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

33 comments
PaulJohns
PaulJohns

Overall a good article about a complicated situation. The way you describe the production of Stolichnaya is, I think, misleading, however. It is primarily produced in Russia; Latvijas Balzams, almost 90% owned by SPI, does only a few last production steps (including filtering the alcohol/vodka produced in Russia and mixing it with Baltic artesian water, then bottling it). That said, it is not entirely reasonable to call Stoli a "Russian" product, either--it's a product of both Russia and Latvia.

A quick check of SPI's web site reveals that it has many holding in Russia, including prominent real estate holdings and developments. You neglect to mention this. Is SPI, then, a "Russian" company? My guess is that were it not for disputes with the current (Putin-led) government in Russia, it would be still headquartered in Russia.

About Latvijas Balzams, the Riga (Latvia) company that does the final production and bottling of Stolichnaya: Stoli is far from its only product--it represents a few of over 100 products. It's hard to say how many of their 600-odd employees would be affected by an effective boycott against Stoli. It is clear, however, that the boycott has helped keep the deplorable situation for GLBT people in Russia in the news--we all agree that that's an excellent thing.

Looking at the list of things Stoli has done to support the LGBT community in the U. S. and around the world, I notice that most of them are sponsorships--with the intent of making money from the goodwill generated. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is not as altruistic as donating directly to LGBT organizations, which is doesn't seem to do. Although it has promised, as a result of this boycott, to find ways to contribute to organizations that can help the situation in Russia.

Should one boycott Stoli or not? Hard to say. I hope the facts I've listed will help each of us make a good decision.

kokomocafe
kokomocafe

The only thing faulty is TIME magazines research department. Here are some facts for you to decided if SPI Group and Stoli are Russian.

1) Two of SPI's three production facilities are located in Russia (in Perm and Tambov).
2) The distillery in Tambov is Russia's largest.
3) SPI is the world's largest exporter of Russian vodka.
4) While SPI cannot sell Stolichnaya in Russia, it does sell a long list of other vodka brands that it produces 
in Russia.
5) The company purchases 85,000 tons of Russian grain per year.
6) SPI's agricultural subsidiary, Raduga, farms 3,700 hectares of land in Russia.

7) Besides its production facilities and farmland, SPI has other significant real estate holdings in Russia. 

craighnt
craighnt

Ha, Ha, this is funny, so far i have seen half a dozen of these articles saying "boycott wont work,"  "why its not a good idea",  "vodka is not made in Russia".  Obviously someone is busy buying off writers to post these one sided opinion pieces.  The truth is someone must be nervous it could actually work.    By work I mean get the Russian Govt attention, not take down a country.

The fact is, if you think boycotts dont work, then there is nothing to worry about.   But truth be told they do work.  Remember the Papa John's Pizza CEO that said he would have to lay off workers because he didnt like Obama Care?   Well anyways, the public responded and his profits are now at the bottom of his competition.  Maybe by 6 percent.  Now that is not going to put him out of business, but it sure got his attention and the publics attention and his investors attetnion.  Now he has back peddled by saying it was all just a  theory he had but would not have done it.  

Russian Vodka industry needs to step up to the plate or they will have the same fate.  Telling us some of you product is not made in Russia, or that you donate to gay charities is the thinnest of smoke screens.  If you want to put your money where your mouth is, it would be very simple.  Stop buying off writers to post "you plan is not going to work" articles and start wheeling you billion dollar influence on the Russian government.   Or hay how about gay positive adds and billboards in Russia?  Go around the government and deliver a message directly to the people.  But you wont, because you lack the courage to do so.  Instead you will continue to post "why your protest wont work" ads in America in hopes the sheep that read it will fallow. 

rickk37
rickk37

Liberals are too stupid to understand what they are boycotting...they boycott for the sake of boycotting...

