Since the onset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Americans have scrambled to adjust their … buying behavior, wrongly boycotting products and restaurants they associate with the country of Russia while supporting businesses that make even the smallest of gestures, such as temporarily changing drink menus to rename Moscow Mules as Kyiv Mules. The world, of course, is a far more complicated place. For anyone who’s still confused — or is considering vandalizing a restaurant — we are here to offer some clarity and to provide some information on real ways to help.
I’m feeling great. I really think I’m doing my part to support Ukraine.
That’s wonderful. What are you doing?
Well, I just poured out a half-bottle of Smirnoff that I found in the back of my freezer, and now I’m getting ready to order some McDonald’s because they closed all of their restaurants in Russia.
I love activism and I love to do my part.
Exactly what part are you doing here?
Well, this afternoon I plan to write some negative Yelp reviews of various Russian restaurants throughout the city. I really want to stick it to them!
This is a bad idea. For starters, the vodka you dumped is owned by a British company and distilled in Illinois. McDonald’s has nothing to do with this war. And Russian restaurants in the city are often run by people who not only oppose the war, but whose families have been directly affected by the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine.
No way, man. Anything Russian is bad.
Here is something you should know about Alan Aguichev, whose family owns the West Village restaurant Sveta: “I have family hiding in bomb shelters, hiding in the train stations. I did receive some messages and about two emails, saying, like, ‘F- – – Russia, go back home,’ stuff like that.” Except Aguichev’s family hails from Kharkiv, Ukraine, a city that has been “devastated” by bombardment.
So why would they call their restaurant “Russian”?
Because Americans aren’t exactly renowned for their strong grasp of basic geography, and they figured most wouldn’t know what a “Ukrainian” restaurant is even supposed to be — so the owners of Sveta branded in a way that they thought would be most helpful to customers, since Americans have at least some concept of things that are supposedly “Russian.”
But I thought the only Ukrainian restaurant in New York was Veselka? I love their pierogies!
Veselka is wonderful, but New York City is home to the largest population of Ukrainian Americans in the entire United States, and so there are numerous “Ukrainian” restaurants, even if all of them are not, until now, explicitly labeled as such. You know, they call Brighton Beach “Little Odessa” for a reason.
Well, what about the Russian Tea Room? That place is very Russian!
Wrong again. After online trolls accused them of “starting” the war, the owners of the midtown restaurant were forced to issue a statement that condemns the Russian invasion: “The Russian Tea Room renounces Russia’s unprovoked acts of war in the strongest possible terms.”
So all of the “Russian” businesses can just stop saying they’re Russian and it’s fine. Easy!
No. Many of these operators are now stuck in a very difficult spot. Take, for example, Elena and Bobby Rakhman, who run the Brighton Beach business that until very recently was called Taste of Russia. The Rakhmans are originally from Odessa in southern Ukraine — Elena’s family came to the United States when she was 2 years old, Bobby’s when he was 5 — where they still have family who, as Elena puts it, “are sitting there, scared to death of what’s coming next.” When the conflict broke out, some Ukrainian customers expressed concern about the restaurant’s name and were unwilling to come in. “Customers who have been clients for years say, ‘We’re really uncomfortable walking in,’” Elena explains. “I understand, but we also don’t want to exclude our Russian clients. Because what do they really have to do with the conflict? Nothing.”
What’d they do?
They took “Russia” off of their sign and changed their name to Taste of Ukraine, which in turn offended other customers. “The Russians don’t like that we’re changing the name because they feel like we’re doing them a disservice and discriminating against them, which we’re not. The Ukrainian population wants us to be called something that would be more on the Ukrainian side,” Elena says. “We are here to be a unifier, not to pick sides in a huge geopolitical war.”
It’s almost as if people who run small businesses in New York City have nothing at all to do with this war, and it’s completely unfair to hold them responsible for the actions of a government located 4,500 miles away.
That sounds right.
So I can still drink Smirnoff? I could really go for an espresso martini right now.
It’s 11:15 in the morning.
Yeah, that’s why I want a drink with coffee.
Drink whatever vodka you want. It makes absolutely no difference.
Okay, but I still want to be part of this! What can I boycott?
Don’t boycott anything. Instead, focus on real ways you can help: by supporting Razom for Ukraine, which provides medical supplies; help people of color in Ukraine, who have experienced racism while attempting to flee the conflict; and support other organizations, like Polish Humanitarian Action. Our friends at the Cut have a longer list of organizations, including World Central Kitchen and the Kyiv Independent, which has been providing on-the-ground reporting in English. Greenpoint’s Archestratus Books & Foods is hosting a second Cook for Ukraine this Sunday at 2 p.m., after raising, it reports, $6,700 during a bake sale last weekend. If you’re interested in cooking or baking, you can sign up here. You can also donate directly to London-based chef, author, and activist Olia Hercules’s Cook for Ukraine project.
I’ll drink to that!
It’s still not even noon yet.