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The #dumpstoli campaign has been a global public-relations success. But have the protests for public awareness of repressive anti-gay laws in Russia been misdirected and unfairly targeted a long-time ally of the LGBT community? Will the Dump Vodka protests actually change the minds of the Russian parliament?

Who among us could tell the post-Soviet, neo-colonial difference anyway?

Here is my on-the-ground investigation of yesterday’s protest in front of the Russian Consulate in New York:

In a symbolic protest against the draconian anti-LGBT laws that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law this past June, a crowd of about 60 to 70 demonstrators staged a “Vodka Dump” protest at noon across the street from the Russian Consulate on Manhattan’s East 91st Street.

Chanting “Dump! Dump! Dump! Dump! Dump!” the throng egged on Bob Fluet, one of the owners of Boxers NYC in Chelsea and Boxers HK in Hell’s Kitchen, and two of his bartenders in red shirts as they spilled bottle after bottle of Stolichnaya Vodka and Russian Standard into the gutter.

The July 31 rally was organized by RUSA LGBT (the Russian-Speaking American LGBTQ Association) and Queer Nation, a direct action organization. The action took place less than a day after activists associated with ACT UP/NY disrupted Stoli Vodka’s “Most Original Stoli Guy” event in the evening of July 30 at Splash Bar in Chelsea. The ACT UP/NY group of less than a dozen people shouted in front of a crowd of over 150 partiers and attendees, bearing signs that read “Russia Kills Gays,” “Boycott Russia,” and “Dump Stoli.”

Ann Northrup of Queer Nation led the noon rally in front of the Russian Consulate and eloquently outlined the demands of the demonstrators. “It’s not illegal to be gay in Russia,” Northrop said. “They did away with that years ago. It’s now illegal to be open about being gay.”

Vodka Dump Protest in front of Russian Consulate July 31 | Photo by Randy Gener
Vodka Dump Protest in front of Russian Consulate July 31 | Photo by Randy Gener

The Vodka Dump in front of the Russian Consulate highlighted four issues: Queer Nation and RUSA LGBT are demanding that Russia repeal the “anti-gay propaganda” law before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

  • They are calling for “a boycott of all Russian products, including Russian vodka.”
  • The protesters seek a boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics. They suggest that the 2014 Winter Games be moved to Vancouver, Canada.
  • They want corporate sponsors of the Sochi Olympics to withdraw their sponsorship. They cited Coca-Cola, Omega Watches, Visa PricewaterhouseCoopers, Procter & Gamble, Samsung, and Panasonic.

Escalating Violence Against LGBT Russians
Homophobia has grown in the former Soviet Union since the 1990’s. For a while, persecution was selective and politically motivated. This past June, Russia’s Parliament unanimously passed a series of anti-gay legislative bills that made the Russian crackdown of LGBT people, including visitors and foreigners, a lawful state action.

These laws have emboldened cold-blooded thugs and right-wing extremists to specifically target LGBT Russian youth. In one case, an illegal militant group that calls itself “crime fighter” has put up fake profiles on social media to entrap male Russian teens to come over and then physically assault them on camera.

To highlight these sorts of extreme and escalating violence against LGBT-identifying individuals over the past months, the “Vodka Dump” organizers asked a former TV journalist, Roman Manonov, to speak out at the noon rally and explain why Russians nationals like him are now applying for asylum in the U.S.

Roman Manonov in front of the Russian Consulate July 31 | Photo by Randy Gener
Roman Manonov in front of the Russian Consulate July 31 | Photo by Randy Gener

In Moscow, Manonov had led what he calls a successful and normal life, even though at one point a faulty privacy setting on his LiveJournal accidentally announced his sexuality to the general public (rather than just to friends). That sense of normalcy radically changed after he became involved in last year’s anti-Putin marches. He sent several complaints before and after the March of the Millions to the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office concerning statements made by people from the Russian Orthodox Church and nationalists close to the Russian Vice Prime Minister.

