Photo of Tatiana Mis by Darrow Montgomery

A sticker keeps reappearing on the menu displayed outside the Russia House restaurant. In a parody of a popular children’s song, the sticker reads “Tinkle Tinkle Puppet Czar, Putin Put You Where You Are.” Each time co-owners Arturas Vorobjovas and Aaron McGovern find it, they peel it off. “Like my mom said in Lithuania—the stick has two ends,” Vorobjovas says. The proverb is a gentle way to say, “Karma’s a you-know-what.”

The owners say they are feeling the effects of deteriorating U.S.-Russian relations as special counsel Robert Mueller investigates whether Donald Trump colluded with Russian leaders during his 2016 campaign. 

“We got a rock through the window the weekend of the inauguration,” McGovern says. “It cost us about $5,000 because it wasn’t worth going through insurance. So you eat it, and it hurts, especially when you’re not as busy as you used to be.”

McGovern calculates that revenue is down 30 percent. “Tense relations don’t help, and we’re not in the coolest neighborhood anymore,” he says. Located at 1800 Connecticut Ave. NW, Russia House sits atop the Dupont Circle neighborhood in what is technically Sheridan/Kalorama.

You wouldn’t know business has taken a hit on a recent Saturday night, when the D.C. weather was mimicking winter in Moscow. Russia House has peeling wallpaper, a worn carpet, and stained menus, but its tables were full. Diners noshed on the bestsellers: borscht, pierogies, beef stroganoff, and chicken Kiev. 

Those eating downstairs spoke unaccented English, which is par for the course when it comes to clientele these days. Most patrons are business travelers or neighborhood regulars, not Russian diplomats, according to McGovern. “They have a bar on property, and they don’t promote drinking outside of your home or the embassy,” he explains. That said, Vorobjovas recalls when Vladimir Putin’s team of pilots visited in 2004. “It took us a while to crack who they were—until they got a little tipsy,” the Lithuanian says.

Vorobjovas likens his restaurant to Epcot, saying Russian food and vodka make for more of a theme than anything else. But it hasn’t always been that way. Russia House was initially a private club founded by Edward Lozansky, a nuclear physicist who also founded the American University in Moscow. He currently serves as a columnist for the Washington Times. One of his recent articles bore the headline, “Let Trump be Trump—Ronald Reagan was Ronald Reagan.” 

Most know Lozansky for his dramatic love story, captured in print and on screen. “For Tatiana: When Love Triumphed over the Kremlin” is a movie about Lozansky’s relationship with the daughter of a high-ranking Soviet Union general. It took six years and a hunger strike for Tatiana Lozansky to rejoin her husband in America with their 11-year-old daughter.

Lozansky told the Post in 1991 that royalties from the book and movie helped him purchase the Russia House building for $700,000 in the ’90s. He opened his club so powerful people could come together to help broker better U.S.-Russia relations.

Lozansky met with McGovern and Vorobjovas in 2002, inviting them to lease Russia House and convert it into a public restaurant. Limited to the first floor only, it opened in March 2003. “We took the next level and the next level and eventually we took over the whole building,” McGovern says. “Finally, we bought the building from Ed.”

“If you look in all of the articles, Ed mentions that he’s still a part of Russia House,” Vorobjovas says. “He has a key—he always comes in and sets off the alarm.” McGovern chimes in, “You can always tell when Ed’s here because he wears distinctive cologne.” “He’s worn the same cologne for 30 years—it must have been one of those cases that was on clearance at T.J. Maxx,” Vorobjovas jokes.

Whether it has to do with Russia House’s origins as a private club or present day politics, it’s undeniable that a certain mystique surrounds the business. The owners welcome it, but only to a degree. “We’ve been told over the years that we’re mafia-owned,” McGovern says. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been told that we run prostitutes out of this place … We don’t break any laws, we pay taxes.” McGovern, the head chef, maintains that the only thing secret about Russia House is his recipes. 

Russia House has no doubt taken a hit, but operating a restaurant that serves borscht isn’t necessarily as risky as a game of Russian roulette. Business is booming at Mari Vanna on the other side of Dupont Circle at 1141 Connecticut Ave. NW.

The restaurant is appointed to look like a kitschy babushka’s house with its flower patterns, sunken couches, and framed photos. Mari Vanna has two locations in Russia and several in the U.S., and opened in D.C. in December 2012. General manager Tatiana Mis is from Belarus and manager Slava Grig is from Moldova. Both have been there since the beginning.

