Benjamin Lourie’s career has made twists and turns, taking him to outer Mongolia and back to Moscow, where he opened a Tex-Mex restaurant near Red Square—two weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Benjamin Lourie (IntlAf/Russ’16) knew exactly what he wanted when he started his undergraduate education at the University of Colorado Boulder: to become a commissioned officer in the U.S. Marine Corps through the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps.
Since then, he’s learned Russian, earned two degrees, gotten married, started a business in Moscow—Russia, not Idaho—moved to Georgia—the country, not the state—and experienced an ongoing evolution in his political thoughts and opinions.
Life, he’s discovered, has a way of rewriting scripts, and he’s happy with its twists and turns so far. For example, having done well in math and science in high school in suburban Denver, Lourie first thought he might want to study engineering as an undergraduate.
“Then I shadowed a mechanical engineer,” he says, “and realized I didn’t want to do that.”
Instead, he decided to follow his older brother into International Affairs and pursue a language that would be useful to a Marine officer. He settled on Russian.
When he didn’t get a spot in a shipboard ROTC program the summer after freshman year, he decided to join Russian Studies Professor Artemi Romanov for a six-week seminar in St. Petersburg—Russia, not Florida.
“My fellow midshipmen were going to live on a ship. I wanted to get outside my comfort zone, too,” Lourie says.
During that summer, he realized that Russia was not “like it seemed from Cold War documentaries. It reminded me of places I had been in Europe.”
After experiencing the frustration of not being able to communicate, Lourie returned to CU and “kind of nerded out with Russian.” By the time he returned to St. Petersburg in 2015, with the support of a CU Boulder Global Grant scholarship, he was sufficiently advanced to be able to make friends, understand Russian TV shows and use social media in Russian.
In 2014, after Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula of its neighbor Ukraine, Lourie began to see a career path that lay outside military service, perhaps in diplomacy. Eventually he decided to spend a full semester in Russia rather than continue seeking a spot in an officer-candidate training program. His senior year, he met his soon-to-be wife at CU Boulder.
He earned a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship after graduating and spent a year teaching English at a university in a remote Siberian town “literally in outer Mongolia,” where almost nobody spoke English.
There, he saw “the provincial side of Russia,” including the effects of corruption and propaganda with a much lower standard of living than in Moscow or St. Petersburg.
Returning from Siberia, he and his wife married and moved to the Netherlands, where she was attending graduate school. While working for nonprofits, he applied to the MBA program at Georgetown University. After earning his degree, he accepted a job offer in Moscow with a company that does outsourced software development for customers in the West and his wife took a job teaching science at a private high school in Moscow. Their plans to move in early 2020 were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but they were settling in by early 2021.
“It was everything I’d dreamed of; I was finally making a life in Russia,” Lourie says.
But then life happened—again—and he found himself looking for a way to have a larger impact in Russia. He decided to open a fast-casual Tex-Mex restaurant less than a half mile from the famous Red Square and the Kremlin. After many exhausting months learning about Russian laws, taxes, contracts and more, Sabroso Tex-Mex opened in February 2022.
Two weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine.
“I saw the headlines before the invasion, but I was so preoccupied with the restaurant that I thought, “OK, that’s just us (the U.S.) wanting to sell more oil to Europe.”
Lourie assumed the threats would result in a minor cross-border incursion, and nobody he knew wanted war. Instead, “the Russian army was full-on bombing the capital of Ukraine and sending tanks across the border.”
When he and his wife saw how brutally the Russian government was suppressing all dissent, they decided to leave Russia for a few months with their cat, hoping things would settle down by summer or fall.
They moved to Georgia, where Lourie took a job with a Canadian company that makes restaurant software and his wife continued to study Russian. When it became clear that the war was not going to end any time soon, they sold the restaurant.
Disturbed by Russia’s decision to invade, passive and active support for the war among high-profile actors and large swaths of the population and the “storm trooper” tactics of shutting down dissent, he became more and more disillusioned, especially with the Russian government.
“I don’t think we’re going back to Russia any time soon,” he says.
But Lourie is also frustrated when those who know little of Russian history make sweeping statements about its people and individual Russians are shut out of opportunities because of decisions made by the authoritarian government of Vladimir Putin. He says people outside of Russia can’t imagine how steep the consequences are for expressing dissent over the war.
Russia is responsible for the bloodshed and there is no justification for the invasion and occupation of Ukraine. But I do think the conflict could have been avoided had the U.S. and the West been sensitive to Russia’s concerns sooner.”
He also believes the West bears some blame for the direction of Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, noting, for example, that the United States turned a blind eye to blatant anti-democratic trends, crime, and a massive decline in the standard of living in Russia in the ‘90s, which ultimately led to the consolidation of power in the hands of the president of the Russian Federation.
It was Russians themselves who “allowed the Soviet Union to be disintegrated in the hope they could rejoin the world. They were told they could join all the clubs, but they didn’t get to, and instead all of the sins of the Soviet dictatorship were on their heads. Now there is a lack of trust,” he says. And he understands why Russia would be leery of its opponents’ powerful military alliance “right up to the border.”
“Nonetheless Russia is responsible for the bloodshed and there is no justification for the invasion and occupation of Ukraine,” he says. “But I do think the conflict could have been avoided had the U.S. and the West been sensitive to Russia’s concerns sooner.”
With a return to Russia now unlikely, Lourie is studying French.
“I’ve always wanted to learn French. I’m opening up to learn a new language and culture. Russian is such a major part of who I am. But,” he says with a touch of mourning, “to make room for French, Russian has to become less.”
Lourie remains involved with his alma mater as a member of the CU Boulder International Affairs Advisory Board.