Georgia and Armenia are complicated havens for Russian LGBTQ émigrés
Aug 19 2023
Andrea Palasciano Aug 18, 2023

Oksana Polovinkina vividly remembers the thrill of dancing at a drag ball last December in a Tbilisi club. She had just fled to Georgia with her girlfriend, seeking an escape from repression in Russia.

“Being in the crowd, it truly felt like a community,” Polovinkina recalled in a phone interview recently. “Just for a brief moment, I felt like I was in a beautiful dream.”

A half-year after that exhilarating moment, however, the 26-year-old Russian software specialist could only look on in “disgust” as a right-wing mob violently disrupted Tbilisi’s pride fest in early July. Festival organizers denounced the perpetrators as “Putinist” and accused the Georgian Dream government of being complicit in “the well-planned operation.”

The experience left Polovinkina deeply unsettled. While Georgia in general offers a far higher degree of individual political and economic freedom than Russia, members of the Russian LGBTQ community who have moved to the South Caucasus country have found the country to be a complicated haven, where they struggle with twin challenges – homophobia and general wariness of Russian newcomers.

While she doesn’t think twice about her decision to leave Russia, where “being gay is basically illegal,” Polovinkina says it’s hard to feel at home in Georgia. She must tread carefully: she can be open about her sexuality, but not too open. 

“The Caucasus is not the most friendly place … but it’s a comfortable place for me to rest,” said Polovinkina, adding that she refrains from engaging in public displays of affection with her partner. “As much as I love it, I want a different life.”

Georgia, along with Armenia, have been a major destination for Russians émigrés amid the Russia-Ukraine war, in part because Russian passport holders don’t need a visa to travel to the two countries. Both also feature more open political systems and a lower cost of living relative to Russia. Polovinkina is one of over 100,000 Russians currently residing in Georgia, with tens of thousands having arrived after the start of the war in early 2022. But in a country with a population of less than 4 million, the presence of so many Russian émigrés, most of whom have settled in Tbilisi, is exerting inflationary pressure on the Georgian economy, thus stoking societal tension. 

“The basic rule is that the older the generation of Georgians [i.e. those who grew up during the Soviet era] is more welcoming of Russians. Young people are very critical, skeptical,” says Polovinkina, adding that she has had several unpleasant encounters with Georgians.

Anti-Russian sentiment has deep roots in Georgia, stretching back to the April 1989 Soviet crackdown on autonomy-seeking protesters in Tbilisi. The brief war fought between the two countries in 2008 compounded the hard feelings. The rapid influx of Russian émigrés over the last 18 months has added a new layer of complexity to the situation, evidenced by the proliferation of anti-Russian graffiti on Tbilisi’s walls.

Russian LGBTQ migrants have generally reported a friendlier welcome in Armenia, but according to international and local human rights organizations, homophobia remains deeply entrenched across the Caucasus. On the NGO ILGA-Europe’s 2023 index, Georgia ranks 35th out of 49 countries surveyed, while Armenia comes in 47th – worse than Russia (46th) and better only than Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Polovinkina is far from the only LGBTQ émigré from Russia looking to keep moving. The South Caucasus is proving to be a temporary stop for many. “Russian queers don’t move here to live here. They come, obtain refugee status, and then move to Europe,” says Leo, a 25-year-old community officer at the LGBTQ organization Pink Armenia, who declines to give his last name.

Some countries, such as Germany, can grant humanitarian visas to members of Russia’s LGBTQ community. But obtaining one is a time-consuming process. The Berlin-based organization Quarteera, which offers support services for Russian-speaking LGBT people in Germany, reported in January having helped over 80 people receive humanitarian visas.

Relations between Russian émigrés and local LGBTQ activist groups are complicated. Locals haven’t exactly rolled out a red carpet for newcomers, while émigrés have tended to be insular and slow to engage with local LGBTQ communities.

“There are Russian LGBTQ activists but they’re possibly only active in their communities. Our organization provides services to people of Russian nationality, if they request them. But we don’t collaborate with any Russian LGBT organizations,” says Ana Aptsiauri, Project Coordinator at Equality Movement, a Georgian NGO for the protection of LGBTQ+ and women’s rights. 

She attributes lingering mistrust to general national security concerns connected to the lingering effects of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. Some Georgians worry that some émigrés are informers, helping to keep tabs on émigrés’ activities and subtly advance Kremlin priorities. “Do the people who come have links with the current war?” Aptsiauri wondered. “Nobody in Georgia is sure that those who come will have a friendly attitude towards Georgians.” 

Suspicion among Georgian and Armenian activists is heightened by perceptions that Russia funds anti-LGBTQ organizations in both countries. “Russia doesn’t want the Caucasus to enter the European cultural sphere,” says Leo, the Armenian activist. At the same time, he acknowledges that many Armenians are culturally “conservative,” adding that transgender women are often the targets of hate crimes.

Leo adds that the standoffishness of émigrés has been a source of friction. “Russian queers didn’t initially want to integrate with Armenians. They had separate parties. On the dating app Grindr, some explicitly state; ‘no locals, only Russians or visitors.’ These seemingly little things accumulate,” he says. However, he notes that, of late, things are starting to improve, citing a Russian-Armenian dancer who has started organizing parties and hiring Armenian performers.

Back in Russia, repression of sexual non-conformity is intensifying. In mid-July, the Russian legislature outlawedgendertransitioningprocedures, annulling marriages in which one person has transitioned and banning transgender Russians from adopting children. As living conditions continue to toughen for LGBTQ people in Russia, more of them are likely to seek refuge in the Caucasus. 

“Of course, it’s better than Russia,” Leo says, referring to the reception LGBTQ émigrés will receive in the Caucasus. “Anywhere is better than Russia right now.”

Andrea Palasciano has worked as a correspondent for AFP for a decade, most recently in Moscow. She is currently in the Knight Bagehot Fellowship in Business Journalism at Columbia University and is completing her MBA.