The Russian invasion of Ukraine, potentially the most monumental geopolitical action of the 21st century, has drawn massive international backlash. Across the world, citizens and political leaders alike are condemning Moscow’s belligerence and the man at its helm, President Vladimir Putin. The global show of solidarity with Ukraine has been so stalwart that many people outside of Ukraine are willing to take on financial burdens or even risk their lives to support Ukraine’s cause. However, beneath this show of goodwill lurks a much more sinister phenomenon: Russophobia, or xenophobia against Russians.
Since the start of the invasion on Feb. 24, there has been a mass exodus of companies and organizations from Russia. Western sanctions on Russia are largely responsible for the flight, as companies seek to avoid doing business with a country that economist and senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics Mary Lovey predicts is “becoming a commercial pariah.” Such risk-averse behavior from profit seeking corporations is normal and expected, perhaps even admirable in certain cases. It is also understandable why certain athletic organizations would cancel upcoming events in Russia given the obvious geopolitical tensions and concern for athlete safety and autonomy, as exemplified by the detention of WNBA star Brittney Griner.
What is neither understandable nor acceptable is discrimination against Russian people, their businesses, and Russian culture outside of Russia.
Russia is an authoritarian country. Power is concentrated in the hands of Putin, his political allies, and a corrupt class of billionaire oligarchs. As demonstrated by the mass arrests of anti-war protestors in Russia, ordinary civilians have a limited voice in the foreign policy direction of the state. This lack of popular influence in state affairs is what makes claims like there are no more “innocent” Russians as stated by Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, so appalling. If there are no innocent Russians, then what does that justify? And does that sentiment apply to Russians living abroad?
Many seem to think so, as certain organizations and citizens alike have suddenly developed severe cases of Russophobia. Take the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, for instance, which canceled scheduled performances of 20-year-old piano prodigy Alexander Malofeev in response to the Russian invasion for no other reason than his Russian nationality. Malofeev is not the only Russian pianist to suffer as a result of this war that he had nothing to do with; multiple international competitions have banned Russian pianists simply because of their nationality. Even the legendary (and deceased) composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsy has had his music stripped from the Cardiff Philharmonic program.
This rejection of Russian artists and cultural icons stands in stark contrast to the cross-cultural connection between Russia and the West which persisted through the height of the Cold War. Take, for example, the case of Texan pianist Van Cliburn who, in 1958, took first place in the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition held in Moscow. Although political tensions remained constantly high between the U.S. and the USSR throughout the Cold War, a 1956 National Security Council Report — which, among other things, emphasized the importance of American-Soviet cultural and civilian interaction — shows that cultural interplay between the two nations was actually encouraged by the U.S.
The realm of high culture is not the only area from which Russians are being expelled internationally, as Russians have also been banned from many athletic competitions. FIFA suspended Russia from competing in the World Cup; the International Olympic Committee advocated for a ban on Russian and Belarussian athletes and officials; and even the International Cat Federation has banned Russian-bred cats from competing in their events.
Although Russian participation in the Olympics is a long-standing issue, given the affinity many Russian athletes have for performance-enhancing drugs, Russian athletes, and, undoubtedly, Russian cats, have very little to do with the actions of their undemocratic president. And while political boycotts of sporting events that harm athletes by not allowing them to showcase their talents are nothing new, these usually operate the other way around. Instead of an organization banning a certain group of athletes, the government of a state is usually the entity to prevent their athletes from competing, which is exemplified by the American boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and the subsequent Soviet boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Some of the most dangerous anti-Russian rhetoric has come from Rep. Eric Swalwell’s (D-CA) idea to expel all Russian students from the U.S. Such a measure would not only punish blameless Russians seeking to learn from the U.S., but would also further hamper dialogue between Westerners and Russians regarding the invasion, something already made difficult by reciprocal media bans between the West and Russia.
Anti-Russian action in the West is also not exclusively stemming from official sources. Russian Tea Time, a Chicago restaurant, has been bombarded with angry and hateful calls and reviews, even though the restaurant is actually owned by a Ukrainian family who ironically chose to market the restaurant as Russian in an attempt to make it seem more familiar to Americans. This phenomenon in the West is common among many restaurants and other businesses owned by immigrants or the children of immigrants from the former Soviet bloc, with further examples taking place in San Diego, New York, London, Madrid, and likely many other Western cities.
Aside from the moral objectionality of blaming Russians (or anyone with a name that sounds Russian) for the crimes of a president whom they did not elect, and whom many Russians living abroad have outright condemned, Russophobia also plays right into the hands of Vladimir Putin himself. Putin has explicitly used international suppression of Russian culture as evidence of the West’s supposed maleficence against Russia. Being able to point to specific instances of Russophobia, particularly in prestigious institutions, gives Putin all the fuel he needs to maintain majority support in Russia for his hawkishness. This is particularly true regarding such issues as eastward NATO expansion which Putin consistently portrays as aggressive towards Russia. By characterizing the West as a monolithic enemy bent on destroying Russia’s culture and economy, Putin can rally both staunch supporters of his regime and Russians previously indifferent about the West to his banner.
None of this is to say that Russia itself, particularly the Russian elites who fuel the reprehensible war in Ukraine, should not be punished for invading a sovereign country and massacring its population. This is also not to say that the people of Ukraine are not the ones suffering the most from Putin’s war — they are.
However, supporting the Ukrainian people in their heroic struggle against imperialism and eschewing Russophobia are not mutually exclusive. One can simultaneously support crushing sanctions on the oligarchic elite bolstering Moscow’s war machine while also shunning tribalism, supporting the rights of the individual, and recognizing that Russophobia only strengthens Putin’s cause.
As stated by the Russian luminary and heroic survivor of the Soviet Gulag, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a man once praised by Putin himself, “Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty.”
Categories: Domestic Affairs