Russian refugees alter life in the countries that took them in

The United States has a long-standing controversy over how to address the flood of refugees coming over our southern border many of whom are not well-educated and do not have assets or skills. The Russians who decided to leave their country because of Putin and the war are a very different group of people as portrayed below.

Flood of Russians Alters Life for Countries That Took Them In

Russians, fleeing their country and its war, have quickly reshaped the societies of nations like Georgia and Armenia.

Credit.. Photographs by Sergey Ponomarev

Written by Ivan Nechepurenko

  • March 14, 2023, Updated 12:49 p.m. ET

YEREVAN, Armenia — It would be easy to mistake Tuf for a trendy club somewhere in Russia. A meditative indie band played, a family of Muscovites sold homemade cosmetics and a tattoo artist from St. Petersburg drew a seal on someone’s arm.

But Tuf is in the capital of Armenia. It was born of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent exodus of Russians, many of whom are still in shock.

“Here you understand that you are not alone,” said Tatiana Raspopova, a 26-year-old Russian who helped found the club.

Armenia and Georgia share history with Russia, but in just months, the inflow of people has changed cities like Yerevan, the Armenian capital, and Tbilisi, the Georgian one.

“Yerevan is almost unrecognizable,” said Raffi Elliott, 33, an Armenian technology professional.

It has not always been easy. The Russians have buoyed local economies — Tbilisi now boasts its first hydrotherapy classes for dogs — but they have also driven up the cost of living.

And the war looms over everything, even a techno dance club in Tbilisi called Dust that described one band’s music as a “force for the end of a horrific war.”

At Tuf, Ms. Raspopova said the idea was not to replicate her homeland but to forge bonds with locals. “Our goal,” she said, “is to unite.”

A woman in a long, patterned cardigan and knee socks standing beside a small clothing rack in a dark club as a man in a baseball cap and hood sits in a low chair on the floor under a string of lights.
A Christmas market at the club Dust in Tbilisi, Georgia.
A dog, standing, tilted sideways, on a blue board floating in a large tub of water in a small room as a man in a wet suit holds the board and the dog’s back. A woman looks on outside the pool.
Pavel Sokolov, a dog rehabilitation therapist in Tbilisi.
A woman and a man playing violin on a city sidewalk, with an amplifier and a donation box on the ground, as a woman walks by.
Russian classical musicians busking in Tbilisi.

Sometimes the transplants reinvent their new communities. Sometimes they reinvent themselves.

Pavel Sokolov provides hydrotherapy to help dogs overcome trauma, but in his native Moscow, he was a marketing specialist. The adjustment to a new life was difficult, he said, but ultimately gave him confidence.

The State of the War

  • On the Front Lines: From Kupiansk to Bakhmut, Russian forces are attacking along a 160-mile arc in eastern Ukraine in an intensifying struggle for tactical advantage before possible spring offensives.
  • Plotting a Political Advance: Recent statements by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group, suggest he wants to move past his standing as a military leader and play a larger role in Russian society.
  • War Crime Cases: The International Criminal Court intends to open two war crimes cases tied to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The cases accuse Russia of abducting Ukrainian children and of deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure.
  • Ukrainian Refugees in the U.S.: The Biden administration said that thousands of Ukrainians who fled to the United States in the first months of the war would be eligible to extend their stay.

“We realized that we are competent people and that we won’t die of hunger,” Mr. Sokolov said.

Others arrived with their working tools.

Two colleagues came to Tbilisi from St. Petersburg carrying suitcases filled with theatrical props and decided to open a small puppet theater for children. They called it Moose and Firefly.

“The only thing we can do at this point in life is theater,” said Dasha Nikitina, 31.

Dmitri Chernikov, a 32-year-old tailor from Moscow, opened a salon in Tbilisi where he produces bespoke suits.

“I started from scratch in Moscow,” he said. “I thought I could do the same here.”

The expanding Russian footprint has irritated some locals, especially in Georgia, which fought its own war with Russia in 2008. In Tbilisi, some walk out of the Otkhi ceramics factory when they discover Ukrainians working side by side with Russians.

Children and adults wearing decorative handmade paper headbands, playing in a room that has a wall lined with a silver curtain.
A weekend show at the Moose and Firefly in Tbilisi.
Two men in jackets standing near a jacketed mannequin during a fitting session.
Dmitri Chernikov, right, rebuilt his career as a tailor in Tbilisi.
A woman working in a ceramic factory, bent over in a high metal chair and holding an orange tool, facing a wall of shelves laden with white bowls, vases and jugs.
The Otkhi factory in Tbilisi employs Russians and Ukrainians.

