Anti-Russian Bigotry Increases in the US and Beyond Amid Putin’s War on Ukraine

On a warm Thursday in March, Firouza, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, is sitting in front of her shop in Brooklyn’s Little Odessa, a section of Brighton Beach. It’s home to more than 35,000 people, many of them born in the eastern European countries that once comprised the Soviet Union.

Firouza is methodically cutting pieces of blue and yellow ribbon while sitting on a chair in the store’s entryway. After creating a small pile of ribbon, Firouza ties the ends together and attaches a safety pin. A dollar can buy one, and customers from all walks of life stop by to purchase this small token for solidarity with their Ukrainian neighbors.

Firouza also offers Ukrainian flags and multicolored flowered scarfs and scarves. These are very popular in Ukraine.

She has been doing this, she says, since the third day of Vladimir Putin’s war.

“I don’t know anyone in Ukraine and have never been there,” she tells Truthout. “But the war made me depressed. Everyone in this neighbourhood is stressed out. We can’t sleep. Children and women are dying. Bombs are being dropped. I had to do something to raise money to help.”

Firouza isn’t the only local business owner to share this sentiment. In fact, dozens of restaurants and stores along Brighton Beach Avenue, the community’s commercial strip, are flying the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine and many windows bear messages calling for peace that are written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Some shops are also collecting money for overseas shipment, including antibacterial wipes.

Shopkeeper after shopkeeper says that there are many expressions of solidarity in the United States, where large concentrations of Ukrainians reside or have ties.

Manhattan’s East Village, for example, once boasted a large Ukrainian population, and while gentrification has pushed out most of those who came here in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, several Ukrainian businesses, a credit union and two Ukrainian churches are still located in the area. Signs with the words “Slava Ukraini” — Glory to Ukraine — appear in many shop windows. Lampposts on every corner of busy Second Avenue are covered in anti-Putin posters, ads for an April 16th “Comics for Ukraine” fundraiser, and pictures of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Residents are encouraged to donate money and goods to ongoing relief efforts by colorful posters displayed on their doors.

Veselka Restaurant in Brooklyn, the oldest Ukrainian restaurant, raised $250,000 in just two weeks. 100 percent of the proceeds from its borscht sales will be donated to refugees.

Jason Birchard is the third-generation owner. TruthoutIt has been amazing to see the outpouring of support. “Most people recognize that Ukrainians are being mistreated, and when they see the atrocities on the news night after night, they want to do something to show their outrage and support the people who are being driven from their homes.” The restaurant has partnered with St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church, Birchard says, and materials and money are being sent to Poland. Birchard explains that resources will be used to establish social welfare organizations and pop up sites that provide immediate assistance to those who are coming into the country.

“We will do this indefinitely,” Birchard says, “as long as the need exists.”

Veselka, a Ukrainian restaurant in New York City, displays shows of solidarity with the Ukrainian people in its windows.
Veselka, Manhattan’s oldest Ukrainian business, has raised more than $250,000 for refugees fleeing Ukraine.
Veselka's windows are painted with messages of solidarity with the people of Ukraine.
Veselka’s windows are painted with messages of solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

Birchard points out the long line outside the restaurant’s door as we chat and tells us about it. TruthoutHe was shocked at the 75 percent increase in business since the war began. He also expressed surprise at the many offers of support, from the efforts of Firouza and the mountain of donated materials that he and his business associates have collected.

Nonetheless, he knows that many Russian-owned businesses — including the nearly century-old Russian Tea Room and the newer Tzarevna restaurant in Manhattan — have floundered as backlash against all things Russian has ramped up in response to the conflict. This is true, he says, even when these businesses are overtly opposed to Putin’s regime and supportive of Ukraine. In fact, the #BoycottRussia hashtag has been used to promote a global boycott of Russian products. Many companies have responded by posting pro Ukraine messages on their websites. Some have removed all references back to their country of origin.

Stolichnaya Vodka for one will now be known as Stoli the exiled Russian-born businessman Yuri Shefler told the press in early March, in “direct response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” This, despite the fact that Stoli is produced in Latvia.

