Talking points? I don't need no stinking talking points! Well, I don't need 'em most of the time...
I was on MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes last night. While I wouldn't normally work up a page of talking points before appearing on a cable news program—I usually don't have a problem running my big mouth—I just got back from two and a half weeks in Berlin and I'm pretty seriously jet lagged. (Check out the bags under my eyes.) So I thought it best to organize my thoughts before last night's showdown with Chris. I worked up these talking points about the vodka boycott with Matt Fikse-Verkerk and they cover a lot more ground than I was able to cover in the three minutes I had on All In. So I'm posting 'em here on Slog.
Why did you decide to do launch this boycott?
The boycott of Russian vodkas wasn't launched by me. A lot of people are involved and a lot of people are backing this effort. The boycott was spontaneous and got off the ground in a lot of places all at once—activists in NYC, SF, and Seattle all had the idea nearly at the same time to push this, and everyone got to work. Harvey Fierstein's NYT opinion piece was a real catalyst, but it was the constant drumbeat of horror stories coming out of Russia that kicked things into high gear. Every day we are hearing more and more about legal persecution, abuse, beatings, and worse—all sanctioned by the Russian government.
Why boycott Russian Vodka? Isn't that some frivolous gay cliche?
Boycotts are never the end of an issue, they are the start of an issue. And vodka is Russia's most iconic product—and the companies that make it and sell it have deep ties in Russia. The point of this boycott—the point of any boycott—is to 1) draw the world' s attention to the issue 2) get people motivated and engaged and doing something and then 3.) hopefully, and in time, make the situation better for LGBT people in Russia. This is just getting started and is only going to grow the more we hear about the daily horrors of life in Russia for LGBT people.
Has the boycott been successful?
The boycott has been a huge success. Media all over the world are now covering this topic for the first time, and the vodka boycott is what initially got the international media's attention. Organizations and analysts and activists agree on this. The vodka boycott worked and it is still working.
But isn't Stoli a Latvian vodka? That's what the company that makes Stoli—SPI—is claiming. Stoli is Latvian?
That's simply not true. There is no question Stoli is a Russian vodka. SPI has marketed Stoli as a Russian vodka for years and in the past SPI fought back against any claims that Stoli was not, in fact, a Russian vodka and a Russian product. Two of SPI's three main plants are in Russia. The crops that are used to make Stoli are grown in Russia on Russian land that is owned by SPI. The product is distilled in Russia. SPI is also an enormous real estate developer in Russia. The Latvian ploy was a poorly executed PR effort that is backfiring on SPI. But you don't have to take my word for it. Prominent gay journalist Michelangelo Signorile, during an interview on his radio show, put this question to SPI-Group CEO Val Mendeleev: “Are you saying now that [Stolichnaya’s] not Russian vodka?” Mendeleev's reply? "No."
And here's how the president of the company that distributes Stoli described the vodka to Vanity Fair UK in 2008:
“Stolichnaya, as it is sold outside of Russia, is distilled in Russia. And then it is moved from Russia to Latvia, where it is put into bottles. There is nothing added, nothing taken away, no additions, no subtractions from the product that leaves Russia... Stolichnaya is the original, authentic, genuine Russian vodka brand made with genuine, authentic Russian vodka from Russia. Period.”
It's important to note, again, that there are other Russian vodkas and that the boycott isn't focused solely on Stoli. Russian Standard is a Russian vodka that is sold in the US and Europe and the company that makes Russian Standard is ten times bigger than SPI. And as it turns out, Russian Standard is also the biggest bank and insurance company inside Russia. Russian Standard is also being boycotted. All Russian vodkas are. And both of these companies—SPI and Russian Standard—are ideal targets for a boycott because inside Russia, regardless of the whether the heads of the companies like or don't like Putin, these companies have enormous influence. And if they are going to sell their products to LGBT consumers around the world and profit from LGBT consumers around the world, they cannot ignore attacks on LGBT people inside of Russia. They cannot claim to be on the side of LGBT people everywhere while ignoring what is happening to LGBT people in Russia.
Why not call the boycott off now that you've made your point?
Boycotts end when things change. The sports and arts boycotts against South Africa didn't end until apartheid ended. Musicians didn't start playing Sun City after they "made their point." They started playing Sun City after apartheid ended. If SPI or Russian Standard or any other Russian vodka maker wants the boycott to end, they should put their best, most aggressive, most effective ideas on the table about how they will support LGBT people inside Russia on this issue and create change inside Russia. The LGBT community in the US and Europe can look at that and decide if it's enough. If SPI and Russian Standard and other Russian companies want to hold on to their international customers they should start pressuring the Russian government at all levels to stop the legal persecution of LGBT people in Russia. Throwing money at a pride parade in Michigan or hosting a "Stoli Man" beauty pageant in San Francisco is simply not enough.
But Stoli is friend of the gays, why attack them?
SPI has spent millions selling vodka to gays. SPI sponsored a TV show six years ago and a parade here and there. But what it needs to do to keep gay customers is to start doing things inside Russia to support its gay customers and employees. If SPI wants to be a global, not Russian, brand then SPI is going to have to deal with gay customers who demand that SPI support gay rights globally, not just in countries where gay rights are secure or popular.
If Stoli were truly a a friend of gays instead of paying lip service to it or pinkwashing themselves with a parade on some other continent, they would find things to do in Russia to support Russian LGBT people. They would've already been doing those things. Remember: SPI sells five of the most popular domestic brands of Russian vodka. SPI needs to find things it can do inside Russia on a longterm basis to support their gay employees and consumers. Globalism works both ways on this.
Right now all of SPI's pro-gay statements and claims—and all of their rainbow graphics—appear only on the pages of their websites that are in English. There's nothing on SPI's Russian-language pages. That is unacceptable.
Where does it go from here?
There's lots of work to do. The Olypmics are coming up, and there are big questions about the safety of athletes and visitors. The IOC is electing a new president in a few weeks, there are hundreds of US companies that currently do business in Russia, and they are now facing tough questions. Proctor and Gamble is being taken to task for underwriting the anti-LGBT bigotry that is being broadcast Russian state television—bigotry that is stoking the violence on the streets. This issue is only going to get bigger as time goes on. There will be a ton of ways for people to get involved.
Harvey Fierstein was also on All In last night, in the segment immediately before mine. Watch: