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How Not To Cancel Russia
Elizabeth Gilbert’s decision to pull her book is a misguided way of grappling with the ethical implications of war.
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Less than a week later, Gilbert, who is best known for her mega-best-selling Eat Pray Love, released a Twitter video canceling The Snow Forest’s publication. “I’m removing the book from its publication schedule. It is not the time for this book to be published,” she said.
The issue had nothing to do with the book’s plot—the story of a family of religious fundamentalists that retreated from civilization for 40 years—and everything to do with its setting. The “pristine wilderness” in question is Siberia. And, in the week since announcing the book, Gilbert had, she said, “received an enormous, massive outpouring of reactions and responses from my Ukrainian readers … about the fact that I would choose to release a book into the world right now—any book, no matter what the subject of it is—that is set in Russia.”
“Woke outrages” have become such a staple of our landscape that everything about this—the online firestorm, the 532 “one-star” Goodreads reviews for a book that no one had read yet, the “course correction” by the figure in the hot seat—feels familiar. Precedents for this sort of censorship were most vigorously set within the YA community, with a book touching on Chinese indentured servitude pulled in 2019 before anyone had read it; and with one of the chief critics of that book having his own book withdrawn months later, also sight unseen, for “allegedly minimizing the sufferings of Albanian Muslims.” The prolonged controversy over American Dirt—a 2020 novel about Mexican migrants written by a white woman—seemed to mark the coming-of-age of this new form of literary criticism, in which a book was assessed (and roundly condemned) based on its subject matter and on the fitness of the author to write it.
What’s different about the controversy over The Snow Forest is, first, that Gilbert herself—not a publisher—would choose to cancel her own book; and, second, that a hardline Ukrainian position, the “there are no good Russians” narrative, would have been so completely internalized by an American writer.
The question of whether there are “good Russians” has become something of a favorite discussion topic within Ukraine. The Kyiv Post, for instance, records the outcry in Ukraine over the granting of citizenship to Russian dissident Aleksandr Nevzorov; the cancellation of a talk given by Marina Ovsyannikova (famous for her on-air protest against the war on Russia’s Channel 1); and the public scrutiny of a top Russian bank manager, Igor Volobuev, who wished to fight for Ukraine. From this position, Russianness is an irredeemable quality. And Gilbert’s self-cancellation shows that the hardline stance—controversial within Ukraine itself—is drifting beyond Ukraine’s borders, in the notion that Russia cannot be broached even as a fictive setting.
This is a tricky topic and something where I’ve had to wrestle to figure out my own views. I actually do think that some degree of cultural boycott of Russia is necessary both to avoid normalizing Putin’s regime and to retain staunch international support for Ukraine. I’ve supported punishing economic sanctions against Russia; the removal of Western businesses from Russia; the Metropolitan Opera’s severing of its contract with soprano Anna Netrebko over past statements evincing support for Putin’s actions; the cancellation of performances of the Bolshoi Ballet; and the decision to strip Russia Today of its media credentials.
In each of these cases, I was well aware of the slippery slope involved. But I felt that these weren’t exactly cases of “cancellation” as we’ve become used to them. The issue at stake wasn’t private citizens expressing opinions. It was about a sovereign state invading another country’s borders and relying on a degree of cultural propaganda to spread its cause abroad. Organizations like the Bolshoi Ballet or the RT weren’t really independent entities; they were state-run. And financially supporting a performance by the Bolshoi Ballet or a program by the RT was, tacitly, supporting a regime that had removed itself from the community of nations. Somebody like Netrebko was a tougher call. But, in that case, I felt that the Met made the right decision—in her career, she had benefited extensively from state patronage. It was just very hard to attend a concert of hers and not participate in a triumphalist glorification of Russian culture.
But the slippery slope is there and we encounter it in the cancellation of Russian figures regardless of their actions. If, for instance, the astonishingly brave Ovsyannikova is not allowed to hold an event in Kyiv, a different logic is obviously at work, one in which individual responsibility is negated and “Russianness” alone is a form of guilt. That’s a logic that democratic regimes have studiously avoided at least for the last century. To take the most extreme example, that of the reconstruction of Germany and Japan, culpability was understood as ending with active members of the regime, and the population as a whole was viewed if not exactly as innocent then certainly as redeemable. Meanwhile, the self-cancellation of The Snow Forest takes the logic of collective guilt to such a point of absurdity that, as The New York Times writes, there has been a significant “backlash to the backlash.”
On Substack, Sherman Alexie writes, “This makes me sick. Dear writers, editors, agents, and publishers, stop being cowards.” On Twitter, Christian Lorentzen sarcastically writes, “People should stop setting books in America until we figure everything out.” And this point is obvious enough. If you really can’t have any books set in Russia, does that mean no history books about Russia? Does that mean no Mandelstam, no Solzhenitsyn? Are Russians guilty even if they lived before Putin was born? Clearly, the extreme stance is not a sustainable position.
But to dig deeper into this fraught topic, I do understand where the Ukrainian hardliners are coming from. It is not really sufficient to say that Putin alone is culpable and the Russian population is trapped by an increasingly autocratic regime. Putin, from the beginning, has been wildly popular—and popular above all when he engages in aggressive actions against Chechnya, against Georgia, against Ukraine. Lev Gudkov of the remarkably independent Levada Center, a polling agency based in Moscow, reports that a negligible percentage of polled Russians show compassion for Ukrainians killed in the invasion.
Under the drumbeat of state-sponsored propaganda, the most belligerent aspects of Russian society have, for years, been directed towards Ukraine. “The battle for post-Soviet space is the battle for Kiev,” wrote influential ultra-nationalist Aleksandr Dugin in 2014. If, as late as 2008, Putin said, “Russia has long recognized the borders of modern-day Ukraine,” by 2014 he had changed his mind, arguing that “[Ukraine and Russia] are one people … Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other.” It’s that paternalistic, mystical language—the language of “unity”—that Ukrainians have learned to be most wary of. Since 2014, and particularly 2022, the Ukrainian position has hardened into the obverse of Putin’s—emphasizing defiance and radical separation. “Cold, hunger, darkness and thirst are not as scary and deadly for us as your ‘friendship and brotherhood,’” said Zelensky in a speech in September. It’s a not unreasonable position for Ukrainians to adopt during wartime.
But even in the middle of war it is important to remember what the purpose of the fight is. In the case of the Russia-Ukraine war, it really is about values. Russia invaded with an essentialized idea of Ukrainians—the “Ukrainians have become Nazis” myth. It’s vital to avoid essentializing in turn. National mindsets do change. Ukraine has shifted to a dramatically different politics over the past 30 years, as has Russia over the course of Putin’s regime. To avoid getting into a totalizing mindset of our own, we really do need to be capable of making distinctions: Of recognizing the very real courage of Russian dissidents; of pinning accountability for the war on the regime and on the sensibility that supports the regime but not on some abstract category like “Russianness”; and of knowing that war is not the only reality, that it is possible to envision life beyond it.
Sam Kahn is an associate editor at Persuasion and writes the Substack Castalia.
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