RonnieColeman
RonnieColeman

I see no problem with not telling minors about sex. Homosexuality is NOT normal, it's a sexual fetish or mental illness, it shouldnt be taught along normal health. i dont hate gay people, i believe in equality, i just dont believe their sexual orientation should be taught in schools

BriFi
BriFi

Do people really think that boycotting Russian vodka is a good idea? How is that going to help the millions of LGBT people that live in Russia? People are aiming at the wrong target - that being, an entire country with over 140 million people. A U.S. boycott against Russia just hurts both countries in the end. Russia will get hit economically, pissing the people off, and the U.S. will have to deal with Russia and its allies, with relationships becoming more and more hostile.  Putin will just spin this into making us look even more Russophobic than we already do (his administration controls and censors what they watch on TV and read in the news), having the opposite effect to what is intended by the boycott - which is to bring attention to these homophobic and hateful laws. The only thing we can do at this point to help out is make sure we publicly criticize and condemn these laws - directed at Putin, not all of Russia, while also being extremely cautious when it comes to Putin's rivals and backing off. He has a long history now of hating us for supporting his rivals, and his passing of these anti-gay laws is intended as a direct statement in opposition to all of the progress our country has been making with gay rights. He will not change because of a boycott of booze. It takes a lot more than that. 

sookibong
sookibong

"Don't boycott if innocent people/entities are affected" is basically saying "Don't boycott anything." Part of the success of boycotts is that they incentivize economically-interested neutral parties to get involved in issues that they otherwise wouldn't care about. Stoli may not be a fan of the Russian government or its laws, but they benefit from being associated with the Russian vodka connoisseur image, not to mention the ingredients that Russia provides. Unfortunately for them, that same brand is increasingly being identified with reactionary policies on homosexuality in an increasingly gay-accepting Western world. Even if Stoli cannot affect Russian policies, the boycott is already yielding success not only through media attention but also in the form of a donation by the company to Russian LGBT rights groups as damage control. They are a huge corporation and understand how this stuff works.

pdxuser
pdxuser

Stoli is being self-serving in claiming they're not as Russian as they are. Latvia is one of THREE Stoli distilleries, the other two are in Russia, and their parent company is the largest producer of Vodka in Russia. Besides, the boycott is to get attention around the world, not to bring Russia to its knees or anything. To do that, there'd need to be a global import ban on Russian oil, which isn't going to happen. We happily import oil from Saudi Arabia, after all, and look how they treat women.

MarcoLuxe
MarcoLuxe

Boycotts are symbolic; they send a message.  Here, the Russian press is reporting on the boycott.  The Russian people will read and hear more as the Olympics games approach that they are a far outlier on human rights compared to the west.  Maybe the domestic reporting on this international story will diminish the Kremlin's enthusiasm for diverting attention by scapegoating a powerless minority.   In that light, the boycott is achieving success.  

Russian gays are the Kremlin's new Jews - the unseen wolf at the door used by those in power to scare the sheep into blindly ignoring their leaders' corruption.   Don't look behind the curtain! 

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

Putin is merely bashing gays and Muslims to distract the Russian people from the misery brought on by him and his cronies. Not too dissimilar to how Hitler scapegoated the Jews.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

 In General, article honestly reflects Russia's position towards this problem.
I not absolutely understand what is the meaning of the author puts in a word "crackdown"
I think that is an exaggeration (hyperbole). Let everyone defines itself.


mary.waterton
mary.waterton

Russia is laughing at Sodom America. I'm laughing too.

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

what a surprise, a boycott by uninformed people being off-base. what a shocker

ADignorantium
ADignorantium

I'm for boycotting everything Russian. I'm for boycotting the 2014 Olympics.

I also feel it's long past the time for the LGBT community in Russia, and around the world, to arm themselves. This is not just about equal rights. This is about the culture of violence that gives permission to hunt down LGBT folks. 

When will we say enough? When we see a repeat of the Holocaust?? By then it will be too late!.

PaulJohns
PaulJohns

Oh, text from the Latvijas Balzams site about how Stoli is produced:

"Stolichnaya® Premium vodka

"Stolichnaya® Premium Vodka has its origins in the Tambov region of Russia. Here, amidst its own wheat farms, the ultra-modern distillery Talvis produces the highest quality of Alpha Spirit by carefully removing all of the volatile “heads” and oily “tails”. This means just three distillations are all that are required to preserve the subtle flavour of wheat, characteristic of Stoli®. Then, at the magnificent Latvijas Balzams distillery in Riga, the spirit is filtered through Russian birch charcoal and quartz sand to create vodka of unsurpassed smoothness."

