Jingoism Won’t Save Ukraine. It Just Makes You An A-Hole
Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, and it’s Vladimir Putin who’s intent on ruining lives, including the Russians under his despotic rule. Unfortunately, too many Americans have chosen to blame all Russians for Putin’s barbarism, even the ones who are actually American themselves.
Sveta is a small restaurant in New York’s West Village that serves such Russian cuisine as borscht, potato dumplings, and beef stroganoff. After Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine, the restaurant a flood of negative emails, none of which helped a single Ukrainian.
From the New York Times:
One [email] simply said, “Go Home.”
That would have been difficult for Sveta Savchitz, who is 64 years old and moved here from Ukraine in 1993. More than 25 years later, when she and her son, Alan Aguichev, opened the restaurant, they decided to market it as Russian because they thought it would have more name recognition.
Savchitz has lived in the US for almost 30 years, but it only took Putin’s war to remind her how conditional her citizenship is. But she, too, is America. The immigrant who gets the job done. Unfortunately, for the sake of her business and perhaps her own safety, she’s "changed all the language describing Sveta online from ‘Russian’ to 'Eastern European.’ "
According to the Times, New York’s Russian restaurants "have a public relations problem.” That’s a rather benign description of people turning against their fellow citizens. This isn’t simply a PR issue for Russian business owners. It’s a moral failing for those who’ve confused jingoism with compassion.
The Times confirms, as though it’s relevant, that “many of the owners are openly against the war.” The word “openly” is doing a lot of heavy lifting. I don’t know how many restaurants in my neighborhood are “openly” against Putin’s war, but it’s safe to assume most decent people are opposed to wanton destruction and butchery. I’m reminded of the period after 9/11 when Arab and Muslim business owners or really anyone who believed they looked the part feared violent retaliation for crimes they hadn’t committed.
People are taking a stand somehow but they’re only hurting others for no good reason. They’re not even bothering to determine if the business they’re boycotting is Russian or Ukrainian. Perhaps it’s all the same to them. Nonetheless, the victims are Americans who’ve played no part in the horrors unfolding in Europe. Like everyone in the restaurant industry, they are still recovering from the COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions. Now they’re “getting burned by reservation cancellations, social media campaigns and bad reviews online.”
“People have kicked in our door at night,” said Vlada Von Shats, the matron of Russian Samovar, a family-owned Russian piano bar in Midtown known for its flavored vodkas, caviar and red chandeliers. “We have people on the telephone calling us Nazis.”
Ms. Von Shats is Russian, and her husband is Ukrainian. Their three adult children, who are all involved in the restaurant, identify as both. Most of Samovar’s staff is from Ukraine; one of the musicians had a niece who died in the violence last weekend. Russian employees are vocal about their opposition to the invasion.
This breaks my heart. When I worked in midtown in the late ‘90s, my friends from work and I would often close out the evening at the Russian Samovar. Promotions and departures were celebrated there or at the Russian Vodka Room across the street. We also did our fair share of happy hour grousing. The employees at both spots were always lovely and indulgent. I discovered the joys of infused vodka. I savored the borscht and when someone else was buying the caviar.
Business is for shit at the Russian Samovar. Reservations have dropped by 60 percent, thanks to a “stigma” born from ignorance and intolerance. Vlada Von Shats said, “These people don’t realize that we have nothing to do with Putin.”
The restaurant is hosting a fund-raiser for Ukraine this week. It posted a blue and yellow flag on the door and a sign that says, “Stand by Ukraine. No War.”
We should stand by Ukraine, no question, but we should also stop looking for people to punish. Let’s stand by each other, no matter where they’re from.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."