American Cancel Culture, Round Two: The Russian Samovar
On April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his now famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech before the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam at the Riverside Church in New York City. One of the key takeaways for me from that speech was the way Dr. King articulated the uncertainty that comes with choosing to speak out against the policies of one’s government, and the agonizing costs associated with opting to do so.
“Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth,” Dr. King said, “men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.”
The process of “moving on,” however, comes at a price. “Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night,” Dr. King noted, “have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”
I do not, by any stretch of the imagination, claim to be on the same playing field with Dr. King and the agonizing price he paid for daring to oppose the US government on Vietnam—exactly one year to the day that he delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” address, Dr. King was killed by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee.
But there is a price to be paid for speaking out against US government policy. I learned that lesson the hard way when I took on the US government over weapons of mass destruction and the manufactured case for war with Iraq.
And I’m relearning that lesson today.
Scott will discuss this article and answer audience questions on Episode 36 of Ask the Inspector.
On January 6, I participated in a panel on Ukraine together with Dan Kovalik, which was hosted by Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace. The event went well, despite the presence of some pro-Ukrainian individuals who sought to disrupt it through interruptions and intimidation.
The interruptions failed—something I wrote about in an earlier Substack article.
It took me a few days to realize that the process of intimidation was only just beginning.
On Monday, January 9, I received notification from the Nomination Committee of the Serena Shim Award for Uncompromised Integrity in Journalism that I was the recipient of this prestigious award. This was a big deal—I was in the company of contemporary giants like Julian Assange, Jimmy Dore, Max Blumenthal, Eva Bartlett, Vanessa Beeley, Richard Medhurst, Gareth Porter, Caitlin Johnstone, Aaron Maté, Kim Iverson, Alastair Crooke, Anya Parampil, Dan Cohen, Danny Haiphong, Dan Kovalik, and many other notable independent journalists.
It was quite an honor to be included in such company.
On Tuesday, I received the news that my Twitter ban, which had been in place since April of last year for the sin of posting a Tweet that challenged the western narrative regarding the massacre in Bucha, Ukraine, in early April 2022, had been lifted.
The bird, it seemed, was indeed free; @RealScottRitter was back in business.
Almost immediately upon announcing my return to Twitter, however, I found my every tweet, re-tweet, and reply swarmed by accounts affiliated with the North American Fellas Organization, or NAFO, a loose affiliation of self-proclaimed “shit posters” the ranks of which include former Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, and whose sole mission it is to harass anyone who expresses an opinion that seems sympathetic to the Russian stance on Ukraine.
I was on Twitter less than 24 hours when, out of the blue, I was once again banned, with no reason cited except some vague mention that I had somehow violated Twitter rules against harassment. This was ironic, given the inordinate amount of harassment I was receiving at the hands of NAFO. Breaking with past practice, the Twitter management did not cite a specific offending tweet—they just up and permanently banned me.
To say that this was frustrating would be an understatement. In less than 24 hours, I had watched my Twitter “followers” grow from 82 thousand to more than 90 thousand. Since I had started publishing on my Substack page, Scott RitterExtra.com, I had been denied access to my Twitter following, and the potential that existed amongst their numbers for new subscribers, paid or otherwise. Now, with my followers accessible and growing by leaps and bounds, there was a real potential to monetize my writing efforts, something that, as a writer who likes to keep on writing, is an important detail.
Then, without reason—“poof!” My Twitter account was gone, and with it the potential for generating additional writing-based income.
Since there was no offending tweet identified, I was left trying to reverse engineer my brief Twitter revival for evidence that could point to a possible reason for the ban. All I could come up with was NAFO. I had posted the news about being given the Serena Shim Award for Uncompromised Integrity in Journalism on my Twitter account, and for every positive reply (there were many), I was greeted by a literal swarm of Shiba Inu adorned accounts, the tell-tale sign of the NAFO movement, who attacked and belittled me.
Now, I don’t lose any sleep over any insult hurled my way by any individual who hides behind a Shiba Inu meme. The problem, however, was that in addition to harassing me directly, the NAFO swarm flooded Twitter with complaints which, while lacking in any substance, most likely succeeded in triggering an automated banning mechanism within the algorithm used by Twitter to track this sort of thing.
This was the Twitter version of “swatting,” where individuals place hoax calls to 9-1-1 to draw a response from law enforcement, usually a SWAT team, at the home of someone they are targeting for harassment.
And the potential uptick in Substack subscriptions wasn’t the only casualty.
