Boycott of Russian Vodka Spreads

Jim Burroway

July 26th, 2013

Buzzfeed on Monday published a photo essay titled “36 Photos from Russia that Everyone Needs to See,” which depicts the violence that broke out during St. Petersburg’s gay pride march last month. That violence took place on the very day that President Vladimir Putin signed a law which effectively bans all advocacy by or on behalf of LGBT people. Dan Savage finally decided that enough was enough. Six months from now, Russia will be hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics on Sochi, with many calling for a boycott. Dan Savage reviewed the pros and cons of boycotting the Olympics and proposed an alternative:

If there isn’t a boycott—if gay and pro-gay athletes compete at the Olympics in Sochi this winter—there must be a protest during the Sochi Olympics that is as powerful and indelible as Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s protest during the Mexico City Olympics. It should happen on the medal stand while the world watches.

But boycott or no boycott 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.

Here is a list of Russian vodkas currently available in the US: Dovgan, Gold Symphony, Standart, Hrenovuha, Kauffman, Kubanskaya, Moskovskaya, Narodnaya, Pyatizvyozdnaya, Putinka, Rodnik, Ruskova, Russian Standard, Shustov, Starka, Stolnaya, Youri Dolgoruki. The two best known Russian vodkas? Russian Standard and Stolichnaya.

That was Wednesday. It only took Stolichnaya’s CEO, Val Mendeleev, a day to respond with “an open letter to the LGBT community”:

Letter from Stoli. Click to enlarge.

The recent dreadful actions taken by the Russian Government limiting the rights of the LGBT community and the passionate reaction of the community have prompted me to write this letter to you.

I want to stress that Stoli formly opposes such attitude and actions. Indeed, as a company that encourages transparent 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 the current exclusive national partnership with Gaycities.comand Queerty.com in search of the Most Original Stoli Guy. .. 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.

…This letter also gives me the opportunity to clear some of the confusion surrounding the Stolichnaya brand, based on facts found online that often inaccurately link our company to the Russian Government. The Russian government has no ownership interest over the Stoli brand that is privately owned by SPI Group, headquartered in Luxembourg in the heart of Western Europe…

(Update: Queerty, perhaps because of their entangling alliance with Stoli, has been practicing radio silence where the boycott is concerned, except to post Stoli’s open letter.)

Savage countered:

For the record: Regardless of where SPI Group’s corporate offices are located, the company is owned by Yuri Scheffler, one of the 100 richest men in Russia. SPI is a Russian corporation, Stoli is a Russian vodka. And while it’s nice that SPI is willing to market to homos who are lucky enough to live in Austria, the US, and South Africa, what has SPI done in Russia? The group has sponsored gay pride events in Vienna and Miami. That’s nice. But have they sponsored gay pride events in Moscow or St. Petersburg? Val says that Stoli is upset and angry. That’s nice. So 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? Frankly I’m not interested in Stoli’s marketing efforts in the West. I’m interested in what this Russian-owned company is doing in Russia. And from this letter it’s clear they’ve done and they only plan on doing squat.

But Scott Shackford at Reason posted a counter argument. He noted that there is a battle going on between Scheffler and Russia, which is trying to nationalize the company, which seized the internal brands and nationalized them in 2001.

There is a big, nasty battle between Russia and the private Stolichnaya company and its owner, Yuri Scheffler…. t doesn’t take that much research to see how difficult a position Scheffler is in. Russia wants his company. This story from The Guardian from 2002 makes it very clear that Scheffler is no friend of Putin’s … Scheffler himself is wanted for “questioning” for allegedly threatening the director of the parts of the Russian company that were renationalized.

What’s sad about this effort is that if Russia succeeds in getting its hands back on Stoli, then a boycott actually makes sense. But the consequence will be that a powerful businessman who does support the gay community will lose his company. Boycotting Stoli now is a very bad idea. Scheffler is an ally who the gay and lesbian community needs to work with, not alienate. From a Western perspective it may be hard to realize that an incredibly rich person like Scheffler has the potential to be a victim of Russia’s authoritarian regime like its gay citizens or members of Pussy Riot, but it’s extremely important not to look at the nature of power and influence there the way we do here.

Nevertheless, the Russian vodka boycott — which goes beyond Stolichnaya, although Stoli is the biggest, most well-known brand — is spreading like wildfire. At least two bars in the Castro have pulled Russian vodka from their shelves. Seven Halsted-area bars in Chicago have stopped selling Russian booze, as have bars in West HollywoodVancouver, Toronto, London, and San Diego. Dallas-area bars are still considering whether to join, but The Dallas Voice reports that, contrary to Stoli’s letter Thursday, the company had already decided to “pull out of the gay market“:

(Bar owner Howard) Okon said Razzle Dazzle Dallas, the city’s June LGBT Pride Month celebration, was hit hard earlier this year when Stoli representatives said they wouldn’t sponsor the event, after they’ve been the major liquor sponsor the past two years. Okon, who was in charge of sponsorships for Razzle Dazzle, said the company told him they were realigning their outreach and pulling out of the gay market.

