Amid Ukraine war, all things Russia met with scorn, backlash

Russian community groups and Russia-related businesses abroad say they have faced threats amid Moscow’s deadly invasion.

Blue and yellow paint was thrown at the door of the Russian Community Centre in Vancouver, Canada
Blue and yellow paint, the colours of the Ukrainian flag, was thrown at the door of the Russian Community Centre in Vancouver, Canada, earlier this month [Courtesy Russian Community Centre]

Ike Gazaryan says it began with phone calls. Then came the bad online reviews, the cancelled reservations, and the threatening notes.

“Some of these phone calls are pretty disturbing,” said Gazaryan, owner of Pushkin Russian Restaurant in San Diego, California. “They’re yelling, saying, ‘You’re f***king Russian pigs, I hope you die.'”

Gazaryan, who is Armenian, told Al Jazeera that most of his employees are Ukrainian, and the restaurant has hung up Ukrainian flags and donated money in support of Ukraine amid Russia’s devastating military offensive there.

But that has not stopped some members of the public from targeting his restaurant in the weeks since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an all-out invasion of the country. “Russia is the new boogie man,” Gazaryan said in a phone interview this week.

“So anything I guess that has the word ‘Russian’ is going to be a red flag for everybody.”

Public backlash

Western nations have repeatedly blamed Putin for the conflict in Ukraine, dubbing it the Russian president’s “war of choice” even before it began. But Russian forces’ ongoing attacks on Ukrainian cities and towns, which have destroyed homes, damaged hospitals and forced millions to flee, have spurred public anger against Russia as a whole in many places around the world.

While some Russian citizens do support the war and Putin himself, thousands took to the streets across the country to denounce the invasion, while thousands more have since fled Russia fearing forced military conscription. Thousands of anti-war protesters have been detained as Russian authorities crack down on dissenting voices, with Putin on Thursday calling for “a necessary self-purification” to rid Russia of those who do not support the invasion of Ukraine.

But despite opposition to the war amongst many people both in Russia and abroad, several Russian community groups as well as businesses that are even only tangentially Russia-related in the United States, Canada and elsewhere say they have experienced a marked chill – and in cases such as Gazaryan’s, a public backlash, since the invasion began.

In Vancouver, on Canada’s west coast, blue and yellow paint – the colours of the Ukrainian flag – was thrown earlier this month at the door of the local Russian Community Centre. Established in the 1950s, today the centre offers Russian language courses for children and adults, and hosts Russian cultural activities, such as concerts and plays.

“We were in shock,” said Natasha Lozovsky-Burns, a member of the board of directors, who arrived at the centre around 9:30am on March 5 to discover the paint. About 90 children were coming to attend Russian school that morning, she told Al Jazeera, and “the look on their faces and the parents’ faces was just devastating”.

“Eighty percent of our parents are of Ukrainian descent. These poor people who already are in emotional turmoil because they’ve got family and friends in Ukraine who are suffering … they come to the hall, and to see that, it was just a slap in the face because they have nothing to do with what’s happening over there,” Lozovsky-Burns said.

“I think people just need to educate themselves and not make assumptions,” she added. “They see the word ‘Russian’ and they see red.”

‘Not unusual’

With images of death and destruction in Ukraine shocking and angering people around the world, “emotions are running very high”, said Ronald Grigor Suny, a professor of history at the University of Michigan and an expert on Russia.

“People are extraordinarily upset, and they are taking it out in their own indiscriminate way against people who they think are responsible, like anyone who’s Russian,” Suny told Al Jazeera. He said a woman at the university recently was yelled at for speaking Russian on the phone in public, with the aggressor calling her a “commie” – a communist – and telling her to “go back to Russia”.

“Any attacks on Russians, indiscriminately like this – just like attacks on Muslims after 9/11 – are a sign of ignorance, of not understanding the complexities of the situation,” he said, adding though that these types of incidents are “not unusual” in history.

