Georgia and Russia - A... Special Relationship

Grafitti - russia is a terrorist state

I’ll begin this with two massive caveats. 

The first is that I’m utterly unqualified to discuss this topic with any true experience, understanding, or deeper knowledge. The relationship between Georgia and Russia is complex and controversial, and the current status quo is the result of centuries of shared history. This article is based entirely on my own observations, over a mere month spent in Georgia. 

The second is that I’ve obviously only gotten one side of the picture. I’ve travelled in Georgia, and talked to Georgians. North of the border there could be – and probably are – very different views entirely. 

With it therefore established that all of this stems from an absolute fool, let’s crack on regardless.


First Impressions

I arrived late at night in Kutaisi (west-central Georgia). After eating breakfast the following morning, and leaving my guesthouse, the first thing I saw was ‘KILL RUSSIAN FAGGOTS’ painted in large letters on a wall across the road. 

A month has passed since then, and barely a day has gone by without seeing at least one piece of anti-Russian graffiti (Guardian article on all that here). Most of it is some version of ‘Russians Go Home’. There are plenty of variants of ‘Russian Oppressors’. ‘I Hated Russia Before It Was Cool’ was one of the more imaginative examples. Crossing out ‘Russia’ in ‘FIFA World Cup Russia 2018’ one of the more amusing.

Just as we must take even the biggest social media movements with a pinch of salt, however (it’s still a very small percentage of the population expressing those views), so must we here. 100% of the people who graffiti in Georgia seem to dislike Russia. But, while it certainly presents a constant, hostile image of the country’s looming northern neighbour as you walk around, it’s not necessarily indicative of the general sentiment. 

That being said… I can’t say I found many (any) pro-Russian locals during my time here. Of course it might be a ‘silent majority’ situation, in which – even if people disagreed, or didn’t particularly care behind closed doors – they wouldn’t say so in public. 

There are so many reasons for grievance, however, that I’d be surprised if that were a particularly widespread tendency. 

The Background

Georgia has been invaded constantly over the millenia, and from all over the place. It became a protectorate of Russia in 1783, and has struggled on and off to gain true independence ever since. Most notable was its subjection to Soviet rule for seventy years. 

And I mean ‘subjection’ – Georgia declared its independence in 1917 following the Russian Revolution, and was invaded by the Red Army in 1921.

The various tragedies which befell the country under the Soviets (including hundreds of thousands of citizens being forcibly deported (no small matter, in a country of around 3.5 million people at the time) are described in detail in the Georgian National Museum, in Tbilisi. 

Georgia had no desire whatsoever to be part of the Soviet Union. It understandably rankles, therefore, that a mere 17 years after finally gaining their independence in 1991, they were invaded again.

The war lasted all of five days, and ‘only’ a few hundred people were killed (though over 190,000 more were displaced). But the historical significance of the invasion is obvious, South Ossetia (north-central Georgia) still being an ‘autonomous republic’ remains a daily reminder, and various military museums around the country have the gory evidence that even a short war involves tremendous suffering. 

It’s easy to see, therefore, why Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine resonated particularly deeply in Georgia. The Ukrainian flags are everywhere, physically or painted onto walls. It remains a fixture on the news. It always comes up sooner or later in conversation with English-speaking locals. A popular video is circulating on social media of a group of Georgians spontaneously breaking into an apparently well-known Ukrainian folk song in a restaurant, specifically directing it towards a Russian tourist family sitting at a nearby table. 

The overall sentiment is overwhelmingly, indisputably anti-Russian. And yet the two countries are inextricably linked in two main ways. 

Bound Together, For Better Or Worse

The first link is linguistic. 

There is a sharp temporal divide in what a Georgian’s second language will be (and they all do seem to have a second language, which they speak extremely well). If they went to school before the fall of the Soviet Union, they speak Russian, and barely a single word of English. If they went to school after, they speak excellent English (and often, perhaps from their parents, Russian too). 

