Editor’s Note: Eliot Borenstein (@eliotb2002) is professor of Russian and Slavic studies at New York University. He is the author of “Plots Against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy After Socialism” and “Meanwhile, in Russia …: Russian Internet Memes and Viral Video.” Read more of his work on eliotborenstein.net. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
Why has Russian President Vladimir Putin taken time from bombing Ukrainian civilians and arresting dissident Muscovite grandmas to liken himself to British author J.K. Rowling? On Friday, in yet another grievance-filled video address, Putin decried the “cancellation” of Russia, comparing the stigmatization of his country to the widespread condemnation of the Harry Potter author’s views on transgender women.
Putin miscalculated in his invasion of Ukraine, and apparently expected that Russian troops would be greeted warmly. Did he really think Rowling was going to welcome the support of a man who looks more and more like Voldemort with each passing day?
The Harry Potter franchise is not as odd an addition to this international crisis as one might think. While in addition to showcasing the serious financial and personal hardships caused by sanctions against Russia, Western media have also repeatedly pointed out that these measures are depriving Russians of Netflix, Facebook and McDonald’s.
The successor to both the Russian and Soviet empires has long been typecast as the lair of epic fantasy villains. First, President Ronald Reagan called the USSR an “evil empire,” whose existential threat demanded the construction of the “Star Wars” missile defense system. Later, some of the eager Soviet readers who devoured bootleg translations of “The Lord of the Rings” became convinced that Mordor was a stand-in for the Soviet Union and that the Orcs were a caricature of the Russian people.
By the time Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, Ukrainians on the Internet routinely denounced the “Orc invaders” dispatched by the Kremlin’s Dark Lord. It was only a matter of time before Dumbledore’s Army was drafted into ideological service.
Harry Potter has meant a lot to Russians over the years. The writer Dmitry Bykov’s many video lectures on everything from Harry Potter and the Cold War to Harry Potter and coronavirus continue to rack up views on multiple platforms. Harry Potter fan fiction thrives on the Russian internet, while Dmitry Yemets’ “Tanya Grotter” series, which unmistakably mirrors the plot of the “Potter” series, was slapped with a lawsuit when it dared to cross Russia’s borders in a Dutch translation.
More ominous (and hilarious) was Russian lawyers’ outrage that the physical portrayal of Dobby, the House Elf in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” was allegedly modeled on Putin
Social media and Internet memes have consistently transformed the warring leaders into caricatures of good and evil. Putin may well miss his elfhood days. But why bring in cancel culture?
For the same reason that motivates most of Putin’s actions: opportunism. The Russian state media have been mainlining American right-wing talking points for years now, even before they joined Tucker Carlson in a perfect feedback loop. Russian pundits love to warn of the dangers of political correctness, painting the US and Western Europe as a left-wing dystopian nightmare that encourages pedophilia and all but bans mothers and fathers. Russia, then, is the traditional family’s last, best hope.
For years, Putin has dismissed virtually any criticism of Russian policy as “Russophobia” – a blind, irrational hatred of Russia. The stories of Russian films and music being excluded or disinvited from performance schedules are a godsend for Russian propaganda.
These incidents are regrettable, but they are not surprising. Have we forgotten about the replacement of sauerkraut with “liberty cabbage” during World War I,or, for that matter, American Japanese internment camps? Despite what neocons might think, this is not woke culture run amok; it is the garden variety xenophobia that wars inevitably provoke.
Putin has hitched his “Russophobia” cart to the latest culture war wagon. No international sanctions can stop him from joining what “Cancel Me, Daddy” co-hosts Katelyn Burns and Oliver-Ashe Kleine call the “cancel culture grift economy.”
Typically, these grifters use claims of cancellation to give themselves a bigger platform, but such expansionism has, until now, fallen short of criminal invasion of their neighbors.
So where does J.K. Rowling fit into all of this? Rowling has gone from beloved children’s author to “gender critical feminist” (if you ask her supporters) or shameless transphobe (if you ask her critics). After years of pushing an agenda based on “traditional values,” Putin made the mistake of seeing Rowling as a fellow traveler, forgetting that so much of her fans’ disappointment is likely due to the fact that, on virtually every other culture war issue, Rowling has taken a progressive stance.
Rowling immediately struck back at Putin on Twitter, saying, “Critiques of Western cancel culture are possibly not best made by those currently slaughtering civilians for the crime of resistance, or who jail and poison their critics.”
Of course, she is right.
Putin really needs to quit while he’s ahead. The more speeches he gives, the more unhinged he sounds. Rowling, who is no stranger to controversy, provides a better model in her Harry Potter novels. Vladimir Vladimirovich, should pause before issuing his next public pronouncements. Hot media are not his friends.
Next time, maybe send an owl.