Russian Americans face misdirected blame for war in Ukraine

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David Zalubowski/AP
Vadim Kayrevich, a native of the Odessa region of Ukraine, holds a placard during a Feb. 26, 2022, protest against the invasion of Ukraine held outside the Colorado State Capitol in Denver. People from Russia and Belarus, which supports the invasion, have also shown support for Ukraine by protesting or displaying the Ukrainian flag.
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Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Russophobia has seeped into everyday interactions. Some Russian speakers in the United States, including those with few or no ties to Russia, say they are blamed for backing a war they don’t support. 

For Soviet-born Maria Petrenko, the hostility has been subtle. The owner of Hadrout Advertising and Technology, a web design and digital media agency in Detroit, says she employs some designers and developers in Russia. Lately, she says she must constantly clarify her anti-war position at the start of business meetings.

Why We Wrote This

In the heat of war, blame has a scattershot aim. Some Russian speakers are being accused of supporting a war they actually oppose.

And on a recent morning as she dropped off her child at day care, she says a man asked her something about what “you guys” were doing in Ukraine.

“I said, Who are ‘you guys’? I’m dropping off my kid in Farmington Hills, Michigan,” she recalls. “Like, what ‘guys’ are you talking about?”

For Yuri Groza, a Russian American IT specialist in North Carolina, the suspicion isn’t so subtle. He says he’s received threats via calls and texts.

Mr. Groza describes his Belarusian, Kyrgyz, and Ukrainian ancestry, but then adds, “I don’t even think that my identity or heritage have to do anything with me saying that war is bad. Any sane person would say war is bad.”

As the smell of beef stroganoff swells before a lunch-hour rush, Halina Yatskevich reads recent reviews off a smartphone. Behind the counter of her cozy Masha and the Bear Russian Cafe, she revisits a few one-star posts that say “the whole world is against Russia” along with a call to “go home.”

The posts don’t even mention Belarus, her actual home country, which has sided with Russia in its war against Ukraine. 

Though customers are largely supportive, the posts leave her “disappointed, upset,” she says softly, finding the right words in English with the aid of a Ukrainian worker. A small blue-and-yellow flag stands nearby. “I support Ukraina,” says Ms. Yatskevich. 

Why We Wrote This

In the heat of war, blame has a scattershot aim. Some Russian speakers are being accused of supporting a war they actually oppose.

Alona Kolesnyk, a Ukrainian who helps out in this Aurora cafe, says this solidarity is meaningful. Her family recently escaped Russian attacks in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. The two women share not only pale-pink shirts but the Russian language – the lingua franca of the cafe. 

There shouldn’t be hate, says Ms. Kolesnyk. “It doesn’t matter what nation you’re from.”

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor
Alona Kolesnyk, from Ukraine, and Halina Yatskevich, from Belarus, stand together in Ms. Yatskevich's Masha and the Bear Russian Cafe, in Aurora, Colorado, March 4, 2022. There shouldn’t be hate, says Ms. Kolesnyk. “It doesn’t matter what nation you’re from.”

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Russophobia has seeped into everyday interactions. Emerging reports of threats, vandalism, and online trolling amount to hate-laced – and often mistaken – assumptions about complex identities. Some Russian speakers in the United States, including those with few or no ties to Russia, say they’re accused of supporting a war they actually oppose. 

Yuri Groza, a Russian American IT specialist in North Carolina who reports receiving threats via calls and texts, wants people to remember that wars eventually end. 

“You need to stay human to another human being next to you,” he says. “Because you’re still going to have to be neighbors.”

“Do Russians want war?”

In the two weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, hundreds of Ukrainian civilians have died, while more than 2 million have fled as refugees. Many Russians in Russia oppose President Vladimir Putin’s acts, even as dissent seems to grow more dangerous by the day.

From the start, the Ukrainian government, led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has attempted to distinguish the Kremlin leader from the Russian people, even appealing directly to Russian soldiers.

“Do Russians want war?” Mr. Zelenskyy asked in Russian in an online video posted just before the invasion. “The answer depends only on you – the citizens of the Russian Federation.”

U.S. President Joe Biden, likewise, stated in mid-February, “To the citizens of Russia: You are not our enemy.” 

