The online ad bouncing around the Russian Internet earlier this month was for a sushi chain with growing popularity, opening dozens restaurants across Russia: four smiling young people wielding chopsticks as they dig into noodles and seaweed bowls and grab at a plate of gigantic sushi and maki rolls.
Three of the people were women, apparently Russian. One was a black man.
Conservative activists immediately unleashed a campaign of hateful, racist attacks on social media and elsewhere, accusing the owner of spreading the "propaganda of multiculturalism."
Now the owner of the chain, originally launched in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, is apologizing publicly -- and in doing so, has added new fuel to a social debate within Russia about progressive commercials in business marketing.
The incident is the second in recent months involving a Russian business putting out a marketing campaign that ostensibly appears to embrace progressive values -- only to be savaged by conservative critics.
The Russian government advocates multiculturalism and President Vladimir Putin frequently cites the country's multiethnic makeup: though Slavic Russians are by far the largest single group, Tatars, Ukrainians, and more than 180 other recognized ethnic groups are part of the country's sprawling cultural makeup.
But the state has also balked at cracking down on some nationalist groups that peddle bigoted and often racist ideas.
In a column on the business site VC.ru, Konstantin Zimyen, the founder of the chain Yobidoyobi, said his staff had been barraged with hateful comments for the ad and another one, which featured the black man posing alone.
Users of the Russian social network VK, he said, ripped into him for supporting multiculturalism -- a political idea rejected by many nationalists as a threat to Russian national identity.
Zimyen said some posters threatening him with violence, and also published his personal phone number online.
He told Russian media that he had introduced new security measures at his Krasnoyarsk apartment, and plans to appeal to the police. The company's website, meanwhile, was subjected to hacking attacks, though Zimyen didn't make clear whether it was knocked offline.
The chain, which started in 2016 in Krasnoyarsk, a city located more than 1,700 kilometers from the nearest ocean, now has 57 locations across Russia and neighboring Kazakhstan --- one indication of how the Japanese cuisine has caught on with Russian palettes over the past two decades in a big way.
"Why, in Russia in 2021, a black person provoked the ire of some people is beyond me," he wrote.
Just Making It Worse?
This is not the first such case in recent weeks, as an increasing number of Russian companies come under pressure to toe the nationalist line.
In July, a health-food chain called VkusVill withdrew a commercial featuring an LGBT couple and apologized to its customers for what it called "a mistake that exposed the unprofessionalism of some employees."
VkusVill had been attacked for the ad by conservative activists, some of whom cited Russia's controversial 2013 law commonly known as the "gay propaganda" law.
After pulling the ad, VkusVill was then lambasted by some clients for pulling it and apologizing under pressure from homophobes.
Consequences for the LGBT couple were far more dire: the two women last month revealed they had left the country with their family, amid death threats from activists.
In Siberia, Yobidoyobi has prompted similar ridicule from people who denounce the campaign against its ad as racism, pure and simple. The company's mixed messaging only made things worse.
"On behalf of the whole company we want to apologize for offending the public with our photographs," the company wrote on Instagram. "We deleted all the content that provoked this uproar."
But on its page on VK, the company phrased its apology in starker terms, specifically appealing to ethnic Russians who may have been offended by the images.
One of the most "liked" comments beneath the Instagram post was from a user who appeared to denounce the company's decision to ultimately cave in: "Welcome to the Dark Ages," the user wrote.
Russian media reported that the hate campaign against Yobidoyobi's ad was initiated by Male State, a movement that advocates patriarchy and has previously railed against feminist advocates of a law on domestic violence.
The group's leader, Vladislav Pozdnyakov, posted a screenshot of Yobidoyobi's ad to his channel on the Telegram messaging app and encouraged his users to scam the company by ordering and not paying for its sushi.
For his part, Zimyen said that he didn't plan to submit to the activists, and will not remove the controversial ad, despite apologizing for it.
"Our food is for everyone. We don't plan to abandon our principles, and urge everyone to reconcile," he told the outlet Inc. Russia.