Russian Hate, An American Boycott, And The Sochi Olympic Games

The question we have to ask ourselves is this: What are we trying to achieve? Once we know that, we can tailor our actions to it.

Showing solidarity is great, but it seems limited. We can do that a thousand different ways. It also seems more about us than the actual victims of Putin's hate.

Drawing international attention is also fine, but completely ineffective against a maniacally self-aggrandizing man like Mr. Putin, running a declining former empire that is self-conscious of its declining standard of living and place in the world. If anything, united international opinion against him would make him stronger and galvanize the virulent nationalist streak running across the Ural Mountains. 

Trying to get policy changed on this side of the world seems more attractive, but, again, wildly ineffective against a man so far immune to international pressure.

These ideas aren't bad. They simply smack of intellectual complacency and well-meaning, yet self-centered indignation. They take old-line street activist tactics and try to fit them into new problems. 

Stolichnaya Vodka is neither owned by the Russian government nor Mr. Putin. It does employ some Russian citizens. It is run by a very rich man who has shown support for the LGBT community before. Despite this, Mr. Savage thinks a boycott on Stoli vodka would send a message and galvanize the international community. He has chosen a convenient target, but like many convenient targets, they are not the right ones.

Focusing on Stoli vodka is not only ill-conceived, but may play right into Mr. Putin's hands. It sends the message that the gay community can't tell the difference between a company that makes its vodka in Latvia and a company that is owned by the Russian government. What's more, it gives Mr. Putin ammunition to mischaracterize our community and further his anti-gay propaganda to this people — "Look what they're concerned about. Alcohol, their bars, their parties". You can just imagine the rhetoric.

The problem, as Russian scholars will tell you, is that Mr. Putin represents a strong nationalist and xenophobic streak in his country. He has tapped into the fear his ordinary citizens have that Russia is in decline. To some extent, people like Michelle Bachmann and the National Rifle Association do that here: they're paranoid, xenophobic, and scared. And they get stronger when they feel it is them against the world. Gang up on them and they grow, like a gym rat on steroids. You don't fight a person or movement like that by building international pressure and raising awareness. Instead, you have to undermine his power base from within and save the LGBT lives he's endangering.

How can we do that? I think we have three options:

1. We could boycott the Olympic Games entirely, punishing the Russian economy and highlighting the terror that Mr. Putin is executing on his people as he inches that country ever closer to autocracy. The athletes who have trained for their moment in the Sochi sun would be collateral damage, victims in a greater war. In fact, I spoke with one former Olympic alternate who told me that he would, though with great heartache, give up the "luxury" of competing if it meant saving a defenseless LGBT Russian's life.

220px-Carlos-SmithBut if you think about great protests in Olympic history, what do you remember? Jesse Owens showed up and embarrassed Adolf Hitler in 1936. Tommie Smith and John Carlos showed up and lifted their fists in protest of racial inequality and human rights abuses in the so-called "Black Power" protest of 1968. In 1980 and 1984, the United States and the Soviet Union boycotted each other's games. And we all know that nothing really became of that other than broken dreams.

2. We can do what Israel did to Russian Jews before and after the fall of the Soviet Union: airlift them to safety in Israel. Currently, there is no government willing to do that, no private billionaire willing to fund it, and the plan would be susceptible to the response that the way to deal with Mr. Putin isn't to run, but to stand and fight. The last argument smacks of ill-conceived detachment: try telling "stand and fight" to the innocent gay kid being beaten by a band of neo-Nazis.

It would be great if we could find a government-owned Russian company to boycott, but that country's economy is so focused on mining natural resources that it's hard to find something viable. But the alternative is not to boycott other things just because a boycott seems right. Better to send our athletes to Sochi and not only embarrass Mr. Putin like Jesse Owens embarrassed Hitler but also show him who we really are.

3. Law can play a role. We should start advertising the fact that LGBT Russians should come to the United States and seek asylum. We have video evidence that being gay in Russia is very nearly a death sentence or, at least, a sentence of torture. When a country grants asylum to the citizens of another country, the protector nation is using its law for good, to actually protect and save lives. My Olympian friend had it right. Our goal should be to save lives. Our community leaders calling for boycotts just don't think big enough.

