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On Being an International Company in a F*cked-up World
Our team is from Georgia, Poland, Russia, Belarus, and America. It's...complicated.
My partner and I live in a single room in Tbilisi, Georgia with a single burner to cook on. We eat mostly hard-boiled eggs wrapped in ham. It isn’t some tech-bro minimalist wet dream. We’re just broke. The only other American on our team is Business Daddy who lives in Maine doing Business Daddy things. The rest of our team is not American, and this is about them.
FUCK RUSSIA is the most common graffiti tag on the walk from my apartment down Alexandr Chavchavadze to Rustaveli Avenue, followed by RUSSIANS GO HOME and RUSSIA KILLS. Elsewhere; смерть русским (DEATH TO RUSSIANS), FUCK RUZZIA, and RUSSIA IS A TERRORIST STATE join me on my forty-minute walk to our designer Nikita’s home in a building tagged with yet another FUCK RUSSIA. I take seven flights of crumbled stairs to his apartment where we begin each work day on his balcony so slanted that even it seems to be whispering, "Do it."
In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. Hundreds were killed; thousands were displaced. Russia now controls 20% of Georgian territories in what is known as a "creeping occupation." As the border inches inward, Georgian villagers are subjected to abductions, torture, and even death. Meanwhile, since the war in Ukraine began, approximately 200,000 Russians have emigrated here. This influx of Russians into Georgia, where Mariam (our cartoonist) is from, has jacked up the cost of living for native citizens causing more resentment. Even the name 'Georgia' is an anglicized version of Russia's name for the region, "Gruzija,” which is a far cry from the actual name: Sakartvelo or "Land of Kartvelians."
I am not Russian but Nikita is. The periodic "FUCK USA" around Tbilisi isn't quite enough for me to feel "in" on the dread. Between chats about literary magazines, browse designs, submission trackers, and trying to figure out how to respond to some asshole who slipped into our DMs, the humanitarian organization Nikita works for will call because a relocated Ukrainian family has been evicted from their new home, a teenage son has gotten into a brawl and has no legal representation or, on the really bad days, more news of more death comes along and everyone just has to sit with it. On other days, it is news coming out of Russia that they're digitizing their draft to make it easier to stop young Russian men from leaving the country. Or finding the names of friends and family who have been listed as enemies of the state or condemned to the draft. Our designer and many of his friends can never go home because of the work they do to relocate Ukrainians from conflict zones.
Some weeks Karina, who is Belarusian, will have to take time away from Chill Subs not for an ill grandparent or an emergency doctor's appointment, but because the developer helping her on other projects was arrested in Belarus for protesting Lukashenko's crackdowns. Or because a coder helping us update our submissions tracker was hospitalized after being beaten on the streets of Poland where they live. Both of these events happened in recent weeks. The one who was beaten has recovered. The one arrested has not been heard from since. Thanks to a photo of Karina at a protest last year, she can also not return home to Belarus without risking arrest and has repeatedly had her registration paperwork denied in Poland which means she may have to move to a new country this year. Our database freelancer, also named Nikita, is in a similar position while we try to officially hire them so they are not forced to return to Belarus where—it bears repeating—they risk imprisonment or forced military service by a totalitarian regime. However, Poland (where our new developer, Marcin, is from) has received more Ukrainian refugees than any other country since the start of the war, so why should they prioritize Belarusians?
Half of our team cannot return to their countries for fear of arrest over speaking out against Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The countries they live in are, let's say, “politely hostile” toward them. They are disconnected from friends, family, healthcare, and any protection. Despite this, not one of them, or those like them, ever complains or feels slighted. Any sympathy, money, and help, should be directed toward Ukrainians. The astounding horrors that have been inflicted on Ukrainians are well-documented and the next time the news has a breaking story about Pop-Tarts not containing real berries, I’d suggest reading about this instead. Though several on our team cannot go home for fear of arrest, Ukrainians cannot go home because their home was destroyed. Irreversible traumas have made it impossible for many to do so even if the buildings still stood.
We spend our days fully jacked into the internet and find on every level that there is so. much. hate. There is bitterness, pettiness, resentment, attacks, and baffling amounts of misdirected fear. It is part of what drives us so passionately toward trying to inject kindness and openness into our little corner. We make jokes and listen to everyone who feels there is something we could do better. Some days it's difficult for some on our team to get out of bed - forget brainstorming ways to make poem submissions easier. But they do, and we do it as a team. We help each other and support each other, make our weird jokes, and reassure ourselves that we're not doing nearly enough—if “enough” even holds any meaning. It's odd to watch kind people trying to help nod along to abuse inflicted on them because of the actions of their government. Especially as someone from a country with its own encyclopedia of abject horrors.
I don't think there is a point here. I'd like to have some overarching revelations like: “And so displaced Russians and Belarusians should be cut a break” or “And see, these are the good ones.” It feels as though these days everything must have a point or a take or an a-ha! But sometimes, things are only “sad” and “complicated.” Several clients I work for want to keep any connection with Russians out of their copy for fear of backlash. While visiting America, I saw restaurants crossing “Russian” off of drink menus leaving only “White” as a standard drink of choice (an irony lost on many, I'm sure). While governments, media, and (evidently) graffiti artists want everyone to hate each other enough to kill, I thought it might be important to talk a bit about a few people impacted by it. And the different stories you find where we live—organizations with Ukrainians, Georgians, and Russians working together as humans to stop the suffering of other humans. No Twitter handles attacking Twitter handles; no trigger-happy headlines tossed around atop moral high grounds; no enemies.
We're never going to be able to fix any of this. But we'll keep plugging away at our little corner where on a near-laughably smaller scale we find daily spats within the writing community. People often ask how to handle online harassment sent our way, and it's pretty simple. Karina continues to worry whether she'll be kicked out of her new home, not sleeping to keep up with the misfortunes inflicted on those working with us; Nikita continues his work helping Ukrainians escape forced occupation while friends back home are imprisoned or sent away to die. And we all will continue to listen, nod, and smile because we know how impossible it is to imagine and understand where anyone might be coming from. Maybe we’ve all just forgotten, in a world filled with angry words scrawled on walls, that most people are kind, most people are doing their best, most people are just people.