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The Rise Of Anti-Russian Sentiment Proves We Haven’t Learned From The Darkest Mistakes In American History

By Meghan Dillon··  8 min read
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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is currently dominating all of American media, and it’s nearly impossible to watch it and not get upset.

To say what is happening in Ukraine is devastating would be an understatement. Roughly 3.6 million Ukrainians have left their home country to find safety, and millions more have been displaced due to the war. When you look at the history of the conflict, it’s clear that this invasion is the result of Putin’s desire to recreate the Soviet Union, and he’s lying to his own people to justify his actions.

Americans have a good reason to be angry about what is happening in Ukraine. Unfortunately, much of this anger has been directed at Russian-Americans, leading to a spike in anti-Russian sentiment. This is problematic for several reasons, one of the most significant being that this same type of thinking resulted in some of the darkest chapters of American history.

Xenophobia Is Common during War, Even in the U.S.

Believe it or not, this has happened before. Anti-German sentiment was on the rise during World War I, anti-Japanese sentiment occurred during World War II, and Islamophobia spiked after 9/11. When the government or an extremist group of another country or culture commits horrendous acts, Americans tend to demonize the entire country or culture, instead of the person or group actually responsible.

Even before the United States entered World War I in 1917, anti-German sentiment was popular in America. It was similar to anti-Italian sentiment and anti-Irish sentiment, for there was severe prejudice against people who immigrated from Europe in the early 1900s, but anti-German sentiment got worse when the United States entered World War I. This led to many towns changing their German names, German music (including Beethoven) was banned in some schools, breaking beer steins to discourage drinking German beer occurred, and one Ohio town even killed all the dogs of German breeds. In 

In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson mandated that any unnaturalized German living in America register as an “enemy alien.” Over 520,000 people were documented and interrogated about their loyalty to the U.S. Internment camps were prepared in Utah, George, and North Carolina to imprison any “security threats.”

Then, when the United States joined World War II in 1941 after the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor, there was a surge in prejudice and suspicion against Japanese-Americans. This led to horrific acts like the Japanese Internment Camps: 120,000 Japanese-Americans were forced out of their homes and sent to 10 permanent internment camps in isolated locations throughout Western America – even though about 60% were native-born American citizens. They lived in small, one-room apartments, and compounds were surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers.

120,000 Japanese-Americans were forced out of their homes and sent to permanent internment camps.

Only 35% of the American population thought Japanese-Americans should be permitted to return home after the war ended. Those forced into internment camps were not released until December 1944.

After 9/11, Islamophobia surged, and it has yet to fully calm down. Two decades after the tragedy, Muslim-Americans are still facing the ramifications. Harvard professor Ali Asani told The Harvard Gazette, “Both their identities were challenged: their American identity and their Muslim identity.”

Asani continued, “I don’t think the country has recovered from making Muslims feel like the other or the enemy, or that Muslims have recovered from the suffering they had to endure after 9/11 because they always have to prove their loyalty to the United States.”

While some of these horrific chapters in American history were triggered by attacks on American soil, you’d think Americans would’ve learned from them by now. And yet, the fall into the fallacy of thinking anyone with the same ethnic background shares the same guilt is happening again, this time to Russian-Americans after Russia invaded Ukraine. 

Anti-Russian Sentiment Is on the Rise in the United States

Renee Graham of The Boston Globe writes, “In America, some restaurants, bookstores, and other businesses that reference Russia or sell Russian products are being targeted. Daniel Mataiev, manager of Cafe St. Petersburg in Newton, recently told the Globe that his Ukrainian and Russian employees do not support the war, yet some teenagers recently called his restaurant and said ‘awful things’ about Russians.”

Russian restaurants seem to be the main target of anti-Russian sentiment in America. The Russian House Restaurant in Washington D.C. was vandalized. Members of a Russian student group believe the vandalism was motivated by hate. Even though they weren’t “surprised” by it, they believed it was a stupid gesture. One student said, “Russian-Americans who are living here, they have no connection to [Russia’s invasion of Ukraine], they have no responsibility to it, and it’s unfair to take out any frustration or anger that people have about the situation.”

