AS war continues in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s murderous assault has been rightly condemned. But are some people in Britain now simply jumping unthinkingly on to an anti-Russian bandwagon?
With military action by the West ruled out, economic sanctions are an accepted strategy to increase pressure on the Kremlin dictator to think again. Likewise, the asset-freezing of multi-billionaire oligarchs, and the clearing of Russian goods from our supermarket shelves are legitimate weapons.
However, lower down the scale, there is a danger of descending into pettiness and vindictiveness, hitting the wrong targets, in the rush to display anti-Putin credentials.
On the cultural front, the Bolshoi Ballet’s run at the Royal Opera House has been called off, and Cardiff Philharmonic has cancelled an all-Tchaikovsky programme as ‘inappropriate at this time’.
Much more serious is the cruel reaction in Grappenhall, near my hometown of Warrington, where a language group which teaches children Russian was stopped from using the village school last weekend.
At first it appeared the move was made after Warrington Borough Council was lobbied by ‘furious residents’ angry at the Ukraine invasion. Now, however it is said there were ‘safety concerns’ after letters threatening staff and pupils were received.
For the past seven years, the Russian Language School Solnyshko (it means ‘sunshine’) has been hiring St Wilfrid’s C of E primary in Grappenhall on Saturday mornings to hold its classes.
One aim is to help youngsters who have relatives in Russia, Ukraine and other Russian-speaking countries to keep in touch with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.
As well as language lessons, dancing and history are featured. Solnyshko says it is non-profit and has no political affiliations – its goal is ‘the creation of a friendly Russian-speaking environment for children, helping them to learn the language, make friends and have fun’.
It is clearly no hotbed of potential Putin fifth-columnists. But last Saturday, the local paper, the Warrington Guardian , reported on its website that ‘furious residents’ had lobbied the council with their ‘concerns’ over the classes continuing.
The report did not say how many ‘furious residents’ were involved. But one unnamed protester apparently told the paper: ‘I am totally disgusted to see that the classes are continuing in spite of what is going on in Ukraine.
‘Putin is putting innocent Ukrainian people through what can only be described as a living hell. I would have thought Warrington Borough Council would have put a stop immediately to these Russian classes and instead should put a united front on.
‘This is a slap in the face to the Ukrainian people. I am sure there are a lot of local people who feel the same way.’
The Labour-controlled authority then reportedly stepped in and Solnyshko was stopped from using St Wilfrid’s, although the reasons for the action and the exact sequence of events were not immediately made publicly clear. Solnyshko staff were left dismayed and angry.
The Warrington Guardian reported a council spokesman as saying: ‘We have agreed that the group is to be cancelled in respect of the current distressing situation in Ukraine.
‘Our thoughts are with Ukraine and all those who have been displaced, are suffering, or have been injured or taken by the ongoing conflict.’
Solnyshko has condemned the war in Ukraine. It says it has no operational support from the Russian or British governments. ‘Our school’s goal is to build bridges between people and cultures with peace and friendship.
‘We bring together everyone who is interested in the Russian language and Russian-speaking cultures. We have students from England, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus and Bulgaria.
‘Ukraine and Russia have had a long history together, many families at the school have connections and family or friends in both countries, and we are all worried for them and the consequences that this conflict will bring, we are all grieving too as it affects all of us.
‘By removing our ability to meet within the school / educational environment, effectively you are splitting our community during a time of grief, angst and consolidated efforts to make things better.’
The claim by the anonymous ‘furious resident’ that a lot of other local people wanted the Russian classes stopped was comprehensively demolished by more than 60 readers’ comments on the initial Warrington Guardian story, all of which expressed outrage at the idea.
An online petition against the suspension of the class was then started and by Monday had garnered more than 2,600 signatures.
The same day, the council was reported as now saying that the decision to cancel the school session was because of safety concerns for pupils and teachers after St Wilfrid’s received aggressive letters in which threats were implied if the Russian classes were to continue.
‘The tone of these letters caused the school significant concern,’ said Councillor Sarah Hall, executive board member for children’s services. ‘Late on Friday, I understand a decision was taken by St Wilfrid’s in conjunction with council officers to ask the Russian school not to proceed for the following day.
‘The risks have now been properly assessed and steps have been taken to ensure the safety of pupils and teachers and therefore the classes will resume this week.’
I have no connection with Solnyshko or any other of the parties involved. But as a Warrington resident, I too bitterly resent this cowardly and bigoted attack on the language school.
This is a worrying example of blind prejudice – a refusal to see the difference between the Russian people and the deplorable actions of the Russian state. It is the equivalent of the idiots who at the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 stoned a dachshund because of its German origins and destroyed German-owned shops.
Whoever was behind this should think long and hard about what they are doing – because they’re acting no better than Vladimir Putin.