Last Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a violent invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
Late that night East Coast time, the D.C. bar and restaurant Russia House—located just across the street from Reason‘s D.C. office—had its windows smashed in and its Russian flag (flown next to its American one) torn down. The following night, vandals left anti-Russian signs on the business.
The vandalism of Russia House is both condemnable (no matter who the owners are) and poorly targeted: According to its website, one of Russia House’s two owners is an American military veteran. The other is from Lithuania.
“It’s just sad is what it is, that there’s people with this mindset out there that because of the name of the restaurant that we are politically affiliated or government affiliated,” said co-owner Adam McGovern to local outlet WTOP. “Our job is to make people happy and give them an experience, not promote anything or any country’s political views.”
Unfortunately, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine wears on, the distinctions between the Russian government that ordered it, Russian institutions generally, and the Russian people writ large are starting to fade. All are congealing into one amorphous bad guy targeted with boycotts and cancellations.
That obviously includes sanctions imposed by the U.S. government and its allies. Increasingly, private actors are getting in on the action.
A Nature article published yesterday details the ways in which the academy is severing ties with Russia. Conferences that were going to be held in the country are being canceled. Academic journals are refusing to accept papers from Russian scientists. Universities are severing ties with private, Russia-based research institutions. Calls for even more sweeping academic boycotts are growing.
The explanation given for these boycotts is that the illegality and humanitarian toll of Russia’s war in Ukraine makes it impossible to work with people from the aggressing country. The targets are nevertheless Russian scientists who don’t necessarily have anything to do with their country’s government or war effort.
It’s not just the sciences. The arts are also coming up with their own creative ways to punish the Russian bear.
Conductor and Putin supporter Valery Gergiev is losing gigs across Europe and is being threatened with termination from his position with the Munich Philharmonic if he doesn’t denounce the Russian leader. The Metropolitan Opera of New York and Carnegie Hall have both also said they won’t host performers who’ve supported Putin.
Implementing that deplatforming is easier said than done, writes Tyler Cowen over at Bloomberg.
“It is simply not possible to draw fair or accurate lines of demarcation. What about performers who may have favored Putin in the more benign times of 2003 and now are skeptical, but have family members still living in Russia Do they have to speak out?” he asks.
During the Cold War, Cowen notes, the West eagerly hosted Soviet performers and competed against Soviet athletes. The reason for that was simple: those peaceful interactions gave Americans the opportunity to showcase the value and benefits of living in a free country.
It seems we’ve lost that patience for persuasion. Indeed, this new punitive approach is extending beyond individual, pro-Putin Russian performers to the Russian population as a whole.
The Associated Press reports that movie studios are canceling the planned Russian theatrical release of films because of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Given the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the tragic humanitarian crisis, we are pausing the release of theatrical films in Russia,” said a Disney spokesperson, explaining that Pixar’s Turning Red wouldn’t be played in the country. Warner Bros. is canceling the Russian release of The Batman. Sony Pictures is also pulling its films from the country.
Again, the link between the two goes woefully unexplained. Russian tanks have entered Ukraine, so Disney’s films can’t enter Moscow’s cinemas?
The most immediate impact of that decision is that Russian theater-goers—who happen to live under a dictatorial regime that cares little for their own views of its foreign policy—will miss out on the latest cultural products from the West.
At a minimum, that’s not particularly helpful to the Ukrainians who’re having their country invaded. It’s also potentially counterproductive, and devastatingly so. Russians’ media diet will be ever more dominated by their own state propaganda and all its warped justifications for the invasion.
People who are both supportive of global freedom and critical of the state’s ability to secure that freedom have often promoted the alternative of privately sharing or smuggling information and culture to oppressed peoples. Don’t embargo Cuba, beam uncensored Wi-Fi to its people, we say. Don’t station troops in South Korea, send clandestine balloons laden with copies of The Interview to the North.
The case for the cultural boycott of Russia is generally the same as the case for broad-based economic sanctions. Raising the material costs of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will push him to realize war isn’t worth it.
That strategy is ethically problematic given that it requires harming millions of ordinary Russians in order to induce a policy change in a government they have no say over.
It’s also ineffective. The fact is that economic sanctions have generally proven impotent at changing states’ behavior when they believe their core interests are at stake. Decades of impoverishing trade barriers haven’t forced Iran or North Korea to give up their nuclear programs. So far, they’re not convincing Putin to pull out of Ukraine.
If cutting the Russian state and major industries off from Western financial systems isn’t bringing about peace, we shouldn’t think cutting off ordinary Russians from The Batman screenings will be more successful.
Private companies and institutions have every right to decide who they do business with and on what terms. On an individual level, some are faced with legitimately difficult questions of how entangled they want to be with the Russian state or Russian state-sponsored companies.
Netflix, for instance, recently announced that it wouldn’t be complying with a new Russian law that requires it to carry Russian programming.
Complying with that law would make the company complicit in spreading Russian state propaganda, including propaganda about the war in Ukraine, to its Russian customers. On the other hand, refusing to cooperate—and getting its Russian service shut down as a consequence—means those Russian former customers have one less source of media that isn’t state propaganda.
That’s a tough dilemma to parse.
It’s similar to the one faced by social media platforms and cable companies currently distancing of themselves from Russian state-sponsored media outlets. Facebook’s parent company Meta is demoting content from Sputnik and RT (both funded by the Russian government) across its platforms. YouTube is completely blocking both outlets’ channels in Europe. DirectTV announced it would stop broadcasting RT as well.
“People allow themselves to be seduced by all sorts of media nonsense—the QAnon lunacy, for example, or the teachings of the Modern Monetary Theorists,” writes Politico columnist Jack Shafer. “Ideas, we generally agree, must fight for themselves, against ‘legitimate’ contenders, fringe positions or outright propaganda.”
Boycotts, of course, have their role to play in a free society too. The more targeted they are at people and institutions responsible for actual evil, the more reasonable and less objectionable they become; it’s hard not to cheer the International Judo Federation overthrowing Putin as its honorary president, for instance.
What’s so concerning about the ever-widening cultural boycott of Russia and Russians is that it’s punishing people with little connection to and no influence over the Russian government and its war in Ukraine. That probably won’t change the course of Russia’s war against Ukraine—and when the war does end, the world will have a lot fewer cultural ties to sustain whatever fragile peace emerges.