Colby Cosh: Russia’s ghastly government doesn’t excuse cruelty to Russian people | #socialmedia


Give a few seconds’ thought to the distinction between a government and its people

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Sometimes, I suppose, the corny motherhood ‘n’ apple pie message needs to be put in the hands of an arch-cynic in the hope that it gets through some skulls. So here’s mine: let’s not be gratuitously nasty to Russians. I know, I know: you want to exhibit “solidarity” with the innocent Ukraine, violated by an autocratic neighbour trying to reconstruct a demolished empire. Probably you don’t have any way personally of boycotting Russia, and gestures of positive support for Ukrainian resistance, even effective charitable ones, don’t give your brain the same little fillip of dopamine that you might get from insulting or badgering a Russian in person.

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War is the time to resist the temptation to generalized interpersonal nastiness; our own history teaches us this with the relentless of a truncheoning. The Russo-Ukrainian war has led western civilization to experiment with concerted economic warfare as a means of intervention, including some sanctions measures that come close to being acts of war themselves under traditional international norms. It is a lot like the political or legal experimentation that COVID-19 brought about under the stress of another poorly anticipated global mess.

And hostile actions against Russian sporting and cultural enterprises are perhaps necessarily part of this. The Putin regime has spent decades cozying up to Russian celebrities and bestowing funds on chess tournaments and concerts and Formula One races. It cannot be other than legitimate, as our leaders attempt to disconnect Russia from the world economy, to make things like the World Junior Hockey Championships avenues for exhibiting disapproval of the Russian state’s actions. I don’t even mind telling Russian cats to take their ball of yarn and go home, though of course this reveals the margin at which cultural fencing of Russia starts to look a little ridiculous.

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But, if it needs to be said, Russia is still the country of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky, of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, of Mendeleev and Kolmogorov. Our hatred of Russia’s present government, and even our willingness to inflict collateral pain on its citizenry, should not turn into personal beastliness or illiberality (or the suppression of those names, either). Our thoughts should be with the ordinary Russian people, and the ethnic Russians and Russian nationals among us, as they are with the Ukrainian people.

This goes double because the Russians in Russia — even the soldiers who were supposed to serve at the spearpoint of the invasion — were obviously not psychically prepared for a full-scale classical war of conquest by their government. Throughout history, the most swinish and awful acts of international aggression often happened with exuberant public approval sharpened by long courses of propaganda. This one was introduced to Russians with a brief, brisk statement promising some sort of frontier police action to clean up tiny bands of troublemaking Ukrainian Nazis. None of it necessarily has the uncoerced approval of any Russian other than Vladimir Putin himself. And as I write these words, Russia is responding to the closure of its economic links to the world by disconnecting the world’s news and social media from Russia.

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It’s an unspeakable tragedy in itself, over and above the plain facts of the invasion and the destruction arising from it. It’s an enormous setback for an open world, a world of commerce and peace, which the young will have taken for granted. Canadians raised to fear and despise Russia learned quickly to accept it, when the Cold War ended, as a member in good standing of the great family of nations. But this didn’t stop Russophobia — a pervasive phenomenon with its own history — from becoming a major influence on mainstream news and mass culture in the era of Trump. In recent times it has been as if some restraint against depicting Russians exclusively as spies, prostitutes, or thugs was actually removed when the U.S.S.R. broke up, and liberals found that they relished a game which had traditionally been the preserve of the paranoid right.

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Such circumstances are a recipe for encouraging inhumane behaviour. I’m asking you personally just to give a few seconds’ thought to the distinction between a government and its people, which is never easy. But, after all, it is not as though our own government has always acted with perfect justice in international matters. In the post-Cold War world we have taken for granted our ability to travel the world and be treated as friendly individuals: we rarely feel threatened or see any necessity for precautions because someone might have a justified hatred of “Canada.” We must pray that this will always be the case, but also that we do not abuse the moral blindness to the circumstances of others that it may cause.

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