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.