Some Chicago-area Russian-influenced businesses take heat for Ukraine invasion

“We got a phone call telling us ‘Now is the time to change your name’ and another call saying ‘We’re going to close you down. Get ready, we’re coming,’” said Enesh, one of the co-owners of Russian Tea Time in the Loop.

SHARE Some Chicago-area Russian-influenced businesses take heat for Ukraine invasion
The Russian Tea Time restaurant has placed a “We stand with Ukraine” sign in its window, and servers wear heart-shaped blue-and-yellow pins to show solidarity with the country fighting off a Russian invasion.

The Russian Tea Time restaurant has placed a “We stand with Ukraine” sign in its window, and servers wear heart-shaped blue-and-yellow pins to show solidarity with the country fighting off a Russian invasion.

Bob Chiarito/For the Sun-Times

In the days since Russia invaded Ukraine, a few Chicago-area businesses have been scapegoated by people who mistakenly think they have some connection to the Russian government.

“We got a phone call telling us ‘Now is the time to change your name’ and another call saying ‘We’re going to close you down. Get ready, we’re coming,’” said Enesh, co-owner of Russian Tea Time, a Loop restaurant in business for more than 28 years.

The restaurant at 77 E. Adams St. has no such connection — the other co-owner, Vadim Muchnik, is Ukrainian. He founded the restaurant in 1993 with his Ukrainian-born mother, Klara.

There also have been cancellations and negative Yelp reviews from people citing similar sentiments.

“We’ve been receiving one-star reviews and they are commenting by saying ‘Death to Russia,’” said Enesh, who wanted only her first name used, saying she has relatives near Russia and fears for their safety.

The restaurant has placed a “We stand with Ukraine” sign in its window, and servers wear heart-shaped pins in blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, to show solidarity with the country. It also has posted a letter on its website and social media accounts, saying, in part: “We are heartbroken by the recent news; our thoughts and prayers are with those who are affected by this inhumane and despicable invasion. We do not support the politics of the Russian government. We support human rights, freedom of speech, and fair democratic elections.”

One of the hateful calls was answered by a Ukrainian waiter whose mother was hiding in a bomb shelter overseas at the time of the caller’s rant, Enesh said.

“The people who call us, they have good intentions to support the Ukrainian people, but at the same time, they are destroying something that’s innocent,” Muchnik said. “We have Russian waiters and Ukrainian waiters and they have zero to do with this.”

Like Russian Tea Time, another Russian-influenced business, the Red Square bathhouse and spa at 1914 W. Division St. in Wicker Park, has tried to assure the public it does not support the war, posting a letter on its website and social media page denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Red Square co-owner Alex Loyfman, who was born in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, said there have been some strange calls lately.

“We’ve received calls from people trying to figure out our position. They are looking to hunt down certain people that they think associate themselves with Russia. We don’t like to put ourselves in a position of politics from a business standpoint. From a humanitarian standpoint, we feel it’s a terrible loss of life. I have a significant part of my family in Ukraine,” Loyfman said.

Loyfman added that while his business hasn’t received a lot of negativity, he is trying to get in front of any potential scapegoating.

“We are trying to be more proactive, donating money to various charities and organizations that promote humanitarian help.”

And in west suburban Lisle, the Maison Russe gift shop, which sells nesting dolls and other items of Russian culture, took a similar, pre-emptive step, posting a letter on the store website condemning “Putin’s war of aggression.”

“We just wanted to make sure we are understood, that this war is not something we’re for,” said Paul Shutkin, who owns Maison Russe with his parents.

So far, he added, the shop has felt no backlash. But it’s hardly the first time it’s had to worry about public opinion. Maison Russe was started in 1972 by his mother in their home, then moved to its current site in 1976.

“It was the height of the Cold-War when my parents decided to open a Russian gift shop to share the Russian culture to people,” Shutkin noted. “We’ve been through a lot.”

Enesh said she had read about some restaurants pouring Russian-made vodka down the drain, but that didn’t make sense to her since the sellers already had their money.

She had another idea.

“We created a special menu where we will sell Russian beers and vodkas and donate all the proceeds to help the victims in Ukraine,” she said.

Muchnik hopes spreading awareness will get people to stop blaming his business and do something more productive.

“Right now we are feeling the pain of the xenophobia. Anything remotely affiliated with the word ‘Russian’ has become a target of misdirected anger. We understand there is anger and frustration and we should all do something, but that something shouldn’t turn into a witch hunt against the people who have nothing to do with the war and no connection to the government of Russia.”

Interior of the Russian Tea Time restaurant, 77 E. Adams St., Chicago.

Instead of pouring its Russian liquor down the drain, the Russian Tea Time restaurant is running specials with those drinks and donating the profits to Ukrainian victims of the Russian invasion.

Bob Chiarito/For the Sun-Times

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