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Anti-Russian hate in Europe is making chefs and school children out to be enemies

Russian chef Alexei Zimin has received threats at his London restaurant, Zima. (Karla Adam/The Washington Post)
7 min

LONDON — Russian chef Alexei Zimin is donating part of his London restaurant’s revenue to support Red Cross work with Ukrainian refugees. He has been singing songs by a Russian dissident poet on Instagram, posting messages such as: “Stop the war. Withdraw troops. Bring our soldiers home.” He knows that in speaking out this way, he may never be able to return to Russia, where he has been credited with leading a gastronomic revolution and owns two more restaurants.

And yet angry messages are filling his restaurant’s voice-mail inbox. “Russians are killers,” one declared. “You’re Putin’s Russians,” another accused.

Zimin, 50, is among those who have been hit by a sudden and rapidly rising tide of anti-Russian sentiment in Europe. While governments have moved to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin and sanction oligarchs, while societies have been calling for cultural figures — from hockey stars to opera singers — to denounce the war, Russian expats who have never had sympathy for Putin and who are horrified by what’s happening in Ukraine say they are facing a wave of generalized hostility.

“Across Europe, people who have no involvement with the war are being targeted and removed from positions,” said Aleksandra Lewicki, a sociologist at the University of Sussex. “There’s a sense of a clear enemy, it’s Russians, from all walks of life, who are being targeted by racist hate crimes and derogatory comments.”

Lumping all Russians together was a predictable “knee jerk reaction,” Lewicki said. In the Western European imagination, the East has long been inferior, she said. “Often these things are dormant, but then things happen like this crisis moment, and then people start instantly acting on these impulses.”

Some people have been quick to issue blanket condemnations in Central and Eastern Europe, too. In the Czech Republic, where people still recall the trauma of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, recent social media posts have suggested Russian citizens “should be visibly marked, maybe with a red star.” The morning after the invasion, a Prague university professor wrote on Facebook that he would not teach or test Russian students. (He later deleted the post.)

Prime Minister Petr Fiala has denounced attacks on Russian children in Czech elementary schools, though he has also defended his government’s decisions to stop giving visas to most Russian nationals and to review Russians already within the country.

Some stores and restaurants have put up signs in Czech and Russian saying, “We won’t serve Russian and Belarusian occupants.” Others want Russian patrons to pass a kind of moral test. A sign in a restaurant in the Zizkov district of Prague states: “Before I start paying attention to you, you must first state that Putin and Lukashenko are mass murderers. Then you apologize for them and you’ll show remorse. Only then will you be allowed to order.”

Russian expats interviewed by The Washington Post universally emphasized that the abusive comments pale in comparison to what Ukrainians are facing, as victims of war. Russians living in Europe don’t expect to be sent off to camps the way Japanese Americans were during World War II.

But multiple expats said they were grappling with feelings of shame and of being newly uncomfortable about their nationality.

“I don’t know if I should say I’m Russian these days,” said Julia Potikha, 28, who has been living in Germany since she moved from Moscow when she was 6. She said she hasn’t experienced recent discrimination but worries that people might treat her differently or blame her for Putin’s invasion — which has prompted a seismic shift in German foreign policy.

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“The [Russian] people are not the government, and many do not support the war,” said Potikha, who has been volunteering to assist Ukrainians. Her parents back in Russia, though, are Putin supporters, she said. Most of what they know is from Russian TV. On the phone, they didn’t want to talk about Ukraine.

Russian photographer Alexander Gronsky, 41, just had an upcoming exhibition in the Italian town of Reggio Emilia canceled. He said it wasn’t because of his nationality per se, but rather because the exhibit had been organized in collaboration with St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum.

“I totally understand, nobody wants to collaborate with a terrorist state. It’s part of the war’s collateral damage,” he said, adding that he hopes that “cultural bridges” between Europe and Russia won’t collapse. “Not every Russian supports Putin and the war,” he said.

Igor Pellicciari, a professor of Russian politics at the University of Urbino in Italy, said the “air’s pretty toxic for Russians now, as those who live here are constantly being asked about the war, as if they had to justify themselves.”

On a recent night in London’s Trafalgar Square, demonstrators carried posters that read: “I’m Russian. Sorry for that” and “Russians are against the war.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has tried to distinguish between the Russian regime and the Russian people. In a video posted on Twitter, Johnson, speaking in Russian, said: “I do not believe this war is in your name.”

Britain is home to at least 70,000 Russians, many of whom live in London, earning the British capital nicknames such as “Moscow-on-the-Thames” and “Londongrad.”

Not all of them are feeling targeted. Katia Nikitina, 37, a marketing specialist originally from Russia, said none of her friends have blamed her for the “war of one crazy man,” as she described it. But she said she tried to explain to her British friends that more Russians would demonstrate against the war if doing so didn’t risk going to jail. More than 4,500 protesters were arrested on Sunday alone at antiwar demonstrations across Russia, according to the independent human rights organization OVD-Info.

In a global city like London, where hundreds of accents can be heard on “the tube,” a Russian speaker doesn’t stand out. But places with a visible Russian connection have been called out over the invasion. Mari Vanna, a high-end Russian restaurant in Knightsbridge, has garnered reviews on Google like: “The food was great but unfortunately the war has ruined our appetites.” A receptionist at another Russian restaurant in London, who asked not to be named for fear of further abuse, said his place is receiving 30 to 40 hate messages a day, mostly from Britons and Americans. He passes the worst ones on to the police.

“Do you want to hear one?” he asked before pushing play on a recording featuring a person with a British accent who was shouting: “Get out of our f---ing country before we come burn you down, you f---ing scum.”

Zimin, who has lived in Britain for the past six years, said it isn’t easy being Russian right now. He was speaking to a Post reporter at his restaurant, which serves traditional Russian dishes like borscht and Russian honey cake and has a vast selection of infused vodkas. The staff hail from many countries. One of the hosts is Ukrainian.

“Most of the people I know in London and Moscow are against the war,” he said. “We cannot stop being Russians, war or no war. We are Russians and we will continue being Russians, but we are not Russians who try to kill our neighbors.”

Zimin said there’s much about his motherland he’s proud of but that expressing that pride is not befitting of the moment.

“We are a country of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky,” he said. “But not really for today.”

Bauerova reported from Prague, Rosenzweig-Ziff from Berlin and Pitrelli from Rome.