It's Ok To Be Russian

March 5th, 2022 | AR

One of my best friends is a Russian migrant to Canada. He came here with his wife over fifteen years ago to seek a better life and to start a family. He went through a lengthy and difficult process to be able to live and work in Canada, now he is becoming more wary about letting people hear his Russian accent at the grocery store. As Putin wages a full-scale invasion on Ukraine, he has found himself in the middle of anti-Russian jokes at work and in the middle of a growing collective animosity towards anything Russian. This isn't the Canada it was fifteen years ago.

With a major in history, I have had hours-long conversations with him about world politics and what could have, should have and did happen around the world. In his native Russia, things could have gone better. When the Soviet Union fell apart in his teens, there was hope that a new era of capitalism and liberty would take hold. There were those who wanted to return to the old ways and those who wanted freedom, but according to him, the Soviet Union never really fell—it merely changed its clothes.

That is why he left.

Had he not had a highly regarded education from one of Russia's top universities, he would have never made it into Canada. Had his wife not been similarly educated, he may have had to leave her behind or stay in Russia. The choice would have been heartbreaking either way. Although he has never been able to vote in Canada, he has been proud to call this country his home. With strong opinions about how certain parties have governed this country, he has managed to keep an optimistic outlook.

“I see the same kinds of cronyism as back home,” he tells me often. Without giving away what party he might be talking about, we can say that he and I share very similar political views. “It leads on the same path,” he always reminds me. “Make sure you vote today and think of me.”

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Because he is Russian, there is an assumption that he supports the invasion of Ukraine, or that he supports Putin. His co-workers have been more interested in his views lately, but not in the innocuously curious manner one would normally expect. “They seem cold, like they want to fight with me about something,” he says. They approach the subject as though there is only one correct answer and that his answers will probably be wrong, just like they expect them to be.

There is a lot Canadians simply do not understand about Russia and Ukraine. The media presents one side, without reflecting or educating Canadians on the history of it all. You can read a brief piece about what Ukraine really looks like here.

Canadians will use their predisposed views and misunderstandings about the Russo-Ukrainian war in conversations. They will repeat what they see in Canadian media, without really understanding the situation in its entirety. To anyone who understands it, this is frustrating. It becomes especially more frustrating when they presume that all Russians must, in some way or another, be the same as their president. Canadians who do this have no understanding of Russian culture, or the diversity of thought among all Russians.

When Russians living in Canada face animosity and calls to boycott Russian products, it becomes difficult for them to feel at home.

When Russian civilians are grounded in Yellowknife, simply for being Russian, it sends the same kind of message as the ones sent about Japanese Canadians during WWII. When Russians with no affiliation to Putin, or with no role in his war, are fined for being in Canada's airspace, hostility toward Russians is not only promoted, but legally enforced. Russian explorer, Vasily Elagin, was one of the passengers grounded, held and fined thousands of dollars in Yellowknife. He and Russian billionaire, Vasily Shakhnovsky, were on an Arctic Expedition when their plane was grounded.

Shakhnovsky was forced to pay millions after an investigation by Putin's government in 2004. His crime? Working for a company headed by a political exile named Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who helped fund opposition parties opposed to Putin.

Elagin is a renowned geologist and mountaineer.

Had the plane that was grounded in Yellowknife been carrying associates of Putin, or delegates of the Russian government, it would have made sense. Instead, the plane happened to be carrying two private citizens interested in going on an Arctic expedition. One would think they would have been released upon presenting identification and proving they had no links to Putin, but that's not what happened. The pair and pilots were fined a total of $20,000 after being held like prisoners for more than 24 hours.

Canada's government and Canadians have accepted the outright discrimination and literal persecution of Russians. We can't help but ponder what implications this might have for Canadians abroad and Canadians who may be visiting Russia. If holding political prisoners based on their nationality is what we are doing, we should expect our enemies to respond accordingly. If punishing people for being Russian is the new normal in Canada, this country is unrecognizable.

When Russian alcohol is banned from store shelves, it becomes increasingly difficult for Russo-Canadians to not take it personally. When a Toronto tea room with a Russian name is forced to go on the defensive and when a Russian cultural centre is vandalized, we cease to be a civilized country. When a Quebec diner disbands the word poutine for its resemblance to Putin, we tread closer to the borders of absurdity. When Russian names and products come under fire and guilt by association becomes normal, we cannot continue to call ourselves an inclusive country. All of these things are happening in Canada and not one of them is forgivable.

"The media presents one side, without reflecting or educating Canadians on the history of it all."

The Canada we thought we knew has devolved into what many would refrain from calling “strong and free”.

In a couple of short years, we have gone from a country that respects free assembly, free association and multi-culturalism to a country that freezes the bank accounts of political opponents, uses violence to suppress political dissent, publicly discriminates against certain nationalities and promotes the punishment of private citizens from countries we are at war with. A few years ago, this would have been unthinkable in Canada.

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