In times of war, free speech suffers. Right and wrong appear indisputable. There is moral certainty that “God is on our side.” When we are convinced that the enemy is producing only dangerous lies and propaganda, we want to bar their entry into the marketplace of ideas.  

The war between Russia and Ukraine is the latest test of our commitment to free speech. Vladimir Putin does not hesitate to censor his people, but Western democracies, and specifically the United States, are required to defend free speech. So far, they have done so. Today private actors do the censoring. Social media companies, under pressure to control disinformation, are bumbling along, blocking too much and too little. And now major cultural players in the US and Europe are canceling Russian artists, performers and anything else coming from Russia. 

Cultural boycotts have mostly symbolic goals aimed at a Western audience. Any practical effect on Russia itself is hard to conceive. Artist cancellations will not further squeeze Russia financially. Russia lives on the export of oil and gas, not art. And the message of Western disapproval only entrenches Putin’s domestic narrative of a hostile West.

Cultural institutions in the US and Europe have the right, of course, to express their symbolic opposition to the war by blacklisting Russian artists. However, they must consider the full implications. Today’s cultural institutions are full of artists and performers from countries across the globe. Should all these artists be held responsible for the misdeeds of their political leaders? Should they be asked to publicly condemn these leaders when doing so puts them and members of their family at risk of retaliation by their governments? Banning Russian artists based on their political views or, worse, solely because of their nationality, while welcoming artists from China and other repressive regimes undermines any moral high ground an institution can claim.

The people of a nation are not identical with its leadership and should not be equated with it.  On the contrary, they can be allies in opposing a repressive regime from within. Among the Russian artists blacklisted today are people who have been critical of the war.

US institutions have so far limited their action to artists who refuse to condemn the regime, the more restrained path still fraught with questions likely to haunt these institutions for a long time. Blacklisting artists based solely on their political views is a tactic associated with the Cold War and the McCarthy era. That era also demanded “loyalty oaths” – similar to current demands on artists to denounce the Putin regime or be canceled. Only this time artists are also asked to face risks in their home country by making such denunciations. 

There are better ways for cultural institutions in Western democracies to get involved in the current political crisis. Rather than banning artists associated with Putin, they should support dissident cultural workers within Russia, as well as Ukrainian artists and institutions, by highlighting their work and offering them platforms to amplify their voices. If, after 30 years of open global cultural exchange, an iron curtain falls again, art and cultural institutions should not be complicit.

Information on resources and support for Ukrainian artists here

Heading image by Ukrainian artist Vakulenko Y. Balance. 2021