Boycotting Russian Dissidents Is Only Helping Vladimir Putin

Anti-Russian boycotts in the West are hitting even outspoken opponents of Vladmir Putin’s war. Collective punishment is deeply unfair — and only hardens Putin’s grip over Russians.

A woman looks at a computer screen, watching dissenting Russian Channel One employee Marina Ovsyannikova interrupting Russia's most-watched evening news broadcast, holding up a poster that reads “No War” and condemning Russia’s military action in Ukraine in Moscow on March 15, 2022. (AFP via Getty Images)

My birth certificate reads: “Mother: Tatar; Father: Russian.” For reasons involving alcohol abuse, my father played no role in my life, and I was raised entirely by my mother’s side of the family. When I was little, I used to think my great-grandmother wasn’t very intelligent, as she spoke Russian in a strange way and exclusively used the male gender. Only later did I realize that Russian wasn’t her first language; it was Tatar. Only later did my mother tell me about the discrimination our family faced as an ethnic minority in Russia and her own experiences of being referred to as a “filthy Asian” — too narrow-eyed, too skinny, too dark.

When she signed up for a dating firm to find a husband in the West, it was recommended she dye her hair blonde before taking professional photographs for the online profile. Only later did I understand why my own Tatar identity was hushed, in favor of emphasizing that I am Russian.

On the day that Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, I returned from demonstrating at the Russian consulate and the United Nations and posted a story on my Instagram. I described my struggle with Russian identity, my effort to assimilate to Dutch culture when my mother and I immigrated to the Netherlands, how I felt that I could only come out as lesbian once I denounced my Russianness, how I’ve felt ashamed of being Russian for most of my life. This changed when I started to engage with queer culture in Russia, allowing myself to imagine an alternative future for the country. But that hope shattered all over again when Putin invaded Ukraine — leaving nothing but an overwhelming sense of shame. I was aware that this post risked “making it all about me,” but I also felt that the personal was my only entryway into the political. Not only am I far from an expert in foreign policy — and amazed by how easily others pretend to be — but I believe that that the violent suppression of queer voices, within the wider gagging of any opposition, has been one of Putin’s most successful strategies for stabilizing his rule.

Using Russian Culture Against Putin

In the art world (my own field of work), one of the first instances of Russian antiwar responses receiving media attention came on March 1, when the Russian-born artist Olive Allen burned her passport in front of the Russian consulate in New York. Olive recorded her performance, intending to sell the video as an NFT and raise funds for Ukraine. While I admired the fundraising effort, I was critical of the gesture — as much as I could relate to the urge behind it.

I have wanted to burn my Russian passport many times. I also have a Dutch passport, which is what I mainly travel on. However, a Russian citizen can’t apply for a Russian visa when technically still a citizen (even when the passport is expired, burned, or otherwise destroyed). If something should happen to my family in Russia, I would have no way of getting to them. And burning my passport would also performatively renounce my own implication in the war, instead of addressing it. Destroying the document that marks Russian citizenship implies denying it, saying “I am not Russian, so this war is not mine.” But as Russians, we must all acknowledge that this war is being pursued in our name. And as Russians, we must demonstrate that we can be Russian, antiwar, anti-dictatorship, and anti-Putin.

Olive’s performance prompted me to write an opinion piece on the need to own Russian identity in this moment instead of hiding it. At the same time, a sentiment had started proliferating across news platforms, social media, and daily life, that equated all Russians with Putin’s agenda (as detailed by Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic). A debate emerged in the art world when Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan posted a photo on Facebook captioned “Russia bombed Babyn Yar Today,” on which the Russian art historian Ekaterina Degot commented, “Not Russia. Putin did.” In an ArtNet op-ed titled “Russian Cultural Elites Want to Call This Putin’s War. But They, Too, Bear Responsibility for the Atrocities in Ukraine,” Oleksandr Vynogradov and Lisa Korneichuk argued that Degot’s stance means “denying any personal responsibility for Russia’s aggressive (and often criminal) domestic and foreign policy.” They continue, “Since the war started on February 24, the responses from Russian intellectuals revealed their inability to understand how the ongoing war is in large part a result of their political passivity.” While Degot’s comment is simplistic, ArtNet’s rebuttal also doesn’t allow room to examine the full complexity of the issue.

The implication that “political passivity” makes Russian cultural workers “personally responsible” for this war fails to understand what it’s like to live in a country under Putin’s regime. Speaking out against the government while living in Russia results in censorship, harassment, and intimidation — particularly for vulnerable communities such as queer people. There is a difference between the “Russian cultural elite” and the average cultural worker, between complicity with the regime, outspoken opposition to it, and smaller acts of critique and opposition that are not necessarily visible (or are purposefully obfuscated) online. Not all dissent happens in the clear view of a Western audience.

Another opinion piece followed in the Financial Times, where Oleksandr Mykhed writes:

Russians and Russian artists of any kind must realise: This war is also theirs. While this war is on, not one of their films should be presented at any film festival. None of their books translated. Not a single retrospective of Russian classical art should be exhibited in any museum. No republication of Dostoyevsky should see the light of day. No film financed by Russian money should be screened.

While I agree with the first statement, I have difficulty with what follows. Do we need cultural boycotts? Do Russians, both abroad and inside the country, all need to take a strong stance against the war and against Putin? Absolutely. But there needs to be a more nuanced understanding of the situation inside of Russia, the ways that resistance and opposition can be veiled. Support needs to be given to those artists with little power who have found ways to operate within the system while doing the vital work of critiquing it.

