Should You Boycott Russian Vodka Over Russian Gay Rights?

Cocktail 101

All the basics of the bar.

stoli vodka lineup

The complex controversy over the boycott of Russian vodka. [Photo: Stolichnaya]

Controversy doesn't often intersect with alcohol. Oh, sure, you'll always have regrettable nights when someone in your drinking party happens to start an argument about politics, religion, or whether Shake Shack should keep the crinkly fries. But that's not what I mean. It's not Jim Beam's fault you couldn't keep your mouth shut about the latest Washington scandal.

No, I mean that it's rare for a booze brand itself to become the center of a socio-political controversy, but that's just what happened at the end of July, when a prominent supporter of gay rights called for a boycott of Stolichnaya vodka.

For those of you who haven't heard the story, it's a bit complex. I'm going to try to recount the reasons for the boycott, Stoli's reaction, and some of the back-and-forth the boycott has sparked. If you're looking for more background, I highly recommend you start with this New York Times article.

In Putin's Russia, Vodka Drinks You

First, we need to start in Russia, where anti-gay violence (such as the attacks at a recent gay rights march) seems to be increasing. Vladimir Putin's government has put into place a number of measures that many believe are discriminatory to LGBT individuals. Probably the most talked-about of these laws are the ones banning "gay propaganda." The idea behind these laws is to penalize "the promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships" to minors. An earlier version of the law was even clearer; the bill penalized "promotion of homosexuality." Anyone found in violation of the law could be fined or even jailed.

Now, the law itself is vague on what, exactly, "promotion to minors" means, but it generally seems to mean that if you talk about gay rights in a venue where a minor might hear about it, you're in trouble. In fact, four Dutch citizens were recently detained under the law for making a documentary film about Russian gay rights; they were eventually freed and allowed to leave the country, but they're now banned from ever returning to Russia.

(In researching this article, I noticed that RIA Novosty, a news organization owned by the Russian government, was publishing this disclaimer on articles having to do with gay-rights issues: "This article contains information not suitable for readers younger than 18 years of age, according to Russian legislation." A news agency owned by the Russian government fears falling afoul of the Russian government, just for publishing the news. At the very least, the law is having a clear chilling effect on public discourse.)

On July 3, Putin signed a law banning adoptions by same-sex couples. More recently, the Russian Sports Minister, Vitaly Mutko, remarked that visitors to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, in Sochi, Russia, will be subject to the same ban on "propaganda," which some LGBT campaigners fear will lead to the arrest of gay Olympians and tourists. Expect to hear much more about this in the run-up to Sochi. Some campaigners are calling for the United States and other countries to boycott the Sochi Games.

But we still have to ask the question: What does any of this have to do with Stoli, and should you be drinking it or dumping it?

Savage Love

On July 24, the columnist Dan Savage posted a blog entry titled Why I'm Boycotting Russian Vodka. His argument is that Stoli has a Russian heritage and is owned by one of the richest men in Russia.

Savage argues that Stoli is a Russian vodka and should be boycotted, along with other Russian vodkas, including Russian Standard, to show solidarity with the Russian LGBT community and draw international attention to its plight.

But is Savage right, and is Stoli a Russian brand? And does that really matter anyway?

Vodka Wars

Stoli has a convoluted recent history. Two companies currently hold the rights to make and distribute Stolichnaya. Until 1997, Stolichnaya was owned by the Russian government, but the vodka industry was privatized, and several trademarks, including Stoli, were sold to private companies. Stoli was purchased by SPI Group, headquartered in Luxembourg. SPI has the rights to market Stoli in more than 100 countries—essentially, almost everywhere outside of Russia. But Vladimir Putin moved to renationalize the vodka industry, and a state-owned company, FKP Soyuzplodoimport, began producing and marketing a vodka called Stolichnaya within Russia.

Stoli is currently distributed by William Grant and Sons, but that agreement ends at the end of this year, and starting in 2014, SPI Group will take over distribution of Stoli.

Meanwhile a trademark dispute between SPI and FKP Soyuzplodoimport continues, with the latter company demanding worldwide rights to the brand. Meanwhile, owing to this trademark dispute SPI's owner, Yuri Scheffler is essentially persona non grata in Russia; the government has barred him from entering his homeland.

Latvian Vodka Responds to Savage

SPI Group's website says that Stoli is produced in Riga, Latvia, though some ingredients are sourced from Russia, and the company still has distilleries in Russia.

One day after Savage's call for a boycott, SPI Group's CEO, Val Mendeleev, released an open letter to the LGBT community, released to The Advocate. In the letter, Mendeleev condemns the "dreadful actions taken by the Russian Government limiting the rights of the LGBT community" and cites Stoli's commitment to the LGBT community, including a series of Stoli-sponsored documentaries called "Be Real: Stories from Queer America". Mendeleev also touted Stoli's search for LGBT brand ambassadors, Most Original Stoli Guy, as well as its sponsorship of gay-pride events.

Both Sides Now

stoli vodka ad

Stoli advertisement in the Union Square subway station, NYC [Photograph: Antonio Bonanno on Flickr]

Now, you can argue that Stoli is trying to have it both ways, playing up its Russian heritage while distancing itself from Putin. And while that may be true, it seems unfair to ask anti-Putin individuals and companies that have Russian roots to try to downplay their Russianness.

Savage argues that Stoli is a Russian business, and it seems to hinge on the fact that Stoli's owner is Russian. But remember, he's barred from Russia, so it almost sounds like he's being punished just because of his country of origin. Just because a prominent businessman is Russian doesn't mean he can influence the actions of the Russian government.

Savage argues in a follow-up post that none of this matters. (Savage's follow-up, incidentally, is also worth a close read.) What has SPI Group done in Russia, he asks:

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?

But would it help if Scheffler did speak up? Writing at Russia! Magazine, Mark Adonais mentions Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was once the wealthiest man in Russia and the 16th wealthiest in the world. He spoke out against Putin and is now in a Russian prison. It's worth asking what an open letter to Putin would accomplish. Adonais writes:

The entire notion of a boycott has a bizarrely naïve feel to it. On the one hand you have a government which is repressive and regressive enough that it feels comfortable criminalizing any public displays of homosexuality. On the other hand this government is supposed to be meek enough to fold in the face of a vodka boycott organized by foreign gay right activists? It would seem rather obvious that the sort of government which is capable of passing such a draconian anti-gay law is probably also the sort of government that won't respond to public pressure, much less pressure from foreigners or gay-rights activists.

Louis Peitzman of Buzzfeed—the same site that publicized the horrific photos I linked to earlier—also questions the boycott, in a piece called "Why The Stoli Boycott Is Misguided And Dangerous":

And what exactly does the boycott do to help LGBT people in Russia? It sends a message, yes, but Stoli—which has a history of supporting the LGBT community and sponsoring LGBT events—is not the enemy. Abstaining from a particular brand of vodka may make Americans feel better about themselves, but it does nothing for Russians. This is slacktivism at its finest: We barely lift a finger to help and then pat ourselves on the backs for a job well done. At least the proposed boycott of the Olympics (whether or not out athletes agree) is logical, as the Olympics will provide a massive influx of tourism and revenue for the Russian government. But Stoli? In the grand scheme of things, your choice of vodka is meaningless.

So the question remains, does a Stoli boycott hurt the Russian government? If not, and if all it does is raise awareness of the Russian government's injustice to the LGBT community, is that a good enough reason for a boycott, or are other actions—such as an Olympics boycott—more appropriate?