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Some see hints of McCarthyism in the cultural boycott of Russia

Conductor and vocal Putin supporter Valery Gergiev is among those who have had shows canceled for failing to denounce the Russian president.
Stuart C. Wilson
Getty Images
Conductor and vocal Putin supporter Valery Gergiev is among those who have had shows canceled for failing to denounce the Russian president.

As the actual war in Ukraine goes on, institutions have quickly set up the fronts for the culturalone. The Metropolitan Opera cut ties with artists that support Putin. Eurovision banned Russian artists from participating. The Cannes Film Festival announced it would not welcome official Russian delegations. The NHL stopped working with the Russian Kontinental Hockey League.

On the less institutionalized end of this spectrum, your local bar might be changing vodka suppliers. And a Russian restaurant in D.C. was recently vandalized.

But as uniformly aligned as these actions may seem, there are people speaking out against them.

"It is simply not possible to draw fair or accurate lines of demarcation," wrote Bloomberg columnist Tyler Cowen. "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?"

Cowen compares the shunning of Russian artists, musicians, athletes, and more to McCarthyism from the 1950s. Hinting at a return of a Red Scare, Cowen argues that all of this will lead to a culture of fear, false accusations, and the stifling of free speech.

Others have joined Cowen recently in criticizing the cultural boycotts of Russia.

The artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, who've long been based in New York, told ArtNet News that they "don't believe" in cultural sanctions. "Cultural connections are things that may bring people together when politicians fail and dialogue is important as long as we are able to create it, especially through cultural exchange," they said.

How useful are cultural boycotts?

"The world has always done this — used culture and sports to communicate over and past and through and around politics and aggression — and the question of how important that is, and how productive it is, recurs," said NPR's Linda Holmes, in a piece taking stock of the dissolving cultural ties between the U.S. and Russia, eventually landing on its efficacy still being up in the air. Even the answer to "efficacy of doing what exactly?" isn't altogether clear. But it is depriving Russia of something. "If you're not part of Eurovision, you can't be excluded from Eurovision. If people don't have expectations of a relatively open cultural and sports world, they can't be disappointed," wrote Holmes.

Even if boycotting Russian culture is merely symbolic, it's not as if symbols don't mean anything.

The vodka boycotts have minimal impact in the U.S., where less than 1% of vodka consumed is made in Russia, alcohol sales tracking firm IWSR Drinks Market Analysis told NPR.

But while the economic impacts might be very small, the real benefit is "providing a symbolic stand as to what our belief is," said Paul Isely, economics professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

People in Russia may see the U.S. as divided and fragmented, he told NPR, but "if we see an entire population choosing to stand away from using these types of products, then it sends a signal that this is important. That we aren't divided."

Symbolism, but at what cost?

It's also possible that these actions will do nothing but increase anti-Western sentiment in Russia. "I know the way my country functions," Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov told the Financial Times, also name-checking McCarthyism. "When pressed against the wall, the Russians only cluster more tightly around the leadership."

There may also be an ethical cost of boycotts – that is, encouraging Russophobia. Writing in Politico, Jack Shafer says we haven't quitegotten there, yet.

"No stories about Russian Americans getting beat up have hit the news wires," he notes. "Nobody has organized a Two Minutes Hate drill against Russian citizens. No editorial cartoons depicting Russians as werewolves or monsters have run in our papers. But the baby steps toward the vilification of all things Russia and Russian we've taken ... with our boycotts and bans put us on an ugly path."

And, in fact, some owners of U.S. businesses with Russia in their names in the U.S. are already feeling the brunt of that path.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.

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