Bans on Russian travel and culture play into Putin’s hands
Under Stalin and during the Cold War, the isolation of Soviet citizens from the West — and indeed the outside world in general — was a key Soviet aim. Preventing them from visiting the West was essential to preventing them from learning about the deep comparative failure of Soviet Communism, and from meeting with their ex-compatriots who had fled to the West after the Russian Revolution and the Second World War.
Only a few privileged officials, diplomats, spies, and trusted intellectuals could travel, and they too were kept under close watch. And indeed, as younger members of the Soviet elites learned more about the West, so their faith in Communism and the Soviet state crumbled.
The West responded to the Soviet strategy of self-isolation by offering refuge to any Soviet citizen who did manage to leave. Western radio stations tried to undermine Soviet isolation by broadcasting to the USSR in Russian and other Soviet languages, and faced assiduous Soviet attempts to jam their broadcasts.
By a tragic and shameful irony, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is now some Western leaders who are calling for Russian citizens to be isolated by a comprehensive ban by the European Union on tourist visas for Russians. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for a ban on all Russian travel in an interview with the Washington Post on August 8, insisting that “Russians should be forced to live in their own world until they change their philosophy.” The Finnish and Estonian governments have called for a tourist ban. Finland and the Baltic States are confronted with this issue because, with most European flights to Russia banned, Russians with visas to travel to the EU have to start by crossing the Russian land borders with these countries.
“It’s not right that at the same time as Russia is waging an aggressive, brutal war of aggression in Europe,” Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin declared on Wednesday, “Russians can live a normal life, travel in Europe, be tourists.”
Finland is indeed considering imposing its own sanctions, and EU foreign ministers are expected to discuss a full ban on August 31. So far, the EU has only banned specific figures in or close to the Russian administration.
The EU should reject these calls for a complete ban. As one EU official told the Financial Times, “You don’t want to completely ban all Russians from travelling to the EU. How are we going to engage at all? Russians not in favour of the war need to be able to travel too.”
These calls for a ban raise issues both of ethics and of policy. Ethically speaking, is assigning collective national guilt in this way really a good idea and a good precedent? Imagine the outrage if countries had issued travel bans against all U.S. and British citizens in retaliation for the invasion of Iraq — though since Britain and America are democracies, it can be argued that their citizens bear a greater share of responsibility for their governments’ crimes than do Russians, who live under authoritarian rule.
Equally important, the leaders who propose this do not seem to understand that, in imitating the USSR in reverse, they are playing into the hands of the Putin regime. It is to Putin’s advantage that Russians should not be able to travel to Western Europe and meet Russian oppositionists there.
It is also very much to the Kremlin’s advantage that the West be seen by Russians as implacably hostile not just to the Russian government, but to the Russian people as a whole. In response to the Western calls for travel bans, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov referred obliquely to the image of Nazism, declaring that, “Many of these countries are so hostile to us that it’s making them delirious. They are stooping to sentiments that we heard literally 80 years ago from certain countries in the heart of Europe.”
Russian state propaganda claiming irrational Western hatred for Russians in general has also been immeasurably strengthened by sporadic moves by Western governments and cultural institutions to cancel performances of Russian music and dismiss Russian artists and musicians in the West. Following the decision by the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra in March to cancel a concert of works by Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, a Russian liberal friend remarked with bitter irony, “It is absolutely shameful that Pyotr Ilyich has not condemned the invasion, and he should not be allowed to get away with the excuse that he has been dead for 130 years.”
During the Cold War, Western radio stations broadcasting to Russia condemned Soviet crimes and oppressions but were careful to emphasize their profound respect for Russian classical culture. This was entirely sincere, since they were staffed by Russian emigres; but it was also essential to their appeal to their Russian listeners.
Moreover, today, any Russian intellectual contemplating emigration to the West is likely to look at moves like the ban on performances by Russian singer Anna Netrebko (who had condemned the invasion by the way, calling it a “senseless war of aggression,” but rejected a demand by the New York Metropolitan Opera that she condemn Putin personally) and the sacking by the Munich Philharmonic of Russian conductor Valery Gergiev and ask whether there would really be a future for them in the West. This too helps to keep Russian intellectuals in Russia and therefore at least publicly loyal to the regime.
A rather nauseating aspect of all this is that the Western figures who take these decisions are running no personal risks and making no sacrifices while demanding that Russian cultural figures cut themselves off from their country and run great risks not just for themselves (if they return) but also for their relatives who remain behind.
All this aside, can such bans on culture — as opposed to hostile state propaganda — ever really be justified, especially when carried out by people who claim to be cosmopolitan intellectuals themselves? How does this correspond to the multicultural global vision that they claim to believe in? As Kelly Jane Torrance of the New York Post has written:
“Even at the height of the Cold War, Russia and America shared the common language of music. Texas-bred Van Cliburn did much for art and peace when he won the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958 — a shock to the Russians. Gergiev now chairs that competition. Art is always essential to human life, but cultural exchange becomes even more crucial at times of political tension.”
My father, Alexander Lieven, was head of the BBC Russian Service in the 1960s, and was bitterly denounced by the Soviet media for his criticisms of Soviet policy and the Soviet system (I remember his delight when Pravda “promoted” him from “Capitalist Hyena” to “Imperialist Jackal”). I have no doubt at all that were he alive today, he would also condemn bans on Russian travel and culture.