Russian athletes and artists have moral obligations, too

Olga Smirnova performs in the Casse-Noisette et Compagnie in Monaco on Dec. 28, 2015. (VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
Olga Smirnova performs in the Casse-Noisette et Compagnie in Monaco on Dec. 28, 2015. (VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

Decisions to bar Russian artists, athletes and other prominent figures from international appearances or competitions should not be confounding. After listening to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s pleas and viewing the horrifying videos of atrocities in his country, our obligations as moral beings should be crystal clear. The question before every person is simple: Do you stand with the butchers, or with their victims?

This is especially important in a country such as Russia, where sports stars, artists and other celebrities often boost Putin with glossy PR photos and the veneer of respectability. Putin’s association with admired Russians provides a counterweight to his reputation as a brutal dictator. The civilized world should have no difficulty distinguishing the Putin enablers from those who resist cavorting with an autocratic thug.

One eloquent proponent for demanding accountability provides a model for others to follow. The Post reports, “Bolshoi ballerina Olga Smirnova, an international ballet star who recently publicly denounced the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has quit the famed Moscow ballet company and joined the Dutch National Ballet, the Amsterdam organization announced Wednesday”. Smirnova declared, “We cannot remain indifferent to this global catastrophe”, adding that she was “ashamed” of her country.

Her recognition that “a line has been drawn that separates the before and the after” appropriately distinguishes this from other political issues. This is the issue of our time — one of such consequence that its effects will be felt for years after the fighting stops not only in Russia and Ukraine but among democracies around the world.

British Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston got to the crux of the matter as well. “Absolutely nobody flying the flag for Russia should be allowed” to compete at Wimbledon, Huddleston argued on Tuesday. He also noted, “We need some potential assurances that they are not supporters of Vladimir Putin and we are considering what requirements we may need to try to get some assurances along those lines”.

That may have serious consequences for the world’s top men’s tennis star, Daniil Medvedev. Medvedev made a general plea for peace when the war broke out, but he seems to be trying to have it both ways. “It’s always tough to talk on this subject because I want to play tennis — play in different countries”, he said at a tennis tournament in Indian Wells, Calif. “I want to promote my sport. I want to promote what I’m doing in my country for sure. And right now the situation is that that is the only way I can play”.

Well, that’s an all-too convenient rationale. Actually, Medvedev’s highest use is not winning tournaments to earn the praise of his countrymen and instill national pride among Russians. His prominence empowers him to make a difference not only in Russia but around the world.

Alleviating public figures of their responsibility to take a stance on the central moral issue of the moment — “Oh, she’s just a dancer!” or “Oh, let him play tennis” — truly is the soft bigotry of low expectations. Worse, such an attitude gives a pass to the rich and famous to go along with the regime’s barbarism, giving assent by silence.

Two simple criteria can clarify our decision-making: First, any Russian figure who aided and abetted a monstrous regime should be shunned, and the ill-gotten gains of Russian oligarchs should be seized. Second, it’s entirely appropriate for democracies to require Russian athletes or artists to issue a public renunciation of Putin’s war. If those figures chose not to, they can forgo the benefit of appearing before Western audiences.

Not everyone can match the soaring eloquence of Smirnova, but Russians in the public eye who want to enjoy the revenue and fame democratic countries provide must do their part to undercut the stature of Russia’s chief war criminal and his brutal military machine. Failure to do so effectively tells the world that tennis or ballet (or whatever activity generated their celebrity) is more critical than ending Ukrainians’ nightmare. In the face of such abject evil and human misery, silence and indifference must no longer be acceptable.

Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post. She is the author of “Resistance: How Women Saved Democracy from Donald Trump”.

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