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Berlin, Germany – It is approaching midday in Prenzlauer Berg, one of Berlin’s trendier districts in the east of the city, and the tables at Pasternak are starting to fill with locals looking for lunch. With a hint of spring in the mid-March air and the easing of pandemic restrictions, it doesn’t take long before the seats inside and outside this Russian Jewish restaurant are taken. It is a welcome sight for owner Ilja Kaplan, whose business has taken a hit since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

“During the first week of the war, we had many bookings cancelled and saw people who were not necessarily customers making a stand against us online because we serve Russian food,” Kaplan, a tall 60-year-old, casually dressed in a green tracksuit, says while sitting outside his restaurant. “People were leaving one-star reviews and comments simply saying they opposed the war and nothing about the quality of the food. That has subsided and we are getting customers during the days now.”

But the restaurateur attributes business picking up to the change in weather and the loosening of pandemic restrictions. “During the day, some people don’t notice the Russian sign outside the restaurant. In the evenings, it is still less busy than before the war,” says Kaplan, who speaks with concern amid light-hearted interactions with staff and customers.

A Moscow-born gastronomy graduate, Kaplan has been in Berlin for three decades and today owns and oversees several establishments across the city that offer dishes and drinks from Russia, but also countries where Russian is spoken, including Ukraine, Latvia and Georgia.

On a personal level, Kaplan says that in recent weeks his Ukrainian partner has struggled to leave their home in Berlin because of the emotional toll inflicted by the war.

He says the war has also hit his company, which owns different establishments, and its 150 or so staff members – 70 percent of whom are Ukrainian – hard. “It was a complete shock to us when it first broke out,” he says. “We had a Ukrainian cook who was on vacation back home who told us he couldn’t come back to work as he was already fighting with a Kalashnikov. We had to pick up one of our other Ukrainian cooks who was also on vacation from the Polish border.”

The company took a strong anti-war position from the outset, issuing a statement on their website that highlighted the diversity of the staff and the unity within the team, which includes people from Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, Romania, Georgia, Argentina, Spain and France.

“Not once in 30 years have we had a situation where we have been drawn into a conflict on ethnic grounds. We work together, try to create a good atmosphere and inspire our guests,” the company said. “We share the opinion that one country’s aggression against another country is unacceptable in our modern society. We are categorically opposed to any military action involving human casualties and violence. No nation should be held responsible for the wrongful actions of short-sighted politicians.”

The exterior of the Russian Jewish restaurant Pasternak,
Staff at the Russian Jewish restaurant Pasternak in Berlin say they have experienced less business since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 [Gouri Sharma/Al Jazeera]

‘Unfair to discriminate against Russians’

For Maxim Schidko, a 37-year-old Pasternak chef who comes from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, his friendly and smiling demeanour go some way to hide his current worries. He says that on the first day of the war, his wife and their baby had to flee Kyiv and are now safely in Berlin after he went to the Polish border, and Kaplan’s company helped organise to collect them.

Yet other members of his family are still caught up in the conflict. “My 18-year-old son is currently preparing to join the military and I have two cousins who are already fighting,” he says. “My parents were at my grandmother’s funeral in the countryside when the war broke out, so they have been staying there since. Leaving for the funeral turned out to be lucky for them. I am, of course, worried for my family, but I’m convinced Ukraine will win.”

Germany is home to the largest (PDF) Russian-speaking population outside the former Soviet Union, with estimates varying between 3.5 and 4.5 million people, a sizeable proportion of whom live in Berlin.

Following the war’s outbreak, there have been reports of attacks against the community, including an arson attack on a Russian-German school in Berlin and the vandalisation of a Russian-Polish grocery store in another part of Germany.

While they haven’t had any problems at Pasternak, another one of Kaplan’s restaurants received a threatening call demanding Russians pack up their bags and leave.

A photo of a man in a kitchen standing next to a stove.
Ukrainian chef Maxim Schidko had to collect his wife and their baby from the Polish border on the first day of the war, and his 18-year-old son is set to join the military alongside his two cousins who are already fighting [Gouri Sharma/Al Jazeera]

The local attacks have been causing concern for another Pasternak staff member, Marina Bernz, 37, a bubbly Russian German with a confident air who waits on tables at the restaurant. “I work the early shift and during the first few days of the war, I was worried about what I would find once I got to work and whether our windows would be broken. It was the first time in my life where I did not feel comfortable in Germany.”

With the war dominating dining staff discussions, Bernz says the staff members have all been supportive of one another. “We are a family,” she says.

But Bernz, who is against the war, feels that Russians elsewhere are being unjustly targeted. “It’s unfair to discriminate against Russians, especially those living outside of Russia. Everyday Russians don’t have anything to do with the war.”

She feels they shouldn’t be blamed for what is happening, so she refuses to hide her roots. “I still feel a bit uneasy but now more than ever I am speaking Russian on the street. It isn’t our fault, so why should we hide?”

Kaplan says that within the Russian diaspora in Berlin, there are those who support what is happening and those who are against it. “I openly oppose the war and support the democratic values of freedom, equality and justice,” he says, adding that many Russians support Ukraine but might be too scared to voice their opinion for fear of a backlash.

“I see that the number of Russians opposing the war is much bigger than it seems but they fear being branded a traitor, so they don’t speak up. For me, there is no clear distinction between Ukrainians and Russians,” he says, referring to a shared history, culture and food – the sorts of dishes he was exposed to in Moscow and now offers at his restaurant.

