Russian teahouse in New York suffers from escalating Ukrainian invasion

It drew crowds who attended concerts at nearby Carnegie Hall, a short walk away, or dined there after a Broadway show. But by lunchtime on Thursday, the restaurant was nearly empty, with a handful of customers seated at just two of its roughly 30 red leather banquettes.

Despite its name, the Russian Tea Room is not Russian at all. It is actually owned by a financial group incorporated in New York State. It was opened in 1927 by, perhaps apocryphally, “White Russian expatriates who had fled the Bolsheviks,” according to the restaurant’s website. It has had a succession of American owners since.

But that hasn’t stopped protesters from seeking to boycott anything Russian, even if it’s just name and cuisine.

On Thursday, the restaurant manager of the Russian Tea Room and members of his staff all declined to comment when a reporter visited. But the restaurant’s owners are clearly aware that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is hurting its business.

“Founded by refugees with Kyiv in their blood, the heart of the Russian Teahouse is with the people of Ukraine, but we are not the story here,” the owners said in a statement emailed to CNN. “Russia has gotten away with mass murder for too long and the focus should remain on those suffering and dying in Ukraine.”

A similar statement was posted on the restaurant’s website, which included the colors of the Ukrainian flag with the words “Solidarity with Ukraine”. “We are against Putin and with the Ukrainian people.”

The atmosphere is much different on New York’s Lower East Side, where crowds line up to eat at Ukrainian restaurant Veselka. In just one week, its traffic increased by up to 75%, said owner Jason Birchard, who added that his place had become a rallying point for the beleaguered nation.

Veselka – the word means rainbow in Ukrainian – is donating proceeds from its sales of borscht, a traditional Ukrainian beetroot soup, to an NGO called Razom for Ukraine which is working to provide supplies and equipment medical in the country. The restaurant raised $10,000 in the first week and expects another $15,000 in the second, according to Birchard.

He also accepts supplies of bandages, batteries, headlamps as well as water purification tablets and clothing at his location. “Donate what you can and we’ll take care of the rest,” the restaurant’s website says.

The boycotts extend far beyond New York. States like Ohio, Oregon and Utah boycott Russian-made vodka, even though it represents only a fraction of the vodka imported into the United States. (On Friday, vodka maker Stolichnaya announced it was renaming itself Stoli and pointed out that it was owned by a Luxembourg conglomerate and produced in Latvia.)
The hashtag #BoycottLukoil is trending on social media, urging people not to frequent the Russian oil giant’s branded gas stations. However, Lukoil, Russia’s second-largest oil company, released a statement saying it was “calling for the speediest end to the armed conflict”.
London-listed Lukoil shares lost around 99% of their value following the invasion. Trading in the company’s shares was suspended Thursday.

Birchard, the owner of Veselka, said he hoped for more solidarity than division during this crisis. “These are crazy times. I am upset and angry about what is happening,” Birchard said, “But I have nothing against the Russian people.”

CNN’s Charles Riley contributed to this story.


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