13 March 2022

Weekly Briefing: In the war on Putin, don’t cancel culture


‘Russophobia’ has long been an empty propaganda term, flung out reflexively by the Kremlin to distract from its sordid record of murderous repression. The reaction of some in the West to the invasion of Ukraine, however, threatens to give those same propagandists some entirely unnecessary ammunition.

Sticking it to Putin’s ghastly regime is one thing, but in some quarters that has extended to a no-holds-barred attack on Russian culture itself. We have seen an Italian university threatening to stop teaching a course on Dostoevsky, the Cardiff Philharmonic taking Tchaikovsky off its programme and the Polish Opera scrapping its production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.

Nor is this crusade against all things Russian limited to long dead writers and musicians.

Here in the UK, some of the cast of Strictly Come Dancing reportedly think it’s inappropriate for dancers Katya Jones and Luba Mushtuk to appear on the show, despite neither having said anything remotely political. It is particularly creepy and inquisitorial to see publications like Hello magazine complaining that the pair have ‘failed to speak out’ against the war, as if they are under some nationality-based obligation to do so. Even harder to square is the Glasgow Film Festival’s decision to drop films made by directors Kirill Sokolov and Lado Kvataniya, both of whom have publicly opposed the war.

It’s not just Europe either. In the US, Democratic Congressmen Eric Swalwell and Ruben Gallego have each suggested expelling all Russian students from America. Gallego argued that these young people are ‘the sons and daughters of the richest Russians’ and therefore sending them back would send a ‘strong message’.

Of course, given the unrelenting horror of the last fortnight, one can understand the impulse to hit Russia wherever you can. But this sort of scattergun approach feels a very long way from targeting the Kremlin elite, or oligarchs who have made their fortunes off the back of Putin’s kleptocratic dictatorship.

As with other forms of cancel culture, going after people on the basis of nationality alone is both unjust and thoroughly un-Western. Likewise, forcing performers or artists to denounce their country as a condition of continuing to perform is genuinely McCarthyist, as well as potentially putting them and their family members in Russia at risk.

Altogether more effective are the sanctions and company withdrawals that deprive ordinary Russians of the perks of Western consumer culture, forcing even those who support Putin to reckon with the damage he is doing. Depriving Westerners of Russian cultural products, meanwhile, achieves nothing and plays into Putin’s claims that the West hates not just him, but his country.

The latter is also unnecessary, given the enormous effect that economic measures are already having on the Russian economy. The Russian stock market is still closed, the rouble has plummeted in value and thousands of people have already left the country. (And as Ben Ramanauskas argued on our pages recently, the West should be welcoming these young, often highly skilled Russians who want nothing to do with Putin.)

That exodus is not just down to state sanctions either. As Ryan Bourne wrote this week, the departure of so many major private companies is having just as important an impact. Images of shuttered McDonald’s branches don’t just symbolise geopolitical rupture, they are the sign of an economy in total freefall, gripped by spiralling inflation and unemployment. That in turn makes it much harder for Putin to fund his war effort (which now includes enlisting a rag-tag band of foreign fighters).

Ultimately, that’s where our focus should be: on doing whatever possible to bring Putin to heel as soon as possible, not aimless, counter-productive virtue signalling.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.