Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware of the increasingly hostile situation faced by gay men and women in Russia at the moment. It’s never been a good time to be an LGBT Russian, but since the recent passing of an anti-gay propaganda law things have only got worse. Stories of foreign nationals being arrested have already surfaced; and entrapment, torture and even murder are becoming commonplace. Those who do attempt to fight back are attacked in the street and the Russian police does nothing to intercede – often arresting the protesters, rather than their attackers.
Yet Russia is due to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, and corporate sponsors are meeting public outrage with a wall of stony silence. Reading such stories, I think we all feel helpless. We can’t even donate money to Russian LGBT organisations, because they’ll get fined for receiving it. So what can we do?
Dan Savage thinks he’s found the answer. This week, he urged LGBT Americans and their supporters to boycott Russian vodka, particularly Stoli, a hugely popular brand in America.
If you drink a Russian Vodka like Stoli, Russian Standard, or any of the other brands listed above, switch to another brand from another country, or even a local brand from a local distillery. Stoli is the iconic Russian Vodka and it’s returning to Russian ownership in 2014. Other brands like Russian Standard should also be boycotted. Do not drink Russian vodka. Do not buy Russian vodka. Ask your bartender at your favorite bar—gay or otherwise—to DUMP STOLI and DUMP RUSSIAN VODKA. [Emphasis original]
A number of American and British gay bars have already got behind the boycott, as well as thousands of individuals. Stoli has responded by publishing an open letter from the CEO condemning in the strongest terms the persecution of Russian LGBT people and reaffirming its own commitment to the LGBT community.
I want to stress that Stoli firmly opposes such attitude and actions. Indeed, as a company that encourages transparency and fairness, we are upset and angry. Stolichnaya Vodka has always been, and continues to be a fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community. We also thank the community for having adopted Stoli as their vodka of preference.
In the US, the brand’s commitment to the LGBT community has been ongoing for years. Among the best examples, I can cite the series produced by Stoli in 2006 called “Be Real: Stories from Queer America” which featured short documentaries on real life stories depicting the challenges and accomplishments of the LGBT community in the United States Stoli is very proud of its current exclusive national partnership with Gaycities.com and Queerty.com in search of the Most Original Stoli Guy. This is a fantastic program that started as a local initiative in Colorado and became a national platform. Previous national initiatives included serving as the official vodka of the Miami Gay Pride Week as well as ongoing events with focus on Pride month.
Queer Nation responded with a rebuttal via press release:
In the open letter, Mr. Mendeleev cited a few LGBT events where SPI promoted its Stolichnaya brand as evidence of the company’s support for our community. Mr. Mendeleev, marketing will not save LGBT lives… By its own admission, SPI Group operates in Russia and pays taxes to the Russian government. That money funds these continuing attacks on LGBT people and organizations in Russia. Queer Nation will continue its boycott of Stolichnaya and other Russian vodkas until this anti-gay law is repealed and the Russian government guarantees the safety of its LGBT citizens and foreign LGBT nationals in Russia.
I understand the drivers drawing people into this boycott. It’s a way of doing something to express our dismay and disgust with the political situation in Russia but regardless of where Stoli is actually made, the company is not an agent of the Russian government and given the history of routine tax avoidance perpetrated by western corporations, I’d take the strength of claims their tax rubles fund the government with a rather large pinch of salt. Maybe Stoli only cares about the queer community as long as we line their coffers (hello, they’re in business), but whatever the reason, they’re standing behind us. They have invested a wealth of money in the LGBT communities of America and elsewhere, and they are clearly and unequivocally demonstrating their continued commitment to us. Even more so if they are a Russian company, it was a bold move on the CEO’s part to openly criticise Putin’s regime. That might be a play to earn more American dollars (although so far, it isn’t helping much), but it’s going to have negative consequences for them elsewhere. There’s not many Russians criticise the government and get away with it, remember.
As foreigners, we lack the ability to change Russian policy from the outside, and the majority of Russian people appear to agree with their government. As I stated in an earlier post, What is happening right now in Russia illustrates perfectly that if a minority of a nation’s citizens are denigrated in law, aggression towards them grows. EU sanctions, if they are ever imposed, will probably be laughed off by Putin. All the leaders in the world can wring their hands over the conference table, he’s going to do whatever the hell he likes in his own country, and (for once) this is a nation where military intervention simply isn’t up for discussion. There’s already enough Middle Eastern skirmishes where Russia is pulling the strings for any western nation to want to take them head-on, if such a move were even justified by the international community.
Worse – the international community is all but sanctioning this behaviour by refusing to curb Russian privilege. Forget Stoli, the IOC is complicit for giving Russia the Winter Olympics; Coca-Cola, Panasonic, VISA, Samsung, and Procter&Gamble (among others) are complicit for sponsoring the Games. A petition for them to withdraw has already gained 20,000 signatures, but so far…silence.
No, change must come from within. The people of Russia are already fighting – members of the LGBT community are refusing to back down, despite increasingly draconian laws and the very real risk of physical harm [trigger warning for the link: violence] they run. They will not give up; they will not go away. But they are small voices crying in a wilderness and they need all the support they can get – and that means more than shared links and petitions and dismay expressed via blogs and social media in the west. They need support at home, and what corner is that support going to come from if not the government? Yuri Scheffler, owner of Stoli, is one of the wealthiest men in Russia (and in Russia, that’s saying something!), he’s no friend of Putin and he’s prepared to speak out in our defence.
Why, oh why, would we seek to penalise this man or his company for something his government is doing? Particularly when the actions of the government are contrary to everything Scheffler’s said and done in the past? Would we be so happy to boycott all the companies based in US States that have Constitutional Amendments against equal marriage on their books until they’re removed? Stop drinking Red Stripe until Jamaica gets with the times?
I’m all for a boycott when I can see a purpose to it. I lived in Manchester for three years and never once caught a Stagecoach bus, or any subsidiary thereof, (which, for the record, is a PIA. Most buses in Manchester are owned/run by Stagecoach) because the owner is a homophobic prick who donates money to anti-LGBT causes (including, coincidentally, Section 28, an anti-gay propaganda law). I doubt I made much difference but I felt better for it.
Were Stoli standing in support of the Russian government, I’d be the first to say boycott. But all we risk here is turning an ally into an enemy simply because we can’t think of a better target. Moves to organise a boycott of the Olympics (which I’d support) have largely failed. The American sponsors of the Games seem largely to have escaped condemnation (no doubt because it’s Americans who would suffer from a boycott of them). As the largest and most popular Russian brand in America, Stoli’s an easy target. But is it the right one? I don’t believe so.