Why the Cultural Boycott of Russia Matters

Excluding Russia from the sports and art worlds over its war against Ukraine threatens Putin’s image in the way economic and political sanctions cannot.

A collage of Vladimir Putin, a soccer match, and a race car
Alexei Nikolsky / TASS / Getty; Eric Alonso / Getty; Robbie Jay Barratt / AMA / Getty; The Atlantic

Russia is isolated. In the week since Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of neighboring Ukraine, the country has been ostracized not just diplomatically (even by some of Moscow’s closest allies) and economically (international sanctions have made the ruble worth less than a penny), but culturally too.

Russia’s national and club soccer teams have been banned from international matches and tournaments, including the 2022 World Cup qualifiers. The International Olympic Committee, as well as several individual sports governing bodies, has followed suit. The Champions League Final, due to be played in St. Petersburg in May, has been moved to Paris, while the Formula 1 Grand Prix, set to take place in Sochi in September, has been scrapped. Beyond the world of sports, Russia has been disinvited from this year’s Eurovision Song Contest and won’t receive new film releases from Disney, Warner Bros., or Sony.

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 largest sporting and cultural arenas, these institutions are sending a clear—and, for Putin, potentially damaging—message: If Russia acts beyond the bounds of the rules-based international order in Ukraine, it will be treated as an outsider by the rest of the world.

While these kinds of cultural sanctions will have few tangible effects on Russia’s economy, they will have an impact on the Russian people, perhaps none more so than Putin himself. This, after all, is a president whose love of sports and competition is central to his carefully crafted macho-nationalist image—one that has been memorialized in memes of him playing ice hockey, wrestling, and riding horseback shirtless. By excluding Russia from these arenas, international organizations are not only denying Putin an important propaganda platform, but they are also undermining his image of strength. The decisions to strip him both of his titles as honorary president and ambassador of the International Judo Federation and of his honorary black belt in tae kwon do are particularly personal blows.

The irony is that the reason Putin cares so much about sports is also ostensibly the main reason he chose to invade Ukraine: to reassert Russia’s strength and status as a global power. For years, Russia has invested considerable time and money in ensuring that its national teams project greatness to the world, at times going beyond the rules to do so: The country’s years-long state-sponsored doping program, revelations of which resulted in its athletes having to forfeit dozens of Olympic medals, prevented Russia from formally participating in the past two Olympic Games. Still, Russian athletes were able to compete in the Games, under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee.

Now, because of Putin, Russian and Belarusian Olympians will be permitted to participate in the upcoming Winter Paralympics only as neutral athletes, and will not qualify for medals. Going forward, they may not be able to compete at all.

No one is under any illusions that the loss of the Olympics, Eurovision, or even his beloved judo is going to change Putin’s political calculus when it comes to Ukraine. The Russian president is far too deep into this crisis, and far too averse to defeat, to back down over matters as seemingly trivial as sports and art, especially when they are compared with Russia’s financial and military challenges.

But that doesn’t mean these kinds of cultural sanctions are completely ineffectual. Sports matter to Russia—so much so, in fact, that in 2010, when the country won its bid to host the 2018 World Cup, then–Prime Minister Putin spoke enthusiastically about the impact that soccer had had on his native Leningrad during the Second World War and how “it helped people to stand tall and survive.” Vera Tolz, a professor of Russian studies at the University of Manchester, in the United Kingdom, told me that the Kremlin is disproportionately sensitive when it comes to sports because they’re something that ordinary people care about. While Putin may be able to ignore being snubbed by highbrow cultural institutions such as the New York Metropolitan Opera and the Cannes Film Festival (Russian officials “believe that a lot of people within the cultural elite don’t like Putin, so he doesn’t like them in return,” Tolz said), the same is not true when it comes to Russian athletes being barred from the world’s major sporting arenas. “It’s around Russian successes in sport that Putin wants to project his power inward,” Tolz said. “That’s why he resorted to this incredible level of deception around doping—in order to ensure great successes of Russian sportsmen.”

So far, the cultural backlash fits neatly within the Kremlin’s overarching narrative that sanctions are proof of the West’s hatred not just of Putin and his oligarchs, but of the Russian people themselves. The longer the country’s cultural isolation persists, however, the more chance such measures have of breaking through the state’s narrative. If ordinary Russians can no longer enjoy many of the activities they love, including things as quotidian as watching their soccer teams play in international matches, seeing the latest films, and enjoying live concerts, their tolerance for their government’s isolationist policies will diminish. Several Russian sports stars, musicians, and other prominent figures have already voiced their opposition to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Giving Russia the prestige of hosting the World Cup or a Grand Prix or appearing at the Olympics does bestow a degree of respectability, which is not appropriate for its behavior before last week, let alone now,” James Nixey, the director of the Russia-Eurasia program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, told me. “Over time, Russians should be asking themselves: Why is it that their nation is being excommunicated from so many events which other countries, which don’t have perfect records themselves, are allowed to compete in?”