A week before our daughter was born, I received a long message from my partner’s parents. Its contents surprised me. They wanted to know whose surname we planned to give her.
Consider her future, they urged. She will have better opportunities if she has your last name.
I’m Australian, and my surname is Brooks. Simple. Anglo. Her father’s isn’t. It has four syllables and a silent “k” and ends in “ov.” Not easy to spell, not easy to say. But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that it’s Russian.
I assumed they were being dramatic. That the discrimination they spoke of was internal, coming from them, not Western society, a prejudice brought with them from the Soviet Union. But in the 2½ years since our daughter was born, I’ve come to see glimpses of the subtle stigma my partner, a Russian immigrant, faces living in the West.
Is expelling Russians of every stripe and ideology from Western culture really a sign of historical justice? Is it really right?
I’ve watched people flinch as my partner says where he’s from, like a montage of Hollywood villains is flashing past their eyes. It’s a joking balk, a convivial uh-oh, possibly heightened by my partner’s imposing size. But it illustrates the assumptions: He’s someone to be suspicious of. He’s dangerous. He’s Russian!
Then came Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. What the Russian president is doing is dangerous — and terrifying. He’s invaded an independent country, and now millions of Ukrainians are displaced and thousands are dying. He has implied he would use ballistic missiles and nuclear arms “if necessary.” Fear is an entirely understandable response to the Kremlin’s behavior.
Increasingly, though, fear is morphing into bigotry. On March 26, President Joe Biden said: “You, the Russian people, are not our enemy.” So why are we getting the signal that they are?
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, there’s been a swift repudiation of all things Russian: vodka poured into gutters, U.S. governors calling for it to be taken off the shelves. Musicians and dancers banned from performing, films and directors dropped. Dead Russians have been shunned, too. A Welsh orchestra cut a work by the composer Tchaikovsky from a planned concert, while cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s name was removed from an annual U.S. fundraiser. Russian athletes were barred from FIFA soccer tournaments, along with Belarusians at the Boston Marathon. The virtual Russian team was removed from EA Sports’ video games.
These boycotts might seem symbolic, but they have mutated into real discrimination. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., suggested “kicking every Russian student out of the United States.” Meta, in an aberration of its usual policy, allowed Facebook and Instagram users to post hate speech against Russian invaders. In Munich, a private medical clinic refused to admit Russian or Belarusian patients.
And prejudice almost always goes hand in hand with violence. Germany has reported 308 offenses against Russian immigrants, including 15 acts of violence, since the invasion began. Students in the Czech Republic have been harassed. In Mallorca, Spain, where my partner, our child and I now live, homes of Russians have been graffitied; other graffiti have called them “murderers.” Russian-affiliated stores and restaurants in the U.S. have been damaged and their owners threatened.
These incidents shrink compared to the horrors Ukrainians are facing. Their suffering is terrible. But as the mother of a half-Russian child, I would be lying to say I don’t worry about my own family. Even for a little girl, it’s a bad time to be Russian.
Some of those who are perpetrating this anti-Russian sentiment acknowledge it has an aspect of unfairness to it, especially when cultural exclusion makes no distinction between Russians who oppose the war or support it, who back Putin or who fled his dictatorship. Last week, the prestigious Wimbledon tennis tournament banned Russian and Belarusian entrants, even though players compete as individuals, not nations. The British Lawn Tennis Association, which co-signed the ban, highlighted its unfairness, acknowledging that disallowed players “may not agree with the actions of their Governments and this is a situation beyond their control.”
That’s right. The war in Ukraine is a situation beyond any tennis player’s control, as is being born Russian or Belarusian. And yet, they’re banned. Influential Western voices support this treatment despite its clear violation of principles of fairness and tolerance. Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins argued that what Wimbledon did was “exactly right.” She wrote: “War, unlike tennis, is not an individual enterprise. It’s a national one. Russia — not just Putin — is destroying Ukraine.”
Here things get murky. Is it true to say that Russia, and therefore Russians, are responsible for the war? Can Putin, who in 2020 changed the constitution to allow him to effectively remain in power until 2036, be deemed the representative of the Russian people? And how do we define “Russians”? Russians in Russia? Russians in Ukraine? Russian immigrants? My partner and those like him whose families left the Soviet Union in search of a better life? Is my tiny daughter responsible?
Jenkins argued yes: “Even the most innocent Russians will be price-payers for the rapacious actions of Vladimir Putin’s regime.” That inspired one commenter on her story to respond: “Maybe we should round up all the Russians living here and England too and put them in internment camps.” Another added: “Russia, the land of rapists and murderers. Let the shame wash over them all.”
The cultural and sporting bans, and the commentary that advocates blanket discrimination and hate, embolden and legitimize the ostracization of Russians. They rattle the bones of Russophobia and turn them to flesh.
I noticed a particular shift on social media after the discovery of murdered civilians and harrowing accounts of torture and rape in Bucha, Ukraine. Russians called animals, evil, inhuman. A letter to The New York Times suggests “there must be a collective character flaw.” These are the messages I don’t want my daughter to hear. Atrocities were committed in Bucha. But suggesting there is something inherently wrong with all Russians is unequivocally xenophobic. Suggesting there is something inherently wrong with any race is xenophobic. People are flawed. But it is a human trait, not symptomatic of ethnicity.
How do we define “Russians”? Russians in Russia? Russians in Ukraine? Russian immigrants? My partner and those like him whose families left the Soviet Union in search of a better life?
Hate can be an expression of powerlessness. The war is horrendous, and people want to do something. When the Fédération Internationale Féline banned Russian-bred cats from its competitions, it said it couldn’t “just witness these atrocities and do nothing.” It acted by banning enemy cats. People and institutions want to be on the “right side of history.” Yet is expelling Russians of every stripe and ideology from Western culture really a sign of historical justice? Is it really right?
And what does it achieve to vent anger and outrage through a form of collective punishment? At least, what does it achieve that doesn’t help Putin? For him, Russophobia feeds his “hostile West” narrative. His justification for invading Ukraine was denazification. So when the luxury brand Chanel recently refused to sell goods to Russians, it wasn’t a stretch, given founder Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s Nazi ties, to cry fascist. It fits Putin’s narrative like a calfskin glove.
I understand now that my daughter’s grandparents’ concern came from a place of protection. Her father’s name is loaded with Soviet suffering and Cold War tensions. It’s an “enemy” name, a burden, one that as a Brooks she could live without. My instinct as a mother, always, is to shield. I gave her the surname Brooks, but primarily because her father and I aren’t married. I still want my daughter to be proud of her roots. I never want her to hide any part of who she is. But as time passes, I think perhaps my partner’s parents were right.