He pointed to how during WWI, people in St Petersburg – then known as Petrograd – attacked the offices of US sewing company Singer, believing it was involved in German espionage, while during the Cold War, serious debate was curtailed and anyone slightly critical of US policy was told to “go back to Russia, whether you’d been to Russia or not”.

More recently, Americans angered over France’s opposition to the US invasion of Iraq briefly renamed French fries “Freedom fries”.

A view of the Russian Tea Room in New York City
Businesses with ‘Russia’ or ‘Russian’ in their names, such as New York’s Russian Tea Room, have publicly denounced the war in an apparent effort to stave off any backlash [File: Mark Lennihan/AP Photo]

Vodka bans, poutine

Amid the war in Ukraine, some US states have banned Russian vodka, while cultural, sporting and other institutions of all kinds have cut ties to their Russian partners.

Restaurants in the Canadian province of Quebec as well as in France that serve poutine – a Quebec dish of fries, cheese curds and gravy – have changed its name or put out statements stressing they are not linked to Putin (the Russian president’s name is spelled “Poutine” in French).

“We have received calls levying insults and even threats,” La Maison de la Poutine, a French restaurant chain, said on Twitter this month. “It therefore seems necessary to recall that La Maison de la Poutine is not linked to the Russian regime and its leader.”

Some US bars also have renamed the Moscow mule cocktail, the Kyiv mule. “It seems to be these things will wear off in a while, that the kind of insane, instant reactions will eventually dissipate, but at the moment it’s quite serious,” Suny said.

That was echoed by Benjamin Freeman, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington, DC, who also told Al Jazeera that “a very strong anti-Russian sentiment” currently prevails in the US.

Negative views of Russia did not start with the current war, however, as international public opinion towards the country has been on a steady decline for years. According to a 2020 Pew Research Center poll, the share of people holding favourable views of Russia in the US, UK and Canada dropped by at least 20 percentage points since surveys began in 2007. Seventy-one percent of people in the US said they had a negative view of Russia, according to that survey. Russia had also been widely criticised amid allegations it interfered in recent US elections.

I think people just need to educate themselves and not make assumptions. They see the word 'Russian' and they see red

by Natasha Lozovsky-Burns

But in the context of Ukraine, Freeman cautioned against allowing anti-Russian views among the US public to translate into harsh penalties that will harm the Russian people – or lead to a “political race to do things that are not good foreign policy and that will actually punish the people of Russia, not Putin”.

“We certainly don’t want a modern-day McCarthyism going on,” he added.

‘Scared of the name Vladimir’

In the meantime, the atmosphere has prompted several Russia-related businesses to publicly declare their opposition to the war in Ukraine, in an apparent effort to avoid threats and confrontations.

The storied Russian Tea Room in New York City, for instance, has a message on its website denouncing “Russia’s unprovoked acts of war in the strongest possible terms” and supporting Ukraine.

“For 95 years, the NY institution’s history has been deeply rooted in speaking against communist dictatorship and for democracy,” the note reads. “Just as the original founders, Soviet defectors who were displaced by the revolution, stood against Stalin’s Soviet Union, we stand against Putin and with the people of Ukraine.”

Back in San Diego, Gazaryan at Pushkin Russian Restaurant said while the threatening phone calls have slowed down over the past few days, a sense of anti-Russian hostility continues to hang in the air.

This week, a friend of his who is originally from Uzbekistan told him about an encounter he had with a client while doing appliance repairs, Gazaryan told Al Jazeera. “This is what he wrote me,” Gazaryan recounted.

“‘I just had a customer introduce me as Gary to their kids when I walked inside the house. I was confused, I didn’t think much of it, and I didn’t really want to correct him. Then after I get inside his laundry room, he comes to me and says, ‘Hey I know your name is Vlad, but the kids are scared of the name Vladimir.””

Gazaryan added: “This type of thing [is] happening all over and people in the United States don’t understand that most of the Russians that live here don’t support Putin – they ran away from the regime.”

Source: Al Jazeera