Why the Russian Vodka Boycott Matters


If you haven’t been paying attention to what’s been going on in Russia, it’s time to start. These YouTube videos posted by the Russian extremist group “Occupy Pedophilyaj” will make you understand the gravity of the situation pretty quick.

Russia’s unbelievably inhumane anti-gay laws have been widely condemned internationally, sparking suggestions for boycotting the 2014 winter Olympics that will be held in Sochi. 

On a similar tact, Dan Savage, gay rights advocate and founder of the It Gets Better Project, called for a ban of the Russian vodka Stolichnaya on his blog. Gay bars across the United States are responding, planning pouring parties to dispose of the vodka.

The boycott of Stoli and all Russian vodkas will do little to affect the companies that produce them, and will have no effect on the Russian government.  But active activism like this is reminiscent of the grassroots organizing of the civil rights movement and is a proved way to engage the public and bring attention to important issues.

Most of the country, and probably most of the world, has seen horrifying images from Russia in the comfort of their living room or office and thought about how horrible it is that something so grotesque is going on in 2013. And then they clicked on the next Buzzfeed link and looked at pictures of cats, forgetting about the atrocities until another attention-grabbing story popped up again on the sidebar.

Nothing the United States does, especially individual citizens of the United States, is likely to have its desired effect on the Russian government. Putin is thriving in anti-Westernism and boasting about the differences between Russia and the West. So the idea of Americans boycotting Stoli vodka or refusing to participate in the 2014 Olympics is probably quite appealing to him.

But Putin is a crazy person. It doesn’t matter how much he cares about a boycott; he has proved that he is not persuaded by anyone. Nina Long, co-president of RUSA LGBT, said, “The boycott is especially appealing because everyone can participate it in. It has the power of the people.”

The point of a boycott is to get the attention of sympathizers and show the Russian LGBT community that we stand with them and against the Kremlin. The point is not to destroy Russia’s economy until Putin weepily crumbles and adopts Western ideals.

The internet has made it much easier to feel politically engaged by retweeting NPR and sharing videos of human rights violations, but social media alone will not create large-scale political change.

The most recent anti-gay laws include outlawing “homosexual propoganda” and classifying it as porn, prohibiting Russian babies to be adopted to gay couples or any country with marriage equality, and allowing police officers to arrest and detain any tourist or foreign national suspected of being gay, looking gay, or even just being and/or looking “pro-gay.”

Patrick Burke, co-founder of the You Can Play project, makes a strong argument against a boycott of the Olympics: “In 1968, Kareem Abdul-Jabar refused to play in the Olympics as a protest against the treatment of blacks in America. The same year, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on a medal stand, gloved fists in the air, as a protest against the treatment of blacks in America. History remembers the athletes who showed up.”

People, even Putin, will notice a boycott of Russian products more than they’ll notice retweets or shares.  Just like people will notice if athletes — those who are LGBT, have LGBT friends or family, and those who support the LGBT community, participate in the Olympics and show that the majority of the world supports the LGBT community. Active support, no matter how small, will be noticed.