Persecuting Ordinary Russians Won’t End Putin’s War

Opposing Vladimir Putin’s horrific war in Ukraine is no reason to target ordinary Russians or Russian culture. Anti-Russian bigotry won’t bring peace to Ukrainians.

Russian president Vladimir Putin, photographed in March 2018. ( / Wikimedia Commons)

We cringe today at those episodes in history when wars have broken out, and the response was discrimination, reprisals, and other mistreatment against the people and cultures from “enemy” nations. World War I saw an explosion of anti-German sentiment ranging from the ugly (charges that “hyphenated Americans” were disloyal, mass killings of Dachshunds) to the absurd (renaming towns and streets from their Germanic originals, sauerkraut becoming “liberty cabbage”). World War II saw racist propaganda against ordinary Japanese Americans and the freezing of their bank accounts, before they were finally rounded up en masse and put into concentration camps.

We think of ourselves as living in more enlightened, civilized times, when we would never fall victim to this kind of hysteria. But developments since the Russian invasion of Ukraine should give us pause, with the horrors of the war threatening to fuel an indiscriminate Russophobia around the world with echoes of the shameful errors of the past.

“We Don’t Serve Russians”

Miroslav, a Russian in his mid-twenties, had been living in Georgia less than a year when the war started. With repression ramping up back home, his academic work on Russian protest movements had become untenable, and he had moved with his fiancée and corgi to their ex-Soviet neighbor and got work as a data analyst.

Upon learning that Visa and Mastercard were disabling Russian credit cards outside the country, they rushed to withdraw money from the nearest ATM, where they found a long line of fellow Russians. As they waited in line, speaking in their native language, one Georgian woman chided them for speaking too loud. The Russians were making a mess in the country, remarked her friend.

Miroslav says being a Russian in Georgia was already awkward before Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion — Moscow, after all, entered a civil war in the country in 2008 to carve out an independent buffer state. But he says things have gotten palpably worse since the start of the war.

There was the time he was waiting for a restaurant order and heard the delivery guy quietly remark to a nearby group of Russians they were “fascists,” before telling him, “Your dog looks like your president.” (“That’s an insult to my dog,” he replied, to laughter.) Georgian nationalists began spamming a Telegram chat of Russian expats, telling them to go home whether they supported the war or not. Screenshots are going around of Airbnb hosts refusing service to Russians. “No enter [sic] for Russian citizens!” reads the window of a restaurant.

It’s tempting to wave this off as an isolated byproduct of highly specific regional tensions. But Miroslav’s story is sadly far from unique. All across Eastern Europe and the Western world, ordinary Russians are facing censure for the actions of their government, in a country where democracy is known to be close to nonexistent and propaganda is rife.

“We don’t serve Russians,” read a sign outside a restaurant in Portugal in a photo posted to Twitter. A restaurant in the German town of Bietigheim-Bissingen announced it will no longer serve customers with Russian passports, seeing it as their “contribution to ensuring a peaceful Europe.” A pregnant couple tried to check into a hotel in Warsaw only to learn it’s “forbidden to serve Russians.” (The hotel owner has since clarified this isn’t a policy.)

Across Europe, even Russians who have taken risks to condemn the war have complained of abuse, reports the Washington Post, with including comments suggesting that every Russian “be visibly marked, maybe with a red star.” Schoolkids have faced attacks, and restaurant patrons are asked to denounce Putin and apologize for the war or are otherwise demanded to explain their feelings about the war. An HIV-positive Russian man, forced for years to get treatment from Switzerland due his government’s homophobia, was informed by his Swiss doctor he would have to find someone new to prescribe him medication.

In Calgary, Canada, a man vandalized a Russian Orthodox Church with red paint, even as nearly 300 Russian clergy have taken immense risks by signing their names to a statement calling for the war’s end. The same happened in Auckland, New Zealand, where members of the local Russian community have reported harassment and abuse, including the bullying of their kids at school.

We’re also seeing the same thing in the United States, where Russians and Russian speakers have reported harassment, threats, and vandalism. Russian-owned restaurants have received negative reviews accusing them of heinous war crimes and telling them to “go home,” according to the Christian Science Monitor. An agent for Russian- and Belarusian-born National Hockey League (NHL) players has spoken out against what he calls the “disturbing levels” of harassment they’re experiencing, even those players who have bravely publicly opposed the war. It’s not just adults: the Canadian Junior Hockey League announced it would ban Russian and Belarusian teenagers from the upcoming draft, something a local outlet condemned as “ill-conceived theater.”

The International Paralympic Committee has, paradoxically, barred Russian and Belarusian athletes from even competing as “neutrals” in the Paralympics, even as the committee called them “victims of your governments’ actions.” Just this week, the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies expressed concern “about calls for blanket bans on the participation of individual Russians and Belarusians in scholarly events and scholarly exchange,” noting that “such sanctions have the potential to harm those living in authoritarian regimes who are opposed to the war.”

This kind of behavior has been inflamed by opportunistic demagogues. That includes Representative Eric Swalwell (D-CA), who called early on for “kicking every Russian student out of the United States” and former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who has repeatedly used his considerable platform to declare “there are no more ‘innocent’ or ‘neutral’ Russians anymore” and to call for Russians to “to feel the pain of their passivity.” (In reality, there has been an unprecedented expression of antiwar dissent by ordinary Russians).

