Russians Around the World Are Facing Abuse and Harassment Amid the Ukraine Conflict
Ike Gazaryan’s wife, Yulia, typically answers the phone for their San Diego, Calif. restaurant, Pushkin Russian Restaurant, which serves food from former Soviet republics. Gazaryan was forced to take the call after Russia invaded Ukraine. According to him, the restaurant got about 15-20 abusive calls within a week.
He didn’t pay much attention to the first few calls, which he attributed to kids messing around, but then some of the calls seemed to threaten violence. “We started getting more serious calls, with people yelling and screaming at us,” says Gazaryan, who is ethnically Armenian but has lived in Russia. “As if we have something to do with this war, blaming us for what the Putin regime is doing. We had people calling, saying, they’re going to blow sh-t up.” His wife Yulia has borne the brunt of these calls, Gazaryan says. “I had to take the phone, because I don’t want people screaming at her.”
People from all over the globe have shown solidarity since the Russian invasion by donating to the Ukrainian government Humanitarian charities,Corporate boycottsAnd Protests in person. Some others, however, have taken aim at anyone associated with Russia and its people. In some cases, these protests have seemed harmless, or even silly—for instance, the International European Tree of the Year competitionRussian trees have been removed from the list of potential targets. Russian cultural exports became another target. Cancellations of performancesBy the Russian State Ballet of Siberia. The Royal Moscow Ballet company. Other cases have shown more discriminatory rhetoric, like Eric Swalwell, member of Congress Argumentation for “kicking every Russian student out of the United States” and British lawmaker Roger Gale arguing that all Russians living in the country should be “Sent home.”
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Criminal acts have included attacks against Russians or others who are perceived as Russians. Calgary, Canada: A Russian Orthodox Church It was spatteredWith red paint February 26, Washington, D.C. Vandals smashed windows, broke a door, and left behind “bias-related” signs at the Russia House Lounge and Restaurant. In Dublin, there is a truck. crashed through the gateRussian Embassy
These attacks seem to target indiscriminately those who are Russian-speaking in the diaspora. Deutsche Fernsehstation DW reported that the Russian owner of a Russian language school said her colleagues and students had received abuse and harassment, adding that a local museum initially canceled a performance by her students “for political reasons.” In Vancouver, a Russian community centerThe colors of the Ukrainian flag were splattered all over the walls with yellow and blue paint. In Columbus, Ohio Diana Deli—which is owned by both a Russian and a Ukrainian–has reported receiving threatening phone calls.
Many victims of abuse flee persecutions in Russia or former Soviet Republics. Other victims aren’t Russian but have immigrated from Central Asia and Eastern Europe including Ukraine.
As a young man, Gazaryan fled Azerbaijani persecution and settled in Uzbekistan. He later moved to Russia before making America his home. His wife, who is Russian and a Yakut member of an ethnic group that has historically been subject to discrimination in Russia, is originally from Russia. Gazaryan claims that his company has given money to Ukrainian charities as well as provided funds to staff from Ukraine to go home to their loved ones. His empathy for the Ukrainians is partly due to his ability to relate and understand their suffering. “My family knows what war is firsthand, and what it’s like to leave everything and run,” says Gazaryan. “We kept running, basically, until we moved to the United States 24 years ago.”
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Regardless of his origins, Gazaryan’s business has been negatively affected. In the wake of the invasion, large parties cancelled their reservations. The restaurant’s savings are depleted from repeated shutdowns during the pandemic, and Gazaryan fears they won’t be able to take another hit. “Just when the COVID regulations have been dropped, we got this. It’s like we can’t catch a break,” he says.
Harassment was also extended to the U.S. professional hockey player. Dan Milstein is a National Hockey League Players’ Association-certified agent who works with more than 40 clients from Russia and Belarus, such as Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Milstein said that clients from Canada and the U.S. have complained of harassment. For instance, says Milstein, one athlete was approached by a stranger on the street and told to “pack his bags and go back to effing Russia.” Some athletes have asked for extra security for their wives and children, who have also been subjected to harassment, says Milstein. After an athlete’s wife posted a picture of their baby on Instagram, a stranger wrote they are a “Nazi child,” Milstein said.
Some Russian-themed business owners are hopeful they will be able to help bridge these divisions while also avoiding negative connotations. It was in this spirit that the owners of Taste of Russia, a store in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn selling food from the former Soviet Republics, decided to change its name and to get rid of a sign featuring Red Square’s St. Basil’s Cathedral, says co-owner Alena Rakhman. Following the invasion, many people approached the owners asking them to change their name.
Rakhman was born in Odessa (Ukraine) to a Russian-speaking mother. The goal of the renaming of the store is not to change its name, but to be more inclusive and reflect the diverse neighborhood. Brighton Beach is known as “Little Kyiv” for its many residents from the Ukrainian community, who live side by side with the Russian community. “Traditionally, food is a unifier. So we would like our food and our place to unify our community and not divide it in any possible way,” she says.
The business owners’ plan to change the name has prompted backlash from some members of the Russian community, who have responded to local news stories about the decision on social media. “It’s sad because, you know, we’re just trying,” says Rakhman. “We just want to help, we just want to be sensitive and kind. And people are getting angry for no reason.”