In a Russian restaurant in New York, the terrors of war hit home
The Manhattan restaurant, Russian Samovar, is surrounded by glittering Broadway marquees, but its front door bears two simple signs: “Stand by Ukraine. NO WAR” – and a printed Ukrainian flag.
Inside there is a red carpet, a long wooden bar and a white piano.
John Retsios sits at the bar drinking vodka infused with dill and horseradish. He has been coming to Russian Samovar for almost 20 years and was relieved to see the new signs on the front door.
“I was like, oh, sure, sure, we’re all on the same page here.” said Retsios.
Third-generation Russian Samovar owner Misha Von Shats is one of many New York business owners struggling with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But he also faces a somewhat unique challenge: making sure the “Russian” in the Russian samovar doesn’t scare away customers. According to Von Shats, in the first days after the invasion, business dropped by more than 50%.
“We have a lot of Ukrainians working for us. We need business for them to earn money, to support and send money there,” Von Shats said.
Von Shats is Russian and Ukrainian and still has family in Ukraine. He removed a bust of Putin from the dining room. He hopes to organize fundraisers for Ukraine and wishes to collect and raise the flags of each former state of the Soviet Republic to show his unity and support.
Von Shats says the restaurant’s accordionist and pianist lost his niece, who was a secretary at a military base in Ukraine.
“So I had a grown man, someone I’d known for years, crying, crying in my arms,” Von Shats said.
An employee is stuck in Ukraine after visiting family days before the Russian invasion. Others are terrified for their loved ones back home.
For Maria Medviedva, who has been a waitress at Russian Samovar for more than nine years, showing up to work seems weird. While she waits tables and serves chicken Kiev, piroshki and honey cake, her family in Kharkiv hides underground from Russian attacks.
“I don’t deserve to be here. I don’t deserve, like eating, you know, sleeping,” Medviedva says.
Medviedva wonders if she should return to Ukraine – she is a pharmacist and could help give medicine to wounded soldiers and civilians. But at the end of the day, she says earning money to send home is the best thing she can do right now.
And, work is a distraction from group discussions about bombings and where to find food.
“What’s going on? It shouldn’t be in any part of this world at all. No one deserves this,” she said.
Medviedva fears that at any moment she will find out that the day’s phone call with her parents was her last.