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Back in October of last year, I did a book event at Farmers & Chefs, a fantastic farm-to-table restaurant located in Poughkeepsie, New York. The event, the brainchild of owner John Lekic, was a tremendous success, drawing in a crowd of some 70 persons, each of whom bought a ticket which gave them dinner, a copy of my latest book, Disarmament in the Time of Perestroika, and a talk and Q&A with the author—me.
The concept worked so well that I thought I would try and replicate it by approaching The Russian Samovar, an established restaurant in New York City that my family and I had frequented during my time at the United Nations and which, once I moved upstate, we endeavored to visit whenever we visited the Big Apple. We were on good terms with the owner, Roman Kaplan, who always greeted us in person, making sure my daughters got a free dessert with their meal.
I thought that the Russian Samovar would be a perfect venue for a dinner-based book event and reached out to them with a proposal. After all, as the New York Times noted in its obituary for Mr. Kaplan, who passed in December 2021, “Mr. Kaplan arranged for regular readings both by other Russian exiles and young American writers. Most were held upstairs, in a room co-designed by Lev Zbarsky, son of Lenin’s chief embalmer. ‘A real literary salon,’ Michael Idov called the Samovar in Snob, a Russian-language magazine, in 2009.”
I simply wanted to continue the tradition.
A week or so later, I was contacted by Vlada Von Shats, the stepdaughter of Roman Kaplan. We talked, and she immediately warmed to the idea. She only had one reservation—that the talk be singularly focused on the issue of disarmament and my book.
Since the Russian-Ukrainian conflict began, the Russian Samovar had come under incessant attack from pro-Ukrainian activists. As Vlada recounted to a reporter recently, “we’ve seen so much anger directed toward our restaurant and workers simply because we have ‘Russian’ in the name. We were called fascists and Nazis on the phone. We’ve had hate emails. People have been leaving one-star reviews online saying things like ‘stop the war.’ Business is down 60% since Russia invaded Ukraine. Our staff,” Vlada concluded, “asked me to hire security because they don’t feel comfortable being here with all of this going on right now.”
Vlada did what she needed to do to survive. When one logs into the restaurant website, they will be greeted by a page proclaiming “Stand with Ukraine.” Similarly themed posters adorn the doors leading into the restaurant.
I promised her that I would do exactly what I did in Poughkeepsie—deliver a talk that exclusively focused on my book and the issue of disarmament. We booked the event for January 15, 2023.
Things were going well; on January 7, Vlada informed me that she had sold 36 tickets. Randy Credico, a radio talk show host with WBAI, was going to have me on the show Friday, January 13, to further promote it. Katrina vanden Heuvel, the publisher of The Nation magazine, was going to push attendance as well. And then, on January 9, I got my Twitter account back. One of my first tweets promoted the event at the Russian Samovar.
Then, just before noon on January 10, Vlada sent me an email. “Dear Mr. Ritter,” she wrote, “Unfortunately, I need to cancel the event on 1/15/23. I have been flooded with negative emails and phone calls after one of your recent speaking engagements. I have been fighting hard to keep the restaurant out of politics after the invasion. It was not easy with the word ‘Russian’ in the name. I am sure you understand.”
The event Vlada referenced was the January 6 event at the Bethlehem Public library.
I immediately fired off an email in response. “Vlada,” I wrote, “This is truly unfortunate. We had agreed that the topic would be limited to arms control. Moreover, the event you speak of has received significant coverage--over 120,000 people have watched the video, and more than 3,000 comments were made--all positive. But this is beside the point. The topic was my book, and the issue of disarmament. I’m very disappointed that you have decided to cancel the event. Free speech,” I concluded, “cannot survive in an environment where people refuse to stand up and defend it.”
My email did not move Vlada; by the end of the day, the Russian Samovar website had replaced the entry advertising the January 15 event with a notice of cancellation. “After Mr. Ritter’s recent comments about Ukraine,” the web page read, “this event has been cancelled.”
As disappointed as I am over the cancellation, I hold no hard feelings toward Vlada. The Russian Samovar Restaurant is a part of my family’s history—too many quality evenings were spent in the company of Roman Kaplan to allow this unfortunate turn of events to ruin my relationship with either the restaurant or Vlada Von Shats, the present owner. The next time my family and I are in New York City, a visit to the Russan Samovar is all but guaranteed. And I will continue to speak well of the establishment to anyone planning to visit Manhattan. It has been, is, and hopefully will forever be, a New York City landmark.
My problem isn’t with Vlada. Rather it is with those persons who harassed her because of the remarks I made on January 6. First and foremost, I stand by every word I said. My facts were accurate, and my analysis solid.
