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A specter is haunting Russia — the specter of cancellation.
As Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine enters its third week, conscientious consumers and businesses across the West have retaliated through what can be described only as a mass cultural boycott.
In Russia, Disney and Warner Bros. have paused theatrical releases, and McDonald’s, Starbucks and Coca-Cola have suspended their business operations. In the United States, liquor stores and supermarkets have pulled Russian vodka from their shelves, and the Metropolitan Opera cut ties with one of its most acclaimed sopranos after she criticized the war but refused to distance herself from Putin. And in the international arena, Eurovision, FIFA and the Paralympic Games have banned Russians from participating in this year’s competitions.
Are these informal sanctions of Russian culture and business justified, and can they alter the course of the war? Or are these histrionic gestures that risk stigmatizing an entire population for the crimes of one autocrat? And what does the invocation of “cancel culture” — as both a rhetorical cliché and a material phenomenon — reveal about the way the war is being metabolized through social media? Here’s what people are saying.
The case for cancellation
About a century ago, sanctions emerged on the world stage as an alternative to conventional warfare, an “economic weapon” intended to impose such a high burden on a country’s political elite that it would be forced to change its behavior. While conceived as a tool to be wielded by nation-states against other nation-states, they can also be levied — however haphazardly — by nonstate actors against other nonstate actors, as we’re now seeing.
In the arts, Javier C. Hernández reports for The Times,organizations are facing pressure from donors, board members, audiences and social media users to fire Russian artists who do not distance themselves from Putin or fail to speak out with sufficient fervor against the war. Such campaigns are not unprecedented, as some commentators have pointed out.
But vetting artists for their political beliefs and ties raises difficult questions. “What is the point at which cultural exchange — always a blur between being a humanizing balm and a tool of propaganda, a co-opting of music’s supposed neutrality — becomes unbearable?” asks Zachary Woolfe, The Times’s classical music editor. “What is sufficient distance from authoritarian leadership? And what is sufficient disavowal, particularly in a context when speaking up could threaten the safety of artists or their families?”
For the Russian-born pianist Igor Levit, the issue isn’t so complicated. “Being a musician does not free you from being a citizen, from taking responsibility,” he commented on his Instagram account, adding the #StandWithUkraine hashtag. “Remaining vague when one man, especially the man who is the leader of your home country, starts a war against another country and by doing so also causes greatest suffering to your home country and your people is unacceptable.”
Others have argued that athletics are the better cultural theater in which to wage war against Putin. “Sanctions against Putin in the sphere of games have a reach unlike any other because they leave him sweatingly exposed to the only audience he really fears or courts: the Russians in the street,” Sally Jenkins argues in The Washington Post. “His brand of shirtless belligerent patriotism — his macho nationalism — has been a long con, and it’s no small thing to knock him off medal podiums and expose the lifts in his shoes, or to rip off his judo belt and show the softening of his belly and, in turn, weaken his influence.”
So far, the cultural backlash doesn’t seem to have done much to get Putin to change course — and may even be playing into his preferred narrative of Russia being victimized by the West.
Yet the longer the country’s cultural isolation persists, “the more chance such measures have of breaking through the state’s narrative,” Yasmeen Serhan writes for The Atlantic. “If ordinary Russians can no longer enjoy many of the activities they love, including things as quotidian as watching their soccer teams play in international matches, seeing the latest films, and enjoying live concerts, their tolerance for their government’s isolationist policies will diminish.”
The risk of a new Russophobia
When holding a country’s people responsible for the transgressions of its political system, how do you decide whom it’s fair to punish? In Russia’s case, the economist Tyler Cowen argues that you can’t.
“It is simply not possible to draw fair or accurate lines of demarcation,” he writes in Bloomberg. “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?”
Another question: “Who exactly counts as Russian? Ethnic Russians? Russian citizens? Former citizens? Ethnic Russians born in Ukraine?”
