Not every Russian supports Vladimir Putin’s brutal war against Ukraine. And while the reflex is understandable, ostracizing all Russians is the wrong way for Americans and American institutions to protest Putin’s deadly aggression.
Since Feb. 24, when Putin launched an unprovoked attack on Russia’s democratic neighbor, Western institutions ranging from operas to museums have fired or sidelined Russians. Sometimes, that reaction has been warranted. In the classical music world, for instance, several prominent Russians, such as the recently fired Munich Philharmonic conductor Valery Gergiev, have explicitly allied themselves politically with Putin. Good riddance to them.
But firing Russian race-car drivers, or canceling a performance by a Russian pianist who in fact publicly criticized the war, are overreactions. And canceling performances of the “1812 Overture” by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, or classes on Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky — both of whom have been dead for more than a century — is just plain ridiculous.
And then there’s the Boston Marathon. This week, the organizers said Russian athletes residing in Russia would not be allowed to compete in the race. “Like so many around the world, we are horrified and outraged by what we have seen and learned from the reporting in Ukraine,” said Tom Grilk, the president of the Boston Athletic Association. “We believe that running is a global sport, and as such, we must do what we can to show our support to the people of Ukraine.”
The BAA’s policy ban also applies to runners from Belarus, whose dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, has allowed Putin to use the country as a base to attack Ukraine. Thousands of Belarusians tried, and failed, to remove Lukashenko in 2020 protests, and since February Belarusian partisans have been risking their lives to sabotage trains carrying Russian supplies.
Russians and Belarusians who live outside those countries will be allowed to run, but not under the Russian or Belarusian flag. It leaves open a bizarre possibility — that a Russian living in France who supports the invasion can participate, while a Belarusian in Minsk who opposes Lukashenko can’t.
Keeping Russian and Belarusian symbols out of the Marathon is appropriate. And many Americans will probably applaud the BAA’s decision to ban the runners, too; even before the invasion, repeated doping scandals cast a cloud over Russian athletes. Still, the policy on runners raises the question of where this slippery slope of collective punishment ends. An Ethiopian has won the men’s Marathon six times. Right now, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the Ethiopian government is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in its Tigray region. Should Ethiopians be barred? Why not?
In the future, museums and other institutions could ask every Russian runner — or violinist, or painter — to denounce the Ukraine invasion, and shun those who refuse. But that’s not a step that Americans (or Soviets) took even in the worst moments of the Cold War. Van Cliburn didn’t have to denounce American foreign policy to perform in Moscow, and the Bolshoi Ballet was allowed to tour here without criticizing the brutal Soviet invasion of Hungary. There wouldn’t have been a Soviet ice hockey team in Lake Placid for Americans to defeat if its members had been required to denounce the invasion of Afghanistan just to play.
A better response than inflicting collective punishment on Russians would be to use this as a moment to uplift Ukrainians. Part of the warped justification for Putin’s invasion is his view that Ukraine itself is a fiction, and that Ukrainians are really “one people” with Russians who must be reunited by force. This is a moment to destroy that myth. London’s National Gallery, for instance, has renamed a Degas painting “Russian Dancers” to the more accurate “Ukrainian Dancers.” The Seattle Symphony is performing works by Ukrainian composers. Interest in learning the Ukrainian language has skyrocketed.
Punishing individual Russians, regardless of their own political views, probably won’t help Ukraine defeat Putin on the battlefield. But by using their power to elevate Ukraine and Ukrainians, cultural institutions can help defeat Putin in the hearts and minds of the world.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.