But even more importantly, I had every right to say what I said. Free speech isn’t some abstract concept, but the very essence of who we are as Americans. It is the DNA of American democracy, the building block of a nation which draws its strength from a citizenry empowered by the debate, discussion, and dialogue which is engendered by free speech.
While those who harassed Vlada Von Shats did so ostensibly in support of the Ukrainian cause, their actions took place on American soil, making their efforts to suppress free speech inherently un-American.
Moreover, the event they conspired to cancel wasn’t about Ukraine, but rather nuclear disarmament and the importance of learning more about how the US and Soviet Union overcame decades of mistrust and ill-will by crafting an arms control agreement, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, that not only helped secure Europe and the world from the threat of imminent nuclear conflict, but also provided a template for conflict resolution which could be used to help bridge the gap that currently exists between the US and Russia.
I couldn’t think of a more relevant and critical discussion to be having today than how we can get the US and Russia to sit down and rebuild a relationship based upon peace and disarmament.
But the anti-Russian, pro-Ukrainian crowd isn’t interested in peace, or any effort to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict between the US and Russia.
They don’t believe in debate, dialogue or discussion.
They don’t believe in free speech.
They are inherently un-American.
What they do believe in is the politics of personal destruction, and the implementation of cancel culture on steroids.
Between NAFO and the pro-Ukrainian crowd, I lost my Twitter account and a book event. I lost access to more than 90,000 followers and am sitting on scores of books that otherwise would have been sold. The potential economic harm that has been accrued by these actions is significant, amounting to thousands of dollars.
But this “victory” on the part of the anti-Ritter crowd is illusory. My Twitter account may be down, but my Telegram account remains alive and well, full of well-meaning supporters. And, thanks to Randy Credico, a replacement venue was found for The Russian Samovar, and on Sunday I will have the opportunity to speak before a gathering of persons, many of whom had signed up for the Russian Samovar event. Send me an email for details.
Cancel culture is not the tool of a movement comfortable with its cause. It is just the opposite, an act of desperation by those who know that if their cause was subjected to the scrutiny that comes with vigorous debate, discussion, and dialogue, it would be found wanting.
The pro-Ukrainian cause is wanting.
It is underpinned by the odious ideology of Ukrainian ultranationalism as defined by Stepan Bandera, one of history’s most vile humans, and implemented by his ideological progeny in Ukraine today.
It is a cult of death, where Ukrainian nationalists are willing to sacrifice the genetic wealth of their nation, along with its territory, in support of a Wagnerian tragedy thematic that ostensibly seeks redemption through sacrifice but generates nothing but death and destruction.
It is a losing cause.
It is a lost cause.
Pressuring Vlada Von Shats to cancel my book event did nothing to further the Ukrainian cause. All it did is further damage the bottom line of a business already struggling due to the cancel culture tactics of the pro-Ukrainian activists.
One day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict will end. The biggest casualty of this conflict will be Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. Hundreds of thousands will have died, tens of millions more lost their homes and livelihood, and the physical expanse of the nation will have been significantly diminished.
In short, Ukraine will have been destroyed as a modern nation state.
The only ones to blame for this tragic result are the Ukrainian people themselves, including the pro-Ukrainian activists behind Vlada Von Shats’ decision to cancel my book event.
There is nothing I can do for the people of Ukraine—they made their bed, and now they must sleep in it.
What I can say is this: Vlada Von Shats and the Russian Samovar are victims of this cancel culture, and the suicidal tactics employed by the pro-Ukrainian activist community.
In the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, it is my fervent hope that the Russian Samovar survives, and indeed thrives, despite the strains placed on it by the current political situation.
Vlada Von Shats and her dedicated staff deserve nothing less.
So, too, does the memory of Roman Kaplan. I know I will continue to visit the Russian Samovar going forward, and I would encourage anyone visiting New York City to do the same thing. Don’t let cancel culture wrack up another victim. Prove that the politics of hate that define the pro-Ukrainian cancel culture movement won’t succeed.
Some day the Russian-Ukraine conflict will end.
Let’s make sure that when that time comes, Roman Kaplan’s sanctuary still exists.
I’ll let Vlada Von Shats have the final word:
“From the time our doors first opened,” Vlada told a journalist in 2022, “my mother and Roman made sure the restaurant was a hub, a community, and most importantly, a safe haven for all the dissidents and everybody who left or was exiled from Russia…[y]ou might have walked through our doors a stranger,” she added, “but my stepfather would feed you, and you'd leave a few hours later with lifelong friends. We never cared if you were Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, or Belarusian.”