Internment Camps for Russians?

War hysteria has led to the cancellations of all Russians, whether they are involved in the country's military operations or not. How far will the West's anti-Russian feelings take them?

Anti-Russian sentiment in the West is high. People are eager to do whatever they can, no matter how small and insignificant, to make Russia pay for its brazen and illegal invasion of Ukraine. Corporations are no exception. No longer will Disney play its movies in Russia. No longer will credit card companies do business in Russia. Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and McDonalds are all boycotting Russia. And video game maker EA Sports has even removed Russian players from its video games.

And it’s not just corporations—even government leaders are calling for discrimination against Russians. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) wants to boot every Russian out of U.S. schools. With anti-Russian feelings so prevalent, should we consider interning in camps the Russians living in the West, like we did the Japanese during World War II?

Hopefully, the answer should be obvious: Of course not! That’s insane! But it is the direction the current madness is leading us.

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Like the children in the movie Starship Troopers squishing tiny, harmless insects on earth to do their part in the war against the giant space bugs from a distant planet, people here at home are eager to help defeat the Russians while remaining safely out of the warzone. 

But in this case, it is not bugs that we are crushing. It is people—Russian people—who are suffering from the wave of anti-Russian hysteria sweeping the West. Russians living and working in the United States and Europe who have absolutely nothing to do with the invasion are being punished for Putin’s actions. 

According to NPR, the Metropolitan Opera has suspended ties to Russian artists. Among the artists being blacklisted are star soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev. Gergiev also lost his jobs as conductor of the Munich Philharmonic and the Rotterdam Philharmonic. Netrebko has, in the past, been a vocal supporter of Putin, though she claims to oppose the war in Ukraine. Gergiev, too, has supported Putin and even supported Russian actions in the separatist-controlled area of Donetsk in Ukraine.

Russians are also being blacklisted in sports. Beyond the International Olympic Committee and FIFA sanctioning Russian teams, individual athletes have been targeted.

One of the National Hockey League’s (NHL) greatest players, Washington Capital and Russian citizen Alexander Ovechkin has taken a lot of heat. Sponsors have dropped him. Fans have booed him and trolled him with signs declaring his support of Putin. And sports website SBNation even ran an article by James Dator originally titled “Alexander Ovechkin is a lying coward who won’t take a stand against Vladimir Putin,” though it was later softened to “Alexander Ovechkin blew his chance to take a stand on Russia’s warmongering.” The piece begins with an incendiary statement that Ovechkin is a “sycophantic coward.”

I know what you’re thinking. These Russian artists and athletes aren’t being harassed and blacklisted because they are Russian but because they support the megalomaniacal Vladimir Putin. As the article in SBNation points out, Ovechkin was given an opportunity to blast Putin, whom Ovechkin apparently has close ties with, but he didn’t. But Catholics should not pass judgment as quickly as the sports writer. We must be understanding and sympathetic. After all, Russians are as much God’s children as we are; even Russians who refuse to condemn their president.

Imagine an American musician or athlete being blacklisted in England back in 2003 because he or she failed to condemn George W. Bush following the invasion of Iraq. Would it be fair to demand an American condemn their president? What kind of repercussions would an American artist or athlete have felt back home if he or she had done so? We don’t have to speculate because this happened to the artists known at the time as the Dixie Chicks, now known simply as The Chicks. 

At a concert in London, in the weeks before the invasion of Iraq, lead singer Natalie Maines told the crowd, “just so you know, we’re on the good side with ya’ll. We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”  

The backlash back in the States was incredible. Lipton pulled its sponsorship of the group. Former fans boycotted their shows. Country music stations stopped playing their music. Groups destroyed their CDs.  They received tons of hate mail and even death threats. In other words, they were cancelled. All of this took a terrible emotional toll on the artists themselves.

But Bush didn’t have them arrested. Their families were not in any danger of being snatched off the streets and tortured. They were not prevented from returning to the United States. In fact, when asked about it, Bush commented that, “the Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say.”

The backlash against the Dixie Chicks was enough to make any country star think twice before criticizing Bush and the Iraq invasion. But it wasn’t nearly as horrible as what could happen to Russian celebrities who publicly criticize Putin. They may never get to return home. Their friends and family back in Russia could be in danger.

Ovechkin’s statement, when asked about the situation in Ukraine, sums it up pretty well. He said, “It’s a hard situation. I have family back in Russia and it is scary moments, but we can’t do anything. We just hope it going to be end soon and everything is going to be all right. Please, no more war. It doesn’t matter who is in the war—Russia, Ukraine, different countries—I think we live in a world, like, we have to live in peace and a great world.”

