Online commentators are flooding Google Maps and other review sites across Russia with feedback that has nothing to do with the quality of a restaurant’s pelmeni or borscht, but instead discusses the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
One comment on the Google page for Romantic, Restaurant in Moscow reads: “Food is great, but your leader is killing innocent people in Ukraine!! Stop this war.” On Afisha.ru, a lifestyle and entertainment website that also allows users to review businesses, a user wrote: “The deployment of troops in Ukraine is a war, not a special operation. Russian military kill children and civilians!!!!”
The comments are fueled by a tweet posted on Feb. 28 urging followers to counter Russian media:
Twitter users have shared threads in Russian offering templates for what to post. Here’s an English translation of one:
Good afternoon. I have never been to your restaurant. Unfortunately, I never will. Your president started a war against Ukraine and, consequently, against the whole normal world. 5,300 Russian soldiers have already been killed in Ukraine, and more dead are being raised every hour.
The comments about Ukraine on Romantic’s Google page have disappeared. “Due to a recent increase in contributed content on Google Maps related to the war in Ukraine, we’ve put additional protections in place to monitor and prevent content that violates our policies for Maps, including temporarily blocking new reviews, photos, and videos in the region,” Google told CNET.
Restaurant reviews as political speech
These posts are meant to counter Russia’s tight control of state media. The Ukraine-Russia crisis is being depicted in Russian media as a military operation rather than a war or invasion, as the Western media has called it. Since last week, Russia has restricted access to social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter. In response, users are turning restaurant reviews as a political messaging tool, though it is not clear which reviewers are from Russia and which are posting from outside the country.
This is not the first time people have turned to user-generated restaurant reviews to express political ideas. When some US cities mandated vaccination to enter restaurants, some users took to Yelp to complain about establishments enforcing those mandates. In 2018, Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia refused to serve Sarah Huckabee Sanders, then-White House press secretary, over the Trump administration’s stance on immigration, leading to a flood of reviews, including ones with swastikas.
Every online space has potential for an uprising, social psychologist Regina Tuma told Eater in 2015. The ubiquity of these platforms and the low barrier to entry allow political messages to spread quickly. That said, in Russia, there is no obvious connection between the restaurants in question and politics. The government crackdown on online expression has pushed people to search for cracks where free speech can flourish.