The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Ukraine war intensifies, some Russian speakers far from Moscow are feeling hostility

Ike Gazaryan, left, stands with his wife, Yulya, and son, Arren, after voting in an election in California. (Family Photo)
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In the days after Russian soldiers invaded Ukraine, prompting an outcry across the globe, Ike Gazaryan started receiving threatening phone calls, negative reviews and cancellations at his California restaurant.

Gazaryan, 38, owns Pushkin Russian Restaurant in San Diego, where cooks serve up classics such as beef stroganoff. Though he is Armenian — and a U.S. citizen — Gazaryan speaks Russian, enjoys that nation’s cuisine and named his seven-year-old restaurant after Russian author Alexander Pushkin.

But the ties to Russia end there. Many of his family, friends and employees are from Ukraine, and he supports their fight against Russia’s invasion. Nonetheless, that hasn’t stopped strangers from calling, shouting and telling him that he is to blame for the vicious bloodshed Russian President Vladimir Putin has unleashed on Ukraine. One caller even asked why he hasn’t spoken to Putin about putting a stop to the war.

“Everyone puts us in the same bucket thinking that just because we speak Russian, we are Russian, and that because we’re all Russian, we are automatically for Putin and this war — and we are not. Absolutely not,” Gazaryan said.

Windows are broken at Russia House restaurant, owner says

As Putin’s invasion of Ukraine intensifies, some Russian-themed businesses and Russian Americans in the United States are suddenly getting a frosty reception — and in a few cases, experiencing outright hostility. A Russian restaurant in Washington, D.C., called Russia House, was vandalized and the owner indicated that he thought anti-Russian sentiment might be to blame. Some Russian Americans say their children are being bullied at school.

Recent incidents such as these speak to the frustration many Americans are feeling toward the war in Ukraine, and also reveal a lack of understanding about the conflict, said Michelle Kelso, assistant professor of sociology and international affairs at George Washington University. But Kelso warned of the dangers of people not making the distinction between Putin and the general Russian population — noting that many oppose Putin’s policies and condemn the invasion.

“People think they can target Russian businesses and use that as an outlet for their anger, but the problem is that there is not a nuanced perspective,” she said. “People get ratcheted up and that can lead to violence.”

David Foglesong, a professor of history who specializes in U.S.-Russian relations at Rutgers University, said widespread anti-Russia sentiment in the United States dates back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when worsening czarist political repression and anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia combined to trigger what he called the first American crusade for Russian freedom.

“Americans were encouraged to sympathize with the people of Russia rather than the government. And that seems to me to be what is really different from what we’re seeing now, where you see people at protests with signs saying all Russians are to blame for Putin’s aggression,” he said.

In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted before and after the start of the invasion, 80 percent of Americans said they see Russia as “unfriendly” or an “enemy” — the highest level since the Cold War. But even then, when tensions were at their highest and many feared a nuclear war in the early 1980s, Foglesong said, Americans and Soviets were working to overcome those tensions.

“That’s what I would point to as an inspiration for how we should be thinking — about trying to build connections outside of the Russian government, to the Russian people. And instead of terminating cultural exchanges and person-to-person contacts, we should be seeking to maintain them,” he said.

Since the invasion started, Russia has become isolated from the Western world as major U.S. brands halt sales in Russia, sports federations and leagues move aggressively to sideline Russia’s teams and even the country’s show cats are banned from international competition.

But far from Moscow, Russian Americans and others hailing from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union say they are feeling a misplaced hostility.

Tatyana Thulien is a former president of the Russian American Business & Cultural Association in Charlotte, which works to promote Russian and Slavic culture in the United States. She says there has been a “wave of harassment” against Russian immigrants and Russian Americans in recent days. Friends who emigrated from Russia or other parts of the former U.S.S.R. tell her their Russian-speaking children are being bullied at school.

“Students don’t have anything to do with what is going on today — most of them are refugees that came here from Ukraine or Russia or Belarus, or elsewhere in the Soviet Union, to have normal lives, and it is unacceptable to be bullied,” she said Thursday.

Thulien pointed to another incident in which the parents of a close friend, a couple in their 80s, had their car scratched and vandalized overnight this week.

“I am terrified about what is going on, but harassing people who have nothing to do with it is just wrong,” said Thulien who was born and raised in Kyiv and moved to the United States in 1998.

Ukrainian mayors describe desperate conditions as Russia advances

Gazaryan, who said he was born in Azerbaijan, fled with his family from war in that country in the late 1980s and sought refuge in Uzbekistan, he said. Then, when the Soviet Union collapsed, he said Uzbekistan, which is largely Muslim, was not considered safe for his Christian family, so they ran again — this time to Russia.

He said he lived in Russia only a few years before his family immigrated to the United States, where he has lived for the past 24 years, raising a family of his own and building a successful business.

He and his wife opened Pushkin Russian Restaurant seven years ago because, he said, he wanted to share the dishes he grew up enjoying. He said the restaurant serves Russian dishes as well as Armenian, Ukrainian and even American ones.

He said the recipes have nothing to do with politics.

“We just make food,” he said.

Still, he added, people, including his father, have recently suggested that he change the Russian name of his restaurant — but he won’t. He said it is Putin — not the people of Russia — who is driving this war, and changing the name of his restaurant to distance himself from the Russian people would, in a way, be turning his back on them.

“You have no idea how many of the Russians here are against what’s happening. Imagine being against something and being blamed for that same thing,” he said. “This is what Russians are going to go through here in the United States.”

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