Overall, Russian – certainly not English – feels like the country’s lingua franca. Given the aforementioned context, this feels a little strange, but – for the older generation at least – there’s clearly no ideological objection to using the language of the old oppressors.

The second, and more materially important link is economic. 

Georgia relies heavily on exports to Russia (which are trending upwards). In 2022, a massive 14.6% of Georgia’s entire economy was based on remittances (i.e. people sending money back), tourism from, and exports to Russia. 

It is an unorthodox situation, to say the least, when your hated neighbour is also providing the backbone for your economy. A recent news story, which did the rounds internationally, neatly summarised the situation. Anti-war demonstrators in Batumi turned back a Russian cruise ship… but Russian tourists there keep the whole city running. 

Batumi in fact, better than anywhere, exemplifies the entire bizarre situation. This is Georgia’s fast-growing Black Sea city, whose enormous, high-rise hotels and apartment blocks resemble nothing else in the country. 

Visit, and you’ll think you’ve taken a wrong somewhere and ended up in Sochi. It feels as if you must be in Russia. Walking the streets, the only language you hear is Russian. All the signs are in Russian. Go to a cafe, restaurant, supermarket, and you’ll be addressed in Russian. 

There can be no better symbol of the uncomfortable tension inherent in this relationship. The country hates its neighbour. The country needs its neighbour. Its second-biggest city, and second-most popular tourist destination, relies on those supposedly warmongering, oppressive Russians utterly. 

And What Of The Russians?

russians go home grafitti

It’s well-known that taxi drivers are some of life’s foremost philosophers, and the Bolt (Georgia’s Uber) driver I got on my first visit to Tbilisi raised a very good point. He said that Arsenal should sign Georgian superstar Khvicha Kvaratskhelia now, before his value got even higher.

But he also talked about Russians, inevitably, and his view was only slightly less interesting.

He didn’t say that Russian tourists should be banned, necessarily. He was a former accountant, and well knew the economics of the situation. 

What he said instead was, “If I knew that another country hated people from my country… I probably wouldn’t go there on holiday.” 

Good point. 

Why do Russians still go to Georgia, when they surely know the history? Would you want to visit a country with graffiti everywhere specifically telling you to go home?

My taxi driver said it was typical Russian arrogance. A more forgiving point of view is that they simply don’t know how they’re perceived in Georgia. 

They don’t know that 66% of Georgians would prefer if they didn’t come at all. They don’t know that the 2008 war, nor the continuing ‘occupation’ (they may not see it as such), still rankle so deeply. Perhaps they don’t anticipate being held personally or even tangentially responsible for the Ukraine war, or any of Vladimir Putin’s actions for that matter. They simply go to Georgia because it’s not too far away, because they know Russian is spoken, and because… that’s just where Russians go. 

It will be interesting indeed to see whether Russian tourist numbers decline next year, once the frosty reception and evidence of all the graffiti and public pro-Ukraine/anti-Russia displays become disseminated online. I’m sure my taxi driver would doubt it… and in all honesty, I’d be inclined to agree.

A Uniquely Troubled Situation

I wouldn’t say there’s anything particularly ‘romantic’ about the relationship between Georgia and Russia, since its troubles have all been forged in war. We can certainly declare this intertwining fascinating though, since we have no personal stake in the matter. 

These are neighbours with a history of some cooperation, but more so – and certainly more recently – of conflict too. They largely share a common language, but are absolutely culturally distinct, both populations unashamedly and routinely stereotyping the other. One views the other as an oppressor and antagonist; the other doesn’t particularly care. And above all, perhaps, the former relies on the latter’s money to keep the wheels turning. 

There’s no international situation quite like it, with such concurrent closeness and distance, that I know of. And there’s an overwhelming feeling that the story here is far from over, and that the situation probably isn’t heading anywhere good. 

My new novel – What Money Can’t Buy – is out now on Amazon. It’s available in both eBook and paperback formats, and you can find it here in the UK, here in the US, or on your own local Amazon site.

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