***

Follow me on Twitter: @ariezrawaldman

Ari Ezra Waldman is the Associate Director of the Institute for Information Law and Policy and a professor at New York Law School and is concurrently getting his PhD at Columbia University in New York City. He is a 2002 graduate of Harvard College and a 2005 graduate of Harvard Law School. Ari writes weekly posts on law and various LGBT issues.

 

Comments

  1. deedrdo says

    the purpose of the buycott is to bring attention to the human rights violations in Russia. the buycott has put this issue front an center in the LGBT and mainstream media. as Savage stated, it does give us a thread of solidarity. one has to begin somewhere to raise awareness and the buycott certainly has done that. will it affect Putin/Russian policy? probably not. but now we have NBC weighing in as well as the IOC. who will be next? the buycott has brought greater awareness outside of the LGBT media. while economically ineffective i think it has been great publicity for the plight of our Russian LGBT comrades. for certain, they have seen the press from the states and around the globe. we are sending them a powerful message of support and solidarity. i do not believe the buycott is a toothless gesture.

  2. deedrdo says

    the purpose of the buycott is to bring attention to the human rights violations in Russia. the buycott has put this issue front an center in the LGBT and mainstream media. as Savage stated, it does give us a thread of solidarity. one has to begin somewhere to raise awareness and the buycott certainly has done that. will it affect Putin/Russian policy? probably not. but now we have NBC weighing in as well as the IOC. who will be next? the buycott has brought greater awareness outside of the LGBT media. while economically ineffective i think it has been great publicity for the plight of our Russian LGBT comrades. for certain, they have seen the press from the states and around the globe. we are sending them a powerful message of support and solidarity. i do not believe the buycott is a toothless gesture.

  3. Zlick says

    As has been pointed out, the value of the vodka boycott is PR, and apparently it’s getting plenty of it – and has provided the necessary hook for the lazy media to report on the gay progroms and barbaric laws in Russia. It’s already working. Yes, let’s figure out what else might be done. But the vodka boycott is a success.

  4. Anthony says

    “Is a boycott of alcohol (and alcohol produced by a company not owned by Russia, at that) the best focus of our community’s energy?”

    Why reduce it to that? Why does it have to the best focus? As if we can only have one action? Particpate in the boycott, do the get-arrested-in-Russia thing, whatever. Do what you can to bring attention of this to folks who don’t know in as many ways possible. What a dumb post…

  5. Don says

    What??? And I assume you will be there to protect and defend them against the laws of Russia? I have a suggestion, you should go to Russia today and take your own advice and proudly begin making pro-lgbt statements.

  6. Leo says

    Surely you can’t be that dense Ari.

    The Stoli boycott is entirely PR based #1, and #2, Savage already addressed the Latvian argument in numerous subsequent posts on The Stranger.

    I’m with Don – take YOUR ass over to Russia and scream loud as yell you self-righteous high-and-mighty prick.

    And while you’re there, I sincerely hope you and that speed skater aren’t arrested and god knows what else by the Russian government that WILL deliberately defy the IOC, I guarantee it.

    You’re braying with no substance just like the ones you critique so quickly Ari.

    Leave your pontificating to court battles and stop pretending you’re remotely contributing otherwise.

  7. rayrayj says

    Who is the “we” to whom you refer. There is no unified gay movement. Not all gays, lesbians, transgendered, bisexual, intersexed, and questioning people have the same goals. I hope that everyone can support all who attempt to influence Russian society and the Russian government to do the right thing, even if everyone does not agree on the specific methods utilized to achieve change

  8. says

    I am willing to go to the Olympics and wear rainbow colors 24/7, or even sponsor a gay Russian refugee. Too bad I am not a rich lawyer who can afford such things. Boycotting a visible Russian brand (even if they are not 100% Russian, they still have a presence there), costs me nothing, and adds my small voice the the PR campaign against this legislation.

  9. Jake says

    Pretty much the last person who should be offering advice on this issue is you, Ari Waldman. You are a despicable human being. Championing the plight of Dharun Ravi, the homophobic bully who helped Tyler Clementi into a grave at age 18. Ari Waldman is the vile individual who wrote that poor Dharun Ravi’s life had been “destroyed” because he was being held accountable for his actions in court. He actually spoke of Ravi’s prosecution as if it were equivalent to Clementi’s death. Ravi, the arrogant bully who yawned during his trial and issued a perfunctory apology after which he promptly appealed his ridiculously lenient sentence. This is what tugged at Ari Waldman’s heartstrings.

