I own a Russian restaurant. We hired security for harassment.
- Vlada Von Shats is co-owner of Russian Samovar, a New York restaurant.
- Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Von Shats said there has been harassment of workers both in person and online.
- Here is her story, told to writer Jenny Powers.
This story is based on a transcribed conversation with Vlada Von Shats, co-owner of Russian Samovar in New York. It has been edited for length and clarity.
During the cold war in the 80s, people called us “Commies”.
They still call us names. It’s just that now with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the names have changed.
I was born in Leningrad, which is now considered St. Petersburg, Russia, and I’m half Jewish. My husband was born in Odessa and is Ukrainian and 100% Jewish. Our children, now adults themselves, all identify as Russian-Ukrainian-American Jews.
My late stepfather, Roman Kaplan, opened the Russian Samovar restaurant on West 52nd in Manhattan in 1986 with my mother, Lara. Today, my mother — along with me, my husband Jacob and our three children — runs the restaurant.
From the moment our doors opened, my mother and Roman ensured that the restaurant was a hub, a community and, most importantly, a haven for all dissidents and anyone who left or was exiled from Russia. . After all, we were all fleeing from the same evil.
You could have walked through our doors as a stranger, but my stepfather would feed you, and you would leave a few hours later with lifelong friends.
We never cared whether you were Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian or Belarusian. We still don’t. If you’re here in America, it’s because you don’t want to be there.
But these days we’ve seen so much anger directed at our restaurant and our employees just because we have “Russian” in the name. We were called fascists and Nazis on the phone. We have received hate emails. People have left one-star reviews online saying things like “stop the war”. Business has dropped 60% since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Our staff asked me to hire security because they don’t feel comfortable being here with everything going on right now. A friend of mine, who is a former Marine living in Tennessee, came to New York to provide security for us for free. He said it was the least he could do given the situation.
Recently, a guy walked by, read our restaurant sign, and pitched it just because it had the word “Russian” in the title. This led some people to suggest that we change our name.
The Russian samovar was named after an object – a teapot, or “samovar” – by my late father-in-law Roman Kaplan, because a teapot is always hot and there are always people around it. This is how our restaurant has always been, and this is how we will be one day. I’m sure and certain.
From the beginning it was difficult to be a Russian restaurant because of the cold war. We had to prove ourselves for a long time through our history, our arts and our culture.
We were named Russian Samovar before there was a Russian Federation. The restaurant itself predates the collapse of the Soviet Union. I don’t see the Russian Tea Room changing its name, so why should we?
Our restaurant doors were closed for almost two years due to the pandemic, and we lost a lot of money trying to stay afloat. Just recently we suffered another blow when we discovered that the restaurant rehabilitation fund we had applied for had run out of money and had no plans to replenish the funds.
Now, just when we can finally reopen and begin to understand our finances, we have to deal with this misdirected anger.
The war naturally upset people, and I understand that. But this misdirected anger hurts the wrong people. Modern culture does not always stop to reflect; it just reacts.
But despite people calling us Nazis and wanting the restaurant to burn down, we’re doing our best to stay afloat. We have had our share of support and the media have helped to draw attention to the fact that we are against war. Not only do we support Ukraine, but many of us come from there.
People call and buy gift certificates with no intention of using them to help us stay in business. Others are opening door-to-door accounts and pre-paying for food, and we are so grateful for all the support.
We’ve had a lot of struggles over the past 36 years, but we’ve always survived. We also plan to go through this period.
In the end, I’m sure it will. It’s just something we have to get through, and hopefully more people will start to realize that we’re all on the same side and against the war.