SAN DIEGO, California — Since its inception in 2015, the Pushkin Russian restaurant has been a venue where emigres can wistfully indulge in culinary memories from the home country: blinis, borscht, red and black caviar, along with geographically-themed libations.
Grocery stores in the neighborhood sell products familiar to the Slavic immigrants, from salo (frozen pork lard), buckwheat, and “herring under a fur coat.” Such stores are always called “Russian” — though business owners could be Moldavians, Ukrainians, or Armenians — because it was clear to everyone, including Americans, that they sell products from Eastern Europe.
For the many immigrants who came to the US in the latter part of the last century from the countries of the former USSR – Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kazakhstan, and Russia — Russian is the common language of communication.
But after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the situation has changed a lot for the owners of Russian-named businesses: they have become the targets of hate, including physical and verbal assaults.
Forced To Change Names
Ike Gazaryan, an ethnic Armenian who owns the Pushkin Russian restaurant named for the acclaimed writer, received a message with the content “You disgusting Russians.” Another intimidator threatened to “come by and blow up the restaurant,” and others like it on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
Ghazaryan was advised to change the name, but he decided not to do it, because he knows that his Russian clients do not support the war.
“Pushkin Russian Restaurant supports Ukrainian people and their choice for their freedom, their choice for their life and to be able to control their own country,” he said.
Other “Russian” restaurants have felt forced to remove the reference to Russia from their signage. For example, a restaurant in Carmichael, owned by Moldovan-born Alexandr Sirbu changed its name from “Firebird Russian Restaurant” to “Noroc Eastern European Restaurant.”
(This was not linked with assaults). “We don’t want to support Russia and what they are doing because we don’t think it’s right. We don’t want to be like Russians,” said Alexander Sirbu, explaining his decision.
Ukrainian mechanic Jay Sheludko was forced to change the name of his Russian Wrapz workshop to Hussle Customs after he began to receive insults and threats over the phone and on the Internet because of the word “Russian.”
“I am Ukrainian. I am not Russian, but I have been speaking Russian all my life,” said Sheludko.
Hate Speech On Facebook
A number of Facebook groups for immigrants have changed their names, removing the word “Russian” or specifying “for Russian-speaking immigrants.” Moreover, according to the administrator of the biggest Russian-speaking ladies’ groups in the US, in early spring the social network itself began to restrain the activity of the group with the word “Russian” in its name.
In the Russian-speaking private groups on Facebook, immigrant moms shared their stories about their US-born children receiving ridicule and insults such as “fascists” or “fascists’ kids” from their classmates. That was totally upsetting and frightening for both kids and mothers.
In one heinous incident last April, a Ukrainian man was indicted for attempted murder as a hate crime for allegedly assaulting another man in Brooklyn, New York, whom he believed to be Russian. The victim veeded 17 stitches in neck and face after being stabbed with broken beer bottles.
Brooklyn District Attorney Gonzalez said: “This defendant allegedly attempted to murder an innocent Ukrainian man who he believed to be Russian in a hateful and violent rage.”
Hate Crime Data Does Not Include Russian Victims
The California Department of Justice’s annual report on hate crimes found that total hate crime reporting increased by 32.6% compared to 2020. These statistics do not yet contain data on crimes and incidents against Russian-speaking immigrants.
Hate crimes, bias-motivated behavior, threats and other types of law violations are punishable, so they should be reported immediately. The statute of limitations for hate crimes when violators can be persecuted is three years.
Bias-motivated hate towards Russians reached a high level when Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-California, in an interview with CNN, suggested “kicking every Russian student out” of universities in retaliation against Russian President Vladamir Putin. He also suggested “closing their embassy in the United States.”
Swalwell’s proposal received a lot of positive feedback and retweets on Twitter.
On the other hand, the University of California in Berkeley, which has over three dozen Russian students, made available to them resources they can turn to if they find themselves facing hateful rhetoric. Many of them said they felt alienated from their classmates and from American society since Russia’s invasion.
UC Berkeley’s International Office Director Ivor Emmanuel, wrote to the students, advising them to “be careful and vigilant when they are on the streets.”
Slavic Sacramento also regularly receives offers or demands to stop publishing in Russian, because “Russian is the language of the aggressor.” In private messages we often find insulting messages because of the use of Russian language.
Attacks on everything Russian did not bypass Russian culture in California. At the end of September, the San Francisco Opera hosted the premiere of the opera Eugene Onegin by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, based on the novel by the famous Russian poet of the 19th century A.S. Pushkin. According to various sources, about 3,000 people came to the premiere.
Artists from the US, Greece, Canada, Italy and Russia took part in the production of the opera; the San Francisco Opera made a statement regarding Eugene Onegin and Ukraine, condemning the war.
In April of 2022, Olena Korchova, a professor of musicology at the National Music Academy of Ukraine, contributed to an ongoing debate about whether the Tchaikovsky Academy of Music in Kyiv should shed its namesake. Korchova wrote: “Our enemy is by no means Tchaikovsky himself, but only his simulacrum, the Soviet and Putin ideological brand of the same name, the attachment to which literally ties our hands, deprives us of our freedom, and turns us into hostages of a dead tradition.”
However, despite all this, Ukrainian activists gathered at the premiere in front of the San Francisco Opera building, uttered anti-war slogans and called for the cancellation of Russian culture.
Love Triumphs Hate
For Russians, the war also became a tragedy, because many Russians have relatives and friends in Ukraine who died or lost their houses. That’s why American businesses and organizations owned by Russians or whose name directly refers to Russia sincerely support Ukraine in its fight for territorial integrity and independence and help this war-torn country.
For example, the owner of the Michelin-starred Russian restaurant The Birch & Rye in San Francisco, Anya El-Wattar, has collected more than $100,000 in donations for World Central Kitchen in Ukraine.
The Russian Baptist Church in West Sacramento helps Ukrainian refugees. Members of the church actively accept migrants in their homes.
And such help is not unique. Many Russians who immigrated to the United States organize rallies in support of Ukraine, do fundraising, collect clothes, medicines and sundry to be sent to Ukraine. They also help the Ukrainian refugees to settle in California, because Russians are hurt and ashamed to see that the Russian state, headed by Vladimir Putin, is trying to destroy Ukraine, and they are fully against war.