Start a senseless and unprovoked war and the world will react in big and small ways. As world leaders sanctioned Russia and everyday people protested worldwide its invasion of Ukraine, other sectors pondered how to distance themselves from the conflict via… banning products and changing brand names boasting even the loosest of connections to the country.
The solution, for at least one business, was to abandon the name altogether. Remember, back in 2003, when the U.S. renamed “French fries” “Freedom fries” after that country declined to support the war in Iraq? It’s kind of like that.
In Austin, Texas, restaurant and bar Russian House literally dropped the country from its name, removing the word from its signage and officially changing its name to, simply, House, per NBC in Austin. Owner Varna Monamour tells Rolling Stone via email that, despite her restaurant’s former name, she’s always viewed it as a broader “cultural island in Texas.” The restaurant has hosted everything from Slavic and Ukrainian dance events to Russian language classes and Post-Soviet states-themed dinners: “We are the House of Slavic/Post Soviet States Culture!” as she puts it.
Monamour says she decided to change the name “out of deep love and respect for my culture because what is going on right now is not what Russia and Russian people are! I stand with Peace. I feel more Russian as I ever did, I brought a piece of my culture all the way across the world and became successful despite the belief that Texans are too conservative and we would not be accepted! We have been accepted and loved, we have taught and shared with people of Austin our traditions and we are not changing our concept/menu/staff. We are what we have been for the past decade!” (Monamour adds that the House is now running a fundraiser where the proceeds from any Ukranian dish ordered off the menu will go to the Red Cross.)
In New York City, the long-standing Soviet-themed literary spot, KGB Bar, hasn’t decided to change its name. In fact, while the name is ostensibly a nod to the former Soviet security agency, it actually stands for “Kraine Gallery Bar,” a nod to the owner’s Ukranian ancestry and its location in Manhattan’s East Village, which has a prominent Ukranian population. But in response to the invasion, the bar has tweaked its menu, swapping out the Russian brewed Baltika Beer for the Ukranian Obolon, and replacing about three dozen cases of Russian vodka with Ukranian brands.
“Our corporate name is the Kraine Gallery Bar so you know where our sympathy lies,” owner Denis Woychuk told the local news site Bowery Boogie. “We know this is a largely symbolic effort, but we plan to do more, host readings and music events to provide resources to aid the Ukrainians.”
Keith McNally, the let’s-say-opinionated NYC restauranteur also joined the charge, saying his popular French bistro Balthazar “will not be selling Stolichnaya vodka until the war in Ukraine is over.” (Stoli, as has been reported widely over the past couple days, actually exists in a strange limbo where a Russian state-owned company claims ownership, but the company that actually makes and sells it, Stoli Group, is based in Latvia. Stoli Group is also prominently supporting Ukraine on its website.)
Over in Israel, Jerusalem’s popular “Putin Pub” shaved off the first part of the name it’s held for 21 years, according to The Jerusalem Post. The current owners said the past owner came up with the name “as a gimmick,” and indeed the bar has played host to lots of Russian and Ukranian tourists over the years.
But in the current climate, the owners don’t want to foster “any connection to politics,” with one owner, Leonid Tatrin, adding: “This is a place of entertainment and no one wants to feel the effects of the war and politics when drinking beer. We are against the war, we want to host Ukrainians and Russians here. We have received full support for lowering the sign.”
On top of these rebranding efforts, social media has revealed some more traditional freedom fries-style posturing that toe the lie between well-intentioned and just plain cringy. The conservative talk show host and poster Jesse Kelly, for instance, claimed the other day that he made himself a White Russian — then dumped it in the sink. Other Twitter users have noted that their local bars are serving Moscow Mules under new names, like the “Snake Island Mule” (a nod to the locale where Ukranian border guards reportedly told off a Russian warship) or the “Love and Peace Mule” (while the White Russian does actually have Russian origins, the Moscow Mule was most likely invented in New York City).
But while many of these actions give off the air of a harmless chest puff, some are bearing the actual brunt of anti-Russian sentiment: Washington, D.C.’s Russia House was vandalized twice last weekend, ostensibly because of its name, as The Washington Post reports. “We are a U.S.-owned company trying to survive,” owner Aaron McGovern said, adding that he suspected the vandalism was tied to anti-Russian sentiment as the restaurant had also received “some hate phone calls.”
Meanwhile, several states are essentially boycotting Russian vodka and other Russian-made liquors. Officials in Ohio, Utah, New Hampshire, and Oregon have all backed removing products from liquor shelves in the respective states. The move, however, is largely symbolic, as CNN reports. Few of the Russian-sounding vodka brands imported to the U.S. actually originated in Russia. Take, for example, Stoli, which is actually made in Latvia — and the Russian-sounding Smirnoff is manufactured in Illinois. In fact, as CNN notes, less than one percent of vodka consumed in the U.S. is produced in Russia. A rep for Utah Gov. Cox did not immediately return Rolling Stone‘s request for comment; a rep for Gov. Sununu pointed RS to additional comments the governor made to WMUR in New Hamphsire
“We see whats happening. People are losing their lives,” Sununu said. “It’s unprovoked aggression, and if we can get New Hampshire to do their part and take these products off of the Russian shelves — I don’t know anyone buying that garbage right now, frankly — it’s a good thing and it’s a step we can make.”
While some gestures — well-intended or feigned — may not appear substantive, others impact the country, at least as it perceives itself on the world stage. Russia, for instance, was booted from the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest, for instance, but it’s more likely to feel an actual sting in the sports arena — an area in which Russia has long prided itself. Both FIFA and UEFA have banned Russian national and soccer teams from competing in games indefinitely, which jeopardizes the men’s team from potential qualification for the 2022 World Cup, as USA Today reports. The final of the 2022 Champions League — the top international club tournament — was also moved from St. Petersburg to Paris. (Russia is even getting burned in the virtual sports world, with Electronic Arts, the maker of the popular soccer game FIFA, confirming it would follow FIFA and UEFA’s real life lead and remove both the Russian national team and all Russian club teams from the game.)
The International Olympic Committee has recommended international event organizers deny invitations to Russian athletes, including athletes from Belarus due to the country aiding Russia during its invasion of Ukraine. The National Hockey League has terminated any partnerships with Russian businesses and will not consider playing games in Russia in the future.