    Now Waldman is here to explain Russia to us. No thanks Ari.

  10. Leo says

    Your post literally gets more inane every time I read it Ari.

    “…it gives Mr. Putin ammunition to mischaracterize our community and further his anti-gay propaganda to this people — “Look what they’re concerned about. Alcohol, their bars, their parties”. You can just imagine the rhetoric.”

    OH NOES! THEY’LL THINK WE DRINK! THEIR WORDS HURT!

    What are you 12?

    What the hell Andy sees in you other than a human reference for legal definitions I have no idea.

    Its SO easy to cast stones from your ivory tower and feel like you’ve accomplished something isn’t it?

    You’re a worthless excuse for an advocate and a complete disgrace to the movement. Screw you.

  11. JonnyNYNY2FLFL says

    Good luck finding consensus in the gay community, let alone solidarity. There is no “Gay Pope”, or even a leader most people follow.

    Calling for a boycott on anything will cause a blip at best. At worst, it will demonstrate the impotence of these threats & empower homophobic interests to do what they wish with impunity.

  12. JonnyNYNY2FLFL says

    Good luck finding consensus in the gay community, let alone solidarity. There is no “Gay Pope”, or even a leader most people follow.

    Calling for a boycott on anything will cause a blip at best. At worst, it will demonstrate the impotence of these threats & empower homophobic interests to do what they wish with impunity.

  13. Dianne F. says

    Translation: I am stuck teaching at a third tier law school and I am desperate to advance my career and make more money. So I write this column here at Towleroad where I make a special effort to be provocative and unconventional. In this way, I seek to establish a rep as a “rebel” and an “iconoclast” on which to market myself to a better law school where I can earn more money. If I have to sacrifice some tortured Russian teenagers to do it, no problemo.

  14. says

    1. Russians LGBT people already can get asylum in the US. Putin has made that even easier.

    2. The Stolichnaya vodka in the US may be distilled in Latvia, but the base comes from fields and factories in Russia.

    3. The prestige of the USSR suffered a lot from the 1980 boycott. I remember: I was there in 1981 and they were still smarting.

    4. It’s all about PR and information. There was no major press about gays in Russia before this. Now everyone is talking about it.

    5. There is one major Russian product that an embargo would really hurt: Oil. We don’t buy it, but Europe does. They should be pressured to do something (like ban Mizulina, Milonov, and others from travel to Europe, where they have their money and educate their kids and grandkids).

  15. Hue-Men says

    Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics worked so well to combat the anti-Jewish, anti-gay, anti-Roma regime, it should work just as well this time against the neo-fascists in Moscow. In 2023, at the end of World War III, there’ll be 175 million dead (the world population’s increased since 1936), gays and lesbians will be exterminated from Russia, and entire nations will be razed to the ground. Forgot to mention a small difference that might change these calculations – Hitler didn’t have nukes.

  16. Eddy says

    Hey Ari – Instead of tearing down, perhaps try building upon.

    Where I think you lose people is your belittling how this whole conversation started. Is boycotting short sighted? Yes I agree with you there. It usually doesn’t have a direct impact on those you’re trying to force change upon. You’ve made that crystal clear.

    Dan Savage and Michelangelo Signorile’s calls for boycotting started the conversation and perhaps could lead to real change. You might want to start by thanking them for bringing what’s going on in Russia to the public’s and media’s attention, politely disagree and offer (which you’ve done and all sound great) how we can evolve this boycotting/movement because the fact is real people are going to jail for being gay. Real people are being humiliated and tortured because they’re gay.

    SIDE NOTE: I won’t get started on how this all of a sudden became so very important because it’s a predominately white country. What’s been going on in Africa is outright disgusting put not much of a public outcry!

    However, you just demean the conversation, and them, they started to give a spotlight to what you say is REAL change.

    No movement to effect change, in society, culture, politics, a former communist country etc, starts BIG. Most start small, shortsighted as you say, usually in gut reaction to something horrible and evolve from there.

    I usually enjoy your columns on Towleroad but this one just came off as catty and spiteful with some great options but hard to hear that part.

  17. Fox says

    Dumping Stoli is PR 101. While it may not do much for gays in Russia today, it’s the first step in getting the message out there in the mass media as to what’s going on in the country. The image of bars pouring alcohol down the drain plays well in the news cycle.