The New York Times reports that Russian restaurants in New York City have been on the receiving end of similar harassment, vandalism, and xenophobia and have faced a major drop in patronage — despite both making clear statements of support for Ukrainians or having been longtime US residents. In Chicago, downtown fixture Russian Tea Time has faced similar abuse — despite the fact that its founder and many of its employees are Ukrainian.

One episode of anti-Russian anger became a minor diplomatic incident: in Dublin, people laughed and cheered as a lorry driver crashed through the gates of the city’s Russian embassy, a serious breach of diplomatic norms.

A host of cities and at least one state, including Chicago, Tallahassee, Dallas, Norfolk, Colorado Springs, and the state of Maryland, have suspended or cut ties with their sister cities in Russia. Ironically, such sister city arrangements with Russian cities were meant to bolster cultural and social ties between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War and were explicitly promoted by the anti-Soviet hawk Ronald Reagan, who realized their value in cooling geopolitical tensions by strengthening the bonds between working people in both countries. (Fortunately, a number of cities have decided against making the same move).

Especially troubling is the decision of an oncology group, OncoAlert, to pull “out of all collaborations and congresses in Russia.” Based on the group’s statement, the thinking is that letting ordinary Russians who had no say in the war suffer from cancer is “a stand against this aggression.”

Cultural Backlash

This has extended into the world of the arts, where Russian performers and cultural products alike have faced a backlash.

Despite speaking out against the war and having family in Ukraine, twenty-year-old Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev was abruptly dropped from performing this week with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, which said it would be “inappropriate.” Opera star Anna Netrebko likewise criticized the war, but because she hasn’t criticized Putin and had previously endorsed him, the Metropolitan Opera has dropped her. The New York Times reports that cultural institutions are demanding that “artists who have supported Mr. Putin in the past issue clear condemnations of the Russian president and his invasion as a prerequisite for performing,” while others are “checking their rosters and poring over social media posts to ensure Russian performers have not made contentious statements about the war.”

Bear in mind this is all happening as Putin, a leader with a documented track record of imprisoning and killing dissidents at home and abroad, is tightening his repression of ordinary Russians more and more.

Not just Russian artists, but Russian art is in the crosshairs, too. Netflix halted all of its upcoming Russian-language series, including an adaptation of Anna Karenina that was set to be its first original Russian series. The Glasgow Film Festival pulled two Russian films from its coming lineup not because of any objectionable views of its makers but because they’d “received state funding via the CF Cinema Fund whose board of trustees includes current Ministers of the Russian Government and the Russian Ministry of Culture” — in other words, for the crime of getting public funding long before Putin had invaded Ukraine.

Then there are actions that rise to liberty-sausage levels of absurdity. EA Sports has scrubbed all Russian clubs and players from its upcoming FIFA and NHL titles. Fédération Internationale Féline (FIFe) banned Russian-owned cats from its competitions for the next three months and barred any cats bred in Russia from being imported and registered in pedigree books outside the country.

The Quebec restaurant that has long claimed to have invented the popular dish known as poutine will now rebrand, since by coincidence it’s spelled and pronounced like Putin’s name in French. The restaurant now claims to be “the inventor of the fries-cheese-gravy.” Similarly, the British supermarket Sainsbury’s has renamed chicken kiev to chicken kyiv so as to employ the Ukrainian transliteration of the city’s name. A São Paulo restaurant is striking a blow for humanity by no longer serving beef Stroganoff.

Russia Is Not Putin

Under certain circumstances, boycotts can be an important tool in pressuring governments to do the right thing. But the effect is limited here, given that ordinary Russians have no meaningful democratic mechanism for ousting the autocratic leader who all but unilaterally ordered the invasion, while street movements are being met with increasingly brutal repression.

More importantly, beyond some of the sillier instances — which will likely be looked back on with the kind of embarrassment we now feel when recalling “freedom fries” and “liberty cabbage” — the ostracization, harassment, and abuse of ordinary Russians is not only immoral but sends a worrying message: that the West is not only opposed to the autocrat in power but the Russian people as a whole — exactly the kind of narrative that suits Putin’s interests. This is compounded by the fact that, unlike other grassroots boycotts, these actions are paired with an unprecedented and devastating set of economic sanctions from Western governments that are collectively punishing all Russians and, as the New York Times reported, reinforcing the narrative that Western aggression meant war was the only possible option for Putin.

Maybe with enough public pressure, Western governments and societies can reorient their responses from those that would hurt innocent people or make things more dangerous to constructive and effective responses that would both help Ukrainians and deter similar acts of aggression in future. The Bietigheim-Bissingen restaurant nixed its policy of banning Russian passport holders after widespread condemnation in Germany. The University of Milano-Bicocca reversed its pointless decision to postpone a course on the famed Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky due to public backlash.

Denis Kotlyarov, twenty-six, and Vera Konashenok, thirty-three, have seen what a different kind of global response might have looked like. They’d been living in the south of Spain for more than half a year when the war broke out, in an international community where Russians, Ukrainians, Americans, and Europeans live side by side. Kotlyarov recalls going to a meeting to support Ukraine, where a tearful woman told them she understood the Russian government didn’t represent them.

“People here understand that Russia is not Putin and that Russian people are not Putin,” says Konashenok.

The spike in anti-Russian sentiment may be predictable, but it is no less wrongheaded. As this invasion continues, we should look to the example of those who have refused the warped logic — once famously espoused by al-Qaeda — that equates the actions of a government with the ordinary people it rules over, both for the sake of Russians now and for the sake of every other people whose leaders now or later will take them down the path of war and brutality.