Ari Ezra Waldman | Boycotts | Law - Gay, LGBT | News | Olympics | Russia | Sochi Olympics | Vladimir Putin

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


O-STOLI-VODKA-facebookI attended a professional/social networking event recently where, after listening to one gentleman tell his friend about the "awesomeness of Kathy Perry" (Who's Kathy Perry, I asked? "The pop star, of course," he said with all the cocky self-assuredness of Anthony Weiner), I decided to change the subject.

"I'd like to know what we all think about the vodka boycott?"

As Towleroad has been reporting, the combination of draconian anti-gay laws in Russia, roving bands of gay hating pogroms (a term used for the roving bands of anti-Semitic attackers in Russian history), and the upcoming Winter Olympics in the otherwise pleasant resort town of Sochi, Russia, has caused many in the American gay community to issue calls for the United States to drop out of the Games, on-the-ground activism, and/or vodka boycotts.

The last one got me thinking: 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?

This led to what I think is the most important question: How do we define "best"? Is our goal an end to anti-gay hate in Russia? Better understanding and acceptance of LGBT persons? Safety for openly gay athletes at the Olympic Games? What are we trying to achieve?

For Dan Savage, the Stoli boycott would "show solidarity" and "draw international attention" to the persecution of LGBT Russians. That's it? That's all he wants? Scott Shackford, the needlessly condescending writer on gay issues over at the libertarian, thinks the boycott is misguided, but can't offer any alternative beyond his general dislike of all things coming out of the mainline gay movement these days. Michelangelo Signorile has some advice: boycott a whole slew of companies, from Proctor & Gamble to Holiday Inn, because these companies do business with Russia and have influence here in the United States.

The problem with all these ideas is that they are haphazardly approaching a problem without a clear idea of the goal they want to achieve. None of these will help LGBT Russians; some may hurt. A Stoli boycott is a drop in the bucket, harmless to Putin, to his nationalist allies, and to anyone who could possibly influence them. Mr. Signorile's insightful idea is focused here at home, hoping that the United States can ultimately help things change in Russia. But will a hoped-for, but unlikely drop in Proctor & Gamble's profit margin push President Obama to make more than statement of concern to Mr. Putin.

If we want to achieve all these noble and important goals -- helping LGBT Russians, pushing the United States and others to act -- then it seems to me that we can only do one thing: Go to the Olympic Games, have our openly gay and our supportive athletes make physical and verbal statements of LGBT support, and embarrass and hurt Mr. Putin's standing among his people. Let's find Putin's Jesse Owens rather than let Putin laugh at us from afar. Let's hurt Mr. Putin, not the independent owner of a vodka company.

AFTER THE JUMP, I consider the options and show how we can focus and the get the most out of our activism.

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.


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  1. 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.


    Posted by: Wisebear | Jul 30, 2013 5:19:03 PM

  2. 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).

    Posted by: KT | Jul 30, 2013 5:26:45 PM

  3. 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.

    Posted by: jaragon | Jul 30, 2013 6:05:38 PM

  4. AEW - I think you need to stick with marriage equality columns. This column is a load of sh*t.

    Posted by: Aaron | Jul 30, 2013 6:17:57 PM


    Join this group to try to get olympic athletes to show support for the lgbt community during the olympic games

    Posted by: alex | Jul 30, 2013 6:36:14 PM

  6. 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.

    Posted by: Boone68 | Jul 30, 2013 6:57:48 PM

  7. 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.

    Posted by: Paul R | Jul 30, 2013 7:21:52 PM

  8. Yes, the world population has increased -- but no thanks to gays.

    Posted by: Jake | Jul 30, 2013 8:56:26 PM

  9. 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.

    Posted by: robert | Jul 31, 2013 12:33:37 AM

  10. Ari-

    Love your work here. Thank you so much for all your support. I'm a fan!

    Posted by: Dharun Ravi | Jul 31, 2013 1:10:26 AM

  11. Thank you Ari - this is a GREAT article.

    Posted by: Tre | Jul 31, 2013 2:52:01 AM

  12. After the Kathy dug I just would have poured my drink on you, you irritating snob!

    Posted by: Pasquale | Jul 31, 2013 2:52:45 AM

  13. I read Scott's piece on the boycott and the description in this article, regarding it, is rather dishonest.

    Posted by: James Peron | Jul 31, 2013 3:35:44 AM

  14. 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!!!

    Posted by: Patrick Hagerty | Jul 31, 2013 8:22:32 AM

  15. 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.

    Posted by: Brian | Jul 31, 2013 8:57:10 AM

  16. 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

    Posted by: GMB | Jul 31, 2013 11:34:45 AM

  17. 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.

    Posted by: mb | Jul 31, 2013 2:18:34 PM

  18. 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:

    Posted by: No Sochi | Aug 2, 2013 1:58:01 PM

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