“After that, I started getting threats and phone calls, then text messages,” Manonov told me, “One night I came home to find ‘die faggot’ written across my apartment door.” The police refused to investigate. He left Moscow and came to New York. But soon his tourist visa will run out. “I’m afraid to go back to Russia,” Manonov said.

As violent rhetoric and attacks against gay men in Russia continue, the Russian vodka boycott has clearly taken off, thanks to the persistent use of social media. Gay bars all around the world have been pledging not to serve Russia vodka, with Stoli Vodka specifically being singled out. #dumpstoli has become a global campaign.

Controversy over #dumpstoli Campaign
Owner Bob Fluet said at the New York rally that he decided to pull Russian vodka from the shelves of his two Boxers bars. “We know that we cannot cripple the Russian government,” Fluet said. “We can bring attention to the issue, and it’s working. It’s just one piece of the puzzle.”

Unfortunately, while #dumpstoli has put Russia’s anti-LGBT laws front-page news worldwide, the campaign has had many detractors who seriously question the tactic. An open letter from the staff at XES, a gay bar in Manhattan, stated on its Facebook page (it can be read in full here):

“Stoli has been our partner, and we shouldn’t turn our backs on them now. Besides, it wouldn’t help. Symbolism isn’t enough. XES has decided to support groups like Amnesty International that know how to exert influence in similar situations and are dedicated to doing so in Russia. Starting today, XES will donate $1 from every drink we sell throughout the summer that’s made with Stoli Vodka.”

Another naysayer: the leading Russian LGBT activist Nikolai Alekseev. He told me that a U.S. boycott of Russian vodka makes no sense. ”How can a commercial company be responsible for Putin’s government?” he asked. “The producers, even if they become bankrupt because of the boycott, will not be able to influence Russian politics… and the decisions of the State Duma.” The way forward, Alekseev suggested, is to institute visa bans for Russian lawmakers and politicians, who are behind the anti-gay laws.

The most vocal detractor of the #dumpstoli is CEO Val Mendeleev. He leads SPI Group, the multinational company that produces Stoli Vokda. In an open letter to the U.S.gay magazine The Advocate, Mendeleev explained that Stoli Vodka is actually not a Russian vodka.

To be precise, he said, Stoli Vodka is a Latvian vodka, widely perceived but no longer marketed in the West as “Russian,” yet using Russian ingredients, but actually produced by a gay-friendly Luxembourg spirits corporation that is owned by a rich ex-Russian oligarch who is reputed to be an enermy of Putin.

On July 30 (the same day ACT UP/NY disrupted the Stoli Vodka’s “Most Original Stoli Guy” event in New York), Mendeleev appeared on SiriusXM Radio for an interview with gay activist Michelangelo Signorile. The CEO explain the history of the SPI Group’s dispute with the Russian government:

“Our company is Luxembourg-based. We were forced to move our headquarters from Russia about 10 years ago. And this is because we have ongoing litigation with the Russian government about the ownership of the brand. So, we’re not a friend of the Russian government. We are not a Russian company. Stoli is not even allowed to be sold in Russia. [The Russian government] is still trying [to take over Stoli worldwide]. They did manage to grab up the Russian Stoli brand and they have been trying to grab up the ownership of the global brand. But the international courts in London and Switzerland understand that this commercial dispute with the Russian government has political motives. Yuri Scheffler, in early 2000, when this whole thing started, was supporting political opposition to the new government that was installed there, and that basically started the whole dispute.”

Listen to the full interview here:

In fact, in a lawsuit that was won by the Russian Federation, the SPI Group lost its ownership rights to the Stoli trademark, Since 2007, Stoli has been forbidden from explicitly labeling itself a Russian product. That’s why the label says “Premium Vodka.”

According to The Hague’s records, the Russian Federation accused Yuri Scheffler of stealing those trademarks.

Meanwhile, as opposed to Stoli Vodka, there has been no real outrage over Russian Standard Vodka, which is actually a true Russian-made product, or the less well-known Kaspersky Antivirus, considered the second largest Russian consumer product in the U.S. after Stoli.

