Why I’m Boycotting Those Boycotting Russian Vodka

by Lucas Witherspoon

Stolichnaya, to be precise.

In case you haven’t heard, Dan Savage wrote an article advocating the embargo of Russian-made vodkas, specifically Stoli. In that past, Savage has been incredibly effective in his sly protest tactics (most notably and hilariously Google-bombing the word “santorum,” as in Rick Santorum, so that the term redirected to a sexually explicit alternate meaning invented by Savage himself), and while the proposed boycott on Stoli is admirable in its intention and has undoubtedly brought more widespread attention to a severely overlooked topic, the reality is that it’s by and large an ineffectual remonstration.

In the first place, penalizing a privately-held company (the Luxembourg-based SPI Group is, in fact, the company under which Stoli for the U.S. and hundreds of other counties, while the government-owned FKP Soyuzplodoimport produces Stoli for Russia and a minute fraction of other counties where the brand is sold) that has a long history of pro-equality activism is not going to persuade the Russian government to change their stance on human rights, not to mention that all Stoli produced for worldwide consumption is done so in Latvia, with the exception of Russia. History has proven that Russian autocrats aren’t particularly fond of dissenting oligarchs, nor have they shown any inkling of hesitation when it comes to punishing, imprisoning, or (allegedly) murdering them.

Secondly, to presume that a Russian brand is automatically anti-gay is akin to the level of stupidity Americans exhibited by rebranding things like French fries as “freedom fries” post-9/11. What’s more, there are plenty of countries that were leaps and bounds ahead of the United States in terms of same-sex equality, among other human rights issues, yet you didn’t see them boycotting American-made products or the country itself, the reason being it’s a futile attempt to protest an issue that’s much larger and more complex than just demonizing a particular product or country.

The problem with this sort of hysteria is that people to abscond their usual, logical state of mind, which in turn leads to rashness. From a judicious standpoint, a more effective means of boycotting would be something along the lines of the Magnitsky Act, which penalized those found tied to human rights violations with passport revocations and asset freezes. A Magnitsky Act-esque blacklisting tailored to castigate those found in violation of human rights against the LGBT community is doubtlessly more productive than a boycott of a exiguous blip on the Russian government’s radar. At the very least, a proposed boycott of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics would be more perspicacious a statement, as it would directly affect Putin and his cronies’ personal interests in the venture, in addition to Russia’s haut monde and business elite.

To their credit, Stoli’s Luxembourg-based CEO issued an open letter adamantly reiterating the company’s espousal of and dedication to same-sex equality. What’s important to realize in this situation is that, while grassroots campaigns can be effective, it’s necessary that one realizes who exactly it is they should be campaigning against.

Click below to read the full statement from Stoli’s CEO.

Luxembourg, July 25, 2013

An Open Letter from the CEO of Stolichnaya Vodka to the LGBT community.

The recent dreadful actions taken by the Russian Government limiting the rights of the LGBT community and the passionate reaction of the community have prompted me to write this letter to you.

I want to stress that Stoli firmly opposes such attitude and actions. Indeed, as a company that encourages transparency and fairness, we are upset and angry. Stolichnaya Vodka has always been, and continues to be a fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community. We also thank the community for having adopted Stoli as their vodka of preference.

In the US, the brand’s commitment to the LGBT community has been ongoing for years. Among the best examples, I can cite the series produced by Stoli in 2006 called “Be Real: Stories from Queer America” which featured short documentaries on real life stories depicting the challenges and accomplishments of the LGBT community in the United States (http://www.logotv.com/shows/dyn/be_real_series/series.jhtml)

Stoli is very proud of its current exclusive national partnership with Gaycities.com and Queerty.com in search of the Most Original Stoli Guy. This is a fantastic program that started as a local initiative in Colorado and became a national platform. Previous national initiatives included serving as the official vodka of the Miami Gay Pride Week as well as ongoing events with focus on Pride month.

Some great examples from other parts of the world are the support to the Durban Gay Pride, in South Africa (http://www.durbanpride.org), the Pride Parade in Vienna, in cooperation with HOSI and CT, the largest LGBT communities in Austria and the Tel Aviv Pride Parade, taking place this weekend.

This letter also gives me the opportunity to clear some of the confusion surrounding the Stolichnaya brand, based on facts found online that often inaccurately link our company to the Russian Government. The Russian government has no ownership interest or control over the Stoli brand that is privately owned by SPI Group, headquartered in Luxembourg in the heart of Western Europe.

Stoli’s production process involves both Russia and Latvia. Stoli is made from Russian ingredients (wheat, rye and raw alcohol) blended with pure artesian well water at our historic distillery and bottling facility Latvijas Balzams (www.lb.lv) in Riga, Latvia (formerly part of the Russian Empire and then of the Soviet Union). Latvijas Balzams did not recently become part of the Stoli heritage, but has been one of its main production and bottling facilities since 1948. This has allowed the brand to deliver the outstanding quality it is recognized for consistently across the years. What changed in the last years is politics, with Latvia becoming an independent state part of the EU.

We fully support and endorse your objectives to fight against prejudice in Russia. In the past decade, SPI has been actively advocating in favor of freedom, tolerance and openness in society, standing very passionately on the side of the LGBT community and will continue to support any effective initiative in that direction.

Sincerely yours

Val Mendeleev

Chief Executive Officer

SPI Group