The URL is http://www.latvijasbalzams.lv/en/production/brands/stolichnaya/stolichnaya/

spookiewriter
spookiewriter

@kokomocafe The Stoli we get here (and most other Western countries) has not been produced in Russia for some years. The Russian distilleries produce the garbage they drink domestically. Find out why Russian float pepper in their vodka then wait for it to sink before drinking it.

Yes you can get Stoli in Russia. I bought 2 bottles in Moscow about 3 weeks ago from a small market that caters to locals. The catch is that it is the vile stuff churned out for locals.

Does anyone really think that Putin is going to care about this boycott when he imprisons a punk band for being stupid, kills off or imprisons (usually for embezzlement) folks when they speak up a little too loudly? This includes 2 of the wealthiest guys in the world.

Putin ran the KGB under the Soviet system and is now running the government under the same attitude of "screw the West!". Should SPI find themselves financially strapped due to this boycott, he will simply subsidize it.

I support the idea behind the boycott but this is almost a PETA-like stunt that will get some press but have very little impact.

spookiewriter
spookiewriter

@craighnt As I said above, I support the reason behind this boycott but this is more a PETA stunt that will get some press but that's about it. Using a US example to show how this will work in Russia is just dumb. We Americans tend to think the entire world trembles at our feet but that's just not true.

Putin is trying to bring back the Soviet system to a large extent. Should SPI be hurt by this boycott he will simply subsidize it until the whole thing blows over. 

The conspiracy theory about writers is another example of American thinking. Sure, maybe a few writers will get a kick back or 2 but in this case, some extreme left writers are also saying this boycott is silly.

craighnt
craighnt

@rickk37 You mean like Conservatives who boycott Disneyland because they offered same sex health benefits?  Or Starbucks for their support of gay marriage?  Lost both of those by the way didn't you.

fuzzybat
fuzzybat

@rickk37And you're either too stupid or too hateful (probably both) to be capable of making a statement without generalizing. I am both a gay man and a liberal and don't agree with Dan Savage's statements the majority of the time. 

kokomocafe
kokomocafe

@TonyJuliano Tony your information on Stoli and SPI Group is completely wrong. Here are the correct facts about SPI as found on their own website as of 2 weeks ago. To answer your question on if this will work or not? Well first you really need to understand activism and the media. Is this working? You better believe it is! A few weeks ago no one was talking about the mistreatment of the Russian LGBT community, well actually I was, but everyone is now or they're aleast aware of it. The point wasn't to punish Stoli, it was to take the most recognizable Russian product and light it on fire over the media. We did that. SPI Group decided to lie in an appempt to protect their brand by denying it's affiliation with Russia and siting a legal battle. MicroSoft, Apple, Samsung...I could go on, all of whom have had legal battles with the US government. Guess what? They're all still doing business within the USA.

Here are those SPI Group facts I was talking about:

1) Two of SPI's three production facilities are located in Russia (in Perm and Tambov) the other is in Latvia.
2) The distillery in Tambov is Russia's largest.
3) SPI is the world's largest exporter of Russian vodka.
4) While SPI cannot sell Stolichnaya in Russia, it does sell a long list of other vodka brands that it produces 
in Russia.
5) The company purchases 85,000 tons of Russian grain per year.
6) SPI's agricultural subsidiary, Raduga, farms 3,700 hectares of land in Russia.

7) Besides its production facilities and farmland, SPI has other significant real estate holdings in Russia. 


RUSSIAN I THINK SO!!


Alfredo Diaz

Owner

Revolver Video Bar 

West Hollywood, CA

Tobey
Tobey

@RonnieColeman keep you head in the sand!  Actually, science has determined that all sexuality is determined in the womb based on hormones produced by the mother and how each fetus reacts to them.  In addition homosexuality has been documented in the wild in over a thousand animal species.  

We do appreciate you spouting your ignorance everywhere just the same.  You prove what a great country America is with your freedom of ignorant speech.

SterlingEricsson
SterlingEricsson

@sookibong So you believe that it's worth it using a pro-gay ally to further political goals?


