For more than a quarter century, the owners of the Cafe St. Petersburg in Newton have served up the homey comfort food of their native Russia, the name of the restaurant a billboard for patrons yearning for a taste of the motherland.
But since the invasion of Ukraine in late February, the name has become something of a bullseye for some people looking to express their anger over the shocking Russian military invasion of Ukraine.
In one incident last week, some teenagers called the Cafe St. Petersburg and said “awful things” about Russians to the staff, said manager Daniel Mataiev. Employees called back to inform the kids that many workers at the restaurant are, in fact, Ukrainian. And they, Russian and Ukrainian workers alike, don’t like Putin either.
This sort of harassment is a growing concern for businesses owned by immigrants of Russia and the USSR in and around Boston, as the war rages on some 4,500 miles away.
The Boston area does not have an especially large Russian community, compared with some of its other immigrant diasporas — just under 17,000 Russian-born people were living in Massachusetts in 2019, according to the Migration Policy Institute, with a sizable community centered in Newton, Brookline, and Allston-Brighton. Some are refugees who fled the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s while others are more recent immigrants who came here for economic opportunity or to work or study at local universities.
Many Russian businesses have been in Boston for decades and unequivocally denounced the country’s actions in Ukraine.
“We are devastated and condemn the attacks that Russia is inflicting upon Ukraine,” the owners of Cafe St. Petersburg posted on their Facebook page Wednesday. “Unprovoked attacks on a sovereign nation should not be allowed and we hope those responsible will be held accountable. To those in Ukraine just know our thoughts and prayers are with you.”
But as the conflict enters its second week, more businesses that sell Russian products fear a backlash.
One is the Russian School of Math, a Newton-based afterschool program with 15 locations in Greater Boston, which has faced calls on Facebook groups to change its name. Last week, as the war began, the Russian School released a statement standing against Russia’s invasion, explaining the nature of the name of their company. It also noted the school’s co-founders came here not from Russia but from Belarus and, yes, Ukraine. It’s the first thing you see on the school’s website.
“No one is responsible for this war but Putin and his regime,” the Russian School statement reads. “Many ask about the ‘Russian’ in our school’s name. We named our school to reflect the historic tradition of Russian mathematics that we all share. This is a tradition that predates Russia’s current government and will exist long after it.”
Then there’s Petropol, a family-owned Russian bookstore in Newton. Since it set up shop in 1998, the store has become an institution in Boston’s Russian-speaking community and has long taken a clear political stance against the Kremlin for years, often hosting vocal Putin critics at speaking events.
“We by no means support the actions of the Russian government,” said Sam Klebanov, whose family owns the bookstore and attended a recent rally in downtown Boston to support Ukraine. “But of course we’re concerned that maybe some people will not want to support a bookstore that sources a lot of its products from Russia.”
As the invasion began in late February, someone wrote in the review section of the website of Berezka International Food Store in Allston that its owners should “go back to Russia,” said its owner, who asked to be called only by her first name, Irina, to avoid being targeted. The market specializes in goods from Eastern European; it has seen an uptick in customers purchasing Ukrainian products in solidarity with the country.
“We’re all horrified by what’s going on,” said Irina. “We just got over the COVID situation, and this adds an extra layer of stress. I think anyone who is a good human, they understand that you don’t take stuff out on people just because they’re Russian-speaking.”
BazaAr Supermarkets, a small chain of international markets in Boston with Moldavian and Ukrainian owners, has stopped importing Russian products in response to the war, said co-owner Yuriy Blyakhman.
“I don’t want to support any possibility for the money to go to the wrong place,” he said. “All of us are against this war. We hate what is going on. We’re trying to help.”
Many Russian and Eastern European businesses are organizing support for Ukrainian citizens. Blyakhman has been collecting food to ship to Ukraine and arranging transportation to help people flee the besieged country. The Russian School of Mathematics said it’s using its network in Eastern Europe — from where many of its teachers hail — to aid Ukrainian refugees. And Cafe St. Petersburg is organizing a Ukrainian night at the restaurant to raise funds for those affected, said Mataiev.
“Try to separate the Russian regime from the Russian businesses, because those stances do not reflect how we feel,” said Mataiev. “We’re here [in the US] because we wanted freedom, we wanted a better life. And we’re praying that the people in Ukraine get that and the same with the people in Russia.”
Annie Probert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.