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This is Putin’s war. Anti-Russian xenophobia won’t save Ukraine.

Innocent people are being targeted as scapegoats for the immoral decisions of a megalomaniacal tyrant.

An empty space is seen on a shelf where Russian vodka used to be displayed for sale at a Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority store in Arlington, Virginia, on Feb. 28.STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

Under the shadows of war, shopkeepers whose businesses bore the name of the enemy nation quickly changed them. They adorned their windows with flags and slogans affirming their fealty. People who had been considered upstanding members of their communities felt as if they had to prove their worth — and even protect their safety — with displays of allegiance.

That’s what German immigrants faced in America when their adopted home entered World War I against Germany. More than a century later, it’s now happening to Russians here who fear being punished because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war against Ukraine.


By any measure, Putin deserves the world’s condemnation for his ferocious attack on the sovereign nation. His army is murdering civilians and leveling residential neighborhoods. Putin’s actions are causing one of the largest refugee crises in recent memory. In less than two weeks, more than 2 million Ukrainians, a majority of them women and children, have already fled their democratic homeland for surrounding nations. Separated from their families, men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been conscripted to fight the invaders.

This is Putin’s war.

Being Russian is not synonymous with supporting an autocratic president. At great personal risk, people in Russia are protesting against Putin and his war. Thousands have been detained.

Yet in America, some restaurants, bookstores, and other businesses that reference Russia or sell Russian products are being targeted. Daniel Mataiev, manager of Cafe St. Petersburg in Newton, recently told the Globe that his Ukrainian and Russian employees do not support the war, yet some teenagers recently called his restaurant and said “awful things” about Russians. The Russian School of Math, an after-school program with 15 Greater Boston locations, released a statement on its website to say “that regardless of their country of origin, no one is responsible for this war but Putin and his regime.”


Since the invasion began last month, business at New York’s famed Russian Tea Room has dropped, even though the iconic restaurant isn’t Russian. Stores and bar owners have removed Russian liquor from their shelves and at least 10 states have banned those spirits. Stolichnaya, a popular vodka that’s actually produced in Latvia, has rebranded itself as Stoli.

That these businesses either have no ties to Russia or have condemned Putin’s assault is no concern to those driven by xenophobia. Yelling obscenities at employees in a local Russian cafe or pouring out bottles of Russian vodka on American streets does nothing to support millions of desperate Ukrainians a half-world away.

All it does is feed the virulent “us vs. them” tribalism that brands itself as patriotism in times of international tumult.

Anyone remember “freedom fries” and “freedom toast” after France declined to join the American-led war against Iraq in 2003? Those were petty playground-level taunts elevated by Republican members of Congress, but other instances of reactionary behavior have come with more serious consequences.

Anti-Muslim sentiment and violence surged after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. Islamophobic protesters scuttled plans to build mosques or community centers while Muslim houses of worship were defaced and vandalized. Some people were killed because assailants wrongly believed they were Muslim or Arab.


Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, hate crimes against Asians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders have spiraled. After China became the first nation to identify the virus, Chinatowns, including in Boston, bore the brunt of irrational anger and fear that caused its businesses to struggle weeks before the nation went into lockdown. Between March 2020 and December 2021, nearly 11,000 incidents, including fatal assaults, were reported to Stop AAPI Hate.

This is why the World Health Organization last year began using Greek letters to designate COVID variants. In a statement, WHO said naming variants for the nation where they are first detected is “stigmatizing and discriminatory.”

Without question, repercussions always cut deeper for communities of color. Months after Japan’s 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to internment camps where they remained for the duration of the war. Nothing more than their ethnicity made them suspects. It laid bare the capriciousness of what American citizenship really means for anyone who isn’t white.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that Russian Americans or immigrants will face a similar backlash for Putin’s war. Yet as German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel once said, “What experience and history teach is this — that nations and governments have never learned anything from history or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.”


In American history, innocent people too often became scapegoats for the immoral decisions of tyrants. With Putin’s war against Ukraine raging, don’t pretend it can’t happen again.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.