Opinion

For landmark eatery in Topeka’s Little Russia, ‘Russia’ is in name only these days

March 5, 2022 3:33 am

Porubsky’s Deli and Tavern has been the cornerstone of the Little Russia community in North Topeka since 1947. (Porubsky’s)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Linda Ditch has been a freelance writer for two decades.

Porubsky’s Deli and Tavern was busy Thursday morning. Customers popped into this grocery store-deli-restaurant-tavern to pick up early lunch orders. The restaurant-tavern area is closed for the time being, so everything is ordered to go. Most people were getting containers of the famous house-made chili, which is only available Monday through Thursday from Sept. 1 to April 1. Others picked up deli sandwiches, cold plates of meats and cheeses, and the clear-your-sinus hot pickles. One lady was picking up a large order for a local church meeting.

One would assume the war raging between Ukraine and Russia would be a hot topic at Porubsky’s. Since 1947, this place has been the cornerstone of the Little Russia community in North Topeka. Owner Charlie Porubsky’s grandmother, Katie Porubsky, and his father, Charlie Sr., started the business. In those early days, the grocery side was what drove business. Today, they serve lunch to a variety of people, from blue collar railway workers to politicians and office workers. According to Charlie, Sen. Jerry Moran still comes in for his usual ham salad sandwich on white bread with three pieces of cheese on the side.

Charlie’s sister, Cecelia Pierson, said between ringing up customer orders: “We had one man come in and ask if we were going to change our name from Little Russia. But most people know this neighborhood doesn’t really have anything to do with Russia. It would only be people who were new to the area who think otherwise.”

We had one man come in and ask if we were going to change our name from Little Russia. But most people know this neighborhood doesn’t really have anything to do with Russia. It would only be people who were new to the area who think otherwise.

– Cecelia Pierson

Charlie Porubsky makes some of the deli’s famous chili. (Porubsky’s)

The people who settled in this area of Topeka identified as German, even though they came from Russia. Specifically, they were Volga Germans, a unique ethnic group invited to settle in the Volga River region of Russia by Catherine the Great’s government from 1764 to 1767. By the late 1800s, their decedents were migrating to both North and South America.

Carol Gray, who is Charlie and Cecelia’s cousin, said their grandmother was a Volga German born in Russia who came to the United States via Ellis Island in the early 1900s, “aiming for a better life.”

Volga Germans were enticed to settle in Kansas because of numerous railroad jobs. They are also credited with introducing sunflowers to the state. Topeka’s community is strongly connected to the annual Germanfest celebration.

Today there aren’t many people left in Little Russia who descended from those original settlers. Cecelia noted some visitors stop in looking for Russian restaurants or shops, going away disappointed when they hear there are none. Instead of homes filled with families who tended their gardens and walked around the neighborhood each evening, the houses are now primarily rental properties where people stay for a short time.

“All the kids have moved out,” she said. “It’s just the name that has stuck.”

The folks in Porubsky’s seemed reluctant to talk about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Everyone is sensitive to how politically divided the United States is right now. In true Midwestern fashion, no one wants to insult or upset the customers who have kept the shop going strong during the pandemic.

“It’s very disheartening what’s going on in Ukraine,” Carol said. “Just imagine. People were just living their daily lives, and then one day, they were being bombed. What is the purpose?”

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Linda Ditch
Linda Ditch

Linda Ditch has been a freelance writer for two decades. The focus of her work is primarily food, travel, education, home improvement, natural health, and pet care topics. Her articles have appeared in the Topeka Capital-Journal, Concord Monitor (New Hampshire), Boston Globe and Dallas Morning News, as well as KANSAS!, Topeka Lifestyle, Topeka, Shawnee, and CatFancy Magazines. She also created The Iconic Dishes of Kansas and Topeka City Guide for the Food Network’s website. Before entering the freelance world, she was senior editor at Taste for Life magazine.

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