There are moments in any society when ordinary people shrug off their humanity, bare their teeth, and give in to their basest urges. War can bring this out in soldiers, but it happens in peacetime as well. Today, as the Russian army batters and attempts to subjugate the independent nation of Ukraine, we in the advanced democracies of the West are witnessing a minor orgy of anti-Russian bigotry that does nothing to help Ukrainians but punishes average Russian civilians—and their house pets—for the actions of the Putin government.
I’m not talking here about anything being done by Ukrainians who are in the midst of a war where different rules apply. Back in the United States, the scapegoating and collective punishment of Russians has little to do with the war, which has amped up the anti-Russian hysteria first incited by myths about an axis of Trump-Putin collusion. The people leading this campaign may sing the praises of Volodymyr Zelensky and claim to act in the name of human rights, but they treat Ukrainians as props in their own country’s political dramas.
It shows a dangerous level of brainwashed paranoia when upstanding liberals like the actor Edward Norton—people raised to see McCarthyism and the Red Scare as the defining parables of American politics—begin exhorting the FBI and CIA to hunt down “collaborators and perpetrators” and tear out Russian subversion in the United States “by the roots.” Get them! How quickly all that ultra-enlightened teaching about the dangers of demonizing the “Other” disappears when the virtuous people find a convenient victim. Norton was hardly the worst. Shortly after the war broke out, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul declared: “There are no more ‘innocent’ ‘neutral’ Russians anymore. Everyone has to make a choice—support or oppose this war.”
For the past five years, we have been warned about the grave dangers of populism in the West. The populists were supposedly xenophobes and bloody nationalists threatening the lives of immigrants and foreigners. Yet the present wave of naked anti-Russian prejudice is not being led by unruly mobs, but instead by actors, political officials, and the boards of powerful institutions, including the opera houses and ballets that are the very symbols of Western cultural achievement and civilization.
In Washington, D.C., the American-owned Russia House Restaurant has had its windows smashed and front door broken in two separate instances since the war started. In New York, the Metropolitan Opera first demanded that Russian soprano Anna Netrebko denounce Vladimir Putin and then fired her when she refused the loyalty test, replacing her with a Ukrainian singer. Much the same thing happened in the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra to conductor Valery Gergiev after he, too, refused an ultimatum to denounce the Russian leader and was fired. Gergiev’s management company called him “the greatest conductor alive and an extraordinary human being with a profound sense of decency” in a statement explaining why it was now moved to drop him due to his support for Putin. In the United Kingdom, a planned tour of the Russian State Ballet of Siberia was canceled, wrote the journalist Brendan O’Neill, “as if pirouettes were propaganda, as if sublime dancing by Russian people might pollute the hearts and minds of British audiences.”
Over at the race track, America’s Haas Formula 1 racing team announced over the weekend that it had “terminated” its contract with Russian driver Nikita Mazepin. In this case, no theatrical ultimatums were necessary. “We can’t deal with all that. Our other sponsors can’t deal with all that,” Haas explained to the Associated Press.
And not to be outdone by race car drivers, the International Cat Federation, known as FIFe, or Fédération Internationale Féline, announced that it was banning Russian cats from its competitions. In a statement, FIFe’s board declared that “it cannot just witness these atrocities and do nothing.” No innocent Russians, indeed. Not even the cats.
The notion that individuals should have their employment conditioned on the actions of a foreign government, or their willingness to denounce those actions, is frankly gross and authoritarian—the kind of thing I was raised to believe happened in Russia, not the United States.
In an atmosphere of intense anti-Russian sentiment, it becomes suspect merely to question these firings—let alone the utterly devastating impact of major financial institutions like PayPal, Mastercard, and Visa deciding that they will no longer do business with Russian cardholders. That decision affects any Russian who took out a credit card in their home country, including those who hate Putin, have protested against the war, or are now living abroad. Is collective financial punishment of this sort justified to end the Russian assault on Ukraine? Perhaps, if indeed it has that effect. But it will involve making normal, nonpolitical people suffer for the crimes of the government, and attempting to erase that suffering by dehumanizing those people is cruel and cowardly.
The point of all this, one suspects, is to make it easier for war spectators with no skin in the game to imagine that they are “doing something” and “contributing to the cause.” Preoccupied with their two minutes of hate, these people get to feel righteous while acting like small-minded, power-tripping chauvinists. They get all the old-fashioned thrill of picking on foreigners with none of the guilt. Maybe, condemning random Russians helps them feel better about the ways that U.S. policies have exacerbated the conflict while empowering Moscow to be a strategic negotiating partner in a new Iran deal.
Social media fosters the illusion that users are connected to distant events they experience through tweets and video clips. It becomes everyone’s responsibility to “do something,” which can globalize local conflicts, drawing them out and increasing the risks of catastrophic escalation. But if you really want to do something, start by not scapegoating innocent people for a war they did nothing to start.
Jacob Siegel is a senior writer at Tablet and editor of The Scroll.