Cancelling Russians is Putinist

Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via Associated Press
Russian President Vladimir Putin in a March 9, 2022, photo.

Russian artists and performers are being cancelled out of revulsion against the Ukraine invasion, including many who have denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin.  These cancellations perversely presuppose Putin’s own collectivist vision of what nationhood means — a vision that has American fanboys, notably Donald Trump.

Nations, strictly speaking, do not exist outside of people’s minds. In Perry Anderson’s famous formulation, they are “imagined communities.” There are lots of ways to imagine them. The task of imagining has moral dimensions, because what is imagined tends to become real.

Here is Putin’s vision: Individuals don’t matter. Russia is an entity separate from and superior to those who inhabit it, with a collective will of its own, of which he is the spokesman. He is untroubled that his invasion is killing his own country’s soldiers by the thousands.  

Of course, plenty of Russians repudiate his aggressive, warmongering program. He calls them “scum and traitors.” People outside the nation’s borders (such as the millions of Ukrainians) matter even less. Institutions of international cooperation – such as the patterns of peaceful trade that made Putin rich – are for wimps and suckers. 

If you believe this, then it makes perfect sense for Canadian halls to cancel performances by the pianist Alexander Malofeev, who wrote on Facebook that “every Russian will feel guilty for decades because of the terrible and bloody decision that none of us could influence and predict.”  

Similarly with the Swiss cancellation of cellist Anastasia Kobekina. The concert hall’s management weirdly declared: “The reason is the nationality of the artist, but not the young artist herself. Anastasia Kobekina vehemently condemns Russia’s war against Ukraine.”

These musicians repudiate the war. But that doesn’t matter. They are Russian. That accident of birth outvotes whatever they do or think as individuals. The new cancellation even extends to Russians who have been dead for years, like Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and the composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

This vision of nationhood should be familiar to Americans. It is what Donald Trump has been peddling for years. It sheds light on his long, weird infatuation with Putin. Like Putin, he has a vision of national greatness that identifies the nation with himself, despises international cooperation in general and NATO in particular, is prepared to trash any institution that stands in its way, declares millions of his fellow citizens to be the nation’s enemies and insouciantly sacrifices his trusting followers’ lives for the sake of that vision. (A normal president would have warned Americans about the dangers of COVID-19 and told them to protect themselves, but Trump, who knew about the danger early in the pandemic, thought that acknowledging the bad news would endanger his reelection.) 

Why, though, should Trump get to decide what it means to be American? And why should Putin get to decide what it means to be Russian?

A better vision of nationhood sees it as a distinctive style of being human, one that can interact with others in interesting and fruitful new patterns of cooperation. The other day I discovered Pierre Monteux’s 1958 recording of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite “Scheherazade.” The piece, composed in 1888 in Russia, was based on the “Thousand and One Nights” (a collection of Indian and Persian tales, collected and translated into Arabic) and drew on what the composer called “oriental” musical themes, using the typical Western orchestra that had been perfected in Vienna. 

The recording has the clipped briskness of French conductors of that era, filtered through the characteristically lush, pastoral strings and ebullient horns of the London Symphony. (John Williams knew what he was doing when he used that orchestra for the “Star Wars” score.) It is a nice example of what peaceful international collaboration offers us. Each of the distinctive national styles is discernible, but they are combined into something new, unique and gorgeous.

That’s the vision that opposes Putin and Trump.

The campaign against all things Russian is yet another reflex of cancel culture — the notion (here, evidently, metastasized beyond the United States) that some people are intrinsically contaminated, and that we are morally obligated to separate ourselves from them. The demonization of Russians is unsurprising at a time when demonization is common.

Putin recently responded by complaining that Russia was the victim of that same cancel culture, and invoked the ostracization of author J.K. Rowling for her views on transgender issues. Rowling appropriately responded: “Critiques of Western cancel culture are possibly not best made by those currently slaughtering civilians for the crime of resistance, or who jail and poison their critics.” But she might also have noticed that Putin’s entire program reflects the tribalism he purports to be criticizing.

Putin is deeply invested in the narrative that Western democracies are implacably opposed to all things Russian. Don’t help him with that. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine must be thwarted. But let’s not forget what we are fighting for. 

Andrew Koppelman, John Paul Stevens Professor of Law at Northwestern University, is the author of “Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed” (St. Martin’s Press, forthcoming). Follow him on Twitter @AndrewKoppelman.

Tags Cancel culture Donald Trump Russia Russia-Ukraine war Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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