There’s a heavy sadness in the streets of Little Russia, the outer Richmond neighborhood that’s been home to many of San Francisco’s Russian and Ukrainian émigrés for generations.
You can feel it at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral on Geary Boulevard, where older women pray silently under the stained glass windows, lighting candles for the living and dead.
You can see it in the stores and bakeries, where shoppers browse shelves full of caviar, smoked fish and borscht, filling their baskets with food from a life left behind.
And you can hear it in their voices. From the people who came here to escape war, economic hardship and political oppression, only to watch their relatives and friends suffer the fate they avoided. Broadcast on television. Every night.
Kyiv lies 6,000 miles to the east. But it sure feels closer in Little Russia.
I find Alex Miretsky sorting newspapers and magazines in his Geary Boulevard grocery, the covers bright and tabloid, which is the norm in Eastern Europe. The headlines are written in Cyrillic, so I can’t make out the words. But the photos make the subject clear.
Vladimir Putin’s naked aggression against Ukraine stands front and center on the pages. And on everyone’s mind.
Miretsky’s past straddles both countries. Born in St. Petersburg, living in Odessa as a child before returning to his birthplace, he left Russia in 1988, immigrating to San Francisco with his parents by way of Vienna and Italy. He was 26 then. He’s 60 now. He speaks softly, with an intelligence borne from a serious life, filled with both good and bad.
As a young man in Russia, Miretsky was persecuted for being Jewish, going as far as changing his last name to seek cover. He found marriage and children in the States, raising two children with his wife before she passed from brain cancer in 2013.
He knows a lot about his mother countries, having traveled back and forth over the past 30 years, buying artwork from both well-known and unknown artists in countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Russia.
Now, he runs the Europa Plus grocery store, along with a small bookstore on the second floor, in a neighborhood steeped in Russian history. In many ways he personifies that history, and this latest crisis feels very familiar to him.
“(My clientele) is mostly Russian-speaking, of all over the former USSR and USSR-influenced countries. Ukrainian, Belarusian, Armenian. Everybody. And then also the younger generation who come in recent years.”
Since the war started nearly three weeks ago, those customers have grown increasingly agitated, Miretsky tells me. There have been arguments between Ukrainians and Russians in the shop.
“Yeah, just arguments (started by) people who are influenced by Russian propaganda,” said Miretsky. “This is kind of the main reason for arguing. They believe there was a genocide of Russian-speaking population in (Ukraine).”
Miretsky says he generally stays out of these conflicts, preferring to let the participants’ arguments fizzle out.
“It’s just too toxic,” said Miretsky, who believes many locals are being influenced by misinformation via social media and Russian cable networks. “People get angry very quick, right away. And then everybody realize that and they stop because it’s just not productive.”
He is also getting phone calls from Americans demanding he renounce his Russian products and background. He tries to explain calmly that he’s a non-practicing Jew who left those countries behind decades ago, but they rarely listen. Others ask him to fly the Ukrainian flag in his store, but Miretsky fears Russian supporters will break his windows.
“I would definitely need to close this store if I do that,” he said. “They will break my windows because these guys are very angry.”
Miretsky is the man in the middle of Little Russia. But he doesn’t hold back when it comes to Putin, a man his own father knew through his career back in Russia.
“There’s no way to get out from this very quick,” he said. “The main problem is that we still have this Duma (lower house of Russian Parliament) that is absolutely under his control. And they represent the nation. You can’t go around it. … This is just impossible to figure out what Putin’s goals are, and motivations. … I think he’s a madman and he has to be dealt with like a madman.”
Miretsky’s supply of Russian groceries is drying up. Nothing is leaving the country. As he waits the war out, he is diversifying his inventory, picking up more brands from neighboring countries. Romania. Poland. Turkey. Greece.
“Whenever I have a chance to get something from Eastern Europe, I will be getting,” he said.
