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Thousands of Russians are traveling to Georgia to flee their own government

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Tbilisi, Georgia, standing at the bottom of a big hill. The top of it is the statue that greets everybody who arrives here. It's a giant woman, Mother Georgia. And she holds in her left hand a cup of wine to greet people who arrive here in peace, who arrive as friends. In her right hand, though, she's holding a sword to greet those who come as enemies. Among those arriving right now in rainy Tbilisi - Russians, thousands of them. According to Georgia's interior minister, more than 30,000 Russians have arrived here since Russia invaded Ukraine. And while some of them have since moved on, many say they're staying.

Now, this is a very different exodus from the one unfolding from Ukraine. Russians are fleeing not war, but their own government, and they say they can't go back, that it is not safe. They can't work. They are angry at what their country is doing.

We're going to spend these next few minutes sharing the stories of three Russians we have met here in Tbilisi, starting with Alexey Voloshinov. He's the youngest of the people we are about to meet, just 20, but we're starting with him because we can share where his story begins, back in Moscow. This is Alexey walking through the botanical gardens - what Russians call the Pharmacy Garden - Central Moscow on March 4.

ALEXEY VOLOSHINOV: It feels like real, not real. I still cannot believe that tomorrow I'm going to leave my country maybe for my whole life. I hope not, but this is a possible option.

KELLY: He says this was not a move of choice, that as a young journalist, he was afraid to stay in Russia, and as a young man, he was scared of getting drafted to fight against Ukraine.

VOLOSHINOV: But still, I would really like to come back one day to the great Russia of future (laughter). Future great Russia, yeah.

KELLY: Just a little over two weeks later, we meet up with Alexey at a park, this time here in Tbilisi.

VOLOSHINOV: Hello.

KELLY: Hi, Alexei. Hi.

We walk together to a cafe to get out of the rain, and I ask if he's managed to pick up much Georgian yet. Having just arrived myself, I am finding the language and its alphabet beautiful but hard.

VOLOSHINOV: I know (speaking Georgian).

KELLY: Me, too. And that's it.

That's hello and thank you.

VOLOSHINOV: I know (speaking Georgian). This is yes. And I know (speaking Georgian). This is no (laughter). Yeah, so...

KELLY: That's all right. That's a beginning.

VOLOSHINOV: (Laughter) Yeah.

KELLY: In the cafe, over plates of salty Georgian cheese and walnuts, I ask Alexey what happened after he left Moscow.

VOLOSHINOV: Well, the thing is, I didn't have any plans.

KELLY: First he flew to Armenia, where he thought he would stay for a bit.

VOLOSHINOV: Then after just two or three days, my father called me and said that police was looking for me in Moscow. And that day I decided to leave Armenia and move to Georgia because there is no extradition from here.

KELLY: Did you know anyone in Tbilisi?

VOLOSHINOV: Well, no.

KELLY: He met other Russians here. They went apartment hunting, something that has gotten really hard to do in recent days. There's the fact that rents are going up because the market is flooded with Russian house hunters. And there's the fact that not everyone wants to rent to Russians, given Georgia's complicated history with its giant neighbor. The first apartment Alexey tried to rent...

VOLOSHINOV: The host has asked us if we are Russians. We said yes, and she said that she cannot give us this place to live because the Russian soldiers have killed her son in 2008 during the war between Russia and Georgia. So this was really understandable.

KELLY: They finally found a place. Alexey says he's looking for a job, starting to feel settled.

VOLOSHINOV: After I left the country, it was the first time I could sleep and eat normal.

KELLY: So worried?

VOLOSHINOV: Yeah.

KELLY: Would you like to go back, though? Do you want to live back in Russia?

VOLOSHINOV: Of course. Of course, yes. The first possibility after the Putin's regime is going to fall, I will come back, like, the next day.

KELLY: We've arranged our next interview at a pub called The Black Lion over pots of steaming tea. Lev Kalashnikov - like the gun - also just arrived in Tbilisi from Moscow early March. He's already a mover and shaker in the exile community here. He's a tech entrepreneur trying to help other entrepreneurs set up shop, move their businesses here. He says Tbilisi is hotter than anywhere right now, partly thanks to so many Russians with ambition and money pouring in. But it's tricky trying to navigate bureaucracy, paperwork, all in another language. He tells us the story of his second day here. He was standing in a huge line trying to buy a SIM card.

LEV KALASHNIKOV: And in the line, there was 50 people in front of me and 50 after me. And I was looking around, and I'm saying, well, I've seen this step before. I can share my experience with these people.

KELLY: So he created a channel on the Telegram messaging app, which everybody here seems to use - a chatroom, basically, that people could join by scanning a QR code.

KALASHNIKOV: And start showing to people around me.

KELLY: In the line.

KALASHNIKOV: In the line.

KELLY: You - in the line, you create this QR code.

KALASHNIKOV: Yeah. When I left this place, it was, like, 30 people in the chat. And later that day it was 200. Next day it was 700 people.

KELLY: It kept growing. Some 5,000 people are following the Telegram channel now, swapping tips on all kinds of stuff.

VOLOSHINOV: Mainly are people asking about how to transfer money. Fifteen percent of people are asking about schools and kindergarten, many asking about how is it going on the land border - to cross over land.

KELLY: Lev now runs several Telegram channels for Russians coming to Georgia. He says he is constantly fielding questions that he tries to answer, even when he can't help, like a recent message he got from a man in Russian-controlled Crimea whose wife is stuck in the war in southern Ukraine.

KALASHNIKOV: This guy sends me a message that she got very ill. And there is fighting on the streets, and the bombs are going on. I don't know what to do with that. What can I do with that? But for some reason, people are texting me this. And I cannot help.

KELLY: His voice breaks. His eyes well up with tears. He reaches for his tea, takes a long breath.

KALASHNIKOV: Every single message that I get is a tragedy.

KELLY: Our final stop for the evening is a hole-in-the-wall bar in Old Tbilisi. It's called Ploho bar. Ploho means bad in Russian. A dozen or so people pack into this tiny space, all speaking Russian, chugging beers, taking shots of vodka. The walls are scrawled with marker - Russian sayings and crude drawings. Twenty-three-year-old Nastasya Dubovitskaya just left Moscow a week ago. She's working tonight behind the bar, pulling beers.

NASTASYA DUBOVITSKAYA: I wanted to go to rallies after the war started, but I knew that it would be more dangerous.

KELLY: Nastasya says she was detained for seven days for attending a rally. She believes if she had stayed in Russia and kept protesting, she wouldn't be out so soon.

DUBOVITSKAYA: I just decided to go here because I knew that I can help Ukraine and Ukrainians here better than from Russia.

KELLY: She points to a Ukrainian flag hanging on the wall. Next to it a QR code for a website to donate money to the Ukrainian army. Nastasya says she's saving money to donate. It's part of the reason she's working here at the bar. But it's hard, she says. Her last day in Moscow, she went to see her dad. He's still there.

DUBOVITSKAYA: We talked a lot. And I've seen him crying for the first time in my life because he was so worried, and he said that there's no future in Russia. Just run, and find something new.

KELLY: No future in Russia, so just run. Find something new. So she did - one of tens of thousands of Russians who have run from their country since it invaded Ukraine nearly one month ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.