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Finn McRedmond: Wholesale boycott of Russia a dangerous departure from Western values

Making pariahs of silent Russians under rule of a dictator is a step too far

Vladimir Putin does not possess the natural gravitas of Volodymyr Zelenskiy, but he does have a gift for the absurd. He has been snapped riding horses shirtless; in February he was photographed talking to Emmanuel Macron in the Kremlin at opposite ends of a comically large table; after a diplomatic summit about the future of Syria in 2019 he decided to flex his judo skills with the Russian national team.

Therefore his ludicrous speech accusing the West of “trying to cancel” Russia should not be all that surprising given his previous form. It is a laughably frivolous turn of phrase for something that warrants much more serious treatment. And in common parlance we might prefer to use the term “boycott” or perhaps, even more stridently, “sanction”.

I do not think many would have predicted that at any point in this war, Putin might have cited both Russia and JK Rowling as similar victims of the West’s apparent insatiable thirst for cancel culture. But despite the oddness of his language and frame of reference, Putin achieved one thing: a reminder that this is a war playing out over cultural fault lines on a scale previously unseen.

Plenty think the agreement of nations to destroy the Russian economy is not enough. Culture matters too

But as companies in their hundreds withdraw from Russia, and cultural institutions call off performances with Russian artists, there are some serious principles being tested. And the West needs to consider the moral calculus of making a cultural pariah out of ordinary Russian people. Nor should anyone forget about the chances that a cultural boycott, or indeed “cancellation”, might backfire. Is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed?

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The case for a wholesale boycott of Russia only works if we are also happy to say that ordinary people who are not responsible for the fact that they live in a dictatorship are somehow responsible for the actions of that dictator. This strikes me as an untenable belief.

The western governmental sanctioning of Russia has been strong and largely coherent and necessary, if perhaps complicated in certain parts thanks to prior decades of foreign policy decisions that have left some nations tangled up with Russian energy and money. At the very least, sanctions are some of the most powerful tools currently at the West’s disposal.

And of course it is hardly controversial to level such implements at Putin for his rapacious imperialism, invasion of a sovereign nation, prior aggression in Chechyna and Georgia and his administration’s proclivity to punish dissidents. But plenty think the agreement of nations to destroy the Russian economy is not enough. Culture matters too.

In light of this we have not just seen McDonald’s, Zara, Apple and Deloitte pull out of Russia. But the supposed onus to take a stand has trickled down as far as the International Cat Federation, which has banned Russian felines from its shows, stating it “cannot just witness these atrocities and do nothing”. Little comment was made on whether cats even possess a concept of the nation state.

To dismiss someone for what they have not said, or for what you cannot convince them to say, seems a Rubicon no liberal institution should consider crossing

It is easy to greet the oddest instances of the sanctions phenomenon with raised eyebrows, but there is something more troubling going on. Earlier this month it emerged that Anna Netrebko, a Russian opera singer, would no longer appear at the Metropolitan Opera in New York this season after failing to adequately distance herself from Putin.

Netrebko had released a statement condemning the war, but remained conspicuously silent on Putin himself. And despite The Met’s attempts to encourage Netrebko to repudiate Putin, as reported by the Associated Press, her response was deemed insufficient. Her case was seemingly not aided by historic expressions of support for the Russian president.

This shouldn’t sit too lightly with us. It is one thing to dismiss someone for what they have done or for wars they have decided to endorse. But to dismiss someone for what they have not said, or for what you cannot convince them to say, seems a Rubicon no liberal institution should consider crossing. Compelled speech does not have a place in free society, no matter how much we may privately abhor Netrebko for her failure to denounce Putin.

Just as we cannot hold ordinary citizens responsible for the acts of crazed dictators, we ought not forget that Putin’s regime is known for its proclivity to clamp down on any mode of dissent. Expecting Russian artists to single themselves out with messages of condemnation is an enormously high burden to place on individuals.

The West's values are worth defending especially in the face of a dictator like Putin

It seems as though we have conferred the responsibility for political resistance on to private citizens. That kind of resistance is good and to be encouraged and celebrated. The bravery of those Russians protesting against Putin’s war is on a scale many of us have never seen. But we cannot come to view it as a prerequisite for inclusion in society.

Citizens have a right to silence too. And attempting to make cultural pariahs out of all Russians is going too far. The West’s values are worth defending especially in the face of a dictator like Putin. And that means there are lines that should not be crossed.