Boycotting individual Russians can sometimes go too far
Outrage at Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine continues, with punitive sanctions by the United States and other countries targeting Russia’s economic institutions and the yachts and jets of its elite. Whether this will force the Kremlin to change course is uncertain; some argue that the pain is felt mainly by ordinary people. The backlash gets more complicated when it affects artists, writers, and athletes — and goes off the rails when people target immigrants from Russia.
This is personally relevant to me as a Soviet-born American who came here with my family as a teenager. While my Russian roots are not readily apparent, my mother and many of her friends speak with a distinct Russian accent. None of them have experienced any unpleasantness, but reports of Russian restaurant owners being harassed and of Russian-speaking immigrants dreading casual questions about their origin аre disturbing.
And what of Russian artists or sports figures in democratic countries who find themselves linked to the actions of a rogue state? New York’s Metropolitan Opera has already dropped superstar Russian soprano Anna Netrebko for at least two seasons after she refused to repudiate Putin, whom she had backed in the past. Conductor Valery Gergiev, a strong supporter of the Russian dictator, has lost several posts in Europe. The latest casualty is young pianist Alexander Malofeev, whose three upcoming recitals in Montreal, Canada were canceled due to protests from Ukrainian activists.
Meanwhile, Russian players in the National Hockey League face pressure to speak out against the war — often putting them in a quandary if they have family back in Russia and fear that speaking out could put their loved ones in danger.
Where to find a reasonable middle?
Every sane person agrees that vandalizing Russian restaurants and shops or verbally abusing their owners and staff because of Russia’s war in Ukraine is repugnant. Collective blame is always wrong, especially when people are blamed for the actions of a regime they left behind. (It’s all the more absurd since many Russian businesses have Ukrainian staff or co-owners.) Our leaders should unequivocally condemn such hate, just as George W. Bush condemned hate directed at Muslims after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Sports and arts are more complicated. There is nothing wrong with boycotting Russian athletes, in individual or team sports, who represent their country: The war may not be their fault, but the snub makes the point that Russia is now a pariah state. There is an even clearer case for boycotting Netrebko and especially Gergiev, who have defended Putin-era Russian imperialism: You can’t do that and then claim art as a refuge from politics.
Yes, we should normally keep politics out of culture and oppose "deplatforming" artists and authors for bad opinions. But there are exceptions. After World War II, even great German musicians such as conductor Herbert von Karajan paid a professional price for ties to the Nazi regime. The Putin regime is not Nazi Germany, but it has certainly reached shunning stage.
On the other hand, it’s unfair and illiberal to demand statements from Russian-born hockey players on U.S. teams, even if they are Russian nationals. In a free country, people (including noncitizens) have the right not to take a stand. Even worse is the targeting of Malofeev, who has criticized the war and voiced concern for his relatives in Ukraine, solely because he is Russian. The term "cancel culture" fits.
History has far too many examples of righteous fervor leading to wrongful acts. Let’s not go down that road.
Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.