Mark F.

July 26th, 2013

Yes, Yuri Scheffler just has to call up Putin, and Putin will cave. Right.

DK

July 26th, 2013

The renationalization bit is one of the odder parts of the brand. I’m curious as to the ownership of the brand as a timeline.

An easier line of attack is actually SPI’s own advertising and marketing of Stolichnaya. They are very careful to cite that they use Russian ingredients and for reasons other than that as well, their vodka is Russian. Even if their company is based in Luxembourg and part of the production is based in Latvia and the man who brought the brand out of Russia is in self-imposed exile, they are still trying to capitalize on the reputation and name of Russia.

Rob

July 26th, 2013

DK
The most important aspect of your post, and a point that keeps being left out of this discussion is the fact that every ingredient is bought from Russia. The Russian government subsideses farms and gets repayment in the form of product, which it then sales. While it isn’t entirely state run anymore, the purchase and export of those products to Latvia where they are used to make the product is in fact a benefit in both direct purchase from, and tax revenues created by these sales. Also, I don’t know how much I’d be pushing the Latvia connection if I were them. Latvia passed a constitutional ban on same sex marriage in 2006 and while it does not criminalize same sex relations, they are no huge supporter. As recently as 2011 they were beating and abusing gay people during Pride or other events. Latvia isn’t a winning argument based on its own anti gay animus in the recent past and currently. They do allow adoption but only by one gay person, couples are excluded, but that’s hardly a stellar reputation on gay rights. Stoli themselves crow about the product ingredients all being FROM Russia in the letter posted above, so their claim that it doesn’t benefit the government is pure B.S.

Melanie Nathan

July 26th, 2013

Let me agree with the ideal of Boycotts. When one wants a Boycott to be effective one must even expect the so called “good guys” to suffer. If Stoli for example is a good guy in this situation and truly want change they must then suffer the suffer.

That is what we did in South Africa. Even the good guys went down in the hope that Apartheid would end. Even the good guys were willing to have business suffer. We did it for the cause. And it worked. So maybe Yuri will sell a yacht or 2.

That said Perhaps Dan Savage should read more about South Africa. Only white gays who do not live in Townships are lucky to live in SA. SA may have quality but they have an horrendous issue of violence against lesbians and transgender people.

Melanie Nathan

July 26th, 2013

*correction SOUTH Africa may have equality – (not quality) forgive me!

Gene in L.A.

July 26th, 2013

A current story in The Advocate quotes Russian LGBT activist Nicolai Alekseev saying a boycott won’t help. I’m suspicious of boycotts at the best of times. There’s no evidence that our boycotts are any more effective than those waged by our opponents.

http://www.advocate.com/politics/2013/07/26/dont-bother-boycotting-vodka-says-russian-lgbt-activist

jpeckjr

July 26th, 2013

It would seem to me, under current Russian law, if Mr. Scheffler, the owner, did speak out against the discriminatory laws, he would be arrested for breaking them, which, I imagine, would be a point for Mr. Putin in their battle with one another. Indeed, I’d bet Mr. Putin is looking for a way to use this letter from Mr. Mendeleev as a basis for seizing the company’s facilities in Russia.

Dan

July 26th, 2013

I like the idea of boycotting the sponsors of the Sochi Olympics. Hopefully they’ll pull their sponsorships.

Lucrece

July 27th, 2013

I personally don’t drink voda.

But, boycotts don’t work. Christian fundamentalists are a much larger group than us and their boycotts have done diddly squat against the companies they target.

Palmer

July 27th, 2013

The purpose of this boycott isn’t necessarily to cause financial hurt to Russia, let’s face it if every gay person gave up every Russian product it would barely be a financial blip.

It’s to call attention to the world at large, especially Europe and the U.S. to the plight of gay people under this modern pogrom created by Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Ben in Oakland

July 27th, 2013

I just found this in the morning paper. from a speech by the French consul in San Francisco at a big party in 1855 celebrating the end of the Crimean War (!):

“Wherever Russia appears, the buoyancy of the human intellect is at once arrested. Religious fanaticism, the abatement of man, and the knout (whip) follow forthwith.”

I thought you might all enjoy it. Poor mother Russia! Once again, the old lady is off her meds, and authoritarianism once again rears its ugly head.

Ben in Oakland

July 27th, 2013

Sorry ABASEMENT.

Rob

July 27th, 2013

Ben in Oakland,

Even thought it wasn’t the right word for the quote, the abatement of man would have been an accurate sentiment as well. Good quote.

Rob

July 27th, 2013

Though. I have to figure out how to turn off auto correct….

Charles

July 27th, 2013

Attack Putin, not Russian Vodka!!!!!! Savage is way, way off base.

Mark F.

July 29th, 2013

The U.S. has prohibited the sale of almost all products from Cuba for over 50 years. We all know Cuba is now a thriving democracy.

shaed

August 19th, 2013

Savage obviously wikied a list of Russian vodkas for his rant. It is funny that he was too thick to notice Stoli wasn’t on it.

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