“I see a trend toward hating all Russians,” Nastya, a Russian immigrant living in Colorado, told Truthout. “The media needs to do a better job of explaining why hatred should not be against all Russians but should be directed toward Putin’s political regime.” Since the war began, she says, “many of us in the Russian community have felt insecure, as if we are somehow responsible or to blame for what’s happening. We feel this even though we are appalled by Putin.” At the same time, she worries that because she speaks with an accent, she will be the target of random animosity or violence.

Her fears are not unfounded. Nastya states that she is disillusioned by the reports about vandalismAt Russian restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Denver, Colorado at Russian Orthodox churchesCanada and New Zealand

Many people have reported online harassment, taunts and disparaging comments from strangers after they were heard speaking Russian in public. According to an article in The Christian Science Monitor, fear of backlash has prompted some restaurants to remove references to Russian foods on their menus, instead labeling them as “European.”

There are many more. Bietigheim, Bietigheim Bissingen: A restaurant posted a sign alerting potential patronsIt would not serve Russian passport holders, a decision it reversed after protests.

Bicocca University in Milan, Italy announced it was cancelling a class on Fyodor Donostoevsky. The institution quickly retracted the decision after students protested.

The arts have also shown their hatred for Russia and the Russian people. As widely reported, Alexander Malofeev, a 20-year-old pianist scheduled to play with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and the Vancouver Recital Society, had his performances canceled despite the fact that he openly condemns the war. Similarly, the U.K.’s Royal Opera House canceled appearances by the Royal Moscow Ballet, and the Edinburgh Playhouse canceled the Ballet of Siberia. Meanwhile, New York’s Carnegie HallValery Gergiev, a Russian-born conductor, was replaced by a Canadian and Denis Matsuev, a South Korean pianist.

The other important thing is that Hermitage Amsterdam, “the official outpost of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg,” shuttered an exhibit featuring Russian Avant Garde artists; NetflixAll incoming Russian-language series were stopped; the Glasgow Film Festival pulled two films off its roster. Not to be outdone Reddithas blocked all websites ending with.RU

What’s more, academics at the Centre for Combating Corruption (a private organization funded by donations from people in the U.S., Ukraine, and throughout the European Union) are demanding that scholars drop their affiliations with groups including the Moscow-headquartered Gorchakov Fund; Berlin’s Dialogue of Civilizations Institute; and the Paris-based Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, entities the group charges promote “Kremlin propaganda.” They are also demanding that colleges and universities sever their financial ties to Russian oligarchs and remove these donors’ names from campus buildings.

Jordan Gans-Morse is the faculty director of the Russian Eurasian and East European Studies Program at Northwestern University. Truthout that many scholars find Putin’s regime so repugnant that they also want to end all collaborative work with Russian researchers and educators.

But should all Russian arts and intellectuals be punished because of the actions taken by their autocratic presidents?

Ernece B., a long-standing peace activist and a City College of New York professor, says no. “It’s one thing to contact our politicians to encourage them to weigh in on stopping indiscriminate bombings and incursions, and a different matter to encourage boycotts of consumer goods which degrade the lives of ordinary Russians,” she told Truthout. “Banning Russian books and other cultural or educational events does nothing to further Russia’s lethal aggression and, in fact, may eat away at the heart and soul of people who have the potential to remove Putin and his allies.”

Firouza, the Brighton Beach ribbon seller, agrees, arguing against blanket condemnations of all Russians and stresses that she and her neighbors have been careful not to tar the entire Russian community for Putin’s war crimes. “Most Russians are good people,” she says. “This is true in New York City and it was true in Uzbekistan.”

Denis, a twelve-year-old, is similarly cautious as he waits in line to get seated at Veselka. “I was born here, but my parents come from Ukraine. We don’t blame the Russian people for this. We blame the Russian government. We don’t hate Russians. We like Russian food. We shop in Russian stores,” he says, noting the intertwined relationships between the two peoples.

Russophobia persists, reminding us of anti-Japanese prejudice during World War II, anti–Muslim bigotry immediately after 9/11, and continuing anti-Chinese bigotry, which worsened following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some see this as a reminder of the bitter Cold War-era antipathy that existed between the U.S.S.A. and Russia from roughly 1946 to 1991. But as the Norwegian Center for Humanitarian Studies reminds us, “Russophobia is a form of injustice and creates the conditions for long-term animosity and hate that will complicate future social and political relations. Making all Russians a universal target of global blame is, simply put, short-sighted and immoral.”