Sporting and cultural boycott of Putin’s Russia

Dave Kellaway finds that sporting sanctions can be useful while having less of an impact on the working class.

Today there are long queues outside ATMs in Russian cities as people try to withdraw roubles to change into euros or dollars. Coordinated sanctions by countries opposed to the Russian invasion of Ukraine have led to a 26% devaluation of the Russian currency. Ordinary people, not just the Oligarchs are being hit by these sanctions. As argued by Phil Hearse in a recent article on this site, socialists are not in principle opposed to sanctions carried out by capitalist governments, we saw them put to good use when used against South African apartheid and in the BDS campaign against the Israeli state. It is important to note these sanctions were called for from below, with those directly affected by the apartheid regime in South Africa and the Palestinians both calling for them to assist their struggle.

However we oppose them when they have a devastating effect on ordinary people such as the ones organised against Saddam Hussein. We are not opposed to targeted measures against the oligarchs who are supporting Putin. An excellent demand is for their London property to be seized and the proceeds used to house the homeless. Another tactical issue is whether the anti-war movement should make opposition to sanctions one of its main demands.

Sporting and cultural boycotts are a different matter since generally they have little economic impact on ordinary Russians. They signal to the Russian people that world public opinion is overwhelming against the invasion and stands with the Ukrainian people. It necessarily sparks some debate and reflection. It can encourage people to check the official state media accounts with other sources on social media. This can help to increase support for the developing anti-war movement in Russia. Here in Britain such protests broadens the discussion about what is going on in Ukraine and can help us build a movement calling for Russian withdrawal, peace talks and solidarity with the resistance.

Inevitably on the left when protests are organised on one issue someone always calls out the hypocrisy of people who fail to mobilise around an equally important issue. At the moment for example you see social media posts contrasting the lack of mobilisation around the Saudi/UAE bombing of Yemen with the Western states’ condemnation of Russia. We can call this the whataboutery approach. 

Here we had to distinguish between correct accusations of hypocrisy against the Tory government or the moderate Keir Starmer leadership of the Labour Party and how left activists use this argument. We do denounce what is going on wherever there is oppression or war crimes. However in the real world of politics we cannot make the agenda. In order to intervene positively to make a difference on something you have to accept this unjust imbalance on what is considered a vital issue. We are too small to change the agenda. 

The stakes in Ukraine have huge international repercussions. If Putin is able and allowed to take over Ukraine it is a real setback for working people, particularly in those areas the Russian leader thinks are his sphere of influence. At the same time there is the risk of escalation with global consequences as Putin begins to put his nuclear arsenal closer to a war footing. So we should welcome the sporting and cultural boycotts for highlighting the issue.

The EU has stopped the Russia RT state sponsored channel from broadcasting. In Britain this decision has been left to Ofcom. In my opinion socialists should oppose any closure. If we are defending democratic rights and freedom of expression here against the lack of them in Russia it looks contradictory to ban a TV station broadcasting .

I spent half an hour watching the channel last night.  Of course it presents Putin’s version of reality – mixed in with some actual facts about the situation. So it continues to call the invasion a special military operation but also does report some Ukrainian government statements and on the anti-war demos in Russia. I suppose it gives you a detailed picture of Putin’s world view and helps you to informatively encounter it. In any case it has a tiny audience. 

For Putin’s regime sporting and cultural events help communicate Russia’s soft power and helps deflect questions about democratic and human right abuses in his country. He believes that big sporting events help his own personal ratings. Personally he is very keen on sports and showing the Russian public how fit he is. We all have seen the judo black belt in action, bare chested horse riding, cross-country skiing, wild swimming and fishing.

To a degree we can see a link with his ethno-nationalist beliefs in a greater Russia – the need to recapture the innate strength and moral fortitude of the Russia race. So he takes a personal interest in sports and is photographed with many sports stars and attends games and competitions. Maybe he sees himself as a stronger leader than the morally corrupt and materialist Western politicians who he believes are on the point of encircling and militarily attacking Russia. Recent speeches have betrayed some of these strongman leader traits. 

The 2018 football world cup took place in Russia and the Winter Olympics in 2014. Putin personally lobbied for both events. State investment in sporting success dates back to the Soviet era where Olympic success was seen to show the superiority of the Soviet system. Systematic doping and abusive control of athletes underpinned a lot of those medals. 

State cheating in the official testing in 2014 has meant that Russian athletes could not compete under the Russian Federation colours at recent Olympics. Intelligence agents were smuggled into Moscow’s scandal-hit laboratory to intimidate staff. Of course many nations, including Britain, use state resources to ensure sporting success, they believe it helps cohesion around the flag and nation and is popular.  

Here are some of the cultural and sporting reactions to the invasion.

Culture reactions

Some of the celebrity reactions against the invasion that we have seen on social media are opportunist, cringeworthy and even bizarre. But when well known artists take a political stand it can have a positive impact on public opinion. Opposition by artists inside Russia is very important in this process.

  • Openly calling Vladimir Putin a ‘killer’, Elena Kovalskaya announced her resignation as director of Moscow’s Vsevolod Meyerhold State Theater and Cultural Center on Friday. 
  • Eurovision will not permit a Russian entry, maybe not such a tragedy for the Russian people but it is watched by hundreds of millions.
  • The Royal Opera house has cancelled a programme of shows by the Bolshoi Ballet
  • Well known singers like Missy Eliot and Peter Gabriel issued twitter messages against Putin and in support of Ukriane.
  • YouTube barred the Russian state-owned media outlet RT and other Russian channels from receiving money for advertisements that run with their videos.

Sporting reaction

  • Sochi Formula one grand prix has been called off.
  • At Wembley yesterday there were Ukrainian flags and the video screens showed messages expressed support for Ukraine. Supporters of Chelsea participated despite their club being owned by Roman Abravomich who is a Russian oligarch and friend of Putin. He in fact has given over control of the club to a charitable foundation, presumably to protect the club from any sanctions against him.
  • Protests featured in the Premier League football programme. At the game between Manchester City and Everton, the Everton players came out draped in Ukrainian flags while Manchester City wore shirts bearing the words “No War”.
  • An official statement was made by Six Nations rugby against the invasion and support was shown by the spectators this weekend.
  • Since the World Cup in this year in Qatar there are ongoing playoff qualifying matches involving Russia. Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic who could meet Russia in the playoff matches have already said they will not play even under FIFA imposed conditions. FIFA has proposed Russia can play with no flags and in a neutral country. The British FA has said England will not play Russia for the foreseeable future.
  • UEFA has taken the Champions League football final venue away from St Petersburg and is considering removing the Gazprom sponsorship of the same competition.

Socialists do not support sanctions hitting working people in Russia, but we think cultural and sporting protests or boycotts during this violent invasion can help isolate Putin’s regime and build the anti-war movement.


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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.


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