By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
TBILISI, Georgia -- Growing up in this capital, Svetlana Tikhonova remembers how proud her father, Petr, was of his medals. A Soviet Red Army pilot during World War II, he used to show them off to visitors, and on the annual holiday commemorating the end of the war, he would march down the street with all 30 of them affixed to his chest.
But since the violent Russian conflict with Georgia, his home for more than half his life, the 86-year-old ethnic Russian won't leave his room. "He says it is a shame for him to look into people's eyes," Tikhonova said. "He is ashamed that his army has turned into this group of bandits."
When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, millions of ethnic Russians were left in the newly independent states, outside Russia. Many have felt a stronger allegiance to Moscow than to the country where they wound up. The Kremlin has pushed this to its advantage in some cases. In years of tension here, Russia supported separatist movements and even issued Russian passports to residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions that have sought independence from Georgia.
But in the rest of Georgia, and especially in Tbilisi, where residents are proud of the city's multiethnic composition, playing the nationalist card hasn't worked. Russians here feel a mix of emotions these days, but the most salient ones seem to be shame before their Georgian neighbors and anger that the latest conflict among politicians could threaten their harmonious relations.
"We all love Georgia and we all feel nervous about this situation," said Mikhael Kazakov, 68, an ethnic Russian who was fixing a bathroom door at the Count Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Church, one of several Russian churches in Tbilisi. "In this mutual fighting and these mutual victims, we feel like we are losing something, and of course we feel sad about that. In Tbilisi, we were always saying, 'I have no nationality -- I feel I am a resident of Tbilisi.' "
Russia has long been an integral part of Georgian life. For more than a century, Georgia was part of the czarist empire; after a brief fling with independence from 1918 to 1921, it was swallowed by the Soviet Union. Russian literature and language influenced Georgian culture, and close ties with Russia offered education and work opportunities that were unavailable here. Although Georgian remained the official language, educated Georgians spoke Russian as fluently as their own language.
Georgia, for its part, was a source of wine, fresh fruit, art films, and mountain and beach vacations for the czarist and Soviet elites. Some Russians chose to move here, charmed by the sunny climate, and many married Georgians.
Wars and the rise of a nationalistic leader at the time of the Soviet collapse sent many Russians back to Russia. Some also returned to Russia to work as the economy improved. Their presence here shrank from 6.3 percent of the population in 1989 to 1.5 percent in 2002; today an estimated 65,000 Russians live here, according to the office of Georgia's ombudsman.
For the last few days, the ombudsman's office has hosted meetings for ethnic Russians who have come up with a petition declaring their allegiance to Georgia and condemning the Russian occupation.
Lali Moroshkina, a journalist who arranged the meetings, said she is worried that Russians living here may be used as political pawns. "Russia often says they must defend their citizens in Georgia," she said.
She said some ethnic Russians have been quiet since the war began, perhaps because they are afraid they won't get Russian visas. An estimated 1 million Georgians live and work in Russia, sending money back to family here. This has become harder since Russia cracked down on trade two years ago, banning Georgian wine and mineral water, restricting travel and deporting some Georgians back to their homeland. The bans effectively shut down the biggest market for Georgian goods.
But the 60 or so people who attended one of the meetings were not shy about making their feelings known.
"It's doubly painful for me . . . because my roots, my compatriots, are doing this," said Lyudmila Atamanova, 53, whose father, a Russian military officer, moved to Georgia 50 years ago because of the "special energy here." She was signing the petition, she said, because "in the future we will be asked where we stood during this war. We are citizens of Georgia, and I think the majority of us think this way. It's not nice to be objects of manipulation like what happened in Abkhazia and South Ossetia."
Atamanova said that when she told her sister in Russia about the bombings, she didn't believe it. "She told me, 'You are inventing it.' Now, they are silent. Maybe they are afraid to say anything."
Russians here said they had not yet heard of any backlash from Georgians, but a few said they were worried. Matrushka, a Russian restaurant in Tbilisi, is nearly empty these days, and Oleg Alfanesiev, 32, the manager there, said he feels a bit self-conscious.
"My neighbors say hello to me in the same way. When we watch TV and we see these corpses, sometimes they say curses, but they're not directed at me." However, he said, he doesn't let his son, a 10-year-old with blond hair and Slavic eyes, play in the street now. "I don't want that someone may call my children something because they're Russian," Alfanesiev said.
He may take comfort in looking at the Azerbaijanis and Armenians here. For years, their countries have been in a cold war over a disputed enclave, but in Tbilisi they play backgammon at teahouses and leave politics behind.
Even in Gori, a city that suffered from heavy Russian bombardment, Georgians standing in the shattered main square Sunday said they bore their Russian neighbors no ill will.
"The local Russians are ashamed of those Russians who came," said Emzar Akhalkatsi, a soccer scout, who had returned from a shelter in Tbilisi. "There won't be any problems for Russians; they've never done anything but good here."