We all want to do our part to support Ukraine as the country defends itself against a brutal invasion by Russia. And many of us feel a little impotent right now, as we watch bombs go off on TV and refugees making a desperate escape, in the increasingly rare cases they’re able. So naturally, many Americans are displaying their support the best way they know how: by purchasing, or not purchasing, consumer goods.
To this I say: come on. Stop boycotting random Russian things. It’s not helping. You could even argue it is making things worse.
Let’s start with a familiar target: Russian vodka. What should we do about it? Well, less than 1 percent of vodka drunk in the U.S. comes from Russia. Stoli is made in Latvia. (Poor Stoli, desperately rebranding this week from “Stolichnaya”!) Smirnoff is made in Plainfield, Illinois! I can maybe see an argument for steering clear of Russian Standard vodka, which is owned by Roustan Tariko, an honest-to-God oligarch. But even decisions like that have unintended consequences. Dump out all the vodka you like; you are not stopping the war in Ukraine.
What about Russian restaurants? Reservations are down 60 percent at Russian Samovar, a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, and the Times reports that other restaurants serving Russian food are dealing with threatening calls, cancelled reservations, and bad online reviews. But most of the staff at Samovar is from Ukraine. Sveta, another restaurant highlighted in the Times piece, is owned by Ukrainians; they just called their food “Russian” because more Americans knew what it meant. So stop eating at Russian restaurants if you like; you are not stopping the war in Ukraine.
How about Russian artists? Sure, it makes sense that opera companies and symphonies are cutting ties with conductor Valery Gergiev, a longtime Putin supporter. (Although where were all those principles in 2013, when a lone advocate walked onstage at a Gergiev-conducted London Symphony performance to protest Putin’s anti-gay policies?) But cancelling a film by a Russian director whose grandmother is currently hiding from bombs in Kyiv? Cancelling a 20-year-old pianist’s debut performance because he hasn’t sufficiently denounced the brutal leader of the country where the pianist’s entire family currently lives? Cancelling Tchaikovsky? Ah yes, I can see why it might be “inappropriate” at this time to listen to a 140-year-old overture by a composer whose queerness was suppressed by the Russian government for decades. That will definitely stop the war in Ukraine.
So yes, it is dumb to boycott things that have no actual connection to Vladimir Putin or even, in some cases, to Russia. But it’s also foolish to demonize every vestige of Russian culture, and ordinary Russian citizens, and Russians abroad, as a result of a catastrophic war launched by a despot. It’s dangerous to demand that Russian shopkeepers and cooks and violinists take a loyalty test before you allow them to serve you a meal or play you a song. It leads to ugly cruelty and pointless suffering.
And it undermines the actual strategy of Ukrainian president Vladimir Zelensky to reach out to Russians directly, broadcasting videos in the Russian language appealing to their honor and desire for peace. Many Russians living abroad despise this war and the regime that has instigated it. Those Russian émigrés are a direct line to the Russian citizens whose resistance to the conflict and recognition of the rights of Ukraine could be crucial in bringing the war to an end.
There’s a place for individual and collective boycotts, including cultural ones. The cultural boycott of South Africa from the 1960s through the 1980s helped to delegitimize the apartheid government of the era. But even that boycott shifted, over time, from an outright ban on all cultural exchange with South Africa in order to allow South African artists to perform abroad, where they could spread the word about the evils of apartheid. And as time goes on, there will be plenty of opportunities to stop giving money to the oligarchs on whose support Vladimir Putin depends. But right now? Randomly boycotting any old business with a Russian-sounding name is not going to end the war in Ukraine. Drink a white Russian, watch an episode of Russian Doll, and focus on what you can actually do.