Ike Gazaryan’s wife, Yulia, typically answers the phone for their San Diego, Calif. restaurant, Pushkin Russian Restaurant, which serves food from former Soviet republics. But after Russia invaded Ukraine, Gazaryan decided to answer it himself. In the week after the war began, he says, the restaurant received about 15 to 20 abusive phone calls.
He didn’t pay much attention to the first few calls, which he attributed to kids messing around, but then some of the calls seemed to threaten violence. “We started getting more serious calls, with people yelling and screaming at us,” says Gazaryan, who is ethnically Armenian but has lived in Russia. “As if we have something to do with this war, blaming us for what the Putin regime is doing. We had people calling, saying, they’re going to blow sh-t up.” His wife Yulia has borne the brunt of these calls, Gazaryan says. “I had to take the phone, because I don’t want people screaming at her.”
Since the start of the Russian invasion, people around the world have expressed their solidarity with the Ukrainian people by giving to humanitarian charities, corporate boycotts, and in-person protests. However, others have directed their ire toward anything they deem to be associated with Russia, or its people. In some cases, these protests have seemed harmless, or even silly—for instance, the International European Tree of the Year contest eliminated Russian trees from consideration. Russian cultural exports have become another target, with cancellations of performances by the Russian State Ballet of Siberia, the Royal Moscow Ballet company and the Bolshoi Ballet in the U.K. In other cases, the rhetoric has been more clearly discriminatory, such as member of Congress Eric Swalwell arguing for “kicking every Russian student out of the United States” and British lawmaker Roger Gale arguing that all Russians living in the country should be “sent home.”
Some attacks on Russians and others perceived to be Russian, have been criminal. A Russian Orthodox Church in Calgary, Canada was splattered with red paint on Feb. 26. In Washington, D.C., vandals smashed windows, broke a door, and left behind “bias-related” signs at the Russia House Restaurant and Lounge. And in Dublin, a truck crashed through the gate of the Russian embassy.
The attacks appear to indiscriminately target those from the Russian-speaking diaspora. German broadcaster DW reported that the Russian owner of a Russian language school said her colleagues and students had received abuse and harassment, adding that a local museum initially canceled a performance by her students “for political reasons.” In Vancouver, a Russian community center was splattered with blue and yellow paint, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. And in Columbus, Ohio, Diana Deli—which is owned by both a Russian and a Ukrainian–has reported receiving threatening phone calls.
Some victims of abuse fled political persecution in Russia and former Soviet Republics themselves. Others are not Russian at all, but immigrated from other parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, including Ukraine.
Gazaryan fled persecution in Azerbaijan as a child, first settling in Uzbekistan, and later Russia, before finally making the U.S. his home. His wife is from Russia and is a member of the Yakut ethnic minority, a Turkic people who historically faced discrimination in the country. Gazaryan says that his business has donated money to Ukrainian charities and provided money to their Ukrainian staff members to send to their families back home. He strongly empathizes with the Ukrainians, in part because he can relate to their suffering. “My family knows what war is firsthand, and what it’s like to leave everything and run,” says Gazaryan. “We kept running, basically, until we moved to the United States 24 years ago.”
Regardless of his origins, Gazaryan’s business has been negatively affected. Large parties abruptly canceled reservations in the aftermath of the invasion. The restaurant’s savings are depleted from repeated shutdowns during the pandemic, and Gazaryan fears they won’t be able to take another hit. “Just when the COVID regulations have been dropped, we got this. It’s like we can’t catch a break,” he says.
Harassment has also extended to some of the most visible Russians in the U.S. and Canada: professional hockey players. Dan Milstein is a National Hockey League Players’ Association-certified agent who works with more than 40 clients from Russia and Belarus, such as Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Milstein says that his clients in both the U.S. and Canada have told him they have experienced harassment. For instance, says Milstein, one athlete was approached by a stranger on the street and told to “pack his bags and go back to effing Russia.” Some athletes have asked for extra security for their wives and children, who have also been subjected to harassment, says Milstein. After an athlete’s wife posted a picture of their baby on Instagram, a stranger wrote they are a “Nazi child,” Milstein said.
Amid such discord, some owners of Russian-themed businesses remain hopeful that they can help to bridge the divisions, while avoiding some of the negative connotations. It was in this spirit that the owners of Taste of Russia, a store in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn selling food from the former Soviet Republics, decided to change its name and to get rid of a sign featuring Red Square’s St. Basil’s Cathedral, says co-owner Alena Rakhman. Following the invasion, a number of customers approached the owners to ask them to change the name, she says.
Rakhman, who was born in Odessa, Ukraine to a Russian-speaking family, says that, while a new name has not been decided yet, the aim of renaming the store is to make the business more inclusive, reflecting the diversity of the neighborhood itself. Brighton Beach is known as “Little Kyiv” for its many residents from the Ukrainian community, who live side by side with the Russian community. “Traditionally, food is a unifier. So we would like our food and our place to unify our community and not divide it in any possible way,” she says.
The business owners’ plan to change the name has prompted backlash from some members of the Russian community, who have responded to local news stories about the decision on social media. “It’s sad because, you know, we’re just trying,” says Rakhman. “We just want to help, we just want to be sensitive and kind. And people are getting angry for no reason.”
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