The Manhattan restaurant Russian Samovar is surrounded by glittering Broadway marquees, but its front door has two simple signs on it: “Stand by Ukraine. NO WAR” — and a printed Ukrainian flag.
Inside, there’s 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’s 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, of course, of course, we’re all on the same page here.” Retsios says.
Russian Samovar’s third-generation owner, Misha Von Shats, is one of many New York City business owners grappling with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But he also faces a somewhat unique challenge — making sure the “Russian” in Russian Samovar doesn’t drive customers away. Von Shats says, in the first few days after the invasion, business fell more than 50 percent.
“We have many Ukrainians that work for us. We need business in order for them to make money, for them to support and send money out there,” Von Shats says.
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 host fundraisers for Ukraine, and wants to gather and raise the flags of every former Soviet Republic state to show unity and support.
Von Shats says the restaurant’s accordion and piano player lost his niece, who was a secretary at an army base in Ukraine.
“So I had a grown man, somebody I’d known for years crying, crying in my arms,” Von Shats says.
One employee is stuck in Ukraine after going to visit family a few days before Russia invaded. Others are terrified for their loved ones back home.
For Maria Medviedva, who has been a server at Russian Samovar for over nine years, showing up to work feels bizarre. As she waits tables and serves Chicken Kyiv, piroshki, and honey cake, her family in Kharkiv is hiding underground from Russian attacks.
“I’m not deserving to be here. I’m not deserving, like to have food, you know, to sleep,” Medviedva says.
Medviedva wonders whether she should return to Ukraine — she’s a pharmacist and could be helpful giving medicines to injured soldiers and civilians. But ultimately, she says earning money to send back home is the best thing she can do right now.
And, work is a distraction from group chats about bombings and where to find food.
“What is going on? It shouldn’t be in any part of this world at all. Nobody deserves this,” she says.
Medviedva fears that any moment, she’ll find out the day’s phone call with her parents was the last.
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