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In February 2022, when Russian forces invaded Ukraine, after having already occupied parts of the country since February 2014, Georgians responded with anger and solidarity. Drawing parallels to their experiences with the Russian-backed breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, people in Tbilisi organized huge rallies in front of Parliament, gathered humanitarian aid to send to Ukraine, opened their homes to refugees, made solidarity borscht and posted signs in their restaurants and other businesses saying Russians were not welcome.

The mood a few hundred kilometers west in rainy Batumi this March was more subdued – the protests were smaller (the city is smaller), and while Ukrainian flags and anti-war slogans blanketed the city, we didn’t see any of the anti-Russian, or even anti-Putin, signs, posters and graffiti that had proliferated throughout Tbilisi. This is despite the fact that Batumi, which, at least according to the most recent census, has the largest proportion of Ukrainians in a Georgian city. It seems like everywhere you turn, you encounter a diverse offering of Ukrainian-owned restaurants, bars and cafes, including, but definitely not limited to: Manufactory 1993, which serves upscale pirog (sweet or savory baked pie) and wine; affordable home cooking at Як вдома (“As At Home”); cute stalwart Chocolatte Coffee-Room; Chips & Salsa Creative Dance Cafe; Uncle Feng’s, a classic for Chinese cuisine; Party Bar 11; beachside Bez Mezh and Mexican-themed Esco-bar.

The camera-shy, interview-shy owner of Як вдома is originally from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, which has been subject to constant missile strikes since the war began, and may have lost nearly two thirds of its population of around 1.5 million. The restaurant serves, as the name might suggest, homestyle Ukrainian and Soviet cuisine at affordable prices, particularly so considering their location in Batumi’s charming but touristy old quarter.

On a recent busy lunch hour, we settled on a plate of the best handmade mushroom and potato vareniki (Ukrainian dumplings) we’d ever had, with a refreshing Korean carrot salad on the side for some vitamins and a glass of charmingly pink compote (a drink popular throughout the region made with fresh or dried fruit and copious amounts of sugar), while other tables had classics like buckwheat, vinegret (a beet and potato salad) and cutlets with potato puree. Our waitress, who is from Kyiv and did not wish to share her name, said she had moved to Georgia six years ago because she “wanted to understand how people are living in other countries.” She added that the restaurant, covered in cheerful murals depicting a festival in Ukraine in better days, had been providing free food for refugees, feeding about 50 to 60 people every day. She said the best way for people in Batumi to support displaced people and Ukraine would be to donate food, such as pasta, oil and sugar, to humanitarian efforts and people organizing to feed their communities.

Just down the street is one of the more unlikely hits in the Ukrainian-owned restaurant scene: Uncle Feng’s, our favorite – and until recently Batumi’s only – Chinese restaurant. With significantly more bell pepper and paprika than we’ve encountered at Chinese restaurants elsewhere, the food is delicious if not perhaps precisely what you’d get at a restaurant in China, and if you ask for spice, be prepared to sweat a little. If you still need more heat, Ungle Feng’s chili oil is a must-try.

We go every time we’re in Batumi, because it’s the perfect antidote to the bread and cheese world of Georgian cuisine, and I’m afraid we always order the same things: salt and pepper fried chicken, chicken noodles and the cucumber salad, extra spicy. Each dish is enough food to feed two, so after splitting this feast and a couple beers we always leave stuffed, warm and content.

All the food is cooked by owners Alexei and Tamara Reznichenko, who learned to cook Chinese food from the Ukrainian-Chinese owners from whom they bought the restaurant five years ago. Alexei and Tamara moved here seven years ago with their two daughters, fleeing their hometown of Alchevsk, one of the largest cities in Luhansk oblast, where a Russian-backed separatist state was set up following the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine. As Alexei says, “The war didn’t start now, nor a month ago – it started eight years ago.”

Tamara says she’s noticed an influx of Ukrainians in Batumi, but not of their friends from back home – as the couple is from Luhansk, most of their friends had to flee years ago. There aren’t many official numbers yet, but she hears more and more Ukrainians talking in the streets, and she says they have been helping newcomers adapt to life in the city.

They’re not very optimistic about the near future: Tamara says she thinks the war will continue for a while longer, and Alexei says “The army won’t solve this problem.” They don’t know if they’ll ever move back – the cities have been destroyed, and they’ve settled in their lives in Batumi: they have a successful restaurant, their daughters, one of whom plays flute at the local conservatory, have both learned Georgian… Tamara says that while moving was hard, Batumi is a “very good place to raise children,” and that the local children were especially welcoming of their kids. However, because of the situation in Luhansk, even before this year, they haven’t been able to see their parents and grandparents that remained there.

For now, they say that people looking to help out Ukraine and Ukrainians in Georgia should donate to humanitarian or financial aid groups and share information about what’s happening in Ukraine. Alexei points out that they’ve also fled from the conflict, so there’s an easy way to help one family of refugees: “Just come and be customers!”

In the mornings, a few blocks away from Uncle Feng’s, Ukrainian-owned Old Batumi classic Chocolatte is often packed. The tiny cafe serves an important function as one of the rare places that opens at 9 a.m. – it’s unusually difficult to find breakfast in town, so the cafe’s early morning (by Georgian standards) omelettes, waffles, syrnyki (sweet Ukrainian cheese cakes) and espresso machine are highly appreciated, and its cute outdoor seating area makes it an equally pleasant place for an affordable pasta or vareniki lunch. The normally gregarious and chatty owner was too busy for interviews when we stopped by recently – in addition to being the sole front-of-house staffer in a full cafe, at that moment, he was dealing with the Georgian tax service.

As Uncle Feng’s Tamara Reznichenko said at the end of our interview, “Life goes on, no matter what.”

Note: Some interviews have been translated from Russian.

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Katharine KhamhaengwongKatharine Khamhaengwong

Published on May 16, 2022

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