Ambition: Why We All Need to Support Russians During This War
As Russia invades Ukraine, Ukrainians have rightly received outpourings of support worldwide. As I was thinking of what I can do besides ‘just another social media post,’ I was reminded of one group of people who aren’t receiving as much publicity, let alone support, in this issue, but also need support: Russian people.
I remain absolutely against war, unprovoked acts of aggression, and invasion of sovereign territory, and stand by the citizens of Ukraine as they are oppressed by hostile forces. But I also believe that we ought to stand by everyday Russians who do not want anything to do with war — but are also suffering for it. It’s important to separate a political entity from the ordinary citizens it governs, and unfortunately, the latter are being punished for the former’s actions.
To this, while the world focuses on how to offer Ukrainians support, I’ve started feeling that many Russians deserve our support too, and am just as keen to help — here is why.
- Russians don’t want war.
Of my sample size of Russian friends and acquaintances with whom I keep in touch on social media, not a single one has expressed support for the war — in fact, almost all of them have taken to social media with their disapproval.
One Russian friend whom I’d recently reconnected with reiterated that “Ukrainians are our brothers,” before I even brought up the subject. Other Russians took to respond to others’ social media posts to share their dismay at what’s going on and reiterate that this is not something they endorse. Many Russians have bravely participated in anti-war protests within Russia and taken to social media with “no war” hashtags trending in English and Russian.
Plus, the safety of protesters and their families in an authoritarian state led by a strongman with enough bravado and power to invade a neighbour is far from guaranteed, such that many may have legitimate fears that stop them from protesting. This leads me to sanctions, because they are often designed to make citizens suffer to encourage them to protest …
- Sanctions usually hurt everyday individuals and communities who have little say over decisions at the top of political institutions.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to befriend members of a community who are a persecuted minority in their motherland. The thing is, that motherland is also under sanctions from many Western countries, and as such, it is difficult for them to seek opportunities outside their motherland too, let alone gain their new home’s citizenship. This effectively leaves them in a catch-22, persecuted twice.
An excellent video dissected this using the example of North Korea. The idea behind many sanctions is to deprive people of opportunities and everyday needs to undermine their relationship with their government and provoke them into changing.
Yet this assumes a few things about Russia (and other frequently sanctioned countries) that may not be true — that ordinary citizens are empowered enough to provoke governments to act, or that those whose actions are being sanctioned are close enough, or even care enough, to notice. I won’t claim to know a thing about Russian domestic politics, but the research appears to show Russia suffering high corruption (suggesting that governments may be less responsive to public concerns) and income inequality (suggesting that power-brokers are far removed from what is happening).
A corrupt government distant from its ordinary citizens is likely to apathetically pass the pain of sanctions to them. And while some Western governments have commendably tried to isolate their sanctions to supposed power-brokers, such as individuals and financial institutions, others have imposed blanket bans on activities by Russian citizens in general. This may include SME proprietors and Russian diaspora who, as above, may be among the war’s strongest opponents. And there is little doubt that they will suffer — unfairly.
- People often unfairly conflate a political entity with its people, which alienates the latter.
Sports may be ideally distant from politics, but my heart broke at the speech of one of my (Russian) favourite up-and-coming athletes upon losing the 2022 Australian Open grand final, lamenting that his inner “kid stopped dreaming.” While he refused to elaborate further, and his on-court behaviour has polarised some, there’s a sad hypothesis to draw upon reading between the lines: the fact that fans would continue to boo him, and he said that apart from playing for himself, he would play for Russian fans only. One interview question even took it on directly — the anti-Russian sentiment is a possibility. Elsewhere in sports, it’s ironic that a global sporting body acknowledges that everyday citizens such as athletes are also victims of their own regime but decides to punish them anyway.
While the actions of a country that alienate them may be the work of a political entity, the consequences go beyond it — and well beyond the economic impact of sanctions. One only needs to look at the correlation of Asian hate with China’s tumultuous foreign relations and COVID. I watched with dismay and disbelief at Chinese diaspora, who are now Australian citizens established in Australia for multiple generations, being pressured to disavow and disown the Communist Party of China.
We may vow to be better than that, as our Russian friends are undoubtedly at risk of being treated like pariahs over something completely out of their control, that they themselves may be against.
Inasmuch as we ought to support Ukraninan friends in this difficult time, let’s remind ourselves that our Russian friends are not the Russian government and take a stand against any anti-Russian sentiment that may arise from current events. If we are to promote peace, more important than being on one side is being one.