The Faulty Logic of the Russian-Vodka Boycott

Corporate ties and political fighting complicate the protest of Russia's LGBT crackdown

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JONATHAN ALCORN / REUTERS

A piece of carpet with a logo of Stolichnaya vodka is marked with black tape during a news conference at Micky's nightclub in West Hollywood, Aug. 1, 2013.

If you’ve noticed an absence of Stolichnaya vodka from the shelves of your local bar or liquor store in the past week, it’s probably not due to a supply shortage. The culprit is more likely a burgeoning boycott of Russian vodka by gay-rights activists and their supporters in response to the Russian government’s stance on homosexuality.

Just one problem: Stolichnaya isn’t distilled in Russia, and the brand’s owner has been feuding with the Russian government for over a decade.

Over the past two months, Russia’s record on gay rights went from bad to worse. On June 11, the Russian parliament unanimously passed a law outlawing “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” among minors, which makes it illegal to teach children about homosexuality. On July 3, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning the adoption of children by same-sex parents.

(MORE: Pride and Prejudice: An Interactive Timeline of the Fight for Gay Rights)

The measures were met with an outcry from gay communities around the world. Some activists suggested boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics next February in the Russian city of Sochi, where a local politician declared that gay athletes and spectators could be subject to arrest. But the resistance that has gained the most traction in the U.S. is the vodka protest, which the influential writer Dan Savage endorsed in his Seattle Stranger column on July 24.

In encouraging bars — both gay and straight — to stop selling Russian vodka, Savage specifically singled out Stolichnaya, minting the Twitter hashtag #DumpStoli to accompany the campaign. Over the past two weeks, dozens of gay bars in the U.S. — including many in Seattle, Chicago and Los Angeles — have announced they will no longer sell the vodka. The Stonewall Inn, a prominent gay bar in New York City’s West Village and the site of the 1969 Stonewall riots, also confirmed to TIME that Stoli is no longer on its shelves.

At first glance, Stoli seems a logical target for those hoping to promote greater awareness of the plight of gays in Russia. Not only is it widely associated with the country, vodka is also one of Russia’s most profitable consumer exports to the U.S. (It’s hard to imagine a boycott of Russian-made bauxite and aluminum generating quite as much buzz.)

(MORE: Gay Olympian: Let’s Go to Sochi and Speak Out)

But while Stoli’s ingredients — wheat, rye and raw alcohol — are Russian, the vodka itself is distilled in Latvia and distributed in the U.S. by William Grant & Sons USA, an American subsidiary of a Scottish corporation.

“I don’t carry Russian Standard or any of the other Russian vodkas, [and] if I did, I would have immediately pulled it off the shelves,” says Lexi Stolz, a co-owner of the Dalloway in New York City. “But with Stoli it’s a bit confusing because the brand — or at least the marketing team in the U.S. — has been a huge advocate of LGBT rights and organizations.”

In his column, Savage notes that the SPI Group — a Luxembourg-based export company owned by wealthy Russian businessman Yuri Shefler — controls the rights to Stoli and will handle distribution beginning on Jan. 1, 2014. But what Savage does not explain, however, is that Shefler and SPI are no friends of the Russian government. Savage has not responded to requests for comment.

Russia’s liquor industry has been a thorny political issue since it was privatized after the fall of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago, and the international success of Stolichnaya has made the brand a primary target of the Russian government for renationalization. In 2002, Russian customs officers seized $40 million worth of Stoli vodka produced in a Kaliningrad factory, and Shefler has been in de facto exile ever since.

“[Shefler] was forced out of Russia over 10 years ago and has been in courts around the world as the Russian government has tried to get the brand back,” SPI North America president John Esposito says. “Hurting Stoli in the U.S. is actually probably going to make the Russian government happy, given that they’ve been fighting us for the last 13 years. They’re probably going to be sitting there chuckling.”

MORE: A Brief History of Russians and Vodka

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