TBILISI -- A Russian nationalist walks into a Georgian bar. It might as well be the opening line of an old Soviet joke.
But now, in a country partly occupied by Russian troops and with Vladimir Putin's forces waging an unprovoked war on Ukraine just 800 kilometers to the northwest, it's no laughing matter.
This is an anti-Putin bar in Tbilisi, and pro-Putin Russians are, well, barred.
"Citizens of Russia need a VISA to enter Dedaena Bar because not ALL Russians are welcome," reads the bar's online registration form "for Russian citizens."
"We stand for equality and unity, but we need to make sure that brainwashed Russian imperialists do not end up in our bar. Please support us by filling up a VISA application, so nobody has to hang out alongside a*****es. Thanks for understanding."
The bar's campaign to exclude a whole segment of Russians is a point of pride for many of its patrons, some of whom post pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian messages on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media.
But it has irked a loose network of radical Russian chauvinists and ultranationalists who continue to harass and bully perceived cultural foes online despite their patriarchal Male State movement being banned in Russia since October 2021.
Within hours of Male State and its sympathizers' coordinated targeting of the establishment for its treatment of Russians around noon on August 4, Google had been inundated with thousands of negative reviews of Dedaena and the bar's management said its site had been hacked.
The online mob had also portrayed Dedaena as a haven for homosexuality and cited its existence as evidence that Georgia should be conquered and Georgians brutalized.
It was reminiscent of a similarly orchestrated campaign a year ago that targeted a Russian sushi bar whose advertisements featured a black model and a rainbow-colored box of sushi. That restaurant's ownership said the online abuse along with a rash of bogus phone orders cost it around 500,000 rubles (around $6,800 at the time).
On August 5, Male State's fugitive founder, Vladislav Pozdnyakov, downplayed the Dedaena campaign as a "childish joke" but threatened possible destabilization efforts in the future. "We'll wait for Georgia's hard time, more precisely, a hard political situation, and then we'll show you what real destabilization actions mean," Pozdnyakov wrote on his Telegram channel on August 5. "I have many Russian comrades in Georgia, as well as pro-Russian Georgians."
Such threats could strike a chord in Georgia, whose government's commitment to transatlantic integration has been questioned by street protests and whose public is concerned the country could be targeted by a resurgent Russia.
Additionally, tens of thousands of Russians have traveled to Georgia since the Ukraine war erupted in late February, in some cases to escape political persecution or international sanctions at home.
Russians are currently banned from flying to European Union states, although they can still travel by land. From August 8, EU members Estonia and Finland have lobbied other European countries to stop issuing tourist visas to Russian citizens while their government is waging war on Ukraine.
Shaming Women For Porn
Thirty-one-year-old fitness coach Pozdnyakov first founded Male State on the Russian social network VKontakte in 2016 as a vehicle to "expose" and publicly shame Russian women formerly active in pornography.
It became notorious for its digital harassment of women, the LGBT community, and mixed-race couples or non-whites across VKontakte and other platforms including Telegram, TikTok, and YouTube. In some cases, Male State administrators have publicly identified activists, journalists, and even Russian women with non-Russian spouses or partners.
Pozdnyakov fled Russia after years of impunity in late 2018, when a court gave him a suspended sentence on charges of inciting hatred toward women.
He has since turned up in Poland and other European countries during his exile, frequently to spread misogyny, racism, LGBT slurs, and a brand of nationalism that arguably dovetails with Putin's decades-long effort to reshape "traditional" Russian values.
Russian authorities don't appear to be aggressively pursuing him abroad, feeding speculation fueled by Pozdnyakov himself that he might have ties to Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB). Some Russian rights activists have also suggested that Pozdnyakov began cooperating with the FSB after his arrest.
Egor Kutepov represents the Georgian branch of the Free Russia Foundation, an NGO that opposes the war in Ukraine and helps Russian activists who arrive in Tbilisi from their homeland. He told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that he thinks Pozdnyakov is useful to Russian authorities who are eager to discourage Russian oppositionists from seeking safe haven in Georgia and to encourage enmity between Georgians and Russian immigrants.
Georgia officially aspires to NATO and EU membership but has been led for a decade by the Georgian Dream party, which was founded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia and has encouraged closer ties to Moscow than his predecessors.
Putin's incentive for invading Georgia is low, thanks in part to the fact that few Russian opposition leaders have resettled there, Kutepov says. "Putin doesn't like that -- he prefers the opposition in Europe," Kutepov said, adding a reference to the FSB and its early Soviet predecessor. "People's hatred for each other is a purely Chekhist tool."
Pozdnyakov boasted in 2021 that he was in Georgia to gather supporters, but it's unclear where he has been since officials said he left Montenegro earlier this year.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, he has enthusiastically supported what Putin's administration euphemistically calls a "special military operation" in Ukraine.
Pozdnyakov has previously agitated for hostility against Georgia, which lost an intense five-day war to Russia in 2008, when Moscow sent troops to defend and occupy two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
"Now is the time for the de-Nazification of Georgia," Pozdnyakov wrote in his recent Telegram post, echoing an element of Putin's public justification for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24.
The Dedaena Bar's campaign to exclude a whole segment of Russians is a rallying point for many of its patrons. Russians wanting to go to the bar are expected to tick boxes next to eight bellwether statements like "I didn't vote for Putin, he is a dictator," "I condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine," and, in a reference to the two breakaway Georgian regions occupied by Russian troops, "Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions are Georgian."
The final box reads, "Slava Ukraini," or "Glory to Ukraine," the rallying cry of Ukrainian defenders during eight years of mostly localized war against Kremlin-backed separatists and now, since February, against an all-out Russian invasion.
A code of conduct follows that includes a warning neither to assume anyone speaks Russian nor to "engage in political discussions while being drunk."
If you are approved, you get an e-mailed "visa" that shows you're "welcome" at the self-styled "outspoken location" and "democratic space" in Tbilisi's Dedaena Park on the Kura (Mtkvari) River.
The nightspot, a nearby monument, and the park are all named after a 19th-century textbook that has special significance in Georgian history. Deda Ena, or Mother Tongue, was written by educator Iakob Gogebashvili in 1876 to teach children the Georgian language seven decades after the Russian Empire imposed Russian on the local population.
It also lent its name to street protests in Tbilisi in 1978 that forced Soviet officials to withdraw a plan to revoke Georgia's status as an official state language.