Up the street on Geary Boulevard, Khicha Skarabidze makes pastries at his Russian bakery. Ironically, there are no Russians involved. He’s from Georgia. The store’s official name is actually Moscow & Tbilisi Bakery Store, referencing the Georgian capital. Skarabidze has seen Putin’s horror movie before, suffering through his own homeland’s invasion by the Russian military in 2008.
Like Miretsky, he is also getting calls from strangers asking him to change the name of his business. And they’re not asking nicely.
“There is no one Russian here,” said Skarabidze. “The previous owner was from Georgia, too. But there is a huge Russian population here and that’s why they called it the Russian Bakery.”
He has no plans to change the store’s name. And he sympathizes deeply with the citizens impacted by the senseless war.
“It’s so sad. People dying. For what?” said Skarabidze, who, like Miretsky, declined to be photographed for this story, fearing backlash. “It’s crazy. It doesn’t matter. Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Georgians. The people is dying. Children. Kids. Women.”
His voice trails off as he ponders the imponderable. Like his fellow shopkeeper up the street, Skarabidze has noticed that people in Little Russia are talking less and less about the situation. A form of resignation has settled in.
“Everyone that knows what’s going on over there, they started keep quiet,” he said. “People are so scared. If you ask a man on the street, a Russian guy, where are you from? I’m not sure he can say he is Russian.”
Historically, the Polish and Ukrainian people have not always seen eye-to-eye. They’re neighbors after all, and neighbors tend to squabble. But in this horrible time, the Poles have opened their borders and their hearts to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens fleeing Putin’s rain of missiles.
Here in San Francisco, the two nationalities have lived side by side in the Outer Richmond for decades.
You can see it for yourself at the Seakor Polish Deli, also on Geary, where the family-run business has been producing amazing kielbasa and kabanos sausage since 1978.
Jan Sikorski, 27, is part of the family. He’s been working behind the counter since he was 16. This is his neighborhood, where he’s grown up among a multitude of nationalities. He sees the concern on their faces daily.
“We have a lot of customers coming in here. A lot of Eastern Europeans, whether people are Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, war is on everyone’s minds,” said Sikorski.
“Everyone’s worried about how things are going,” he told me. “A lot of people are trying to find ways to send support,” sending packages and money for people to escape.
He told me the conversations he heard about the war were more common early on in the conflict, with people trying to understand it. But like the rest of us, the people of Little Russia have realized there is no understanding to be had.
“It’s beyond anyone’s understanding, at this point,” he said. “People are just worried about what’s going to happen next.”
I give the last word to Katia Troosh, the longtime matriarch of Little Russia who used to run Katia’s Russian Tea Room at the corner of Fifth and Balboa. She gave up the restaurant in 2018, but her daughter still runs a place on the site.
Troosh knows the neighborhood as well as anyone and remains in regular contact with her former customers and her fellow business owners. In fact, she had just gotten off the phone with Miretsky earlier that day when I spoke to her.
To say she’s concerned would be an understatement. She, too, is a person of Russian origin whose family came here via Northern China, a route common during the Soviet regime. Her parents fled Stalin and they arrived in San Francisco in 1950. Troosh knows the history of Russia and Ukraine, and fears the backlash against her people here will just get worse.
“Whenever there’s tension between Ukrainians and Russians, arguments start,” said Troosh. “And there are no vaccines against stupidity. It’s not surprising that people will lash out and blame Russians. Ukraine is the biggest victim of this. The people here — I can’t think of a single person I know who would be in favor of murdering Ukrainians and blowing up hospitals and maternity wards.”
“Putin is undermining any kind of friendship over the past 30 years by doing what he’s doing. Ukrainians and Russians have always had some tensions… But what he’s done is terrible,” Troosh said. “I don’t think he’s normal.”
Editor’s note: The Arena, a column from The Examiner’s Al Saracevic. explores San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, quips and quotes to firstname.lastname@example.org.