Brendan O’Neill

A wave of anti-Russian hysteria is sweeping across the West

A wave of anti-Russian hysteria is sweeping across the West
Conductor Valery Gergiev (photo: Getty)
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McCarthyism is an overused word, I know. But really, what other word will do to describe the sacking of a conductor for refusing to publicly denounce the leader of Russia?

This is the case of Valery Gergiev, who was sacked by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra this week for failing to condemn Putin. Mr Gergiev was literally given an ultimatum. As the Guardian’s headline put it: ‘Denounce Putin or lose your job: Russian conductor Valery Gergiev given public ultimatum.’

Gergiev refused to denounce Putin and so he lost his job. His management team dumped him too, while acknowledging that he is ‘the greatest conductor alive and an extraordinary human being with a profound sense of decency’. And yet he likes Putin, and refuses to distance himself from Putin even following his criminal invasion of Ukraine, and thus he must be expelled from the world of classical music. 

It really does feel like a blacklisting. Gergiev is not only out of the Munich Philharmonic – he has also been dropped by the Vienna Philharmonic, for whom he was due to conduct performances at Carnegie Hall in New York in May. He is ‘more or less isolated in the world of classical music’, says the Guardian – which is a painfully polite way of saying he has been unpersoned. Will he ever conduct again?

To those of us who are horrified by Russia’s assault on Ukraine, it seems very odd indeed that anyone could carry on supporting Putin. But should people really be punished if they do so? Gergiev is a conductor, one of the greatest in the world by all accounts, so why should his political thoughts matter? The artist can be an arse while still creating amazing art or literature or music.

Or are we now meant to check the ideology of every conductor, creator and performer before engaging with their work? Maybe theatre programmes should outline what every performer in the play thinks about the Russia-Ukraine crisis so that we can decide whether to stay or walk out. Maybe art galleries should ask painters ‘Are you now or have you ever been a supporter of Putin?’ before agreeing to display their work.

This is the logic of that chilling ultimatum ‘Denounce Putin or lose your job’ – that anyone who is insufficiently repelled by the leader of Russia should be chased out of the art world and public life. You don’t have to be a fanboy of Putin to feel disturbed by this idea that those who refuse to denounce him must be ostracised from society. That is political intolerance. It genuinely feels McCarthyite.

A wave of anti-Russian hysteria is sweeping the West. Opposition to the Russian regime and its barbarous war on Ukraine is morphing too often into hostility towards Russian people and Russian things. We need to tone down this Russophobia, and fast.

Russian art and booze and even cats are being cancelled by western institutions keen to signal their anger over Ukraine. The UK tour of the Russian State Ballet of Siberia has been axed, as if pirouettes were propaganda, as if sublime dancing by Russian people might pollute the hearts and minds of British audiences. Some UK venues have cancelled performances by the Russian State Opera, even though ‘Russian State Opera’ is just a ‘brand name’ – it is in fact part of a UK company that brings together graduates of arts institutions in Russia and former Soviet countries.

The Glasgow Film Festival has withdrawn two Russian films from its 2022 programme. This is especially crazy, given that the director of one of the blacklisted movies, Lado Kvataniya, has denounced the war in Ukraine. So if you refuse to denounce Putin you lose your job, but if you denounce him you might still lose out. Glasgow Film Festival, what is the crime committed by these filmmakers? Being Russian?

Russia has been booted out of this year’s Eurovision. The Royal Opera House has abandoned plans to host the Bolshoi Ballet. Warner Bros, Disney and Sony have postponed film releases in Russia. Quite how depriving ordinary Russians of The Batman will help the people of Ukraine is anyone’s guess.

The animus towards everything Russian is reaching ridiculous levels. The International Cat Federation has banned Russian cats from its competitions. Take that, Vlad! The Co-Op has removed Russian Standard vodka from its shelves ‘as a sign of solidarity with the people of Ukraine’. I’m sure the beleaguered citizens of Kharkiv and Kyiv will be thrilled to learn that some Brits will now have to trek to a different supermarket to purchase their favourite tipple. The International Hockey Federation has banned Russia from taking part in the forthcoming Women’s Junior World Cup. Preventing teenage Russian girls from playing sport? That isn’t anti-war – it’s just cruel.

We are witnessing the weaponisation of cancel culture, the use of this woke tool to punish people for having the incorrect views on Ukraine or simply for being of Russian origin. Too many people are conflating the people and the products of Russia with the Putin regime, when in fact we know that many Russian citizens and Russian businesses oppose Putin’s war. Collectively punishing a people for the crimes of their leader is deeply objectionable. It is censorious, authoritarian and borderline racist. Surely we can oppose Putin’s warmongering without losing our own sense of decency and our recognition that the vast majority of Russians are good, normal people.