A photo of a bartender behind the bar.
Restauranteur Ilja Kaplanat sees the dishes at his restaurant as a celebration of the independence and cuisine of the different places where Russian is spoken [Gouri Sharma/Al Jazeera]

Throwback to a 1930s Moscow literature salon

Named after the Nobel literature prize-winning Russian writer Boris Pasternak, who wrote the novel, Doctor Zhivago, in the 1950s, which was banned in the Soviet Union for its negative portrayal of life under the Soviet system, the restaurant dominates the corner of a square in an area that is steeped in the city’s recent history. Once known for its Jewish artist community, it was part of East Berlin during the time of the division. In order to restore and renovate some of the more historic buildings in the area, the area was heavily invested in after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Today, as one of the most gentrified areas in the city, it is also one of the most expensive places to live.

Pasternak arrived in the area five years after reunification, with Kaplan taking over in 2002. The eatery faces the famous Wasserturm, a water tower that was built in the late 19th century and the city’s oldest. Part of the water tower square grounds was once used as a concentration camp by the Nazis. Today, it is home to a playground and park.

Across from it sits Germany’s biggest synagogue, and a school on its grounds, today ringing with the sounds of school children playing inside as police guards, seen outside some Berlin synagogues, stand at the gates, while restaurants, including a Jewish eatery, are nearby. “I used to own that one, too,” says Kaplan, pointing to it.

Pasternak seats about 150 people. Inside, there is a piano, as well as crystal chandeliers. Russian vodka bottles and pictures of famous Russian literary figures – including copies of images drawn by Pasternak’s artist father – adorn the ceiling and walls. “The design is meant to reflect the spirit of a literature salon in a 1930s Moscow apartment,” Kaplan says.

A photo of the inside of a restaurant with a bar on the left and tables and chairs on the right.
Established in 1994, the restaurant is named after Nobel prize-winning author Boris Pasternak and is modelled on a 1930s Moscow apartment literature salon [Gouri Sharma/Al Jazeera]

Its rich menu offers breakfast dishes of egg, crepe and fish recipes from former eastern bloc countries and their neighbours, which are served until 4pm, alongside traditional dishes like borscht soup and Jewish specialities such as the “Uncle David”, a starter of hummus and Israeli salad with smoked eggplant and paprika, Kreplach, a Jewish dish said to originate from Eastern Europe that consists of small dumplings with lamb stuffing or latkes, potato cakes, which are served with calf’s liver. Dishes are named after places, including the “Odessa salad”, a mix of ingredients such as baby spinach, grilled shrimp and salmon fillet, and the “Georgia Bowl”, a mix of baked goat cheese, tomatoes, avocado, and rocket, among other ingredients. The “Wareniki Leningrad”, vegetarian dumplings with potato stuffing, are also on offer. Kaplan says their “Pelmeni Siberia” dish of homemade beef dumplings is their most popular.

“I’m from Moscow and there you could eat all sorts of food from the former eastern bloc and neighbouring countries like Belarus or Ukraine,” Kaplan explains. “It’s something I’m familiar with, grew up with and what I can prepare, so I wanted to make a menu that reflected all the different cuisines you get in Moscow.”

Kaplan says his menu celebrates the independence and cuisine of each place. “That’s why in my menu I mention where the dishes are from,” he says.

Yet, since the war, he has had to be more careful with the wording of his menu, in particular removing the word ‘Russian’ from it. “So instead of ‘traditional Russian pelmeni’ (dumplings) it’s now just ‘traditional pelmeni’. People are associating bad things with the word and even supermarkets have started banning or boycotting Russian items like vodka,” he adds.

A photo of two women sitting at a table.
Bernz, right, says she is against the war and is worried about the effect this is having on average Russians [Gouri Sharma/Al Jazeera]

Supporting Ukrainians

Despite the challenges, Kaplan and his staff have been playing an active role in supporting Ukrainians impacted by the war. Establishing one of his restaurants as a collection point, in the first couple of weeks, they collected items such as medicines, food and clothes and transported them to the Ukrainian border. They have also been helping Ukrainian refugees find jobs and accommodation.

Kaplan says that going forward, this is where their focus will be since they don’t have the means to keep sending drivers to deliver goods to the border. They will also continue to provide free food to displaced Ukrainian women and children at one of their restaurants. “I am worried about what is going to happen,” Kaplan says, referring to the future of his business and the war.

“But for now, there won’t be any drastic changes with the work we are doing.”

In the meantime, Pasternak staff will continue to carry on with their daily lives as much as they can. Ukrainian chef Schidko, who receives live updates about the situation on the ground through his family in Ukraine, says, “There has been a lot of support for Ukrainian refugees and for this I am grateful.”

“I stand with the people,” adds the waitress Bernz. “I feel sorry for the Ukrainians and I think it’s great that they’re getting the help they need. But who is helping the Russians? The common folk in Russia are not at fault here but they’re being punished with sanctions and restrictions. Who is going to help them? They can’t come to Germany, no one else wants to take them in. I’m very concerned about that.

“I think this whole thing is ridiculous. Ukrainians and Russians are like family. There are many Ukrainians living in Russia and the other way round, my family included. We are all the same. It’s like two brothers fighting.”