Yet not everyone appears to embrace this distinction. Russian-themed eateries in New York are reporting harassment, while vandalism of a Russian restaurant in Washington, D.C., is being investigated as a possible hate crime. Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell of California has raised the idea of booting all Russian students from American soil, while some National Hockey League players have reportedly faced death threats. A similar rising tide of rancor is happening in Europe.

Anti-Russian sentiment isn’t surprising, says Keith Darden, associate professor at the School of International Service at American University in Washington. 

When the U.S. engages in an international conflict, for segments of its diverse population with ties to that conflict, “their loyalties get questioned,” says Professor Darden. Discrimination against Germans during World War I, internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s, and post-9/11 scrutiny of and attacks on Muslim and Arab Americans offer extreme examples. Cold War suspicion of communists also permeated a broad swath of American life and politics.

“One person’s war”

Amid majority, bipartisan support from Americans to ban Russian oil and increase sanctions, targets of Russophobia say they’re trapped in a grim game of identity politics. 

Like Ms. Yatskevich in Aurora, Maxim Ionikh says his Red Square Euro Bistro in downtown Denver has also attracted some virtual vitriol in the form of Google reviews. That’s included a one-star review claiming the bistro “served Ukrainian children and cluster bombs,” according to a screenshot of a post that has since been removed.

Trolling aside, Mr. Ionikh says most clients of the nearly 20-year-old establishment are “extremely supportive” and ask after his family’s well-being.

“They understand that it’s not the war that the Russians are waging on Ukraine. It’s one person’s war,” says the Russian business owner. However, he says incessant questions about the conflict and where he stands have drained him emotionally.

“It’s a sore subject, really,” says Mr. Ionikh, noting that his grandfather was Ukrainian and he still has family in Russia. 

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor
Nina Cole, originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, joins a rally in solidarity with Ukraine outside the Colorado State Capitol in Denver, March 5, 2022. “I’ve never protested before,” she says. “I was afraid that people would start asking me questions like, Do I belong here?”

Mr. Groza, the Russian American IT specialist, also describes a complex background, with Belarusian, Kyrgyz, and Ukrainian ancestry.

“I don’t even think that my identity or heritage have to do anything with me saying that war is bad,” says the U.S. citizen. “Any sane person would say war is bad.”

As a Facebook administrator for groups catering to local Russian speakers, he says he’s used to blowback for attempts to moderate content. But nothing has compared to the past two weeks. Since the invasion, Mr. Groza says he’s received multiple threatening calls and texts. Concerned for his safety, he’s pursuing recourse through local law enforcement and the court system. 

For Soviet-born Maria Petrenko, hostility has taken on subtler hues. The owner of Hadrout Advertising and Technology, a web design and digital media agency in metro Detroit, says she employs some designers and developers in Russia. 

“There’s definitely a worry and mistrust and confusion” from most clients, says Ms. Petrenko, adding that she left Russia in the late ’90s on a university scholarship to study in the U.S. Lately, she says she must constantly clarify her anti-war position at the start of business meetings, which she sees as irrelevant to her work.

But the scrutiny extends beyond her business day. On a recent morning as she dropped off her child at day care, she says a man approached and asked her something about what “you guys” were doing in Ukraine.

“I said, Who are ‘you guys’? I’m dropping off my kid in Farmington Hills, Michigan,” she recalls. “Like, what ‘guys’ are you talking about?”

“Crying slow tears”

To be sure, some of the U.S. populace does support the Putin regime. And part of the mistrust and hatred directed against Russians comes from Ukrainians incensed by the war, say a few sources interviewed. It’s also true that not all Russian Americans say they’re taking direct heat. 

There’s Nina Cole, for instance, who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and arrived in Colorado with her mother in 1998. Ms. Cole says she’s only received support – even from people unaware of her Ukrainian heritage on her mother’s side. 

Outside the Colorado State Capitol one recent blustery afternoon, Ms. Cole stands in a crowd calling for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Her gloved hand holds a fistful of sunflowers – a symbol of solidarity.

​​“I guess I’m tired of sitting at home, crying slow tears,” she says as passing cars honk. Still, deciding to join the Denver rally wasn’t easy. 

“I’ve never protested before,” she admits. “I was afraid that people would start asking me questions like, Do I belong here?” 

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