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War in Ukraine: Russians on boycotts, sanctions and cancellations

Image source, AFP

Since last week’s invasion, there has been a global cultural and sporting backlash against Russia. But do these matter to Russians who are now considering their own future as Western air spaces close down, their currency slumps and curbs intensify on free press?

Its athletes were banned from the Beijing Winter Paralympics the day before the games got under way and Russia’s footballers won’t be playing Poland this month. Musicians from around the world are calling off planned events in Russia.

“It’s hard to imagine how long it will take Russia to be considered a part of the world cultural landscape again,” Lena, a young woman who works in Moscow, told the BBC.

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Lena asked for her identity to be protected – the names of some other interviewees in this article have been changed too.

People help a wounded woman in the aftermath of a Russian shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine, 01 March 2022.

Image source, EPA

“It’s impossible to support the illusion of normality while the human tragedy unfolds in Ukraine,” Lena said.

“Certainly, moaning about isolation and economic disasters is nothing compared to what the poor people of Ukraine are experiencing every day now, and we all feel absolutely shattered that helping them is treason here.”

It’s dangerous to speak out in Russia – thousands of protesters against the war have been detained, while the country’s leadership has pressed on with the assault.

‘Everything will be different’

Russia’s leaders have so far defied the unprecedented wave of sanctions aimed at devastating its economy if it doesn’t change course.

The Kharkiv University after shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine, 2nd March 2022

Image source, State Emergency Service of Ukraine via EPA

Cutting sporting and cultural ties means further pain, and revives bitter memories of decades of Cold War division.

In sport the country has been almost universally ostracised. Its absence from the Beijing Winter Games will be painfully apparent after a last-ditch U-turn by officials.

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Russia’s athletes have also been banned from this year’s world championships and its figure skaters, an event in which the country excels, have been barred from all competitions.

The International Judo Federation made a point of suspending Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin, a keen judoka, as its honorary president.

Russian President Putin watches Mercedes" Hamilton celebrates after winning Russian F1 Grand Prix in Sochi

Image source, Reuters

Four years after hosting the World Cup, Russian football clubs and national teams have been suspended from all international competitions. Spartak Moscow, one of Russia’s leading clubs, has been thrown out of the Europa League.

Ultimately, though, the people the BBC spoke to said these now felt almost like a distraction.

Andrey (name changed), who has a club season ticket, says “it doesn’t matter” in the bigger picture.

“Football, like everything else, is going to be different now. It will be part of our new life which we can’t even imagine,” he says.

“And the main thing is that no-one asked us if we want this new life. What will it be like? It’s all very frightening. Of course, it’s nothing compared to what people are feeling in Ukraine.”

A screen saying Football Stands Together at Wembley in a show of support for Ukraine before the Carabao Cup final

Image source, Reuters

He says “humdrum problems” like boycotts “are the least of our concerns”.

“The whole structure of life is changing now, from TV shows to telephones and cars. I don’t see the point in trying to guess how it’s going to change.”

In recent years Russians have become used to seeing Western performers in their country, a huge shift from Soviet times when travel to and from the country was difficult.

But many foreign performers have now put on hold or cancelled gigs, festivals and shows in Russia to express horror at what’s happening.

Anyone wanting to catch the Russian leg of tours by Eric Clapton, Iggy Pop or Louis Tomlinson faces being disappointed.

File photo of Franz Ferdinand on stage

They’ve joined a growing list of stars – the Killers, Imagine Dragons, Green Day, Franz Ferdinand are some of the others – who’ve cancelled shows in Russia or put them on hold in protest at the war.

Lena says many Russian acts don’t want to entertain “in these horrible times” either. The day after the invasion, singer Valery Meladze, comedian Danila Poperechny and a host of other celebrities appealed in a video for it to end.

Over the past week, Russia’s entertainment world has been turned upside down.

Moscow’s Bol festival, where Nick Cave was among those due to headline in June, is one event that won’t be taking place.

“I organised conferences and showcase festivals with musicians from all over the world and we discovered loads of new bands. During the pandemic we tried to stay cheerful,” the festival’s co-founder Stepan Kazaryan posted on Facebook.

“Now I have a one-way ticket and nothing else. Nothing but shame for what certain people with the same passport as me have done to our closest neighbours. We’ll never, ever be able to redeem ourselves.”

Cinema fans and those using online streaming services are also affected amid the backlash over the invasion. Global film and TV giants like Disney, Warner Bros, Sony and Paramount have paused or cancelled planned releases in Russia.

Spotify’s music service is unavailable.

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Marina, a Muscovite in her 60s, said: “So far we can still watch movies online but I think the distribution of films to cinemas is affected.

“We feel very bad. It [the war] was not what we wanted.”

‘A horrible feeling of powerlessness’

But how much are Russians likely to feel the effects of being cut off in sport and culture?

There’s an impression in the West that Russians will feel pain from the sanctions and boycotts by losing their freedom to travel, enjoy music, concerts and culture.

Is it naïve to think being deprived of these things will change Russian people’s views?

“It’s not, but it is simply impossible: there are more police in the streets than people,” says Lena.

A demonstrator is detained by law enforcement officers during an anti-war protest against Russia"s invasion of Ukraine, in Saint Petersburg, Russia March 2, 2022.

Image source, Reuters

“Last weekend over 6,000 people were arrested. And not just ordinary people but children and elderly WW2 veterans with anti-war posters too.”

In the space of a few days huge changes have taken place, and no one knows if things can go back to how they were.

“There is a general feeling that the life we know is crumbling,” said political scientist Ekaterina Schulman, who was presenting on Echo Moscow radio station when it was taken off air this week for broadcasting “false information” about the military action in Ukraine.

She says it’s too early to gauge the effect of Western measures on Russian public opinion.

Russian people walk at a street in Moscow, Russia, 01 March 2022

Image source, EPA

“At the moment people are panicking or in denial and just can’t understand what’s happening. A large number of people don’t follow the news at all. They watch TV very occasionally. So it will take a while for them to hear about it.”

She said Russians were now worried the borders might be closed and they wouldn’t be able to get out.

“In the last couple of days a lot of people have been leaving Russia to avoid anticipated repressions and being called up into the army. They’re flying to Istanbul, Yerevan and Tbilisi.”

Lena says things like music, entertainment, films and exhibitions “are now not a priority – not even in the top 10”.

“It feels like it’s not a post-Covid depression any more. It’s just depression and a horrible feeling of powerlessness.”

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