Pro and Con the Vodka Dump
None of this matters to Nina Long of RUSA LGBT, the Russian-American queer activism group, who explained to The Journalist.ie that she supports the Stoli Vodka boycott because of its iconic status.

“If you take Russian out of Stoli, what’s left?” Long asks. “It’s part of their brand. It’s the part they use to market the product. Right now it is up to Soli to restore goodwill to the Russian name. They can influence the people they deal and trade with in Russia.

Vodka Dump in front of the Russian Consulate | Photo by Randy Gener
Vodka Dump in front of the Russian Consulate | Photo by Randy Gener

Regarding SPI’s public relations efforts, Boxers’ owner Bob Fluet agrees. “They need to move on from trying to convince us they’re not a Russian vodka. It is making them look worse. We need a real dialogue. They have the ability to pick up the phone and talk to Russian officials and we don’t.”

Could a wealthy oligarch who claims to be a known opponent of Putin be able to pick up the phone and lobby directly to the Russian government in support for LGBT rights? Critics, however, are skeptical that Russian companies can speak out in Putin’s authoritarian Russia the way U.S. corporations can critique and influence their own government or even the Russian government,

“I don’t know,” Fluet said. “How you become a Russian billionaire in Russia? I can’t speak to that.”

Mendeleev said: “I appreciate the good intentions and the aims [of the boycott]. Stoli is is not friend of the Russian government. They will be happy to see that the LGBT community is targeting them. This is not what the community wants. It is the opposite.”

In an open letter posted August 1 on Facebook from Riga, Mozaika, the Latvian association of LGBT and their friends, said that the international community “should act and react in regards to grave violations of human rights in Russia and elsewhere.” However, Mozaika added, “it is essential to do careful research before every action to make sure it reaches the addressee of the campaign.”

Stolichnaya vodka is not produced in Russia and it is misleading to say that it is a Russian product. All Stolichnaya vodka for worldwide export is produced in Latvia. Stolichnaya is produced by the Latvian company Latvijas Balzams and production takes place in Riga, the capital of Latvia. As you know, Latvia was under Soviet occupation for over 50 years. Therefore we are still very often mistakenly considered to be a part of Russia. Latvia is a proud member of the European Union and is striving to be an open, democratic country. We would kindly ask you to reconsider your actions in regards to “Dump Stoli! DumpRussian Vodka!” as this campaign will only harm Latvia, Latvia’s economy and employees of the company Latvijas Balzams. It could also backfire and have unintended negative consequences for the extremely fragile LGBT community in Latvia.

Read the full statement from Mozaika here.

In response to the “Vodka Dump” boycott, Stoli CEO Mendeleev added that his company is seeking a local Russian group to which it could donate money to help fight the anti-gay government repression in Russia, and would be making an announcement in coming days.

“Stoli has been a friend of the LGBT community and has been an opponent of the Russian government,” Mendeleev said. “Stoli was singled out by the community with which we associated in a way that we don’t believe was appropriate. If you look at our relationship with the Russian government, we’ve been boycotted by the Russian government for the past 10 years. We’ve been threatened, raided. And now we are being boycotted by the LGBT community.”

Two Russian LGBT groups SPI Group is considering to support are the organizing committee of Moscow Gay Pride and the founders of the banned Pride House Sochi. Led by Nikolai Alekseev, these two LGBT-led groups have decided against the boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Instead they plan to organize a Winter Sochi Pride on the day of the opening of 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

Another LGBT group that SPI Group is considering to offer financial support is the Latvian NGO Mozaika.

“Mozaika will be reaching out to local Latvian companies to support EuroPride 2015,” says Kaspars Zalitis, a Mozaika board member and co-chair of Riga’s EuroPride 2015. “Taking into account the values and strategies of SPI Group worldwide, we will be inviting them to cooperate closely. This boycott campaign targeting Stolichnaya vodka will heavily impact any future possibilities to cooperate with SPI Group and Latvijas Balzams, as well as with other local companies.”

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