Should We Boycott Russian Vodka?

by Mark Adomanis July 29, 2013 screenshot.

Dan Savage is a well-known American gay rights activist with a long history of publicly confronting and humiliating anti-gay politicians such as Gary Bauer and Rick Santorum. In fact, Savage is the reason that you should never, ever Google Rick Santorum’s name (if you go and try to do so, don’t say I didn’t warn you!). Savage’s success in turning “Santorum” into an unmentionable shows that he’s a man with a fair degree of influence, particularly in the gay rights community, and that he’s no stranger to mounting effective online campaigns. In short, he’s not the kind of person you want to anger.

Just last week Savage launched the latest salvo in an escalating pushback against Russia’s attempt to ban “gay propaganda.” Savage declared that he was launching a boycott of all Russian vodkas, and encouraged everyone, but particularly bars and clubs catering to the gay community, to ditch signature Russian brands such as Stolichnaya. Savage even suggested that all supporters of the cause use two hashtags #DumpStoli and #DumpRussianVodka in their social media campaigns as a way of quickly drawing attention to the issue. As of the writing of this column neither appears to have spread very far, a quick scan of Twitter showed that most uses were from a single “Dump Russian Vodka” account with fewer than 200 followers, but mainstream outlets like USA Today are starting to pay attention and it wouldn’t be particularly surprising if either or both ended up going viral.

While Savage’s sentiments are perfectly understandable and appropriate, the “gay propaganda” law is a particularly stupid and indefensible one, the campaign to boycott Russian vodka has an air of surreality to it. In reading about the campaign, one gets the distinct impression that “Russia” is purely an abstraction and that the opponents of Stoli haven’t made the slightest effort to actually understand anything about the country or the law that they’re protesting against. In a follow-up article, Savage appeared to endorse a commenter who said the following:

Dear Russian Oligarch: You and your friends control your nation via your fortune and connections. Fix this or GTFO.

I suppose it’s possible to construct a sentence that provides a more ignorant and hackneyed understanding of how Russia is ruled, but I’m having a pretty hard time imagining it. The idea that Yuri Scheffler, the owner of the holding company which controls Stolichnaya, could just wake up one morning and make the Russian government do anything is simply preposterous. Does anyone remember Mikhail Khodorkovsky? Have we already forgotten that the Russian government doesn’t take kindly to political activism by the oligarchs? How can anyone who’s interested in protesting against the Russian government not even understand the “deal” (stay out of politics and keep your money) which is the very foundation of Putinism? That’s what makes the Russian government the Russian government! We’re not talking about esoteric or obscure topics, these are the most basic, fundamental questions that anyone with any interest in Russia should ask.

The entire notion of a boycott has a bizarrely naïve feel to it. On the one hand you have a government which is repressive and regressive enough that it feels comfortable criminalizing any public displays of homosexuality. On the other hand this government is supposed to be meek enough to fold in the face of a vodka boycott organized by foreign gay right activists? It would seem rather obvious that the sort of government which is capable of passing such a draconian anti-gay law is probably also the sort of government that won’t respond to public pressure, much less pressure from foreigners or gay-rights activists.

Indeed if you were the Kremlin and you were trying to portray domestic opponents of the bill as outsiders who fail to appreciate the “moral and spiritual” uniqueness of the motherland, Dan Savage, a man with a long history of ostentatious contempt for anyone supporting traditional notions of morality, is an ideal opponent. You don’t even need to make anything up: you just go over to his blog, translate some of the juicier bits, and then ask if this is the sort of man who understands what’s best for Russia and its children. Considering Russian attitudes towards homosexuality, support for Savage’s approach will be miniscule.

Does any of this mean the vodka boycott is wrong? No. If you want to boycott Russian vodka then go ahead and boycott Russian vodka. And if you want to convince your friends to boycott Russian vodka then you should do that, too. But if you’re boycotting Russian vodka you shouldn’t have any illusions that you’re actually going to change the Russian government’s behavior and should understand that you’re making a personal statement about the injustice of Russia’s treatment of gays. And there’s nothing wrong with that! Personal statements of political views are entirely appropriate, and it’s good to see people who don’t often pay attention to Russia at least attempting to engage with it. But anyone who signs on to the #DumpStoli campaign should do so with the knowledge that it’s going to fail in its stated goal because Russian distillers are just not politically powerful enough to get the Russian government to reverse course on such a high-profile and sensitive issue (arguably no single interests group is, but that’s a story for another time).

So if you don’t want to drink Russian vodka, great! There are plenty of other types of vodka produced in more progressive locales. But please don’t think that your not drinking Russian vodka is going to have some sort of transformative effect on the Russian government and its escalating anti-gay crackdown because the ability to stop it is only going to come from one place: within Russian society itself.