World News

07.30.13

Russian Vodka Boycott Spreads Over Kremlin’s New Anti-Gay Laws

Maybe gay bars’ boycott of Stoli and other Russian vodka brands won’t get Putin to reverse his draconian anti-gay laws—but activists are hoping Moscow takes notice. Eliza Shapiro reports.

A rapidly growing boycott of Russian vodkas might mean you’ll be switching from a Stoli and soda to a good old American Jack and Coke this weekend.

Gay bars from Manhattan to West Hollywood are pouring out their Russian vodka in protest over Russia’s widely condemned new anti-gay laws.

Recently implemented laws include allowing police officers to arrest and detain tourists and foreign nationals suspected of being gay and outlawing “homosexual propaganda” as pornography.

Gay-rights activists in Russia and the United States have called for a boycott of all things made in Russia and imported around the world—which leaves us with little else but vodka and sports.

Some gay- and human-rights activists are encouraging Americans to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi to protest both anti-LGBT laws and what they call a slew of other human-rights violations.

Although Stolichnaya is one of the most popular vodka brands in the U.S., owners and managers at gay bars across the nation are pouring out their last drops of Stoli and vowing to stop buying bottles indefinitely.

“Gay men love vodka,” said Michael McGrail, the owner of G Lounge, a gay bar in Chelsea. “But our customers are ready to move past Stoli.”

The Russian-vodka boycott movement was sparked by sex columnist and gay advocate Dan Savage in a blog post on July 24.

“There is something we can do right here, right now,” Savage wrote, “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.”

According to Savage, 18 Russian vodkas are sold in the U.S., of which Stoli is the most iconic.

But Stolichnaya, which is owned by the beverage company SPI Group, insists the company stands with the LGBT community in Russia and around the world.

Stoli’s website has been redesigned with splashes of rainbow, with a large banner reading “Stolichnaya Premium Vodka stands strong and proud with the global LGBT community against the attitude and actions of the Russian government.”

In a July 25 letter from Luxembourg, SPI Group CEO Val Mendeleev thanked the LGBT community for “adopting Stoli as their vodka of preference” and said the Russian government has “no ownership interest or control over the Stoli brand, which is privately owned by SPI Group, headquartered in Luxembourg in the heart of Western Europe.”

Mendeleev also pointed to Stoli’s support of recent gay-pride parades from South Africa to Austria. A request for additional comment from Stoli was not answered.

But advocates say Stoli uses Russian ingredients, making the boycott worthwhile.

“All the Russian vodkas, whether they are produced in Russia or not, market themselves here in the U.S as Russian products. Being Russian is part of their brand,” said Nina Long, co-president of RUSA LGBT, a Russian-speaking American LGBTQ organization.

‘The vodka boycott is especially appealing because everyone can participate in it. It has the power of people.’
Video screenshot

Author Eliza Shapiro spoke to MSNBC about the boycott.

The boycott is a potential business boon for non-Russian brands.

SKYY Vodka, which is based in San Francisco, wasted no time drawing up a new Twitter ad that reads “Cheers to Equality” and shows a bottle of SKYY and a martini in front of an American flag. Other American-made vodkas, including American Harvest and Tito’s, did not respond to requests for comment.

And Canadian-produced Pearl Vodka is co-hosting a Stoli Dumping Party on Wednesday at Woody’s Bar in Philadelphia. The bar promises to pour out “bottle after bottle” of Stoli.

But some gay activists and Russian opposition leaders aren’t convinced the boycott will accomplish much.

“To be honest, I don’t see the point in boycotting Russian vodka,” Nikolai Alekseev, a Russian LGBT activist, told Gay Star News. “It will [not] impact anyone except the companies involved a little bit. The effect will die out very fast, it will not last forever.”

“Stoli has been our partner, and we shouldn’t turn our backs on them now,” the manager of XES Lounge, a gay bar in Manhattan, wrote on the bar’s Facebook page. “Besides, it wouldn’t help. Symbolism isn’t enough.” XES Lounge has promised to contribute $1 from each Stoli drink it sells to Amnesty International.

But gay-bar owners in the U.S. say the boycott isn’t about toppling the Kremlin but letting the rest of the world know how the LGBT community in Russia is being marginalized.

“This isn’t going to change the world, but it’s little things like this that get people talking,” said McGrail, owner of G Lounge.

“There aren’t many other stands we can take other than this boycott,” said Tom Johnson, owner of Therapy, a gay bar in Manhattan. “I don’t see us doing a lot of other business with Russia.”

And plenty of gay bars around the country are adopting the boycott. Sidetrack in Chicago was one of the first to dump its Russian vodka, with the movement spreading throughout Chicago to Austin, Texas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

Bars as far as Vancouver and Newcastle, in the U.K., also have sworn to stop serving Stoli.

“I think it’s a good idea. It’s outrageous what’s happening in Russia,” said Lisa Menichino, owner of Cubbyhole, a gay bar in the West Village. “Stoli is our second most popular vodka, so if enough bars boycott it, it will be effective.”

Nina Long of RUSA LGBT acknowledged that the boycott might not shake Putin’s will but said it might show Moscow that the rest of the world is paying attention.

“The vodka boycott is especially appealing because everyone can participate in it. It has the power of people,” she said.

“You don’t need to be an activist, but you can take a stand against the draconian anti-gay laws in Russia.”