Tricky moral calculus aside, the utility of these informal sanctions is still very much in doubt. “None of these measures will reduce the Ukraine war’s life span by a minute, let alone a day,” Jack Shafer argues in Politico. “It would be a mistake to even proclaim these gestures symbolic because they don’t really symbolize anything meaningful about the war,” he adds, noting that only about 1.5 percent of all vodka consumed in the United States comes from Russia.
At worst, critics warn that these cancellation campaigns directed at ordinary Russians could backfire. “Contrary to expectations, making life harder for the population can bind them to the rulers who blame outside interference,” writes Samuel Goldman, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University. “Even when sanctions succeed in destabilizing the regimes they target, new dictators may come to power under conditions of economic collapse and social disorder.”
A potential rise in anti-Russian bigotry is another concern. Already in the West, The Washington Post reports, people of Russian descent or association are reporting a rise in discriminatory attacks, comments and refusals of service from local businesses. In New York City, some Russian restaurants have seen a decline in customers.
What might a more targeted informal sanctions regime look like? In Mondoweiss, Jonathan Ofir, an Israeli-born musician, suggests looking to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which calls — controversially, to be sure — for an end to the Israeli government’s occupation of Palestinian land captured in 1967, among other demands. The B.D.S. movement claims to reject on principle boycotts based on individuals’ identities, opinions or mere affiliation with Israeli cultural institutions. Rather, only those who represent the State of Israel or participate in Israel’s efforts to “rebrand” its occupation are targeted for sanctions.
Insofar as measures are being taken against Russians with no apparent ties to their leader, “the B.D.S. movement takes a softer boycott than what was applied to apartheid South Africa, and than the one now readily applied to Russia,” Ofir says.
When it comes to Russian goods, though, the biggest pressure point is fossil fuels, which are not within the average person’s ability to boycott. President Biden did take the striking step on Tuesday of banning imports of Russian oil and natural gas. But Europe, which is much more dependent on Russian energy, has not yet demonstrated the same resolve, and continues to pay Russia hundreds of millions of dollars every day for fuel.
From culture war to actual war
As Kyle Chayka writes for The New Yorker, the invasion of Ukraine is by no means the first conflict to play out over social media. But it is perhaps the first war to be mediated primarily by content creators and live-streamers rather than by traditional news organizations.
As people and institutions watch the war get spun into content in real time, they react to it as social media has trained them to: through arguably superficial displays of solidarity, entreaties to practice self-care, the reflexive lionization of political figures, Twitter clapbacks (in one case, between the Russian and German Embassies in South Africa), and a desperate desire to be — or at least appear — useful.
The cancellation of Russian cultural figures and products can be understood as a successive step in this familiar choreography. “This is the globalization of moral outrage,” the Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes. “It goes from watching a short video online showing Russian soldiers firing on a Ukrainian nuclear energy facility to an employee posting that video on his or her Facebook page to a group of employees emailing their bosses or going on Slack — not to ask their C.E.O.s to do something but to tell them they have to do something or they will lose workers and customers.”
This decentralized response — “a kind of global ad hoc pro-Ukraine-resistance-solidarity-movement,” as Friedman calls it — is arguably quite inspiring. But there’s a danger to it too, Friedman warns: While nation-states may choose to lift their sanctions at some point for realpolitik reasons, everyone else may not.
“When Anonymous, the global hacker consortium, announced that it was attempting to take down Russian websites, that was not by government order; it just acted on its own,” he writes. “Who does Russia call to get Anonymous to accept a cease-fire?”
Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
“The Russian Cultural Boycotts Are Going Too Far” [The New Republic]
“With war in Ukraine, companies seem less wary of political involvement” [The New York Times]
“Are bans against Russian arts targeting the right people?” [Deutsche Welle]
“A Breakdown of Cultural Institutions Boycotting Russian Involvement” [Vulture]
“To Boycott Russians, or Not? In Film and Beyond, That’s the Question.” [The New York Times]