Russia’s anti-gay laws have prompted widespread calls for various boycotts this week. Now, the manager of Toronto gay bar Wayla has pulled Russian products from its shelves.
It's the latest in a growing chorus of bar and restaurant owners announcing that their establishments will no longer sell Russian products in protest of the country’s new anti-gay law and increasingly hostile anti-gay climate — just as the world begins to turn its attention to the next Olympic games, which will be hosted in Sochi, Russia, in six months.
Brian Duvale says boycotting Stolichnaya vodka, a brand with corporate and production ties to both Latvia and Russia, sends a very strong message. Wayla uses about two to three bottles a week. He says Wayla also sells a Russian brandy that will not be re-stocked.
“The pictures from Russia are terrifying. So, it was a no brainer for us,” he says. “I posted the announcement on Facebook because I want to know which bars will be selling Russian vodka. I would like to see other bars do the same.
“I won’t be buying anymore Russian products from now on. This is an issue that hits very close to home for me. This is the least we can do.”
Duvale would like to see those profiting from Stoli speak out strongly against the Russian government's anti-gay laws and escalating violence against LGBT people. “I know it’s not Stoli that is imposing these laws, but this is the one thing we can do right now.”
In the latest shocking incident, there are reports of a Russian neo-Nazi group luring gay teens online in a disturbing campaign to catch them to torture them. A 20-minute video circulating the web shows one gay youth being interrogated, assualted and urinated on, then the video hauntingly cuts out.
Some Twitter users have taken up the hashtags #DumpStoli and #DumpRussianVodka. Meanwhile, the CEO of the SPI Group, which owns the brand, posted a letter on the company’s website. “Stolichnaya Vodka has always been, and continues to be a fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community,” Val Mendeleev wrote. Mendeleev then lists several partnerships with LGBT events, such as Miami Gay Pride Week.
Despite this, the boycott seems to be catching on. Chicago’s Sidetrack, one of the city’s most popular gay bars, is now one of several in that city no longer serving Russian vodka. The Fountainhead, a Vancouver bar, joined the boycott on July 23. Owners of several gay bars in West Hollywood announced July 26 they are removing Stoli and other Russian brands from their shelves, the LA Times reports. In the UK, London’s KU bar and G-A-Y nightclub are also reportedly ditching Russian vodka.
Duvale is also considering a boycott of the major Olympic sponsors, beginning with Coca-Cola, one the main sponsors of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games.
“That’s certainly the next step,” he says. “First I want hear from all the sponsors, like Samsung and Proctor and Gamble and others. If they don’t speak out, [boycott] is definitely the next step.”
But one prominent Russian gay activist and lawyer, Nikolai Alekseev, head of the Moscow Pride organizing committee, is telling international activists that there’s “no point” in boycotting Russian vodka, Gay Star News reports.
“And what is the aim of this boycott? The producers, even if they become bankrupt because of the boycott (which is unlikely) will not be able to influence Russian politics and President Putin as well as the decisions of the State Duma,” he states.
Alekseev said if people want to support Russian gays they should target homophobic lawmakers. He also calls on people to write to world leaders. "Pressure your governments to put the authors of those laws on the black lists for the entrance visas . . . This is the only thing which can effectively work.”
But long-time gay rights activist Cleve Jones says boycotts should not be dismissed. Jones, best known as the creator of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, is calling for a complete boycott and divestment of all Russian products. He also wants global participation in an international day of protest against Russia at sunset on August 3.
Activist and columnist Dan Savage has also called for a worldwide boycott of Russian vodka.
Jones says he knows from firsthand experience that boycotts work. He tells Xtra says queer people and their allies should do everything possible to make noise on this issue: boycott, march, protest at Russian consulates and press leaders to speak out. “And we should use the Games as a way to increase the pressure.”
Jones worked with Harvey Milk on his successful boycott of Coors in San Francisco gay bars in 1974. In 2008 he launched a boycott of the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Diego, whose owner was giving substantial amounts of money toward the campaign to get Proposition 8 on the ballot.
“Within months we pulled hundreds of thousands of dollars in business out of that one hotel, and by the time the boycott concluded, about two years later, we’d pulled about $7 million in convention business out of that hotel,” he says. “We didn’t even calculate how much business we pulled from individual travellers, and there were many gay and lesbian customers . . . Boycotts can be very useful and cost your opponent significant money and keep the story out there.”
A combination of protests, boycotts and divestments ultimately made a huge difference in ending South Africa's apartheid regime, says Jones.
“People are spending a lot of time right now arguing what works and what doesn’t work, but the reality is that it all works. All actions are effective if they are done well,” he says. “The bottom line is we should not be sending any money to Russia. Don’t buy Russian products and don’t travel to Russia.
“And we need to raise hell around the winter games and do everything to shine a global spotlight on this horrendous evil that is unfolding in that country right now."
However, some activists have taken to social media to argue that boycotting Stoli in particular is misguided because the vodka is no longer manufactured in Russia. But Jones says that’s not entirely true. “Here in the US we have manufacturing plants that make Toyotas and Hondas . . . but no one would argue that Honda and Toyota are not Japanese car companies,” he says. “So, this discussion about whether Stoli is Russian is just ridiculous. Of course it’s Russian and I’m not going to buy it anymore.”
Stolichnaya was produced by the state during the Soviet years and was reportedly the favourite vodka of Boris Yeltsin. The Luxembourg-based SPI Group now produces Stoli in Latvia using Russian ingredients despite an attempt by Russia to regain the brand about 10 years ago.
Jones says while the vodka boycott is only days old, news of it is already making its way to the Russian people. The international boycott was a top story in some Moscow media on July 26. “That means that ordinary Russian people, gay and straight alike, are reading news of international condemnation of their anti-LGBT laws. It's a start,” Jones says.
When it comes to boycotting the Olympic sponsors – such as Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Samsumg, Panasonic and VISA – Jones urges people to contact the companies and press for a statement.
“They entered into these contracts long before this issue blew up,” he says. “But I know Coca-Cola does huge business in Russia. I am calling on people to contact the corporate sponsors and ask for their statements first.”
Russia’s new anti-gay propaganda law was passed unanimously by both chambers of Russian government and was signed into law by Vladimir Putin June 30.