Black and white thinking

Western nonsense

If there’s one topic that unites both Russia's opposition activists and the supporters of the state, it’s the debate about cancel culture and what some Russians call “new ethics”.

Author Alexander Finiarel is arrested and taken away by four police officers wearing bulletproof vests, helmets and batons after protests on Tsvetnoy Boulevard in Moscow in 2019.

Author arrested after protests in Moscow in 2019

The topic of “cancel culture” has been a subject of heated debate around the world over the past few years. Russia has not been excluded from this squabble, but the debate about cancel culture there has some notable differences. One of the most obvious contrasts is the use of the term “new ethics“. This category covers all the things that activists striving for social justice and a liberal society want, and all of the things that concerned parents and representatives of orthodox churches are outraged about.

These days, employees of the state can be reviled simply because they belong to the LGBTQ+ community, single mothers can be harassed because their children have dark skin or, like the feminist Daria Serenko, they can be threatened because they spoke out about anti-refugee discrimination.
A rainbow family with same-sex parents was forced to leave the country recently after their picture was featured in an advertisement for organic supermarket chain, VkusVill. The chain's management gave in to the wave of indignation sponsored by, among others, the Telegram channel, Male State (which was blocked from social media platforms by a Russian court late last year because of extremist opinions about women and same sex partners). VkusVill executives apologised to customers publicly and then dismissed its entire marketing department.

Those Russians who get “cancelled” tend to be those who were always marginalised. Over the past year, over 1,500 opposition activists left Russia. This number is likely to have increased massively since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February.

Meanwhile hardly anyone has paid the price for sexual harassment, by, for example, losing their job. The Russian version of the #MeToo campaign started in 2016 – it's known as #ЯНеБоюсьСказать here, or “I'm not afraid to say” in English – and there have been a number of related scandals. But those scandals didn't really see the harassers punished: Not the politician Leonid Slutsky, who made advances on female journalists, nor Maxim Zeluyko, a lecturer who harassed his female students.

“State organisations in Russia have been fighting against what they call  "gender ideology" for a decade.”

Russian opponents of cancel culture use the term “new ethics” when they express their anger about the change in traditional cultural norms and the fact that their own homophobic, sexist or racist world views are now a focus. What's somewhat surprising though, is that the liberal opposition and the pro-government sector are often united in their aversion to these “new ethics“.

Russian government commentators have been opposed to feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, what they call “gender ideology” and "pernicious" Western influence for over a decade. For the liberal opposition, all of those topics have served as a point of reference. However more recently how opposition figures react to these so-called “new ethics” has hardly differed from the reactions of Russian state propagandists.

One of the first texts on the “new ethics” in 2019 was published on the website of Russian news outlet, Vesti. It argued that identity ethics actually negates human rights because it privileges some individuals over others, simply because of their social identity. Television presenter and politician, Ksenia Sobchak, who often espouses a more liberal position [editor's note: she is thought to be able to do so because her family is close to Russian leader Vladimir Putin], declared that quotas for Black people at universities, introduced for reasons of social justice, were unfair to “talented white boys”.
Controversial Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky compared the idea of new ethics to the medieval religious wars, the Crusades.

Possibly the most remarkable text arguing against the new ethics was the manifesto written by Sobchak's husband, director and actor Konstantin  Bogomolov, and published in Russia's oldest left-leaning, independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. He called for the end of Europe and the start of a new empire of ethics. Luckily, Russia itself stood “at the tail end of the mad train that is hurtling full steam towards a Hieronymus-Bosch-style hell, where multicultural, gender-neutral devils await”.

Vladimir Solovyov, an outspoke TV commentator and state propagandist, expressed similar views. Proponents of such new ethics “do not need democracy; they aspire to a dictatorship of mousy mediocrity in which the right slogans are shouted,” he declared.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has himself described the new ethics as “obscurantism” , or the practice of presenting information in an imprecise way that prevents further understanding. He even gave examples of how rapists could masquerade as trans-women.

Putin also proclaimed that the “carriage” carrying these new values would inevitably roll from the West into Russia but that the Russian people, with their traditions and religion, had the right antidote for them. This argument by Putin gets much approval by his people because many a former Soviet citizen wanted perestroika – the reform of Soviet politics – to modernize their socialism, not destroy it altogether. Liberal Russians however consider some of their fellow country people to be backward “Soviets” who needs to be civilized according to Western standards. That sanctimonious attitude makes it easy for Putin to stir citizens' emotions, especially for those who were hard hit by the liberalisation “shock” of the 1990s and who remain upset about everything and anything considered western and progressive.

Today's mainstream Russian opposition politicians – people like Alexei Navalny - are trying to avoid the mistakes made by their predecessors. In recent years, they have moved the electorates' opinions subtly to the left and therefore aroused more support for feminism and similar movements. But they also avoid any discussion of “new ethics”, or prefer to dismiss it as populist alarmism.

“As Western nations impose import bans, it’s the Russian government that feels like it's being “cancelled”.”

In the meantime, the war against Ukraine has demonstrated exactly why the Russian government is so allergic to these “new ethics”. The very people that Putin sees as supporters of them are the same individuals protesting on Russian streets against the war. Demonstrations in larger Russian cities are dominated by young, feminist women. One recently interrupted a news broadcast on state television by intruding upon the live set with an anti-war poster. So Moscow is doing everything it can to silence such voices.

At the same time, the war in Ukraine has changed the debate over cancel culture in other ways. As Western nations impose import bans and confiscate Russian oligarchs' assets, it’s the Russian government that feels like it's being “cancelled”. Instead of individuals venting their outrage, or the government persecuting unwelcome critics, it is nation states targeting one another with moral arguments and economic pressure. The assumption is that, just like “cancelling” people in individual cases, withdrawing support will bring about a change in behaviour. It's capitalist logic that could also be explained as “voting with your wallet”.

It's hard to say whether this is going to be an effective strategy against Russia. Along with serious sanctions against the Russian elite, companies like MacDonalds and Ikea are also pulling out of the country. But this is likely to impact those middle-class and low-income Russians who had little in the first place. It could make them more dependent on the Russian state. A “rally around the flag” effect is also likely: Nationalism will increase and the Russian people will unite because they feel excluded from the rest of the world.

There is also an apparent parallel in this situation, to the debate around cancel culture. Just as people rarely change their minds because they are being attacked with angry messages on the Internet, Russians may not change their opinions either, if the West attacks it in this way. Instead private companies could stay in Russia and protect their employees from state harassment. That may well be a far more effective measure to take against this war.

Translated by Andreas Bredenfeld and Cathrin Schaer