Drawing the Line — The Harmful Reality of Scapegoating the Civilian

Polis: Center for Politics
5 min readDec 12, 2022

Rebecca Zeltsman (PPS ’24)

Rebecca Zeltsman (PPS ‘24)
Rebecca Zeltsman (PPS ’24)

The western world’s alienation of civilians of Russian origin will leave long-lasting effects that are incredibly harmful to individual well-being. Vladimir Putin’s ruthless invasion of Ukraine has unmistakably sparked worldwide fear of one of the most colossal humanitarian violations of our lifetime. Russia has acted barbarically and inflicted brutal force on Ukrainian civilians and cities. However, Russian-Americans that have established businesses in the U.S or athletes of Russian descent qualified to run in marathons now being stripped of their careers due to their background is far from justifiable.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a surge in Russians immigrating to the U.S in pursuit of better opportunities, a democratic government, and a more prosperous future. These Russian-Americans fled their homes to become doctors, politicians, and business owners, yet are now the same individuals being ridiculed for their backgrounds. Ike and Yulia Gazaryan are the owners of the Russia House Bar in Washington D.C and have been forced to close their doors after a series of threatening phone calls and acts of vandalism. The Gazaryans have donated to Ukrainian charities, provided relief for Ukrainian employees, and outwardly condemn Russia’s actions. The Russia House Bar is not a landmark that warrants a sanction, rather, it is a signal of hope that a Russian-owned establishment stands so bravely with Ukraine.

Earlier this week, the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) decided to prohibit runners from Russia and Belarus from competing in the Boston Marathon. It is honorable that the BAA has taken such an active stance in support of Ukraine, however, they are crossing the line by ostracizing innocent and qualified athletes. If the BAA feels inclined to respond to political issues, then why do so at the expense of runners rather than providing tangible resources to Ukraine directly? It’s incredibly important for organizations worldwide to stand for justice but not in a way that produces byproducts of injustice.

Representatives such as Eric Swalwell (CA) and Ruben Gallego (AZ) have even floated proposals of expelling Russian students studying abroad in the United States back to their homes. Despite pushback from other policymakers, supporters urge that this proposal is a means to an end to isolating Putin and increasing unrest in Russia. This ineffective policy reflects a history of heightened xenophobia in the United States in times of war. In dealing with an authoritarian and nationalist regime, policymakers must be extremely aware of the U.S’s role as the leading democracy and act accordingly.

The use of global sanctions on Russian businesses and oligarchs is undoubtedly essential to halt Putin’s advances. Although these instructions or high-profile officials may not be leading the charge into Ukraine, their financial support and status pose a justifiable fear. However, these sanctions are only effective if properly targeted. It is a moral simplification to eliminate any remnants of Russian culture in the Western world. Instead, we should enable Russian civilians in the United States to take advantage of their freedom of speech (that Russia has stripped of its own citizens) and continue standing up for Ukraine.

Oftentimes, instances of xenophobia arise from a lack of education or misguided attempts at activism. Whether it was rampant Islamophobia after 9/11 or hate crimes against Asian- American during the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a clear pattern of misplaced frustration in times of fear. It is time for policymakers to outwardly condemn such acts of xenophobia and instead provide guidelines for healthy activism through non-profit organizations or relief groups. If legislators are more transparent about the needs of the war effort and how to best contribute, individuals can act with greater intention and efficiency. Educational institutions should also teach students of all ages about the harmful effects of stereotyping entire groups based on acts of extremism. The United States is the refuge for free speech and diverse cultures, which we must protect at all costs.

Just over 30 years ago, Russians and Ukrainians were living under the same governments, households, and workplaces. The atrocities being committed against Ukraine are unforgivable, but we can’t forget that in most of the world, Russians and Ukrainians still live under one government. My parents fled Russia in 1990 as religious refugees in pursuit of a better life. They have raised a family here, practiced medicine here, and rooted their lives here. They have outwardly condemned Putin and donated to Ukrainian relief. It frightens me that their thick Russian accents can immediately dismiss the former.

Rebecca Zeltsman (PPS ’24) is a Public Policy Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ’22 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.


Anderson, Stuart. “Critics Reject Rep. Swalwell’s Idea to Expel All Russian Students.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, April 14, 2022. https://www.forbes.com/sites/stuartanderson/2022/02/27/critics-reject-rep-swalwells-idea-to-expel-all-russian-students/?sh=2633c4c76527.

Anderson, Stuart. “Critics Reject Rep. Swalwell’s Idea to Expel All Russian Students.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, April 14, 2022. https://www.forbes.com/sites/stuartanderson/2022/02/27/critics-reject-rep-swalwells-idea-to-expel-all-russian-students/?sh=2633c4c76527.

Beland, Amanda. “Runners React to Boston Marathon Ban on Russian and Belarusian Athletes.” WBUR News. WBUR, April 11, 2022. https://www.wbur.org/news/2022/04/11/boston-marathon-russia-ukraine-reactions.

Graham, Renée. “This Is Putin’s War. Anti-Russian Xenophobia Won’t Save Ukraine. — The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com. The Boston Globe, March 8, 2022. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2022/03/08/opinion/this-is-putins-war-anti-russian-xenophobia-wont-save-ukraine/.

Jones, Sarah. “Xenophobia Is the Wrong Response to Russia.” Intelligencer. Intelligencer, February 28, 2022. https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2022/02/russian-students-in-u-s-shouldnt-be-expelled-over-ukraine.html.

Law, Tara. “Ukraine Crisis Spurs Anti-Russian Hate around the World.” Time. Time, March 10, 2022. https://time.com/6156582/ukraine-anti-russian-hate/.

Pérez-peña, Richard. “The Boston Marathon Has Barred Runners from Russia and Belarus.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 6, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/06/world/europe/boston-marathon-russia-belarus.html?searchResultPosition=7.

Resnick, Brian. “After a Terrorist Attack, We Grow Fearful. Here’s What That Does to Our Brains.” Vox. Vox, September 10, 2016. https://www.vox.com/2016/9/10/12861036/terrorist-psychology-fear-9-11-anniversary.

Stephens, Bret. “The Boston Marathon’s Brainless Bigotry.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 10, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/10/opinion/boston-marathon-russia-ukraine.html.

Yancey, Janine. “Anti-Russia Sentiment Is Fueling Harassment, Bias and Workplace Conflict: 4 Ways to De-Escalate Team Tension and Save Your Company Culture.” Entrepreneur. Entrepreneur, March 30, 2022. https://www.entrepreneur