eight months ago Georgia suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Russian army. The repercussions of the military disaster have been far reaching, yet Georgians do no seem inclined to vent their frustrations on ethnic Russians living in Georgia.
“I don’t feel any sort of negativity. . . . I never have,” said 64-year-old Viktoria Popova. “I am in love with this people. They are so kind.”
Popova, an artist and former Russian language specialist for the Ministry of Education, moved to the eastern Georgian city of Rustavi with her family when she was a teenager. Despite the fact that she has no family now left in the country, she has remained in Georgia.
The number of Russians living in Georgia has dropped significantly over the past 20 years. The 2002 census recorded nearly 68,000 ethnic Russians living in Georgia — a figure that at the time constituted about 1.5 percent of the total population. That total marked a steep decline from the 341,000 Russians (6.3 percent of the population) counted in 1989.
While Georgia’s ethnic Russian community now is relatively small, Popova says she has never seriously considered leaving, despite invitations to work in Russian universities. “For me, it is two mothers,” she said, speaking in Russian. “I have trouble defining who I am more — Georgian or Russian.”
The Georgian Public Defender’s Office stated that it has no record of assaults on ethnic Russians in Georgia since the 2008 war with Russia. Popova noted, however, that the years of conflict between Moscow and Tbilisi have taken a toll: Fewer Georgians today are learning Russian.
Publisher Nikolai Sventitski, the director of Tbilisi’s Russian-language Griboyedov Theater, agrees. “Language should never been the object of politics. Language is culture. . . . We are neighbors. You can change apartments, you can change regions, but you cannot change geography,” he said.
Seven years ago, Sventitski started the Tbilisi-based Russian Club to facilitate cultural understanding between Georgians and Russians. Today, he organizes poetry festivals in Georgia for poets writing in Russian and publishes the country’s only Russian-language magazine, “Russian Club.”
Sventitski, who was born in Tbilisi, blames the Russian government and its policy toward Georgia for Georgians’ lack of interest in Russian language and culture. Although the two countries enjoy close religious ties, and have a history of more than two centuries of close relations, today Georgians cannot go and “see the Hermitage,” he complained.
“Russia will not allow [a Georgian] in. He cannot study there,” Sventitski said. “Turkey opened its borders. [A Georgian] will learn Turkish, of course.”
A sign of that change can be seen at Sventitski’s poetry festivals, which, he claimed, no official from the Georgian Ministry of Culture attends.
While that absence may be a reflection of Georgia’s ongoing hostilities with Moscow, Giorgi Nizharadze, a sociologist at the International Center on Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi, states that Georgians are much more “negative” toward Russia itself than they are toward Russians.
The fact that there are few Georgian jokes about Russians is a sign of “recognition” of Russians and the weight of Russian culture — a type of respect not shown to ethnic Armenians or Azeris, Nizharadze said. “There have been very little jokes about Russians. That is positive. But there are very many jokes about Georgians in Russia,” he added.
What stereotypes exist — Russian women as promiscuous; Russian men as alcoholics –apply more to Russians coming to Georgia, than to ethnic Russians born in Georgia, he added. “[There was] an element of ambivalence but no hostilities” toward Russians living in Georgia historically, he said, stressing that this attitude “even exists today.”
Nizharadze sees that as a reflection of Russia’s past image as a more developed country with better ties to the outside world. The two countries’ Orthodox faith also played a role.
But there are few signs that the previously close relationship between Georgians and Russians will able to bridge a widening generation gap. Nizharadze noted that young Georgians, as a rule, are only interested in Russian pop music — and that interest is waning as well. “[T]hey don’t know Russian anymore and they are not interested in Russian culture except maybe for pop music,” Nizharadze said.
Simon Janashia, head of the Ministry of Education’s National Curriculum Center, stated that the government has no special strategy to address the dwindling interest in the Russian language. “It is a general concern, but it is not about the Russian language that we are concerned,” Janashia said. “If we have students that know German and English, we don’t care if they don’t know Russian at all.”
For ethnic Russians like Sventitski and Popova, who speak Georgian, that trend has not contributed to any sense of isolation. Sociologist Nizharadze observes that in Georgia family ties and social connections play a stronger role than ethnicity in determining community membership.
For Olga Kvaichadze, however, the future of Russian-speaking Georgians is still bright. Inside her brightly painted Russian-language kindergarten “Pony,” 30 toddlers of mixed backgrounds — Russian, Georgian, American, Armenian and others — shout over each other while singing a Russian counting game.
Kvaichadze, who is ethnic Russian, said that demand for her Tbilisi kindergarten continued even during last year’s war with Russia; parents called to make sure classes would go on as usual in the autumn.
“The tradition of communication between Russia and Georgia is very ancient and on a basic level is still very strong,” she observed. “Whatever you do, Russia will stay where it is and Georgia will stay where it is. So it is better to know than not to know. Even if it is your enemy.”
Editor’s Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photojournalist based in Tbilisi.
Copyright (c) 2003 Open Society Institute. Reprinted with the permission of the Open Society Institute, 400 West 59th Street, New York, NY 10019 USA, wwwEurasiaNet.org. or www.soros.org.