Restaurants

What a Russian restaurant in Newton is experiencing with war raging abroad

"Our restaurant has nothing to do with Putin's regime."

Daniel Mataiev poses for a portrait inside Cafe St. Petersburg. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

One local Russian restaurant is seeing a mix of reactions toward them — some positive, some negative — since Russian armed forces invaded Ukraine late last month and have bombarded its cities, including civilian areas.

To be clear, Cafe St. Petersburg in Newton Centre condemns the attacks, manager Daniel Mataiev said in an interview.

“There’s been a ton of backlash, but there’s also been support,” he said. “There’s people who call and say mean things, and we just don’t understand that. Our restaurant has nothing to do with Putin’s regime. The Russian culture is a lot different than Putin’s regime.

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“We’ve also had a ton of support,” Mataiev added. “We’ve had a lot of Russians, Ukrainians, pretty much everyone that fled the USSR to come here, gather together and show us support. We feel very united as a community.”

Though the Russian community in Boston isn’t huge when compared to some other cities — there were just under 17,000 Russian-born people living in Massachusetts in 2019, according to the Migration Policy Institute — Mataiev said the sense of community is strong.

The cafe has been serving Russian cuisine for close to three decades, and is a gathering place for people from post-USSR countries in Boston, including Russians and Ukrainians.

Cafe St. Petersburg posted a message from its owner, Mataiev’s mother, earlier in March expressing the restaurant’s support for those in Ukraine.

“I think I speak for the majority of us when I say that we are devastated and condemn the attacks that Russia is inflicting upon Ukraine,” reads the Facebook post. “Unprovoked attacks on a sovereign nation should not be allowed and we hope those responsible will be held accountable. To those in Ukraine, just know our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

The post also announced a fundraiser the restaurant is planning to run. Mataiev said the event, which will take place March 31, is already sold out. They are raising money for a fund that Mataiev’s sister’s fencing coach, who is Ukrainian, started.

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The restaurant felt called to make a statement because many employees, as well as the owners, have ties to Ukraine. Mataiev’s college roommate is stuck in Ukraine right now, and his great aunt is in Russia.

“We’ve got tons of staff here that has family members that are in Ukraine and friends, so we felt the need to put out the post and show that we support Ukraine in these times,” Mataiev said. “We’ve also stopped selling Russian products and stopped ordering them.”

The only product that was really affected by their choice not to purchase from Russian brands was vodka, Mataiev said. Everything else can be domestically sourced.

The restaurant has recently joined OpenTable, an online restaurant reservation service, which Mataiev said has helped bring in new customers. He also said the restaurant has recently seen a lot of Americans come in to try the food.

“We’ve definitely had some new customers coming in and trying the food and just you know, saying they saw our posts and that they know that our business shouldn’t be hurt because of what Putin is doing,” he said. 

Mataiev said as the conflict wears on he asks people be respectful of those who have concrete ties to the war. He encouraged people to ask how others are doing in the face of grim news. 

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“Try to be fragile toward the people who are affected by both sides,” Mataiev said. “Russians here in the U.S., they want none of this, they literally left the USSR to be here, for freedom. And same as people in Ukraine, they just want freedom and they want their country to be left alone.”

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