The relationship between Russia and Georgia is like that between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland: once politically united but on unequal terms, and with some tragic episodes even in the recent past; closely entwined, culturally, personally and commercially, but with deep distrust on the part of the smaller country for its bigger neighbour.
“Fuck Putin”, “Fuck Russia”, say the graffiti in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. And yet the Russians have been pouring in since the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, facilitated by the fact that they do not need a visa. Estimates of the numbers vary, but 100,000 seems to be the minimum. These immigrants are typically young men avoiding the draft, businesspeople avoiding sanctions (6,400 companies have been set up by Russians in Georgia between March and June 2022, seven times more than in the whole of 2021), and the intelligentsia, for whom the Tbilisi Art Fair last month was a draw.
The Art Newspaper spoke with a Moscow-based museum director, a theatre director and an artist from St Petersburg to find out how they viewed the actions of President Putin and their exile from the international cultural world. All of them asked us not reveal who they were because dissent can be punished in Russia with up to 15 years in jail. Yet, despite the death of civil rights in Russia, which has followed on from the death of democracy, two of them said they wished they could return.
All were against the actions of the regime, but one of them warned that liberal attitudes might not survive, “Cancelling [Russian] culture is horrible, leading to intellectuals and artists uniting against the Western world. And you have not distinguished in your sanctions between Yeltsin-era oligarchs and Putin-era oligarchs; you should be sanctioning only the second, because Yeltsin’s ‘family’ has been outside the Putin circle”.
On the same need to distinguish between “good” and “bad” Russians, another said, “Artists and scientists, some of them very talented people, are cut off from the western world. In Nazi Germany there were people who did not believe in Hitler; the war was not their fault, but they shared in the collective guilt. There is no difference between the east and the west; the difference is between an abnormal world and a normal world, where you can talk to people and express yourself freely. It might take 10-12 years to rebuild our cultural integrity, but too many people have left. We have no hope.”
There was agreement that there had to be a way for thinking Russians to return, “Once people get back they will see that things need to change—blocking credit cards is stupid—people who think differently have to go back to Russia”.
But for the moment, the screws are being tightened in Russia. Oleg Kulik, a leader in the Soviet non-conformist art movement, faces long imprisonment for a work he did in 2015, showed in 2018 and again last month at the Cosmoscow art fair. After the war started he was charged with “rehabilitation of Nazism” because his sculptural installation Big Mother was said to mock a patriotic Soviet sculpture in the Volgograd memorial to the Battle of Stalingrad during the Second World War.
The exhibition Theatre of the World, by another non-conformist artist, Grisha Bruskin, opened in April at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and was closed almost at once, with all information removed from the website, yet the same project had been shown in the Russian pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. The Gogol Center theatre was closed down on 1 July and its directors replaced, yet it was set up in early 2010s at the instigation of the authorities.
“This is being done by the Ministry of Culture, which has become excessively zealous in executing what it thinks its master wants. There are no guidelines, anything can be prosecuted.” The same commentator described what they had tried to do in a desolate context. “We worked for freedom of speech and artists worked with scientists. But these 30 years there has been no ideology, no reason to do one thing or another.”
All three were against the doublethink imposed by Putin, but one said that the majority had fallen for it, “Russians really believe that Nato is threatening Russia and a nuclear attack on Ukrainian troops will be the solution”. However, they thought the generals would never let Putin push the button.
In the meanwhile, the Russians in exile mingle freely with the Georgians, who receive them hospitably, if with deep reservations. Kaha Gvelesiani, founder of Expo Georgia, who launched and backs the Tbilisi art fair, has good reason not to trust Russia. He survived a treacherous assassination attempt in 1991 during the Russo-Georgian war over the region of Abkhazia, when he was one of the leaders of the pro-Georgian side. His comment on the present situation is, “Russia has only one idea, the imperial one, and its people are ignorant.”
Nino Surguladze, head of administration of Expo Georgia goes further; she is afraid: “The Russians are officially welcome, but not very popular with the people because Putin might use the presence of so many of them as an excuse to come and ‘protect’ them [as he did in eastern Ukraine]. We have not forgotten what happened over Abkhazia, when members of our families died fighting the Russians.”