March 11, 2022 - 10:11am

Prague, Czech Republic

Soon after the war in Ukraine started, the Czech government stopped accepting visa applications from all Russian citizens. The move relegated Russians already living in the country to second-class status — many people who have lived in the Czech Republic for years can suddenly only measure their future with any certainty in a scale of months, until their current visa expires.

The visa ban set a precedent which private companies have been quick to follow. One of Prague’s largest real estate developers announced that it will no longer sell or rent properties to Russians. Some hotel chains have banned the provision of accommodation to anyone with a Russian or Belarusian passport. And Russian food stores — popular with Russians, Ukrainians and Czechs alike under normal circumstances — face bankruptcy as a result of customer boycotts.

Translated: ‘Russian food in Žižkov has redesigned its signboard and the Cyrillic alphabet has basically disappeared in the shop window. Insignificant detail at this time.’

In this environment, it’s hardly surprising that many Russians are already starting to question their future here. When your right to remain is far from certain and your access to basic services is restricted, who can blame them? Of course, the restriction of Russians’ basic rights is nothing compared to the pain and hardship inflicted by their country on Ukrainians, but we should not punish expat Russians as a response.

Indeed, a common rationalisation for discrimination against Russians claims exclusion from Western society will make Russia’s more worldly, well-educated middle classes lose patience with the Putin regime. Discrimination is justified as a tool of political pressure to bring about a change in the Russian mindset.

Yet this is a deeply problematic argument, as a small example may illustrate. Russian friends in Prague recently made me aware of an acquaintance who was refused some small goods ordered through a Czech e-shop unless they were willing to denounce, in writing, the actions of the Putin regime. The vendor no doubt felt a sense of self-righteousness in making such a demand. But for the Russian customer, born and raised in a country where political dissent carries significant risks (and where spreading information not to the Kremlin’s liking can now land you fifteen years in jail), putting such a statement down in writing is no small matter.

The story is similar with cultural figures, such as conductor Valery Gergiev and soprano Anna Netrebko, who face banishment from their work in the West over a refusal to denounce Putin. The choice presented here is, potentially, a choice between being on the right side of history and enjoying the freedom to return in safety to your homeland, family and friends. How many among us could be certain that faced with the same choice we would make the ‘right’ decision? Instead, in an environment where open hostility to Russia and its culture has become socially acceptable, an insular attitude is likely to become entrenched.

Asking Russians to choose the West over their homeland isn’t a political choice; it’s an emotional one, which few are likely to make.

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of