As panels and events started to be organized, the fear of controversy continued to feed the proliferating opinion that they should not feature Russian voices. Responding to a “Teach-In on Ukraine for Artists, Activist, and Arts Workers” organized by Creative Time and the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School, Ukrainian curator Mascha Isserlis commented on Facebook, “There is a big question from Ukrainian art community why Russian speakers invited on this panel. Some find it extremely offensive and not sensitive to the circumstances.” A postdoc from the New York University Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia, Emily Laskin, tweeted:

I got uninvited from a thing bc having a russianist on the panel is a bad look. Fine, the world really has bigger problems, however I feel slightly peevish that I was out here beating the drum about Russian imperialism when everyone was like “that’s boring” and now. . . .

The danger with the Western rush to boycott everything Russian is that it tips into Cold War stereotypes of the Russian villain and also hints at a dark United States history of conflating an enemy state with its oppressed people, feeding a xenophobia that is bound to punch down. There is a long history of dissent among Russian writers and thinkers. Boycotting Fyodor Dostoyevsky (who was sent to a Siberian labor camp for his participation in the revolutionary Petrashevsky Circle) is not going to end this war. Instead, we as Russians must use Russian culture against Putin, and the West must find ways to support those within Russia who are fighting a dictator at the risk of censorship, silencing, imprisonment, and death. Putin’s power will only cease when enough Russians can actively turn against him.

The blanket boycotting of any and all Russians is also a clear sign of the double standards held by the West, as Mouna Kalla-Sacranie has argued. The willingness of Western organizations to boycott Russian individuals is in stark contrast to the difficulty of getting those same organizations to agree to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement called for by Palestinian civil society groups. Decisively, this latter is focused on Israeli institutions, whereas the current boycotting impulse in the cultural field is targeting individuals — even those who have spent a lifetime working in opposition to Putin’s regime. This is also not the first time, even this century, that Russian bombs are falling on a sovereign nation. The war in Syria, too, was fought by Russian troops. Not only was there no boycott, but the refugees fleeing that war were met with an entirely different attitude by Europe.

I pitched an opinion piece outlining the above arguments to an online journal I regularly contribute to, including with anti-Putin articles. My pitch was accepted and received positive feedback from the editor, who then prepared it for publication with only minor edits. Then, after some days’ silence, the journal’s founder informed me that such arguments about Russians’ experience “felt a little insensitive during a time of invasion and war,” adding that “judging by the recent environment online I bet the post as is will be met with hostile reactions since emotions are high and people are not reading closely when that happens.” While I appreciate the effort to “protect” me from hostile reactions, such a response demonstrates its own kind of censorship.

The day following my article’s suppression, my mother was turned down by the Ukrainian embassy in the Netherlands from volunteering to help Ukrainian refugees, because she is a Russian citizen. She did find opportunities elsewhere and told me that she approached every refugee with the disclaimer that she is Russian and was met with unanimous warmth.

Doing Putin’s Job for Him

In a piece for Hyperallergic, Daria Badior made the case “Why We Need a Postcolonial Lens to Look at Ukraine and Russia,” calling for a boycott of all Russian filmmakers at Cannes. She writes:

I can hardly imagine that any Ukrainian film will be shown in Cannes next to a Russian one. Lots of Ukrainian film professionals are now at war, either fighting within the army or filming the new life we all have. Unlike Russian colleagues, they are not able to finish their films that could possibly be shown in Cannes.

This statement doesn’t explain what the boycotts will achieve and doesn’t discuss the films’ content or the conditions of their making; according to Badior, the individuals simply must be boycotted because they’re Russian. Explaining the “postcolonial lens” referenced in the title, Badior writes:

Russian culture has been present, presented, and celebrated in the West for a long time. Soviet accomplishments were and are seen as Russian only — after 1991, Russia became the heiress of the most important physical or symbolic Soviet heritage. In the media mainstream, few can discern whether an artwork was created in the Ukrainian, Georgian, Estonian, or the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic — it just seems, to the general public, like Soviet art and therefore Russian.

Yet what the writer implies to be the product of Russian intellectuals and cultural workers’ malign intentions is simply Western ignorance to Eastern European culture and its intricacies. Badior continues:

In 2022, Russian artists and filmmakers who prospered in this environment for ages and never questioned it are being saluted for signing open letters and risking participating in anti-war protests (too late, I might add, and not big enough, but still necessary). Of course, they risk being detained and have spent a long time in prison. But Putin’s regime was not built yesterday.

The central error here is that Badior writes about Russia as if it were a democracy where people have access to unfiltered global and national news. Unlike Ukraine, it is not a democracy. The extent to which Russian media is censored and manipulated is difficult to imagine unless you have witnessed this severity of repression yourself.

Indeed, in an ever-revolving roulette of new laws, Russians can face years in jail for the slightest sign of dissent. As Masha Gessen informs us in a recent NPR episode, a new law was passed this month that

makes it a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison to spread what they call false information about the special operation in Ukraine. Now, what they have classified as false information is any statement that calls it a war or an act of aggression or an invasion.

On March 14, the Russian TV employee Marina Ovsyannikova interrupted a news broadcast by running onto the set with a sign that read: “Stop the War. Don’t believe the propaganda. They are lying to you here.” There is no equating Ukrainians facing bullets and Russians facing jail time, but nonetheless, this is an act of heroism. With social media shut down, protesters arrested even when they carry blank signs (on March 13, a woman holding up an entirely blank sheet of paper was still arrested in Nizhny Novgorod for protesting the war), and media manipulated to the point of science, Ovsyannikova braved the potential fifteen-year prison sentence to break through the shield of censorship and wake up the Russian population. While Ukrainians are united in knowing who their enemy is, the majority of Russians have absolutely no clue; democracy is not something they’ve experienced in their lifetime. The censoring of Russian dissident voices, quiet and loud, is basically doing Putin’s job for him. The West’s willingness to follow suit on the cultural boycotts is not helping Ukraine — it’s fighting Putin’s war.