Denis Ganshonkov came to Canada from Russia with his mother when he was a teenager. Now aged 34, he runs a restaurant on Toronto’s Dundas Street West that offers “homemade food from the former U.S.S.R. in the heart of Little Portugal” – dishes such as Georgian dumplings, borscht and crepes stuffed with mushrooms.
After Russian forces began attacking Ukraine, he put a sign in the window. “We are a Russian restaurant,” it said. Then, in capital letters: “We do not support the actions of Vladimir Putin and his office towards Ukraine and its people.”
Mr. Ganshonkov wanted to make that perfectly clear. Like many people of Russian background in Canada, he is horrified by the assault and concerned he will suffer guilt by association.
Business at the restaurant, called Stop, was down by half on the weekend, he says. But more than the effect on his business, he worries about a “weird hate backlash” that might develop against Russians, whatever they think of the Ukraine war. “It’s going to be not very popular to be Russian for a while,” he said on Monday.
His friend Misha Artebyakin, 29, part owner of an Eastern European restaurant, Drom Taberna, says he got a couple of hateful, threatening phone calls after the invasion started. He figures that the callers Googled him, found out he was Russian and just let loose. He fears the sort of prejudice that developed when COVID-19 spread from China. Some Canadians stopped going to Chinese restaurants or even lashed out at Chinese-looking people.
“Everybody that I know and still talk to is fully against [the invasion],” Mr. Artebyakin said. “Everybody is just angry that it’s happening and that Russian soldiers chose to go against their brothers and sisters.”
What’s most tragic is that two countries with so many ties of family and history are being torn apart, said Mr. Artebyakin, who grew up in Siberia and has a Russian father and a Ukrainian mother. The restaurant put out Ukrainian flags in solidarity after the attack.
According to the most recent census figures, from 2016, there were 622,445 people in Canada who are of Russian descent. In the absence of opinion polls, it is hard to tell what proportion of them feel like the two restaurateurs and what proportion in fact support Mr. Putin.
It is a sensitive subject. “A lot of people are staying quiet because there is a lot of room to be misunderstood,” said Margareta Dovgal, a British Columbia policy professional and entrepreneur who is of mixed Russian-Ukrainian ancestry. “No one wants to be seen as supportive of war, or of terrible things happening. But there is a huge difference between how the war is being understood by Russians and Canadians.”
Russia’s honorary consul-general for British Columbia, Erin Campbell, a venture-capital and mining executive, resigned suddenly this week. Reached by phone on Monday, Ms. Campbell, the chief executive and founding partner of ECMB Capital, told The Globe and Mail that she is “not doing any interviews.” When asked why, she said, “It’s not appropriate.” Asked to clarify, she ended the call.
At Toronto’s Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church, priest Viatcheslav Davidenko said members of the congregation are being careful about how they discuss the conflict. The church has members from both Russia and Ukraine, as well as other former Soviet republics such as Moldova and Belarus. “I think a lot of people in the church are conscious that anything they may say could be misconstrued,” he said.
At a Sunday service, he said, the atmosphere was sombre. Pro-Ukrainian protesters waved flags outside. Police showed up in case of trouble. A 90-year-old woman told the protesters that many of the church’s members were Ukrainian and invited them to come inside.
“I think this situation is at the front of everyone’s mind,” Father Davidenko said. “Everyone is praying. No one discusses it out loud.”
Russian Jews in Canada are watching the conflict closely, too.
Rabbi Mendel Zaltzman, chief executive of the Jewish Russian Community Centre of Ontario, says there are 50,000 to 55,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union in Greater Toronto. Though they may not all have the same views on the conflict, “the community is very concerned for their friends and cousins and family members that are in harm’s way.”
They are paying particular attention to the fate of fellow Jews in Ukraine and hope the government of Canada will open its doors to refugees, he said.
On top of humanitarian concerns there are practical worries. With tough Western sanctions being imposed on Russia, those with ties to the country wonder how they will send money to family members there, withdraw money from Russian banks or even travel to the region, now that many Russian airlines are being banned from Western airspace and Western airlines are being banned from Russia.
Mr. Ganshonkov says he usually goes back to Russia once a year. Will he even be able to make the trip this year?
His more immediate concern, though, is to make sure that people of Russian background are not all painted with the same brush.
The poster in his window says that while his support goes out to his Ukrainian friends and customers, “for many of my country men and women, this is also a very difficult period and … unfortunately we may have to face negativity, just because we are Russian.” It ends: “Whatever people’s reaction will be, one thing is certain. … I want to say: “#No to War with Ukraine. #No to Putin.”
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