Many Russians, aware that their situation is sensitive, try to tread carefully. They keep a low profile and contribute to local communities by bringing new services and volunteering.

In Yerevan, Natalia Yermachenko, 36, opened a school of osteopathy, teaching mostly people who fled Russia and needed a new profession.

Some are trying to make amends for their homeland’s aggression against Ukraine.

After Mikhail Kondratyev arrived in Tbilisi from Moscow with his brother Aleksei, they visited a kindergarten for Ukrainian children and were struck by the lack of toys.

The brothers decided to carve little villages out of wood: small trees, fences, houses, to help the children feel at home. Displacement, after all, is a feeling they know well.

“It is like a new life has begun, as though you are a child,” said Mr. Kondratyev, 34.

Others have thrown themselves into environmental activism and other local causes.

A woman lies on a low, narrow table in a white room, her hands clasped behind her head, as another woman touches her foot, a third woman speaks to them and gestures and several other women stand back and observe.
Natalia Yermachenko, an osteopath, talking to her students in Yerevan, Armenia.
A man in a patterned sweatshirt holds his phone out over a collection of small handmade wooden houses, fences and trees on a low platform in a gray room.
Aleksei Kondratyev in Tbilisi, photographing wooden crafts he and his brother made.
On a hillside strewn with rocks, two people holding trash pickers and wearing gloves collect debris. In the background, more people are working.
Russian volunteers collecting trash in Yerevan.

Some Russians have worked to make clear to their new neighbors that their country’s war is not their own.

Forbidden to protest the invasion at home, they now sometimes hold signs at antiwar rallies in their adopted countries.

In Yerevan, Moscow restaurateurs have raised money for Ukrainian refugees through a refurbished mansion they call the Aesthetic Joys Embassy. The hip venue offers immigrant-themed cocktails, a vintage clothing store and a yard for sunbathing.

Still, it is not uncommon to hear complaints about the newcomers. By one estimate, the average Russian household in Tbilisi takes in more than six times as much money as the average one in Georgia. Graffiti there bears witness to the anger.

Some Russians, however, marvel at the warmth they have found.

Dmitri Sorokin arrived in Tbilisi with few resources, just an idea for opening a restaurant. His landlord gave him a refrigerator and three metal tables, and a neighbor gave him a professional blender. That was enough to open Aut Vera, a little street cafe selling hummus and falafel.

“I never got as much help as here,” said Mr. Sorokin, 38. “I haven’t seen a more welcoming place.”

Protesters holding handmade signs in the Armenian capital. One waves a flag that conveys opposition to the war in Ukraine.
Russians at a protest in Yerevan in December.
The owner of a cafe in the Georgina capital, wearing a cap and sneakers, sits on the sidewalk counter. A dog lies next to him.
Dmitry Sorokin, front, at his cafe in Tbilisi.
On a busy city street, some pedestrians talking on a sidewalk as others a crosswalk. Cars are in the background.
Tbilisi has been transformed by the newcomers.

Many of the expatriates came from the most entrepreneurial stratum of Russian society. They have injected millions of dollars into their new home cities, filling cafes and bars, some of which have servers who no longer speak Armenian or Georgian, only Russian.

“A lot of these people got displaced overnight, and they are trying to recreate what they had lost,” said Mr. Elliott, the Armenian tech professional.

But some, like Pavel A. Yaskov, left Russia with little more than a desire to get out. He arrived in Yerevan shortly after President Vladimir V. Putin announced a major conscription for the Russian army in Ukraine.

A native of a small town near Moscow, Mr. Yaskov came with a backpack and a sleeping bag, ready to spend his first nights in a park. He soon found a job at a fast-food kiosk and shared an apartment with other Russians like him.

Back home in Russia, Vyacheslav Potapenko, 22, worked for a film-production company as an assistant director. Now, in Yerevan, he has been scraping out a living making food deliveries.

A Russian man who now lives in Armenia sitting in the middle of a couch, holding a phone with two hands. A curtain covers the window behind him.
Vyacheslav Potapenko checking his phone for delivery orders.

Sergey Ponomarev is a freelance photographer for The New York Times. Follow him at sergeyponomarev on Instagram@SergeyPonomarev • Facebook

Ivan Nechepurenko has been a Times reporter since 2015, covering politics, economics, sports and culture in Russia and the former Soviet republics. He was raised in St. Petersburg, Russia, and in Piatykhatky, Ukraine. @INechepurenko 

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