  18. says

    As others have said, the boycott is meant primarily to call attention to the gross human rights violations in Russia, and it is doing just that. Stoli is also more linked to Russia than you and other opponents of the boycott are saying. The boycott is supported by leading Russian activists, including Masha Gesson. (She literally wrote the book on Putin.)

    The vodka boycott doesn’t have to be the only strategy. It is a beginning and can be part of a multi-pronged strategy and pressure campaign.

    Your options at the end are naive. There are arguments to be made for boycotting the Olympics entirely, but you don’t seem to support it and many don’t. Nor do you seem invested in your second option. Your third option is already happening. My husband (an expert on Russia) regularly testifies on behalf of gay Russians seeking asylum and has for years now.

    I value your legal insights for Towleroad, but you’re out of your area of expertise here, and it shows.

  19. Mark Ramsey MD says

    Russian lawmakers stated clearly, AFTER Olympians were assured by the US government of safety in Russia, that all foreign nationals, including Olympians, would be subject to arrest for breaking the law (the law prohibits showing support of any kind for gay rights). I beieve the answer is to demand the Olympics be moved from Sochi. If not possible due to late date, ALL civilized nations should boycott the Olympics, not just America. Networks should rfefuse to cover, sponsors should refuse to participate. Let Russia feel the economic brunt of losing ALL revenue from the Olympics. That will get their attention.

  20. Wisebear says

    Ari, you should at least check your basic facts to avoid embarrassing yourself. I’m holding a bottle of Stoli. Three separate labels have the phrase “Russian Vodka.” The back label reads “produced in Russia for SPI Group.” Oh, and for good measure, the bottle is embossed three times with the word Stoli in Cyrillic Russian.

    So maybe everything the Stoli pr people are saying isn’t exactly the truth, huh?

    You also mischaracterize Dan Savages comments – so blatantly I’m not even going to enumerate. Your bias is beyond obvious. Your objectivity is zero. Is the supposed to be a legal analysis?

    Big fail.

    Also

  21. KT says

    The boycott has worked because it is drawing attention to these horrible laws. Why attack those who are trying to help as best then can? (As far as Stoli, the CEO of the company that owns the brand mentioned on Mike Signorile’s XM show today that they still sell other brands in Russia – and he was entirely unsure about whether his company even offered domestic benefits in the US).

    And honestly, people keep saying Jesse Owens humilated Hitler and changed the world by winning gold. But not really – the 1936 Olympics were considered a success by the German people and Jesse Owens got to come home to America only to have to sit at the back of the bus and drink from a seperate water fountain. After the Olympics ended, the Nazis ramped up their persecution of Jews and the world continued to ignore it until it was too late.

    So even if a gay athlete wins, do we honestly think Putin and the Russians will care? If anything, it will make things worst (honestly, everything we might do will make things worst – Russia just sucks).

  22. jaragon says

    It’s probably too late for NBC to back out of the Olympics- they would loose millions. It’s going to be interesting to see how the Russians behave in front a world wide audience. These assholes don’t really seem to care.

  23. Boone68 says

    Thanks for this common sense point of view! Have we learned nothing from the Cold War? Isolation, threats and boycotts do not work. Engagement, education and leading by example do.

  24. Paul R says

    It’s interesting how quick some commenters are to dismiss or insult Ari, yet few offer strategies of their own.

    Again, Stoli had nothing to do with the passage of or support for Russia’s laws. Given the chance, Putin would nationalize the company, especially if it gets too vocal in its support of gays—in which case a boycott might be slightly more effective. But the boycott hasn’t raised much awareness outside an interested group of news-reading gays. And Russian lawmakers couldn’t care less.

    It would be more effective to take all the money that would otherwise go to Stoli and make wide-reaching ads showing what gay Russians face. But we all know that most of the money not being spent on Stoli is simply being spent on another brand of vodka. Boycotts are intended to induce sacrifice or suffering for the boycotted or the boycotters. The Stoli boycott does neither.

  25. robert says

    Boy Ari.

    You’re really taking a licking. Seems uncalled for if you ask me.

