Wartime Dispatch From Neutral Ground: Matryoshka Deli in Sunny Isles Beach

Mike Savchenko pushes a red grocery cart down the nonalcoholic-beverage aisle of Matryoshka Deli Food on Sunday afternoon. The grocer, located in an unassuming strip mall at 18100 Collins Avenue in Sunny Isles Beach, is a veritable smorgasbord of international brands imported from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Romania, and other Eastern European nations. Dressed in a white shirt, black running shorts, and flip-flops, the tall Ukrainian with gelled salt-and-pepper hair grabs a plastic bottle of Monastery Kvass, a tangy, Coca-Cola-colored soft drink from Russia.

At the hot buffet, he piles an assortment of meats and veggie dishes into a white Styrofoam container, including a couple of Russian-style meatballs known as chicken koteleti and a hefty serving of braised cabbage. Savchenko, who splits his time between New York and Aventura, then strolls to the freezer near the checkout. He points to a couple of vanilla ice cream waffle cones from a Russian brand called Kopobka.

"This is one of the main reasons I came here," Savchenko says. "I’ve loved these since I was a little kid."
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The hot food counter at Matryoshka Deli Food
Photo by Francisco Alvarado
It tracks that Savchenko might be feeling nostalgic. Nearly 6,000 miles away in Savchenko’s homeland, Russian forces have invaded Ukraine in an effort to overthrow the democratically elected government. It's the largest ground war in Europe since World War II, so far claiming the lives of hundreds of civilians and sending upward of 440,000 Ukrainians fleeing their country.

"It’s crazy. It’s unbelievable. People are dying for nothing. It’s not right what’s going on," Savchenko says. "It’s just plain wrong what Putin is doing. You just can’t walk into someone’s house and try to take it."

In recent years, Sunny Isles Beach has earned the nickname "Little Moscow" owing to the large number of wealthy Russian nationals who've purchased luxury condos there and in nearby Bal Harbour and Bay Harbor Islands. Immigrants from other former Soviet republics, including Ukraine and Belarus, also call Sunny Isles Beach home.

Matryoshka has a built-in customer base. Eastern European immigrants visit the store for reminders of home: packaging that sports the Cyrillic alphabet; beers from brands like Baltika, the second-largest brewing company in Europe, and Zhigulevskoye, a brand that became popular under Soviet rule; deep-fried turnovers filled with pork and potato called cheburek; pouches of dried calamari and a whole pike sold in vacuum-sealed bags. Labels on the shelves state the country from which a product originates. In the candy and cookie aisle, Russian and Ukrainian treats are sold side by side.
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At Matryoshka, Russian and Ukrainian sweets are displayed side by side.
Photo by Francisco Alvarado
While most customers can agree that the store is the go-to spot for fresh fish and cured meat, they tend to diverge on their opinions about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

"I get meat and fish that you can’t get at Publix," Dimitry Gluzman tells New Times. "All the Russians know this place. Most of the people who work here are Russian."

Gluzman is a Russian with a white goatee and ruddy complexion. He has shopped at Matryoshka every other day since moving to Sunny Isles Beach a year ago.

He supports Putin.

"I am Jewish," Gluzman says. "There is fascism in Ukraine. If we forget what happened in the Second World War, bad things will happen," he adds, alluding to Putin’s unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine has fallen into the hands of neo-Nazis and that its leaders were subjecting Russian-speaking residents to "genocide."

Reminded that Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish and that some of his relatives were killed during the Holocaust, Gluzman shrugs. "Putin did the right thing."
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An assortment of caviar and other fine foods sold at Matryoshka Deli Food
Photo by Francisco Alvarado
As the attacks divide Miami's substantial Eastern European community, Matryoshka remains neutral ground.

Savchenko, for one, hasn't been dissuaded from shopping here.

"[Matryoshka] has a pretty good selection, for sure," he says. "It has everything you need. This is my first time grabbing food from the hot bar. I’m not sure if it will be as good as in Russia and Ukraine, but I can’t wait to try it."