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Vodka, Olympic controversies shed light on Russian repression
by Matt Simonette
2013-07-31

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Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia has sought a larger role on the world stage. Thanks to many years of its booming, oil-driven economy, it has been succeeding. But in recent months, that economy has begun to stagnate—in the first quarter of 2013, it grew at 1.6 percent, its slowest rate since 2009, according to The Economist—and President Vladimir Putin has faced ongoing accusations of corruption. So in an effort to drum up support from conservatives, who had been some of his most ardent protesters, the Russian president has been appealing to their most homophobic instincts.

The anti-gay legislation that became laws in late June both forbade adoption by gays and ostensibly protects children from gay propaganda. What constitutes "gay propaganda" is left to the discretion of police officers, so some gays might be in danger even just stating that they are gay. Travelers to Russia are not exempt from the laws either; they face fines, 15 days imprisonment and deportation. A group of Dutch filmmakers were the first foreigners to be arrested under the new laws.

Gay activists and other concerned supporters have responded by calling for the removal of one of Russia's most famous products—its vodka—from the shelves of gay bars. Other commentators have questioned how gay athletes taking part in the Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi next year

Many Chicago gay bars last week said they were banning Stolichnaya Vodka and other products of Russian origin. A statement released Thursday said four Chicago bars—Elixir Lounge, 3452 N. Halsted, Halsted's Bar and Grill, 3441 N. Halsted, Hydrate Nightclub, 3458 N. Halsted, and Replay, 3449 N. Halsted—said the bars would pull Russian products effective immediately.

The bars "have been monitoring the unfolding events in Russia and we are extremely outraged by the open attacks of the government against the rights of the GLBT community. …We have been working with our distributors over the past few weeks to identify a premium spirit produced in a country that recognizes and respects the importance and equality of every citizen of the world," said the statement.

Parlour, 6341 N. Clark St., The Call, 1547 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., and Sidetrack, 3349 N. Halsted St., are among other bars that said they would also be removing the products from their shelves.

"I had been following the various news reports about what was going on in Russia," said Sidetrack co-owner Art Johnston. "It's hard to believe that they could carry out and enforce that kind of a law, but they did." He added that there was no way he could in good conscience continue to serve Stolichnaya or any other Russian products at the nightclub.

Johnston also emphasized that the decision was a matter of conscience and not an effort to ignite a widespread boycott. "The purpose of this was not to say that we we're better than other businesses. Other businesses have their own concerns and may not be in the same position to do something like this."

But bans started in other cities as well, with gay bars in West Hollywood, New York City, Toronto and London, saying they'd be banning Russian beverages as well.

Stolichnaya's corporate owners, Luxembourg-based SPI Group, last week released an open letter from their CEO, Val Mendeleev, expressing its opposition to the laws.

"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," said Mendeleev. "Stolichnaya Vodka has always been, and continues to be, a fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community."

The ownership of the Stolichnaya trademark has long been in dispute between SPI and the Russian government. Mendeleev's statement attempted to distance SPI from the Russian government, which it insisted had no ownership or control over Stolichnaya. The statement also explained that the vodka's ingredients came from Russia and were distilled and bottled in Latvia.

"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," said the statement.

But it doesn't look like the opposition will be letting up anytime soon. On July 28, Queer Nation, which was recently relaunched as a working group in New York City, according to co-founder Alan Klein, released a statement signed by 23 Russian LGBT activists that encouraged support from the West.

"International support is essential for the survival of Russia's LGBT community right now," said the statement. "We appreciate and support all attempts to let the Russian authorities know that homophobic and inhumane laws will not go unnoticed and that Vladimir Putin's regime will not get away with antigay violence. We speak out in favor of boycotting Russian goods and companies and the Olympic Games in Sochi. We also appreciate the attention of international media; we need it. We would also support any legislative initiative aimed at holding the Russian authorities accountable for their homophobic campaign."

Among the signatories were activist Alexei Davydov, lawyer Kseniya Kirichenko and author Masha Gessen. According to Klein, Gessen was instrumental in obtaining the signatures in Russia. The letter, he added, "is unambiguous in stating that they do want help, and that they need to know that the LGBT community around the world has their back."

