Russian restaurants are being vandalized and swarmed with bad reviews. Concerts featuring Russian musicians and dead Russian composers are being canceled. A diner has removed the name of the French Canadian delicacy poutine — which apparently sounds too similar to the name of the Russian president in French — from its menu. Russian films are being scrapped by film festivals. And some town officials are posing for photo-ops pouring out what they believe to be Russian vodkas.
All across the West, objections to Russia’s vicious invasion of Ukraine have trickled into the cultural sphere, with people using criticism, shaming, vandalism and boycotts of Russian cultural institutions, products and figures as ways to express disapproval of the country’s foreign policy.
At a time when tensions are running high, some citizens in the U.S., Canada and Europe view these kinds of acts as forms of protest or perhaps a means for avoiding controversy (some New Yorkers seem to be asking themselves, “Will people who see me eating Russian food think I'm an appeaser?”). But in reality, a great deal of these activities are closer to tribalism than principled activism, and in the aggregate the they're fostering a dehumanizing worldview that could prime us for war.
It is neither fair nor ethical to refuse to distinguish between the Russian government and Russian people.
Show cancellations aren’t being orchestrated by some well-organized boycott movement of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s economy designed to pressure Western governments to take action to isolate Moscow. Remember Russia already faces an unprecedented sanctions regime that is clobbering its economy and establishing it as an economic pariah state in the global arena; the sanctions Russia is enduring already dwarf the number of sanctions on Iran and North Korea.
What we're seeing with these boycotts is more of an ad hoc effort to more broadly stigmatize Russia as a country. And the more militant form of these actions, like smashing the windows of a Russian restaurant or demanding in messages that the owners of Russian restaurants “go home,” are not about applying meaningful pressure to the Russian government — they are simply xenophobic bullying.
It is neither fair nor ethical to refuse to distinguish between the Russian government and Russian people, especially because Russia is an authoritarian state where the public has no direct input on policy matters and civil society is heavily surveilled and repressed. The people of Russia — many of whom have protested the invasion at great personal risk — did not order this invasion. Putin did. And many were just as surprised as the rest of the world by his act of aggression.
The vulgarity of this emerging tribalism is evident in the fact that many of the people and institutions being condemned are themselves critics of the Russian government. A Russian pianist who has had shows dropped, Alexander Malofeev, wrote after the war began, “The truth is that every Russian will feel guilty for decades because of the terrible and bloody decision that none of us could influence and predict.” A recent New York Times report said that in New York most Russian restaurant owners are antiwar — but that hasn’t prevented them from seeing a huge drop in patronage and receiving criticism assuming they back Putin. Russian directors who have had their films dropped from a festival have publicly voiced opposition to the war, despite risk of backlash from the government. (The Russian composer Tchaikovsky, whose work has been dropped from some music programs, wasn’t a critic of Putin — but that’s because he died over a century ago.)
Depressingly, reporting indicates that a notable number of the people facing boycotts of their Russian or Russian-affiliated services or products are in fact Ukrainian or partially Ukrainian, something their critics are either ignorant of or don't care about. And some of the Russian vodkas being tossed out are in fact not Russian-owned and involve Ukrainian material. Ultimately attacking a person or an institution for being Russian or Russian-looking without regard for their position on the war is not expressing solidarity with Ukraine; it's jingoism and Russophobia.
Attacking a person or an institution for being Russian or Russian-looking without regard for their position on the war is not expressing solidarity with Ukraine.
This phenomenon is dehumanizing an entire nation in which a select group of people are actually responsible for the atrocities going on in Ukraine. That dehumanization can make us blind to the effects of harsh policies, such as a sanctions regime without limits that ultimately could cause ordinary Russians to suffer en masse while having limited effects on Russia’s political class. More worryingly, a more dehumanized Russian nation — which we refuse to make even basic cultural contact with or refuse to see as composed of people with different opinions about the Ukraine invasion — might be easier for the U.S. to go to war against.
There are all kinds of ways to declare solidarity with Ukrainians and oppose Russia's imperialistic war, such working and lobbying to send aid to Ukraine, opening up the country to Ukrainian refugees, and finding ways to support Russian dissidents against the war. Russians and Russian-Americans in the West who oppose the war are a crucial ally in the fight. They shouldn't be stigmatized using methods that whip up xenophobia and have no real effect on Russia's economy, but instead embraced as part of the international community that supports the cause of Ukrainian freedom.