Companies you could paint on a mural of American consumerism have suspended operations in Russia: McDonald’s, Coke, Pepsi, Starbucks, Disney. Wall Street experienced its first major pullback when Goldman Sachs ceased to operate there, and while it’s an economic decision, it also seems important culturally. Hollywood studios, major music companies, all ceasing operations in Russia, there are even ramifications for sales of one of the items that has often been referenced as an inescapable symbol of American cultural presence in other country : Blue Jeans.
The impact of cultural boycotts
Does all of this count? It probably depends on what you mean by “matter”. As Yasmeen Serhan wrote in Atlantic earlier this month:
“It’s easy to see cultural boycotts as more of a symbolic act than a serious threat to Moscow‘s geopolitical standing. But by suspending Russia from the world’s greatest sporting and cultural arenas, these institutions are sending a clear message – and, for Putin, potentially damaging – message: if Russia acts beyond the bounds of the rules-based international order in Ukraine, it will be treated like an outsider by the rest of the world.”
The idea of culture and sport as substitutes for the current political climate is obviously not new. I was an enthusiastic kid watching the Olympics during the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics and the Soviet Union boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, all of them expensive for athletes, and both of which carried a heaviness, a hostile closed-door feeling that was in keeping with the political rhetoric of the time. And over the past two years, controversies around Russian athletes in the Olympics and the workaround that doping sanctions meant they couldn’t compete for Russia, only for the “Russian Olympic Committee” brings out some of the grumbling that got worse. international competition in the past.
And it goes back much further than that: In the documentary about his trip to Russia, Billy Joel says he was inspired to go in part because he remembered how important it was to him when he was young and American pianist. Van Cliburn won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958. Joel says in the film that the event and Russia’s embrace of Cliburn changed his own perception of the country and its people, that he felt he had been taught to to fear.
These intersections of diplomacy and art can be fortuitous or commercial, but they can also be orchestrated entirely by governments, and they can be complicated for the artists involved: the US State Department sent jazz musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrongaround the world in the 1950s to present a positive image of the United States, even though the country did not treat them as equals at all.
The world has always done this – used culture and sport to communicate beyond and beyond and through and around politics and aggression – and the question of the importance and productivity of this comes back .
The effectiveness of cultural sanctions certainly remains an open question; Serhan argues that due to the particular form of the image he has chosen, Putin will be far more personally embarrassed and functionally threatened by sports sanctions than those in the arts. But she also says this: “If ordinary Russians can no longer enjoy many of the activities they love, including such everyday things as watching their football teams play in international matches, seeing the latest films and going to concerts live, their tolerance for their government’s isolationist policies will diminish.”
By now the Russians have become accustomed to global connections
If so, it may be that openness – not just concerts in the 1980s, but the growing presence of Hollywood films and the dynamism of international competition in sports – was not just the cyclical opposite of this retraction period that we so quickly entered, but a logical predecessor. The idea of depriving ordinary Russians, as Serhan says, of sports and Hollywood films and live concerts by international artists would not be a powerful threat if they did not expect to have access to these things first location.