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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  The confrontation’s with Putin, not Pushkin or Russian people
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The confrontation’s with Putin, not Pushkin or Russian people

Boycotting Russian artistes will only support Putin’s claim of a global gang-up against the country

Any move that harms Russian civil society, or Russian intelligentsia opposed to the regime, is counter-productive (Photo: AP)Premium
Any move that harms Russian civil society, or Russian intelligentsia opposed to the regime, is counter-productive (Photo: AP)

Opening a ‘third front’ in the Ukraine war, the British culture, media and sports secretary Nadine Dorries believes she has found a powerful weapon—a sports and cultural boycott. Speaking last week at the House of Commons, Dorries said she would host an international summit to use the power of sports to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin at home and abroad, including stopping Russia and Belarus from hosting international events and not letting Russians participate in international competitions.

Individual athletes have opted out of playing against Russian rivals; football organizations FIFA and UEFA have stopped Russian teams from taking part in their competitions; the Champions League final will not be held in St Petersburg; Russia won’t be able to host the Formula I Grand Prix; and in a decision that makes little sense, the International Paralympic Committee has decided to prevent Russian disabled athletes from participating in the Winter Paralympics in Beijing. Russia is challenging that ban. Its sports minister said that this ban is a violation of the Olympic Charter, ignoring the fact that the Russian invasion of Ukraine violates the United Nations Charter. Unwilling to miss the fun, the International Cat Federation decided to ban Russian-bred cats from its own competition—that’ll teach Putin!

These decisions, ranging from the sensible (the Grand Prix) to the ridiculous (Russian cats) come on top of other misguided attempts to punish Russia. In the Italian city Florence, the mayor received a petition asking that a statue commemorating the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who completed his novel The Idiot in that city, be removed. It is not easy for Dostoyevsky in Italy these days. The University of Milano-Bicocca asked professor Paolo Nori to postpone his four-lecture class on Dostoyevsky. The university’s administrators probably forgot that the great novelist barely escaped execution and spent five years in Siberia as punishment when he was part of a progressive literary group that the Tsarists hated. Following the ridicule and outcry, the university helpfully suggested to professor Nori that he should also add some Ukrainian writers to broaden the minds of students. Nori scrapped the course instead.

To be sure, Ukraine has a rich literary tradition, but it makes little sense to compel a professor to teach Ukrainian writers in a course on Dostoyevsky (or any other Russian writer). It brings together two cultures which Ukrainians have rightly insisted are distinct, and it also forcibly couples Ukrainian identity with Russia’s. True, no course on Indian literature can be complete without the voices of Muslim, Dalit or women writers. But combining Russian and Ukrainian writers makes little sense, unless there is a literary, pedagogic or aesthetic reason to do so. At the core of the Russia-Ukraine dispute is Russia’s absurd assertion that Ukraine doesn’t really exist as a nation, and that it has always been part of Russia. By all means, let there be a course on Ukrainian literature, celebrating Mykola Hohol (known more widely as Nikolai Gogol) and Anna Akhmatova, who were born in Ukraine, or Anton Chekhov and Mikhail Bulgakov, who grew up or spent time in Ukraine, and contemporary writers like Oksana Zabuzhko and Andrei Kurkov. But why consider them only in relation to Russian writing?

Instead, the governments should quicken their pace in seizing assets belonging to Russian oligarchs who are close to Putin, or send fighter jets to aid Ukraine. Those measures carry real punch and are far more meaningful in stopping the Russian advance. Equally important is the Ukrainian initiative to set up an international tribunal to prosecute Russia for the crime of aggression. The International Criminal Court (ICC) cannot act because Russia is not a state party to the Rome Statute, and because it would veto any attempt at the UN Security Council to refer such a prosecution to the ICC. Such measures can hurt Russia. Cultural and sports boycotts would mean that Putin commits the crime and artists and writers face the punishment. The menace is Putin, not Pushkin.

Sports and cultural boycotts are cost-free, whose burden is borne by writers, dancers, musicians, athletes and artists, who may be apolitical or may in fact oppose Putin’s adventurism. In Russia, thousands who oppose Putin and his war, including courageous writers and journalists, are paying for Putin’s misadventure. Russians are speaking up: some writers have issued stirring calls for peace. Thousands of civilians are joining protests. Boycotting Russian writers, artists, athletes and cats only boosts Putin’s claim that the world is ganging up against Russia.

Instead, the world should provide strategic assistance, including weapons, to Ukraine; impose laser-sharp sanctions on the nomenklatura around Putin and those supporting the war; and cripple their ability to move their assets globally, by sequestering them, and where feasible, liquidating them. Any move that harms Russian civil society, or Russian intelligentsia opposed to the regime, is counter-productive. It makes politicians look like they are doing something and may make them feel good, but does little that is useful.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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Published: 09 Mar 2022, 09:49 PM IST
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