In Russia, lately, the movement for gay rights (and ultimately, human rights) has been dealt hard blows by President Vladimir Putin. Just this summer he’s made the following hateful laws a reality:
- Gay people, or people from countries where gay people can get married, are no longer able to adopt Russian children.
- Tourists and foreigners can get arrested in Russia just for being gay or even (the rather ambiguously) "pro-gay," according to the New York Times, (which sounds like almost everyone I know).
- Russians can now get arrested just for telling young people that it’s acceptable to be gay.
This, combined with widely circulated media of violence against gays in Russia that goes unprosecuted—including a video of a young boy being tortured by homophobic neo-Nazi thugs—ignited a wave of rage among the international gay community in the direction of Moscow.
But oddly enough, it’s the vodka-maker Stolichnaya that’s bearing the brunt of it. Inspired by gay writer Dan Savage, outraged gays and their allies are boycotting Stoli and other Russian vodkas in order to "do something" about the injustice gay people are experiencing in Russia right now. But ultimately, the boycott is do-nothing slacktivism of the worst sort, divorced from any reality of the situation, attacking Russian culture, not Russian interests, and simultaneously undermining tolerance or any complex understanding of the situation.
"… there is something we can do right here, right now, in Seattle and other US cities to show our solidarity with Russian queers and their allies and to help to draw international attention to the persecution of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, and straight allies in Putin’s increasingly fascistic Russia: DUMP RUSSIAN VODKA."
Gay bars around the country (and world) are implementing the ban. In West Hollywood, the Los Angeles-epicenter of gay (and, ironically, Russian-immigrant) life, bars are planning to pour bottles of Stoli into the gutter to protest oppression with a flowing river of booze.
Ostensibly this (sort of) makes sense. Russian vodka is one of the most ubiquitous symbols of the country’s cultural influence abroad. Taking steps to invest everyday actions—like ordering a cocktail—with symbolic, political meaning can help raise awareness and, at the very least, get people at a gay bar talking about an issue (instead of just ogling the go-go boys). The flipside of that, of course, is that it demonizes Russian culture as inherently homophobic, as opposed to focusing on certain powerful actors within that society. But perhaps, a ban on an important Russian export could send the message to Putin that he needs to shape up. His country, in some small part, depends on sales of Stoli in the U.S., right?
Not actually. The CEO of SPI, which owns Stoli, wrote an open letter to the LGBT community to remind people that the Russian government has no connection to SPI. Like it says on the label, Stoli’s actually made in Latvia (using Russian wheat). The company operates out of Luxembourg. So if anyone would be economically impacted by a massive ban, it’s Latvian factory workers and Russian wheat growers and Luxembourgian office types. Are those really the people making life hard for gays in Russia?
Despite those facts, Savage’s retort is that Yuri Scheffler, the billionaire who owns SPI, is one of Russia’s richest people, so it’s likely he can influence Putin somehow. Savage wonders outloud in a follow-up post to the letter from the SPI CEO:
Has Stoli said anything to the Russian authorities? Has Yuri Scheffler expressed his anger in an open letter to Vladimir Putin? Did the SPI Group speak the fuck up before the Russian government passed a law that made it a crime to be openly gay and a crime to publicly support someone who is openly gay?
But Savage overlooks two things. First, in an autocracy like Russia, corporate activism and "open letters" from business leaders fall on dead ears. And even if they were an effective method, Scheffler is no friend of the Russian government. In fact, he spent a decade tussling with them about who had rights to the Stoli trademark, which once belonged to the Russian government but was privatized in the 1990s. (Scheffler lost.) In 2002, the Guardian reported that
200 masked police ransacked the SPI headquarters in Moscow. An SPI spokesman said: 'These stormtroopers openly said they were assigned to destabilise our business rather than find any proof of our guilt.'
Later, a warrant was issued for Scheffler’s arrest by Putin’s administration. This doesn’t sounds like a man who has Putin’s ear.
So what are we doing when we’re boycotting Stoli then? A few things.
The only reason not to drink Stoli is that it’s associated with the same culture where a strain of homophobic extremism is currently being stoked by politicians eager to distract from their own failures. Despite the perniciousness of the Putin regime’s attitude toward gays, boycotting things just because they feel Russian seems xenophobic and dangerous (and almost like a Cold War throwback). It’s about as productive as burning your old copies of War and Peace (maybe some royalties are still trickling down to some Russians somewhere) or stomping on a Russian doll.
The Stoli brand has actually been the victim of the same anti-democratic, anti-capitalistic tendencies that make life tough on gays in Russia. It’s no coincidence that gay rights movements have flourished only in societies with free markets and free speech. In Russia, those ideas barely exist. Police are used as government thugs to enforce the state’s agenda—whether that means ransacking the offices of a vodka company working against the state’s interests or bludgeoning gay rights activists at a rally. Consumer activism doesn’t translate under these circumstances and a boycott does little more than make people in the U.S. feel good about themselves.
There’s a Russian product every American uses every day, the sale of which is the main reason Putin is running the country the way he does: oil. So far this year, Russia’s been the sixth biggest exporter of petroleum to the U.S., right after Iraq. Putting pressure on the government to go after Russia where it counts— oil sales—might actually send a message. But that might actually take work or end up being impossible, which is why no one is agitating for it.
"To be honest, I don’t see the point in boycotting the Russian vodka," said Nikolai Alekseev, a prominent Russian gay activist, calling it a "symbolic gesture doomed to failure." Instead he suggests that Americans, Europeans, and Brits push their governments to refuse travel visas to homophobic Russian lawmakers. "Pressure your governments to put the authors of those laws on the black lists for the entrance visas. They will suffer and others will think twice," Alekseev told Gay Star News. Nothing else will work!’"
So maybe there is something we can do, as opposed to the boycott-only approach some activists are taking, like Manhattan gay-bar owner Tom Johnson, who told The Daily Beast, "There aren’t many other stands we can take other than this boycott."
That’s a cop out. It’s easy to convince people that they are doing something when they can just drink Grey Goose or SKYY instead. But the only thing they’re doing is feeling better about themselves. Yes, let’s have solidarity with oppressed gays in Russia. But the boycott is about as meaningful as pouring a shot of booze on the ground "for the homies" (which in itself, would be a nice gesture). To think of it as political action is naive at best, ignorant at worst.