Despite publicly declaring their support for Ukraine and denouncing Putin’s invasion, Russian Tea Time, a famous Russian and Eastern European restaurant in Chicago, has seen an increase of negative and threatening reviews online (one said “Death to Russia”) and received threatening phone calls. One employee answered the phone to remind the angry caller that he was Ukrainian, like other many employees of the restaurant.

Similarly, Pushkin Russian Restaurant in San Diego has publicly declared its support for Ukraine and has several Ukrainian employees, but that hasn’t stopped hateful and threatening messages. Pushkin Russian Restaurant owner Ike Gazaryan (who is Armenian, not Russian) told CBS News, "Someone said they would come by and blow up the restaurant, and this was gonna be payback for what Russians are doing in Ukraine." 

"Someone said they would come by and blow up the restaurant, and this was gonna be payback for what Russians are doing in Ukraine." 

Unfortunately, anti-Russian sentiment has gone beyond targeting Russian-American businesses and has infected members of Congress. California Representative Eric Swalwell suggested kicking Russian students out of the United States. During an appearance on CNN Newsroom, he said, "Frankly, I think closing their embassy in the United States, kicking every Russian student out of the United States…should…be on the table…Vladimir Putin needs to know every day that he is in Ukraine, there are more severe options that could come."

Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego agrees with Swalwell, tweeting, “We are not living in normal times. These Russian students are the sons and daughters of the richest Russians. A strong message can be sent by sending them home. The world is condemning Russia.”

Though there are rich Russian students in the United States, do they deserve to be punished for what is happening in their home country? It’s important to note that the idea of all Russian students in America being the children of Putin’s puppets (which appears to be what Rep. Gallego is implying) isn’t true. One  Russian student studying in the United States is Stanford student Daria Navalnaya. She’s the daughter of Russian opposition leader and activist Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned for speaking out against Putin (luckily, he survived). Navalnaya isn’t responsible for Putin’s actions, and I’d argue that sending Russian students back to Russia is pointless regarding Ukraine and could only make a bad situation worse. It would be a perfect way for Putin to frame Americans as anti-Russian, and is that something we want?

Anti-Russian Sentiment in America Doesn’t Actually Help Ukraine 

It’s important to learn history so we don’t repeat past mistakes, but we’re making the same mistake by demonizing all Russians for the actions of Putin and the Russian government. Unfortunately, this line of thinking falls into the same category as those who believe in racial supremacy, making our ability to learn from this mistake all the more troubling.

Nathan J. Robinson of Current Affairs writes, “It is critical not to see groups as monolithic, because it prevents us from making intelligent decisions about how to respond to the violence and stop it. When racists see people of a certain ethnic group committing a crime, they begin to suspect all members of that group of criminality, and therefore fail to examine the real question, which is why those committing the crimes are so unlike most other people in their group. In other words, racists fail to see that they should judge the accused person’s actions and not the accused’s membership in a particular religious, ethnic, or racial group, or assume that there is something inherently criminal about such a group.”

Judge the accused person’s actions and not the accused’s membership in a particular group.

The first step to combatting Anti-Russian sentiment is acknowledging what’s really going on: Putin and the Russian government not only invaded Ukraine, but they’re trying to erase Ukrainian history and identity (similar to what Stalin did during the Ukrainian Famine) to justify their horrific actions. It’s awful and one of the worst humanitarian crises we’ve seen in years, but blaming innocent Russian-Americans will only make things worse. The idea that America and the rest of the Western world hates Russians will only cause more division, misinformation, and violence. 

Americans who are disgusted by what’s happening in Ukraine shouldn’t blame innocent Russian-Americans, but redirect their attention and energy to help Ukrainian refugees. See if your community is doing something to help refugees, support businesses who are donating money to Ukraine, and look for reputable charities to donate to if you want to give your own money to help. Though I’d encourage anyone to research organizations before donating, reputable ones I’d recommend are UNICEF, The International Rescue Committee, and the American Red Cross.

Closing Thoughts

Anger towards Putin and the Russian government for invading Ukraine is valid, but it’s important to turn that anger into compassion for the Ukrainian people, instead of targeting innocent Russian-Americans.

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