Well then. Welcome to the wide, wonderful world of scapegoating. We'll just sit you over here next to the Republican party. I'm sure you'll make good friends.

SterlingEricsson
SterlingEricsson

@MarcoLuxe You don't see the irony in you fighting against Putin's scapegoating of the LGBT community by you scapegoating a pro-LGBT company?

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin together with his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres has unveiled a Victory Monument in Netanya. This event is the first point in the programme of Putin’s 2-day visit to the Middle East. The monument consists of gigantic wings that are made of white stone and directed high into the sky, and symbolize victory, peace and good. It was placed on the sun-filled embankment of the Mediterranean Sea resort of Netanya. A black labyrinth is nearby. There are bas-reliefs on its walls dedicated to the tragic pages of the Second World War, including the horrors of the Holocaust and the main battles fought by the Red Army. The Victory Memorial symbolizes the fight between light and darkness - meaning Nazi Germany that was defeated in that war. The Russian President said that what he saw had made a great impression on him. And what emerges as a result is a great feeling of gratitude to the residents of Israel for everything that is being done in a bid to immortalize the memory of all those who were killed in the Second World War, Vladimir Putin stressed. "In Russia the memory of that horrible war is sacred. And we praise highly the fact that the residents of Israel share our feelings and that such dates as September 1st, 1939 and June 22nd, 1941 mean as much to the Israeli citizens as to the people in Russia. Unveiling the Victory Memorial, we grieve for all those who were killed in the battles, who died from wounds or who were tortured to death in concentration camps. The Holocaust is one of the blackest, the most tragic, and one of the most disgraceful pages in the history of mankind. The unprecedented atrocities of the Nazis are unpardonable. The Soviet Army halted all these atrocities. It saved not only the Jewish people but also many other peoples from extermination. The Victory Monument has been built on the Holy Land in its honour." The memorial in Netanya is the first monument in Israel that is dedicated to the contribution of the Red Army to the Victory in the Second World War. The idea of this monument that belongs to Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was supported by Russia’s leadership. The War Memorial in Netanya was built from private donations. Israel’s President Shimon Peres said that the memorial in Netanya symbolized a profound feeling of gratitude to the Russian people who saved the world from Nazism but lost 30 million people in that war. “Had it not been for the Red Army that seized Berlin, Nazi Germany would have seized Moscow”, the Israeli President said. "The Jewish people have feelings of historical gratitude to the Russian people. The Nazis killed 3 million of Jews who lived in the USSR. The Red Army was the first liberator of the prisoners of the concentration camps." V-Day is a holy day for all Israeli citizens. Israel is the only country in the world, except the CIS states, where V-Day is celebrated as in Russia. There are about 5,000 war veterans in Israel today. One can say that the past war affected all Jewish families. “Every third Jew was killed in that war. It was a great tragedy, one of the Netanya citizens, David, says. There is no doubt that the majestic monument has added more pearls to the embankment in Netanya that is one of the major tourist centres in Israel. There are plans to turn the Victory Memorial in Netanya into a pilgrimage site for tourists from Russia and other countries. This will serve as a warning to the future generations against any repeat of similar tragedies as well as any distortions of the memory about them..

craighnt
craighnt

@mary.waterton Then maybe you should laugh your way all the way to Russia since you think its so much better.

RonnieColeman
RonnieColeman

@Tobey @RonnieColeman homosexual behavior is not an indication of homosexuality, it is merely that animals are dumb and require sex and will hump anything that moves

RonnieColeman
RonnieColeman

@Sibir_Russia Wrong. wrong. wrong. the japanese committed the worst atrocities in the world, followed by the CIA experiments, then followed by the german nazi experiments. 'deaths' are not a sympton of evil, only conflict. torture and experimentation is the manifestation of evil. 95% of german soldiers were good people defending their homeland, and 5% were the nazi-die-hards who didnt care about germany, they just wanted to kill jews.

Tobey
Tobey

@RonnieColeman @Tobey You couldn't be more wrong.  You could try, but you would not be successful.  Did you read "Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity" in only 2 hours?  That would have been awesome, but you since you still don't know that some animals enter into monogamous homosexual relationships for life and some use it as social bonding, I don't think you even tried to learn anything.