Russia, Gays, and Picking the Right Fight

Gay activists cling to a bad boycott target rather than work with a potential ally


"Too late to stop the boycott. We already made posters!"
Credit: Matt Fikse-Verkerk

When Russia's parliament passed a law in June criminalizing open discussion of gay and lesbian issues upon threat of fine for individuals and even media organizations, the vote wasn't even close. It was unanimous. According the Associated Press, one sole parliament member abstained. That was his show of support for protesters who opposed the law. He didn't vote against it. He abstained. Outside, protesters against Russia's deep slide into homophobic waters attempted to protest with a kissing rally. They were physically attacked by hundreds of supporters and then detained by riot police.

Gay activists in Russia are physically attacked and brutally beaten regularly. Their bloody faces make frequent appearances on gay news blogs and less frequently in mainstream media coverage. Russian libertarian activist Vera Kichanova (whom recently interviewed) was assaulted over the weekend in an anti-gay attack at a bar in Moscow, though she's not gay and is married.

As the 2014 Olympics in Sochi approach, eyes across the world will be watching Russia. As is typically the case when the Olympics land in a country with a less-than-stellar human rights reputation, activists want the world to know how bad things are. Western gay and lesbian activists are looking for any opportunity to apply some pressure on Russia to change its attitude. It's likely going to be a long, tough fight.

And so attention turned to boycotts, the idea that Americans who want to support the plight of gays and lesbians in Russia can help by hitting the country in the wallet. Toward the end of July gay activist, advice columnist, and author Dan Savage promoted what appeared to be an obvious choice—the Russian vodkas served in gay bars across the country. Savage named Stolichnaya Vodka, arguably the best-known of the all the vodkas sold in the United States, as the face of the boycott.

Stolichnaya has proven to be a problematic choice. The company that produces Stolichnaya has significant Russian ties but is really no longer truly a Russian product for consumers outside of Russia. The Stoli we drink is made in Latvia and manufacturer SPI Group is based out of Luxembourg. When the Soviet empire fell, many Russian products and operations were privatized, vodkas included. Russian Yuri Shefler purchased the Stoli trademark (and others) for a song. But when Vladimir Putin came to power, he brought a new nationalist streak back to Russia no longer tied to socialist politics. He vowed to renationalize the vodkas. Russia seized control of Stoli (and other brands) produced inside the country. Shefler now reportedly lives in Europe, on the outs with Russia's leadership, even possibly facing prison. Though Shefler is a very rich Russian, he is not the right kind of rich Russian and has no influence on Russian politics. The Stoli sold outside Russia is not the same as what's sold within Russia (so for those who end up at the Sochi Olympics, boycotting the Stoli there actually does target the government).

Furthermore, Stolichnaya has worked for years to craft a relationship with the gay community in America and abroad. Since the boycott was proposed, several within the community (myself included) questioned the wisdom of including Stoli among the boycott targets, but proponents have not pulled back. Bar owners drew press in West Hollywood and New York dumping vodka (or rather water in vodka bottles) into the gutters.

I interviewed John Esposito, CEO of Stoli Group USA in New York, who is frustrated at being targeted but said they're committed to remaining part of the gay community. Esposito also said nobody proposing the boycott attempted to contact them first and efforts on Stoli's end to reach out to them have failed to garner a response.

"We're really hurt by this because we're a real supporter of the community," Esposito said. "There are a number of accounts who have taken Stoli off the shelves. When this dies down a bit, Stoli will still be in the community, and will still be supporting the community. When these people who have this pulpit to spread this information die down, we'll still be here. We'll suffer a little bit, but we'll be here."

Esposito says Stoli is willing to offer assistance to the extent that it can, though it depends on activists realizing that the company's direct influence in Russia is not what they think it is.

"We can help constructively against this cause," he said. "Whether it's resources, people, time, energy. … Many people who work here are within the gay community. We're more interested in teaming up."

It's easy to imagine a relationship between activists and Stoli developing and the activists taking credit for the boycott forcing it, though in all likelihood the same could have happened even if activists hadn't declared a boycott. Even after learning about Stoli's relationship with Russia, Queer Nation defended the boycott. The defensiveness in a press release is worth noting:

More importantly, though the company claims to be friend to our community, it was silent as the Russian government considered this horrific law, and it said nothing after the law was enacted. Stolichnaya only spoke up after the boycott was announced. Friends do not keep silent when those they claim to value are under attack.

Did anybody ever actually ask Stoli to do anything prior to announcing the boycott? They are allies, not activists. It is absurd to expect them to know how to respond to Russia's brutality. That's what the activists are for. The activists tell supportive businesses and non-activist allies what sort of help they need to succeed and the businesses help provide those resources.

To jump immediately to a boycott of a friendly company sends the message to any business that has shown support toward the gay community that they are completely disposable. All that work is utterly meaningless if a handful of activist leaders think they can get media attention by dumping you in the gutter. It's a lazy, self-absorbed endeavor that doesn't help Russian gays any more than Stoli has. If your activism deliberately hurts somebody who has spent significant amounts of money supporting your community, then you are doing activism wrong.