Let Daniil Medvedev think what he wants about Putin

17 March 2022

12:06 AM

17 March 2022

12:06 AM

So now you have to undergo a political purity test to play at Wimbledon? Judging from the pressure being put on Daniil Medvedev, that seems to be the case. Medvedev might have to publicly denounce Vladimir Putin in order to enjoy the privilege of competing at Wimbledon this year. As a headline in the Times puts it: ‘Russia’s Daniil Medvedev faces Wimbledon ban unless he disavows Putin.’

This is chilling, no? It is compelled speech. It is a form of moral coercion – ‘Publicly make the following statement or else we will prevent you from working’. This is not how Britain should behave. Pressuring public figures – or anyone, for that matter – to make a political statement, to engage in a public act of denunciation, is better suited to authoritarian regimes than to a nation like ours that fancies itself as free and liberal.

According to reports, the sports minister Nigel Huddleston is in talks with the All-England Lawn Tennis Club about how to deal with Russian players at Wimbledon. They won’t be allowed to wear or wave the Russian flag, which is fine by me. But we might need to ‘go beyond that’, Huddleston said yesterday. We might also need to get ‘some assurance’ from players that they are ‘not supporters of Vladimir Putin’. Right now, he says, ‘we are considering what requirements we may need to get assurances along those lines’.

I find this disturbing. If the All-England Lawn Tennis Club wants to prohibit public expressions of support for Russia during Wimbledon, that’s its business. Knock yourself out. But the idea that we need ‘assurances’ that internally, in their hearts and minds, Russian players do not feel any sympathy or support for Putin – that’s not on. That is a call to police thought, to peer into players’ souls in search of foul and unacceptable beliefs. This is a step too far, Mr Huddleston.

Much of the media has cottoned on to what Huddleston really means when he uses the seemingly nice, neutral word ‘assurances’. He means the likes of Medvedev could face a ‘Wimbledon ban’ unless they provide ‘Russia assurances’, the Express says – that is, unless they provide proof of internal correct thinking on the Ukraine war. ‘Russian world No. 1 tennis star faces Wimbledon ban unless he denounces the Ukraine war’, the I newspaper says. That is, if Mr Medvedev fails this political purity test, fails this examination of the contents of his heart, he’ll be cast out.

To be clear, I would be as bamboozled as the next right-thinking person to hear anybody express support for Putin’s barbaric war against Ukraine. (We have no idea, of course, whether Mr Medvedev supports the war.) But I also believe that freedom of conscience is important. That people should be allowed to hold views that the rest of us think are wrong or wicked. That people should not be punished for what they feel or believe.

Pressuring people to give a public ‘assurance’ that they do not hold certain views smacks, ironically, of Stalinist compulsion. It’s like a reverse loyalty oath. Where people in Russia are being pressured by tyrannical new laws essentially to swear allegiance to Putin and his grotesque war, Russians in the UK face being cajoled to swear disloyalty, to publicly decry Putin. Call me old-fashioned, but surely we shouldn’t force anyone to express certain ideas? Let people think what they think.

Where will this end? Should all Russians in the UK be cornered and asked about their views on Ukraine? If we have Russian-origin people in our workplaces, should we haul them before HR and demand they denounce Putin, on pain of losing their jobs if they fail to do so? You don’t have to be one of those woke muppets who sees racism everywhere to worry about the consequences of this moral crusade to expel the evil thoughts from Russian people’s minds.

We’re seeing the consequences already, in fact. Russians are being shamed and cancelled for failing to denounce Putin. The Munich Philharmonic Orchestra dropped the world-class conductor Valery Gergiev when he refused to decry Putin’s warmongering. But then, even Russians who do denounce Putin face expulsion from polite society. The pianist Alexander Malofeev has been ditched from performances, despite expressing opposition to Putin’s war. The Glasgow Film Festival cancelled the screening of a movie by Lado Kvataniya, who has also denounced the war. What crime have these individuals committed? Being Russian? This is getting really dodgy.

It is a moral imperative that we oppose Putin’s war of aggression. And we should give our fullest support to Ukraine’s brave resistance fighters. But surely we can do all that without succumbing to Russophobia? Without engaging in anti-Russian jingoism? Putin is not Russia. Treating Russians as if they were collectively responsible for Putin’s crimes is wrong and immoral. Let’s oppose Putin’s onslaught on freedom in Ukraine while continuing to uphold freedom in our own society.

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