'I stand with Russia'

I stand with Russia, the Russia of the Russian people, not the Russia of Vladimir Putin. The distinction between the governed and their governors is fundamental in democratic societies – and we are not making it at the moment. Instead, the Russian people are being cancelled along with the Russian war machine and its leader over the brutal invasion of Ukraine.

  • Soprano Anna Netrebko was fired from New York’s Metropolitan Opera because she failed to denounce President Putin. "Anna is one of the greatest singers in Met history,” said the Met’s manager Peter Gelb, but with Putin killing innocent victims in Ukraine, there was no way forward."
  • Valery Gergiev, the chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, was fired after he refused to denounce the invasion of Ukraine.
  • Canadians have cancelled recitals scheduled for August by 20-year-old Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev. The organisers declared that they could not “in good conscience present a concert by any Russian artist at this moment in time unless they are prepared to speak out publicly against this war.”

What is going on? One of the core convictions of the liberal democratic order is freedom of speech. These musicians are not just being denied a right to free speech, their employers have “cancelled” them because they refused to submit to “compelled speech”.

In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that no one can be compelled to echo approved opinions. The classic expression of this came from Justice Robert H. Jackson in the 1943 case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette:

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Another rising star, Ivan Velikanov, was caught up in this savage cancel culture. Before conducting Mozart's opera "The Marriage of Figaro" in Nizhny Novgorod he made a short speech against the war. He was sacked immediately. It’s exactly what one would expect in Russia.

But not in the United States and other liberal democracies.

Yes, Putin’s invasion is the barbaric, savage, and unjustifiable act of an authoritarian regime. His soldiers are bombing innocent civilians in an attempt to redraw the map of Europe as it was in the time of the Czars. But why must innocent civilians working in Western liberal democracies be sacked and cancelled? And not for defending Putin, but for failing to attack him? If silence means consent, perhaps their silence means that they agree with the hysterical mob attacking the Russian people.

Russia’s invasion is as momentous in the history of the 21st century as 9/11. But despite the fact that Islamic extremists had killed 2,977 people on US soil, and slaughtered many others in Western Europe, the West made a huge effort to distinguish between militant extremists and ordinary Muslims, between a violent ideology and a religion of peace. Islamophobia was banned legally and socially.

Why have we reacted differently now? Is it because we have been schooled by years of Twittermobbing to pile on people with different opinions?

Eighty years ago last month, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed his notorious Executive Order 9066, condemning 120,000 people of Japanese descent in to internment camps because they might have sympathised with Japanese war aims. Two-thirds of them had been born and raised in the United States and were American citizens. It was one of the most disgraceful episodes in US history. Fear and “othering” can have terrible consequences.

Cancelling Russians simply because they are Russians is a contemptible betrayal of everything the Western tradition stands for. Who will be next? That's not just a question that NATO needs to ask about Russia. We need to ask it about ourselves.


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