Russian businesses in US facing animosity over war in Ukraine

Russia At War

Interior of a small coffee shop. Small cafe kitchen with food display glass cabinet.

(NewsNation) — Russian Samovar, a restaurant in New York City, recently felt the effects of the Russia-Ukraine War within its own doors.

One of its employees traveled to Odesa, a port city on the Black Sea in southern Ukraine, three days before the war started. When the invasion commenced, he was stuck there.

Russian Samovar co-owner Vlada Von Shats got word only this week that the employee had crossed over to Moldova.

“Hopefully we’ll see him back home soon,” she said. “We all have our own little tragic stories from our own families.”

Despite this, and the fact that Russian Samovar employs mostly Ukrainians, the almost 40-year-old restaurant and piano bar has faced hate e-mails, had its sign kicked in, fielded angry phone calls, and endured one-star reviews online because of one word in its name.

After Russia’s attacks on Ukraine started two weeks ago, Von Shats said, business at Russian Samovar dropped by 60%. While the reviews were taken off Google, Von Shats said the anti-Russian sentiment she experienced has stuck with her.

Businesses across the country with even nominal connections to Russia have faced similar animosity since the war started, even though these establishments have nothing to do with the invasion. Shortly after the attack began, the usually bustling Russian Tea Room in New York City had a lot of empty tables, NewsNation local affiliate WPIX reported, even with a note on its website denouncing Russia’s “unprovoked acts of war.”

Many Russian businesses have even spoken out against the war and shown support for Ukraine, including Russian Samovar, which is hosting fundraisers and working with organizations helping Ukrainian refugees.

At Diana Deli, an Eastern European food store in Columbus, Ohio, it’s been a mixed bag: “We had a lot of people that were really supportive of us, a lot of people that were very rude,” employee Andrew Wurth said.

People have come in and complained that they sell Russian food, even though it’s cuisine Diana Deli has been selling since 2014. One woman complained about the Russian music the deli was playing on the radio, even though that was actually part of a mix of tunes they were playing, Wurth said. 

Someone even called in and implied they would smash Diana Deli’s windows.

“I try to explain to them that it’s a very complicated issue,” Wurth said. “They’re just doing performative activism. The phone call that they’re doing doesn’t help anybody in Ukraine.”

One of Diana Deli’s owners is from Russia, the other, Ukraine. 

“We have nothing to do with what’s going on,” Wurth said. “We’re just normal people just trying to make a living.”

This isn’t the first time Von Shats, a refugee herself, who came with her parents from the former Soviet Union in 1977, has experienced Russophobia, the name given to anti-Russian prejudice. It happened during the Cold War, she remembers.

This time is different, though, Von Shats said.

“It hurts a lot more, because it’s personal,” she said.

Ivan Chernoskutov, who was born in Russia but now lives with his wife in Indiana, said when his mother came to America in the 2000s, she had people react negatively toward her because she is Russian.

There is some concern he feels now, that other people of Russian descent could be affected by Russophobia in the wake of war.

“You can’t just put everybody together,” he said. “There are so many Russians that don’t support it … having more negativity, and hatefulness does not help anything. I mean, we can’t affect what Putin does.”

A lot of Diana Deli’s customers are Soviet Union expatriates who speak Russian. Many come for the food that wasn’t available to them as children growing up in the Soviet Union, Wurth said.

As an American, Wurth, who also speaks Russian, acknowledges that he can just choose to speak English.

That’s not the case for his customers, many of whom have an accent.

“Every interaction they have with Americans is colored by this,” Wurth said. 

Now when he tells people he speaks Russian, their faces change.

“They just go, ‘Well, why would you do that?’” Wurth said.

Facing backlash, some places have chosen to change their name. Russian House in Austin, Texas, did so as an act of solidarity with Ukraine, NewsNation local affiliate KXAN reported.

Others, like Von Shats, want to keep their names. 

“We were the Russian Samovar before there was a Russian Federation,” Von Shats said. “So when people asked me to change our name, I say no. Just for that reason: We were here before they were.”

Recently, things have started looking up for Russian Samovar.

A story the New York Times wrote detailing the Russophobia the restaurant was facing helped bolster support. Now, Russian Samovar has gotten positive emails from strangers across the country in places ranging from Oregon and Washington to Texas and Florida.

“I feel the love,” Von Shats said. “Between the phone calls calling us Nazis, we’re getting a lot of people calling in to show support, and it’s very comforting to know that there are still people out there that understand.”

“We’re just all praying that this madness will end,” Von Shats said. 

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