The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Let’s think about the Russians we are canceling. Not all deserve it.

Russian opera soprano singer Anna Netrebko in Metz, France, on Feb. 21, 2020. (Christoph DE BARRY / AFP)
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Soprano superstar Anna Netrebko, who reigned supreme at the Metropolitan Opera after singing nearly 200 performances over 20 years, is no longer welcome there. Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, one of the league’s most heralded players as he seeks to best Wayne Gretzky’s scoring record, is now being greeted with boos and jeers. Renowned maestro Valery Gergiev was dismissed as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic. Formula One driver Nikita Mazepin was fired by the U.S.-owned Haas team.

Russian musicians, artists, athletes and other cultural figures are facing broad backlash as Russian President VladimirPutin has continued to press his relentless and increasingly brutal invasion of Ukraine. Much of the world is outraged and repulsed by the assault on a democratic country and is making clear it wants nothing to do with anything Russian. Crippling economic sanctions were imposed by the United States and its allies. Russian vodka was stripped from American liquor store shelves. U.S. companies suspended operations in Russia. Russian teams have been banned from international competitions.

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We applaud those steps. But there are thornier issues at play when Russian-born individuals are singled out and ostracized. Some, such as Mr. Gergiev, have been cheerleaders for Mr. Putin’s aggressions; they deserve to be shunned by Western institutions. Others, such as piano prodigy Alexander Malofeev, have seen their engagements canceled even after they spoke out against the war, simply because they are Russian; that is unjustified. And still other cases are more complex. Ms. Netrebko, a singer with unparalleled talent, posted on social media her opposition to “this senseless war of aggression” and called on Russia “to end this war right now, to save all of us.” But Ms. Netrebko, whose ties to Mr. Putin span decades, including her endorsement of his election in 2012, refused to denounce him. In one post, later deleted, she chided as hypocrites those in the West seeking repudiation of Mr. Putin. “There was no way forward,” said the opera company’s general manager, explaining the organization would no longer work “with artists or institutions that support Putin or are supported by him — not until the invasion and killing has been stopped, order has been restored and restitutions have been made.”

Perhaps the Met and Ms. Netrebko were right to agree to cancellations of her upcoming appearances. But it is discomfiting that U.S. cultural institutions, with their proud traditions of free and diverse speech, would think it right to compel statements by leading artists and athletes. What constitutes a sufficient repudiation, given Mr. Putin’s sometimes murderous response to criticism? Mr. Ovechkin, for example, reportedly had plans to change the profile picture on his Instagram account showing him with Mr. Putin to a symbol of world peace but was advised against it because his wife and children are in Russia.

“I am not in politics. Like, I’m an athlete,” Mr. Ovechkin said in a Feb. 25 news conference in which he tried to thread a political needle with a plea for peace but no renunciation of Mr. Putin. Mr. Ovechkin launched the PutinTeam social movement in 2017 to support the dictator, so his comments seem disingenuous as well as disappointing. Still, in America, they should not be disqualifying. That is one of the things that should distinguish us from Mr. Putin’s Russia: Tactics he uses to keep people in line should have no place here.