emin, from Baku, and Elvin, from Tbilisi — have organized an activist project called the Thinking Citizen. They rent a space in Tbilisi and hold educational lectures there twice a week. They are interested in grassroots efforts and cultural development in the South Caucasus, as well as such taboo topics as domestic violence and the role of Azerbaijani women in society.
Elvin said that even Georgian journalists find it difficult to do stories about Georgia’s Azerbaijanis because they are such a closed community.
Russians in Tbilisi
Friends in Tbilisi have noticed that young people from Russia, disappointed and unhappy with events at home, have begun to settle in the city in recent years. For now, they are few in number. The ones with whom I spoke chose Georgia because Russians don’t need a visa to travel there; it’s warm, cheap, and close to home; lots of Georgians speak Russian; and there is much in common between the cultures. They weren’t sure whether they could put down roots in Georgia, but they weren’t ready to go back to Russia, either.
Jan, a former Moscow activist, is one such semi-immigrant. “Georgia is like one big village. The mores are patriarchal and relations between people are more heartfelt than in Russia. There is less aggression, but the irresponsibility of Georgians is annoying,” he said.
Jan rents a flat with his girlfriend, Ani, whom he met in Tbilisi, and her brother, Nodar. Like many young Georgians, Nodar does not speak Russian, and our conversation did not go well in broken English. I asked Nodar to write his thoughts about Georgian society on the drawing.
Jan reads the news from Russia less and less, but when he does he’s glad he managed to escape the “total madness.”
Russians can always be found at the Kiwi Café in downtown Tbilisi, Georgia’s first vegan café. It was opened in 2015 by a international crowd: Georgians, Russians, an Iranian man, and a Swedish woman. The original idea was to cook very simple and cheap food, but the café gradually turned into a tourist hot spot. Activists from Russia, hanging out in Tbilisi indefinitely, work part-time in the kitchen there.
The Kiwi Café holds regular film screenings and discussions, and talks and lectures on social and political topics. I attended a lecture on the struggle of the Kurds for their rights, which was given by Alexei, an activist from Yekaterinburg.
Alexei had come to Tbilisi with a group of friends: “We have been here for two months already, and not once have we encountered a policeman or an official. In Russia, you get the feeling they’re everywhere, and you are superfluous.”
Oleg, a former Moscow journalist, is a co-organizer of the Kiwi Café. He spoke about his two most recent trips from Georgia to Russia. The first time, Oleg crossed the land border at the checkpoint in the village of Verkhny Lars: “I was led away for a special check by the FSB. They suspected I was an Islamic State fighter.”
The second time, he flew into Moscow with a Ukrainian friend. His friend’s Ukrainian passport, Transcarpathian registration address, and tattooed body were sufficient grounds for detaining and deporting him: “You haven’t even managed to enter the country before you realize where it is you’ve come back to!”
— Translated by Thomas Campbell