    I would venture to say most of those responding have no idea who Tommie Smith and John Carlos are. I was 18 years old, a senior in an inner-city high school when those two men raised their fists in protest of racial inequality and human rights abuses at the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968. I can tell you those voices were heard around the world. Smith and Carlos were ostracized because their actions put the spotlight exactly where it belonged; on the bigoted and short-sighted policies of America in the ’60’s. It was a turbulent time and the simple action of raising these fists brought international attention to injustice in America, something boycotts, street protests, sit-ins or, popular at the time, political kidnappings could never achieve. Those in power (the IOC and the US in particular) were simply flumoxed by these 2 men and had no effective response. To this day, to a certain generation, these 2 men and their simple gesture stand for strength and solidarity.

    Sure a boycott brings a general awareness to the problem, but individual acts of courage could shame Putin and his ilk.

    Olympians of the world unite.

  26. Patrick Hagerty says

    I love how EVERYONE is going after Stoli, Does anyone realize that Stoli is made in Latvia, NOT Russia? How about going after these companies…Dovgan, Gold Symphony Vodka, Hrenovuha, Kauffman Vodka, Kubanskaya, Moscow Distillery Crystal, Moskovskaya, Moskovskaya vodka, Narodnaya, Putinka, Pyatizvyozdnaya, Rodnik, Ruskova, Russian Standard (vodka), Shustov vodka, Smirnoff & Youri Dolgoruki Vodka.

    Did you notice Smirnoff is on that list?? No one is seen dumping that Vodka, yet they ARE made in Russia!

    How about do your research people before you go after a company like Stoli. They, like Absolute, are HUGE supporters of the LGBT community. My god the letter that president of Stoli sent out slamming the Russian Government would be considered “Gay Propaganda” and could be jailed for what he wrote and yet he still wrote it.

    We as a community are too quick to jump on the “band wagon” of boycotting something before doing the research!!!

  27. Brian says

    I am somehow missing the logical leap from how boycotting a company that has little to do with Russia helps unite us against Russia Homophobia.

    Perhaps we can pick more arbitrary things to boycott for our future causes. In my opinion, we lack creativity at the moment. I like Ari’s direct, proactive idea of trying to help LGBT Russians seek asylum here in the United States, Canada or elsewhere. We should be able to pull it together and do something real to help these people. Currently we’re doing something made to make us “feel” good instead of accomplishing good for the Russians who actually need it.

  28. GMB says

    This is a truly intelligently written, well-argued article.

    As for the comments? Whoa! What infighting! My god. People. WTF.

    I suppose infighting is to be expected, somewhat, when we’re as upset as we are and we ALL want something — anything — to actually work. We’re naturally bound to disagree, folks, but I have *no idea* why some commentators here are being so vicious. We’re all trying to accomplish the same means.

    As for the arguments themselves, I’ll agree that the Stoli boycott *does* make for some easy headlines and news stories, and that probably helps get the ball rolling, but we’ve got to come up with some real threats with teeth if we want this to go anywhere. Obviously, REAL teeth would mean a change in the trading policies between the US and Russia, or new legal cases in the European Court of Human Rights. I honestly do think we should box that high. There should be remedies that go far beyond the Olympics.

    But as for the Olympics themselves, I strongly agree with Ari that we should send our team as we always do, yet do a very strong push to recruit gay-friendly Olympians to participate in the “You Can Play” project, recording statements of support for gay athletes. We should create a visual meme that many Olympians from around the world could replicate and repeat, either a ‘hand symbol’ they could flash for the cameras, or something they could wear like the Livestrong bracelets that were super popular during the 2004 Athens games. We should make it contagious and popular to show support for LGBT Russians.

    We’re the creative class, people. It’s time to think outside the box and come up with something powerful and great.

    – GMB

  29. mb says

    wow. Such viciousness in these comments. Sorry Ari, some people haven’t learned their manners, nor do they understand how to criticize and have intellectual debates without resorting to put-downs and name calling.

    I appreciate your attempt here to analyze the situation and make suggestions. I do agree with you that the Stoli boycott is aimed at the wrong institution, but I agree with the commentators who point out that it has, nonetheless, publicized the despicable Russian stance in an effective way, and created a discussion and public debate that might not otherwise have happened.

  30. No Sochi says

    If we don’t boycott the games, it just tells every LGBT and Circassian citizen in every nation attending that their rights and struggles are unnoticed by the international community. Governments who respect human rights need to show it in their actions, not just their words.

    for more info on why Sochi is a terrible location for the Olympics:

    http://www.nosochi2014.com

    http://www.twitter.com/nosochi2014
    http://www.facebook.com/nosochi2014

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