Let’s assume, for the sake of being charitable, that the past two years of enduring first a pandemic, and now a war in Europe, have skewed our perception of the world so profoundly that we can’t help but struggle to recalibrate our minds to what is normal.
A triple-vaccinated, double-masked, healthy, middle-aged person who still won’t step foot in a store unnecessarily thinks he is among those following the science. A convoy participant with a myopic view of the world thinks police cracking down on a capital-city occupation after three weeks of warning is evidence of a dictatorship. And Canadian music organizations, in their efforts to stand with the people of Ukraine, think they’re justified in cancelling performances by a Russian pianist, based solely on where he was born.
If we weren’t in this fog of war, inundated by truly horrific images of attacks on civilians in Ukraine, we would surely be more sensitive to the fact that we seem to be embracing a truly dangerous type of xenophobia here.
Last week, the Vancouver Recital Society cancelled a scheduled concert by 20-year-old Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev, who lives in Moscow, because of his nationality. Artistic director Leila Getz explained in a letter to supporters that she felt “terrible and conflicted,” but out of concern for Mr. Malofeev’s own welfare, as well as concern for the message it would send the Ukrainian community, the society could not in good conscience host his performance. “We grapple with the notion that even one cent of the proceeds from a VRS concert would go back into the Russian economy – the very economy that is funding this horrific war,” the group said in a follow-up statement.
A few days later, the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) announced that it, too, had cancelled a scheduled performance by Mr. Malofeev, saying that hosting the Russian pianist would be “inappropriate” at this time. Initially, the Montreal orchestra resisted calls to cancel his shows, noting that he had “distanced himself from the current regime.” Indeed, on his Facebook page, Mr. Malofeev had posted that “every Russian will feel guilty for decades because of the terrible and bloody decision that none of us could influence and predict.” But eventually, the OSM opted to cancel his performances, citing “the serious impact on the civilian population of Ukraine caused by the Russian invasion.”
Mr. Malofeev has nothing to do with that invasion, of course: his only sin was being born in a country that is now committing atrocious acts of war. We used to call actions that disadvantage individuals because of their gender, race, religion or yes, nationality, discrimination. And that is precisely what is happening here. Mr. Malofeev is not an oligarch who has made himself rich off the Russian state, nor does he have any apparent ties to the Kremlin. He is simply a Russian pianist who has actually spoken out against the war – not that that should matter anyway, since we don’t want to start applying morality tests to every individual whose government is perpetrating abhorrent acts.
It is one thing to sanction industry in response to an invasion (though, yes, this does have secondary effects on individual citizens), or even to suspend sports teams that compete in the name of the state. But there is no moral justification for directly penalizing individuals because their mere presence as a citizen of one country or another might create a negative impression about Canadian loyalty during this war. Just as it was wrong to stoke suspicion about Japanese nationals during the Second World War, or to lash out against Chinese Canadians because of Beijing’s obfuscation over COVID-19, it is wrong to punish individual Russians for the actions of a regime over which they have no control.
We can acknowledge that both the Vancouver Recital Society and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal were in tough spots: Ukrainian communities in Canada appealed to them directly to cancel Mr. Malofeev’s concerts. They were thus left with the unenviable choice of either cancelling his shows, or telling Ukrainian Canadians – who are watching their homeland get destroyed by Russia – that the performances would go ahead anyway. The organizations decided, in effect, that the feelings his presence would invoke were more important than whether the call was xenophobic or discriminatory – which would stand in opposition to the very Western values that we think give us the high ground over the likes of Mr. Putin.
In the broad Western haste to eliminate all things Russian – a Welsh orchestra pulled Tchaikovsky from its program this past week, for example – this may have seemed like the reasonable call. We should be wary, however, to normalize actions that we would never tolerate outside the haze of war. These sorts of decisions will have absolutely no impact on Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine (other than, perhaps, to serve as useful anti-Western fodder), while having a deleterious effect on tolerance and understanding at home. Cancelling Mr. Malofeev’s concerts is an act of discrimination – plain and simple. War or no war, Canadians should never tolerate that.
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