He’s right. It is a hard situation; especially with his family back in Russia. And, yes, it is scary. It is also really easy to sit back safely in front of my laptop in the United States and type out vitriol against Russians and call them cowards for not condemning Putin while risking nothing myself.  

Besides, it is not only Putin-supporting Russians who are being targeted by the anti-Russian mob. NHL Hall of Fame goaltender Dominik Hasek demanded via Twitter that the NHL suspend the contracts of every Russian player—even the players “who condemn V. Putin and his Russian aggression in Ukraine.” 

Nor is it only Russians alive today who are being cancelled. Famed Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, who died way back in 1881, was cancelled by an Italian university for the crime of being Russian, according to Newsweek. Fortunately, the university reversed its decision after receiving severe backlash.  

The anti-Russian hysteria is not even limited to humans. Russian cats are also being cancelled. The French-based Fédération Internationale Féline has banned Russian cats from entering its competitions. According to a report by MSN, Russia has the highest cat ownership in the world. Yet, I have seen no evidence put forth by anyone that any of these cats support Putin or his invasion of Ukraine. 

Simply having the word “Russian” in your business name is enough to earn a boycott and death threats. According to a report from the New York Post, the upscale Manhattan restaurant The Russian Tea Room was nearly empty following the invasion of Ukraine, and its employees have reportedly received death threats. The Russian Tea Room was founded 95 years ago by Soviet defectors fleeing to America and has no ties to Vladimir Putin or the Russian government. The current owners put out a statement condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Of course, all of this is simply more evidence that the tolerance that is always preached here in the West only lasts as long as the mob is willing to tolerate. But that’s always true with tolerance. People are always willing to tolerate until they are not. For example, I will tolerate my neighbor shooting off fireworks, until it gets too late, then I will no longer tolerate it. Tolerance is not a virtue; it is a necessity for living in a society together. Tolerance is simply putting up with someone or something.    

As I once heard a priest say, “Christians are not called to be tolerant. We are called to love.” Tolerance does not seek to forgive or understand. Tolerance has no compassion for a person’s situation. And tolerance is most certainly never unconditional. We will tolerate Russians playing in the NHL, or singing at the Met, or establishing New York restaurants, or showing cats, or writing books, as long as Russia does not invade Ukraine. Then we will no longer tolerate it.

Love is different. Love looks at the individual and the individual’s situation with understanding and compassion. Love sees a Russian celebrity and realizes that to condemn Putin could be a death sentence and therefore understands when the celebrity is hesitant to do so. Love is compassionate and realizes that the celebrity still needs to earn money despite his or her country invading another country.

Americans tolerated people of Japanese ancestry to live and work in their cities right up until the point Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. And then Americans no longer tolerated it. Tolerance was replaced by fear. Americans feared that there might be Japanese spies or saboteurs among the Japanese-American population, and therefore it was believed to be safer to lock them all up in internment camps.

As bad as it was to intern Japanese-Americans, at least it was due to national security concerns. The treatment of Russians has nothing to do with national security and is intended only as punishment—punishment for something someone else did.  

I certainly disagree with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and believe that Putin should be punished for the decision. But Ovechkin and the other Russian hockey players did not green light the invasion; neither did the Russian musicians or owners or employees of The Russian Tea Room. They should not be punished for what Putin did. Even if they are his friends. Do any of us want to be punished for the actions of our friends?

But why should we care if an overpaid hockey player or a prima donna opera singer are cancelled? No one has been beaten in the streets. It’s not like The Russian Tea Room has been destroyed like Jewish businesses in Nazi Germany.

Thankfully, that is true. But we should care because it is unjust and unmerciful. And Catholics are commanded to seek justice and love mercy. Furthermore, why should we think it will stop with simple blacklisting? 

All of this anti-Russian hysteria has sprung up in countries that aren’t even at war with Russia. What happens if Putin sends his forces into a NATO country next and the United States and its European allies get into a hot war? Based on the madness we are already experiencing, it does not seem far-fetched for anti-Russian hysteria to get much worse. Perhaps we will even start locking Russians in internment camps. We’ll be told it is for their own safety of course. For all of our condemnation of the treatment of the Japanese during World War II, we might find ourselves committing the same atrocities again. As Catholics, we cannot support that. We must do our best to stop the madness now, before it gets that far.    

[Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Russian Ice Hockey team player Alexander Ovechkin (R) stand together during a 2014 reception (Credit: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)]

  • R. C. VanLandingham

    R.C. VanLandingham is a novelist. His most recent work is Peter Puckett and the Amulet of Eternity. Find out more rcvanlandingham.com.

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