Queer Nation has a "Dump Russian Vodka" demonstration in front of the Russian consulate in New York City planned July 31. Klein said that Queer Nation was planning to continue mobilizing around the ban of Russian products and the Olympics.

Some organizations had already been urging the International Olympic Committee to come out more forcefully against the laws. In mid-June, after the legislation had passed the Duma, Boris O. Dittrich, advocacy director of the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, asked IOC to "to press the authorities to state publicly that, as Olympic Host, Russia will ensure, without distinction, the safety and the freedom of expression and association of all athletes, coaches, fans, and others who will attend the Sochi Games."

The IOC said in a statement released July 25 that it had received assurances "from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games." The news originated from Russian media outlet R-Sports and was confirmed by USA Today.

Human Rights Campaign was skeptical of the assurances, however, and called upon NBCUniversal, who have exclusive broadcasting rights in the US, to be vigilant in its coverage of the laws. In a letter to NBCUniversal's president, Stephen B. Burke from HRC President Chad Griffin, Griffin called for the network to "expose this inhumane and unjust law to the millions of American Viewers who will tune in to watch the Games."

NBCUniversal Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications Cameron Blanchard told buzzfeed.com that the company "strongly supports equal rights and the fair treatment for all people. The spirit of the Olympic Games is about unifying people and countries through the celebration of sport and it is our hope that spirit will prevail."

Fred Sainz, HRC vice president for communications, however, was relatively dismissive of the network's statement. "Unfortunately platitudes won't do away with these heinous laws that are an abomination to LGBT people. …It would not be an accurate depiction of the environment for the Olympics to merely be a commercial for the Russian Federation. History demands that NBC depict the truth."

Some athletes participating in the Games have said they will not be threatened by the rule. Blake Skjellerup, an out speed skater from New Zealand who also competed in the Vancouver games, has said he will take part, wearing a rainbow pin. "If that gets me in trouble," he told vocativ.com, "then, I guess, so be it."

Opponents of the law find themselves up against an entrenched homophobia that is deeply inscribed in Russia's political and pop culture discourses, according to activist Scott Long, a fellow in the Human Rights Program at Harvard University.

"It's very prevalent," said Long. He attributed the pervasiveness of homophobia to a strong prejudice against "social deviance," an idea that took hold in the Stalin era. "A lot of the stereotypes of homosexuals are still essentially images of 'hooligans'—moving in gangs, gathering in underground dives, engaging in anti-social criminality."

In April, the independent Levada Centre reported that about 39 percent of Russians believe gays are entitled to the same rights as heterosexuals. Forty-seven percent disagreed. Forty-five percent believed that people were gay because of "seduction or their own licentiousness."

Chicago activist Andy Thayer visited Russia three times. He remembered being in the studio audience of television program where activist Nikolay Alexeyev was debating gay rights. "They had some kind of a phone-in poll and it showed 16 percent in the audience were in favor of gay rights," he said.

Putin had not concerned himself much with the LGBT community prior to protests surrounding rigged elections in 2011-2012. Indeed, one of his key adversaries was Mayor Yuri Luzkov of Moscow, a political rival who the president eventually fired. Luzkov was a virulent opponent to Pride parades in Moscow.

But as the protests geared up, Putin became determined to put the nationalist right on his side. Their political front was "a significant presence in the (anti-corruption) demonstrations and Putin was very eager to neutralize them," said Long. The way to do that was by stirring up their anti-gay sentiments.

The anti-gay laws are also a play for the support of the Russian Orthodox Church. After decades of atheism, the Church has relatively little influence in the nation, and it sees a homosexuality as a wedge issue, according to Long. "There was little religious homophobia under the USSR, because religion was so marginalized. Its revival since 1991 hasn't reached as much of the population as elsewhere in the former bloc."

"Putin is not so worried about protest right now," added Long. "But he must fear that a contracting economy would mean spreading support for protest, and spreading outrage at corruption. He is certainly looking for distractions and scapegoats."


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