The Cancellation of Russia
People throughout the world are demonstrating solidarity with Ukraine by erasing the words “Russia” and “Russian,” a first step in the attempt to erase Russia itself. In Brighton Beach—Brooklyn’s “Little Odessa” populated mainly by Russian-speaking Jews who fled from Ukraine and other former Soviet republics—the community grocery store “Taste of Russia” has changed its name. Bobby and Elena Rakhman, the store’s owners, wanted to demonstrate support for Ukraine. They were also reacting to customers who said they felt uncomfortable shopping in a store bearing Russia’s name. So, within days of the invasion, the Rakhmans removed the store’s iconic sign depicting the onion domes of St. Basil's cathedral in Red Square. The metal framing that had trumpeted “Taste of Russia” above the entryway stood empty for weeks, a literal disappearance, until the new, more anodyne name, “International Food,” appeared at the end of March.
In Manhattan, once-beloved Russian restaurants have been subjected to vandalism and hateful online comments. The West Village’s Sveta has changed its branding from a “Russian” restaurant to a generic “Modern European” one. Dishes formerly identified on the menu as Russian have had that word stripped from their descriptions; pelmeni are now listed simply as “handmade veal dumplings.” The irony is not lost on the proprietors, who fled Soviet repressions and post-Soviet lack of opportunity to find a better life in the West. Now, despite their self-exile and hatred of Putin’s war, they have become the face of Russia in the US, experiencing antipathy from a public unable to distinguish between people and politics.
Such unthinking rage is understandable. But the reaction against all things Russian can take foolish forms. Many bars have renamed the Moscow Mule the Kyiv Mule, even though the cocktail is a purely American invention. In France, the restaurant chain “La Maison de la Poutine” (The House of Poutine) received so many threats that it felt compelled to clarify in a tweet that it is home to the Québécois specialty poutine—French fries served with gravy and curd cheese—not an homage to Vladimir Putin, whose name is rendered as Poutine in French.
But there are more ominous implications to generalized cancellation. With the disappearance of the word “Russia,” the country’s rich culture—its literature, music, art, and ballet—is also being silenced. It’s notable that much of the silencing occurs in organizations supporting the arts, which should be the most vocal in upholding cultural freedoms. Programs that carry any hint of association with Russia are being canceled. In Italy, a course on Dostoevsky by the eminent author Paolo Nori at the University of Milan-Bicocca was initially called off. Following public outcry, the university reinstated the course, but only if Nori agreed to include Ukrainian writers. (He declined.) The Cardiff Philharmonic deprogrammed all of Tchaikovsky's works, despite the fact that the centerpiece of an upcoming concert was to be Symphony No. 2, which is based on Ukrainian folk tunes. London's Royal Opera House and Madrid's Teatro Real have canceled performances by the Bolshoi Ballet, even though its director, Vladimir Urin, petitioned Putin to end the war just days after it began. While the canceling of productions associated with Putin supporters like Valery Gergiev, the director of Saint Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater, is fully justified, the reflexive cancellation of all things Russian is affecting hundreds of artists who oppose the war. And what's at stake is not only individual careers. The arts are most desperately needed in desperate times, when they counter a culture of barbarism and remind us of our common humanity, and of the connections that transcend politics.
Cancel culture is a kind of internal banishment, an attempt to remove a person or thing from circulation or even recognition. What we shun, we un-see. Except we’re not un-seeing Russian atrocities—headlines feature nothing else. Furthermore, any attempt to un-see an entire nation portends more than the removal of the names identifying it. “Russia” and “Russian” hold intrinsic meanings that carry the weight of centuries, evoking rich history and culture as well as manifold instances of evil and cruelty. These words and their associations belong to our collective legacy, as well as our reality. Remembering them represents what Putin wants to obliterate, which is not just beauty but truth.
Dostoevsky is a particularly ironic choice for cancellation, and not only because he himself was imprisoned. He also gave us the brilliant Notes from Underground, more relevant now than ever. As the Russian scholar Sergei Medvedev has pointed out, Putin has holed up in an underground bunker for three years now, a “resentful neurotic who holds a grudge against the world and dreams of revenge.” We can only hope this latter-day Underground Man will be trapped in his hole, forever disappeared.