Ukraine war: Vladimir Putin's regime, not ordinary Russians, is responsible for the deaths and destruction – Alastair Stewart

Cancel culture is one big sword of Damocles that hangs over anyone in the public eye.

Ditching Russian art like the books of Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose statue in the city of Tobolsk is close to a prison where he was held, is a mistake (Picture: Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images)
Ditching Russian art like the books of Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose statue in the city of Tobolsk is close to a prison where he was held, is a mistake (Picture: Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images)

Celebrities teeter on the brink of cancellation if their views shift beyond the accepted mores of the day. To be cancelled means social ostracism, reputational collapse and professional termination.

It is worrying and terrifying to think this has extended to 144 million Russians.

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Paraphrasing can lead to evil conflations. It is not "Russia's war" against Ukraine; it is the “Russian government led by President Vladimir Putin” that is responsible for the conflict.

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Using "Russia" as an umbrella term for the madness of a Kremlin cabal makes enemies of ordinary Russians. They may have no idea of what is happening in their name and base their opinions on state TV propaganda.

The Russian government's war against Ukraine is a disgusting disgrace. It has provoked international sequestration, including a taboo against the cultural output of the Russian people.

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Milano-Bicocca University struck writer Fyodor Dostoevsky from its curriculum before quickly U-turning on the decision. Latvian vodka Stolichnaya was rebranded as Stoli. Sainsbury's has become the first UK supermarket to change the name of its chicken Kiev to chicken Kyiv in support of Ukraine.

Innumerable concerts, ballets, dance recitals, and exhibitions have been indefinitely postponed since Putin invaded Ukraine.

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The difficulty in such moves – however well-meaning – is the collateral damage to innocent parties in a complicated global supply chain.

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"Russian" products are not just made and delivered by Russians from Russia. That is as ignorant a notion as boycotting Amazon delivery services because they are American and forgetting its thousands of international employees.

As reported by this paper, Russian acts have been dropped from this year's Edinburgh International Festival (EIF). It is a historical irony and a tragic parallel that the 75th Festival shares an anniversary year with the start of the Cold War.

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The axing of Russian acts seems to do more harm to the artists than it ever could do to the Putin administration. It is somewhat arrogant to presume the pound-shop Stalin will be sitting in the Kremlin, banging his fists on his desk, decrying how Edinburgh will rue the day.

It is a cliché to equate the current climate to McCarthyism and the Red Scare of the 1950s. That was a mindless frenzy rooted in a complicated ideological war between capitalism and communism.

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No one is saying there are Russians under the bed now or that reading Tolstoy makes me a “communist”. That kind of hyperbole died a long time ago.

Nor is this quite as tragic as the Islamophobia of the early noughties. It was irrational, putrid racism informed by a highly ambiguous War on Terror.

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People in this country want to show their disdain for the Russian government and wish to express their solidarity with Ukraine. It is entirely correct to condemn apologists for murder in the form of Putin mouthpieces.

Three recourses are fundraising, protesting and banning Russian goods, services and culture, notably in the arts and they are mainly well-meaning. Already there has been a spate of resignations by individuals who supported Putin or failed to condemn the invasion.

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The longer and uglier the war in Ukraine gets, the more likely a quiet Russophobia will form. A discernible fear has crept in that "for too long" Russian oligarchs have seized UK assets and established themselves at the heart of the British political establishment.

There are plenty of difficult conversations around these points. Any Russian government interference in western elections is a severe and grievous charge. But history is replete with examples of how quickly legitimate concern and public outrage over a foreign government can become a mob mentality.

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In 1887, Russian sociologist Jacques Novikow coined the xenophobic term "Yellow Peril". He was describing a fear of non-white people from the Orient. Fantastical fears of villains with Fu Manchu moustaches, opium and terrifying mysticism were rife. Kaiser Wilhelm II popularised the phrase to capture the West's psycho-cultural and existential dread of the East.

Anti-Russian sentiment, anti-Putin rhetoric, and an anti-Russian political culture are disparate threads that, if unchecked, could create one all-encompassing new existential terror: “Russia”.

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As the Russian military is accused of war crimes in Ukraine, this existential dread of a behemoth waiting to unfurl a new Iron Curtain across Europe will become more pronounced.

If it is inconvenient to painstakingly separate the Russian government, the Russian military, the Russian people, and Russian culture, then remember we could be on a fast track to war.

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It is extraordinarily difficult to actually cancel something, anyway. You might begin with noble, moral intentions, but you are soon tied up in a logistical Gordian Knot.

If you ban Russian products, what happens if they originated in Russia but were produced by another country or business? If we punish Russians, is it only those who support Putin's behaviour or anyone with a Russian passport?

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Will we be banning books by all Russian writers, or can we make an exception for the exiled ones? What if I like Russian classical music, but a British orchestra plays the piece?

Cancelling a country or a culture is not quite as simple as it sounds. Suggesting we do not cancel a country is not an apology for the illegality, corruption, horror and barbarity of Russia's government against the people of Ukraine.

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It is increasingly isolated, politically and financially, as it should be. But going down a path of a pantomime conflation of Putin, his supporters, and everyday Russians is preposterous.

Such a culturally rich country should never be cast aside because of its current politics. One does not need to be an avid fan of Russian literature to see the folly in doing that.

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As the title character in the film Withnail and I said, “I loathe those Russian plays. Always full of women staring out of windows whining about ducks going to Moscow.”

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