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Posts for July, 2013

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.