Britain’s Kafkaesque boycott of Russian culture plays straight into Putin’s hands

<span>Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Wimbledon’s decision to ban Russian tennis players, including world No 2 Daniil Medvedev, is Russophobia gone made. It implies that Britain regards all Russians as colluders in the actions of the Russian state and in Vladimir Putin’s outrages in Ukraine. This follows several European countries halting visas for Russians. The west appears so in thrall to Putin that it is abandoning its proclaimed liberal values and behaving like a pale shadow of the Russian leader himself.

The Russian civil rights academic Dmitry Dubrovsky has been declared a “foreign agent” by the Russian state, putting him at risk of imprisonment and worse. He was in Prague with his family at the time of the invasion of Ukraine. His travel permit expires next month, but each country to which he has applied for residence, including Britain, either limits his stay to weeks or orders him to return to Russia to reapply.

It is one thing for Unesco to “postpone” Russia’s ludicrous hosting of the World Heritage Committee, as that country smashed historic sites across Ukraine. But it’s quite another for the west to deny refuge to those fleeing Russian dictatorship. During the cold war, western Europe and the US opened their arms to many Russian intellectual, culture and sports figures, seeing them as a force for mutual understanding and potential reconciliation. Shostakovich and Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn and Rostropovich, Kasparov and Akhmatova were feted in the west. In Russia’s darkest hours, shared guardians of European civilisation and liberty were celebrated.

Economic sanctions on Russia have become a rage, their escalation penetrating ever deeper into the arts, scholarship and sport. The Bolshoi ballet has been cancelled at Covent Garden, Cannes film festival refuses to accept official Russian delegations, and a Cardiff orchestra bans Tchaikovsky. Having earlier cancelled performances by the Russian piano virtuoso Alexander Malofeev, Montreal’s symphony orchestra allowed Daniil Trifonov to play last month; but outside pickets greeted his audience with placards proclaiming: “Bought a ticket = Killed a child”. Trifonov did not even live in Russia but in Connecticut, and his calling the war in Ukraine “a tragedy” was considered insufficiently damning.

Arts administrators seem unaware that for Russians to attack their president threatens themselves, their careers and their families. The hysteria echoes Graham Greene’s recall of dachshunds being kicked during the Great War for being the Kaiser’s favourite dog.

Stopping this summer’s Bolshoi tour to London deprived thousands of the magic of Russian dance, and deprived the artists of work. So has the disappearance from the opera stage of Anna Netrebko and Valery Gergiev. No matter if they are pro- or anti-Putin, the thinking seems to go: they are Russians. Britain’s culture minister Nadine Dorries even scrambles to board Boris Johnson’s war bus, claiming the arts are her “third front in the Ukrainian conflict”. Will she ban Prokoviev from the Proms?

Sanctions have weaponised gesture politics. They seek to universalise the grubby violence of war. The buzz of a declamatory headline and a choice victim is all that matters, the consequences immaterial. “Ever tougher sanctions” have the machismo of the ever sharper sword and the ever bigger bomb, with no risk to the wielder. The Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi was pressed to abandon his musicians in the Russian Youth Orchestra who “felt confused, torn, shocked and as against this war as I am”. What good would punishing them do?

If art is indeed about opening minds and stimulating argument, then the last thing it should do is refuse to engage with the enemy, with disagreement. Those who deplore Putin’s censorship of his critics should use every channel to subvert it. They should consort with those critics, offering contact, friendship, hospitality – and visas. Yet all they offer is ostracism.

There is no evidence that cultural sanctions have the remotest impact on Putin’s decisions in this war. When Cardiff Philharmonic cancels the 1812 Overture, it cannot believe Putin sobs with regret for bombing Kyiv. It may make people feel good, but it reinforces his much-vaunted thesis that the west is staging an aggression not just against him but against all things Russian. They are a proud people, he says, who should now defend the motherland against the entire west.

Western sanctions are based on the thesis that Putin and his circle are sensitive to shame and public opinion. It is true that they have manipulated the media to portray the war as one of Russian survival, but the more the west seeks to obliterate Russian culture, the more plausible this portrayal will seem.

We appear to have lost faith in culture’s capacity to galvanise politics. It no longer supports the arts as a conversation, a means of human contact, even a means of telling Russians what is really happening in Ukraine. Where communication and hospitality are needed, all that is offered is the Kafka-esque odium of modern Britain’s hostile attitude to outsiders.

  • Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist