three circles around the sea

After landing in Kutaisi, the first thing I saw was a cloud, which I mistook for a mountain. I was so excited to see Georgia that my mind was ready to be tricked and impressed by the smallest thing. Within an hour I saw signposts for Yerevan and Tehran and a hundred other places I never dreamed of seeing before. I could just drive to any of them, everything seemed possible and everywhere seemed accessible from Georgia.

Accessing Georgia is also easy. It's currently possible for citizens of 95 different countries to stay in Georgia for one year without a visa and since February 2022, many Russian immigrants have moved to Georgia. Some are availing of the relaxed visa requirements so they can leave Russia for a new life, while others are using Georgia as a springboard to other European countries. Although the tracking is not accurate, as of September 2022 it is estimated that since the start of the war in Ukraine, more than 200,000 Russians have arrived in Georgia, a country with a population of just 3.7 million.

Nearly every Georgian I spoke to brought up the strain that this influx of Russian immigrants has put on the country. Tensions are very high, the cost of living has dramatically increased and for many locals, the presence of the new arrivals brings back painful memories of the war in 2008 and is a consistent reminder that 20% of Georgia's internationally recognised territory is currently under Russian military occupation. 
One person I met vividly recalled the Russian invasion of Georgia 16 years ago. She spoke of the terror she felt at the sound of bombs in the distance and how her family fled to the mountains. She felt the pain of Ukraine and the tensions were echoed all over the country. Tbilisi was covered in graffiti that read “Fuck Putin” or “Fuck Russians”. The day after the conscription was announced in Russia, I witnessed a fist-fight between two groups of men close to the Lars Checkpoint border crossing in the Kazbegi region of Georgia, the only land border crossing between the countries. At a bar in Tbilisi, a 17-year-old Georgian pulled a knife on a Russian immigrant over what appeared to be a comment about a dog. Later that same night, someone told us that the 17-year-old had recently killed a man. As one person I met put it, "Georgia is a tank full of gas".

Throughout my time there, I made friends with a number of Russian immigrants who were welcoming and hopeful, always looking to the future and excited for what was to come. “If you spend your nights like this, then every day will be better and better.” They were happy to have been able to escape a country whose politics they disagreed with, but at the same time were aware of how their presence was perceived by the locals.

In a short period of time it was normal for the conversation to drastically change, depending on who I was talking to, “90% of my circle moved here after the war started. [….] I’m hoping my visa for Europe will arrive soon”, compared to “All the young people learned how to shoot. They were worried that things would turn out like Ukraine and they wanted to be able to defend themselves”.
Since returning home, I’ve thought a lot about Georgia and the people I met there; how the countryside has a sense of unlimited freedom; how the streets of Tbilisi fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, a puzzle that gets more complicated by the day.

In March 2023, intense protests broke out in Tbilisi over government support for a pro-Russian foreign agents law which would have blocked Georgia’s application to join the European Union and made the Russian presence even stronger. Theories have been circling about who actually is making and consequently cleaning up all the variations of the “fuck Russia” graffiti around Tbilisi. In a sudden move in May 2023, Russia lifted the 4-year ban on flights to Georgia, giving new legs to the debate around whether or not Russian citizens should need a visa to enter Georgia.. 

They are using this country as a comfort zone and Georgia is dying, they are all coming and we’re just standing and watching, what can we do?

While both sides are hoping for the best, it is unclear if the looming cloud that has been hanging over Georgia for years will turn into an immovable mountain.


The photos in 'three circles around the sea' were made throughout Georgia in the autumn of 2022 and spring of 2023 over a two-month period. The portraits encompass three different perspectives: local Georgians, Russian nationals and other foreign visitors who, like myself prior to arrival, were unaware of just how complicated the relationship between these two countries really is.

An overview of the photos can be found here.