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Why cultural backlash against Russians is wrong

Ukrainians gather to protest Russia's attacks on Ukraine on 4 March 2022 [Mehmet Eser/Anadolu Agency]
Ukrainians gather to protest Russia's attacks on Ukraine on 4 March 2022 [Mehmet Eser/Anadolu Agency]

Eleven days into the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine, a wave of cultural backlash against Russians (in a sense, a wave of Russophobia) seems to have swept over Western countries. Russian artists, musicians and filmmakers are being excluded from European events and competitions.

The Russian national football team was suspended from the remaining qualifying matches for the FIFA World Cup scheduled to take place this summer in Qatar, while UEFA decided to relocate this year's Champions League final from St. Petersburg (which is also Kremlin master Vladimir V. Putin's hometown) to Paris. The University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy reportedly postponed a course on Russian literary giant, Fyodor Dostoevsky, a decision that was then retracted. Scores of retail brands and businesses in several European countries are boycotting Russian-made products and are reportedly discriminating against Russian-origin customers.

Last, but not least, Democratic representatives in the US Congress, Eric Swalwell and Ruben Gallego publicly called for "kicking every Russian student out of the United States" because these students allegedly are "the sons and daughters of the richest Russians". While most of these decisions were initially proposed as a way to increase civil unrest in Russia and foment opposition to the regime, this line of thinking is clearly untenable. The wave of cultural backlash against Russians in the wake of the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine is not only discriminatory but also wrongheaded, counterproductive and may end up playing well into Putin's hands by confirming his antagonistic worldview of the West. Several arguments may be offered to prove this point.

It is Kremlin's war, not Russians'

First and foremost, this is not the Russians' war but it is Kremlin's war. It is a "chancellory war" (to use the apt phrase of Benedict Anderson) in which popular Russian nationalism is being used in a self-defence language. This so-called self-defensive policy proves that what the Kremlin is doing in Ukraine fits well into the doctrine of "official nationalism" (borrowing once more from Anderson) – a policy "emanating from the state, and serving the interests of the state first and foremost."

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Indeed, Ukraine is a war serving the Kremlin's geopolitical vision primarily, as Putin has publicly called the dissolution of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century". Scores of anti-war protests in several Russian cities, despite the personal risks involved, show that Russian citizens do not perceive this war as being waged for their defence. Moreover, several Russian commentators have declared that, as citizens of the Russian Federation, they feel ashamed to see their taxes are being used to fund a military that is shelling the cities of a culturally close neighbouring country.

Cultural backlash is morally indefensible

Second, this wave of cultural backlash against Russians is also morally and factually indefensible because Russian citizens, themselves, have been the primary victims of the Kremlin's policies. Therefore, unfairly targeting them, sweeps aside their aspiration to live in a democratic environment, as well. Western societies seem to take freedom and democracy for granted; however, it is always good to remind ourselves that several societies in the world have never experienced true freedom (or have only had limited experience of it).

Russia is a good case in point. After centuries of Czarist despotism, a window of opportunity arose with the coming to power of the Provisional Government in the February 1917 Revolution. The Provisional Government led by Pavel Milyukov, and later by Aleksandr Kerensky, introduced for the first time truly revolutionary reforms in Russia (universal suffrage, freedom of speech, assembly, press and religion), still keeping in mind that all these reforms were introduced in wartime. Yet, the Provisional Government arguably missed a historical opportunity by not withdrawing Russia from World War I and, as such, paved the way to the Bolshevik coup d'état in October 1917 that eventually established a 75-year-long one-party totalitarian dictatorship in Russia (1917 – 1991).

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After the only eight-month-long quasi-liberal experience with the Provisional Government (February – October 1917), Russia's next experience with sort of a liberal regime (although, as it turned out, a very corrupt one) was during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin between 1991 and 1999. The benefits of political liberalism in this period, however, were arguably outweighed by the psychological and socio-economic dislocation caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and by the disastrous First Chechen War. The rest, as they say, is history because, since 1999, Kremlin's master has been Vladimir Putin.

It is discriminatory, paving way for racism

Third, this wave of cultural backlash against Russians is discriminatory, and it adds to the concerning instances of racism traceable in the West's response towards the Ukrainian crisis. Undoubtedly, the West's active support of the Ukrainian struggle for independence, distinct nationhood and democracy, and its warm welcome of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees since day one is praiseworthy, but it contrasts starkly with its attitude to still ongoing, similar crises in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's recognised two breakaway territories in Eastern Ukraine - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Russian President Vladimir Putin's recognised two breakaway territories in Eastern Ukraine – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

The Ukrainian struggle needs to be supported, not because it is being waged in Europe but because it is a struggle for independence, freedom and democracy. Similar struggles in every corner of the world should be treated equally, regardless of who wages those struggles. The Arab Spring uprisings and Turkish civil resistance against the bloody coup attempt of July 15, 2016, should have been accorded equal treatment; however, that was not the case. Likewise, Ukrainian refugees should be welcomed and taken care of, not because they are Europeans but because they are fleeing aggression and invasion of their country.

European countries, unfortunately, did not respond equally to the plight of millions of Syrian refugees fleeing the Kremlin-backed Assad regime aggression but opted instead to completely "pass the buck" to Turkiye. Such instances of racism and discrimination – believing that one's race, country, nation or class is somehow inherently superior to others – should be eliminated if European/ Western countries are true to their word that they form a "community of values".

(Source:  Anadolu News Agency)

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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