“Business is really good,” Mis says. “Especially because it’s winter and it’s so cold. People are trying to reheat themselves. That’s why they come here for vodka.” She adds that Mari Vanna raked in at least 20 percent more revenue in December 2017 compared to December 2016. She doesn’t think strained U.S.-Russian relations have stymied business. 

“People who come—here they know where they’re coming, “ she says. “They are always really friendly. The only thing I would mention is that there’s a lot of interest. What dishes do you have? What do you sell here? What is Russian cuisine? But nothing aggressive or negative.” 

Grig adds, “People coming here can separate politics and cultural life … This news gives American people more interest in discovering Russian culture and Russian food. Even if it’s not the best news.” Mis suggests that Russia House has received the brunt of the backlash because it has the word Russia in its name. “If we would write, ‘Russia Mari Vanna,’ things might be different.”

At the beginning, Mari Vanna’s clientele was predominantly Russian, but now more Americans are coming for dinner and to club when the second floor turns into a DJ-fueled dance party on weekends. The restaurant has loyal American superfans. “We have two regular guests—Bob and Edward—they’re here every day,” Grig says. “From the beginning, they’ve been here every day, and sometimes twice a day.” Another regular named Kevin made a Facebook group for Mari Vanna devotees.

The restaurant offers different specials every night, which also helps build a regular clientele. For example, on Thursdays after 5 p.m., customers can pay $29 for unlimited caviar, blinis, condiments, salads, and a shot of vodka. 

While Americans continue to fill seats, Mis maintains that Mari Vanna is “the center of the Russian speaking community in D.C.” Unlike Russia House, Mari Vanna sees a fair share of people from the Russian Embassy, perhaps because Mari Vanna often pours vodka as a sponsor of the embassy’s cultural events. “They are good friends and come in here often,” Mis says. So do Russian hockey players who play for the home team. The Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin and Dmitry Orlov were at Mari Vanna for New Year’s Eve.

Mis is quite confident about the quality of Mari Vanna’s food and infused vodkas. When asked why she thought Russia House’s revenue has taken a small tumble, she chided, “It’s because of us.”

It’s been business as usual at Dacha Beer Garden, too. The Shaw bar at 1600 7th St. NW borrows its name from the Russian word for a summer home. “The name is a feel,” says co-owner Dmitri Chekaldin. “At a dacha you’re supposed to feel relaxed … It’s a refuge in the bustling life of the city.” 

While the name is Russian and the bar is owned by a pair of Russian immigrants, you wouldn’t know the bar has a Slavic side. Most of the beers are German and the food menu reads like it was plucked from Oktoberfest save for hints of dill. 

Chekaldin grew up in the city of Perm, Russia before moving to Moscow in 1989. He came to the U.S. alone in 1994 to study and swim on the swim team at the George Washington University. His business partner Ilya Alter arrived about two years before Chekaldin, and came with his whole family as a part of a program that enabled Jewish refugees in Russia to migrate to America. 

Chekaldin and Alter consider themselves Americans and D.C. their home, but they say watching the news about their home country is surreal. “It’s unnerving at times,” Chekaldin says. “It puts a shadow on your origins and where you come from. People say, ‘Oh Russians, they’re sneaky. They’re not to be trusted.’”

While Chekaldin says they “had a very good season” in Shaw, some anti-Russian sentiment crept into last year’s negotiations over the Dacha Beer Garden planned for 14th and S streets NW. The owners were met with plenty of push-back from dissenting neighbors, who were most concerned with the proposed capacity of 600 people and the noise that would come with it. Some cited that in 2015, the owners paid a fine of $42,500 for capacity-related violations of a settlement agreement.  

He says complaints occasionally got personal, especially on blogs similar to Reddit. “There were people saying, ‘You Russians are money launderers,’” Chekaldin says. He tried to laugh it off, noting that the restaurant industry is no money maker. “I didn’t really feel hurt. I think people say all sorts of things especially nowadays when nobody feels responsible for anything.”

Chekaldin has a patriotic message. “If you really look at Russians or any other immigrants that come to this country, we come in, bring our culture, our aesthetic, our knowledge, and the success of America is based precisely on this,” he says. “It’s the advantage of America that it’s not a homogeneous society.” 

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com. 

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