From Russia With(Out) Love

putinRussia’s passage of a law signed by President Vladimir Putin last month that bans the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” has brought the country, the winter Olympics and vodka into international scrutiny and debate.

At the center of the law is its seemingly state-sanctioned abuse of human rights.  The human and civil rights of all segments of the gay community and their supporters. Seemingly, because although it isn’t directly mentioned in the law, let’s not mince words, the Russian government is turning a blind eye to those who are physically assaulting and killing gay men, as well as, attacking and arresting LGBT supporters and foreign visitors.

The legislation will impose hefty fines for providing information about the gay (LGBT) community to minors or holding gay pride rallies. Those breaking the law will be fined up to 5,000 rubles ($156) for an individual and up to 1 million rubles ($31,000) for a company, including media organizations. Foreign citizens arrested under the law can be jailed for 15 days and then deported, after paying a fine of several thousand dollars.

The laws prevent the so-called spreading of gay propaganda, which means that, for example, it’s illegal even to talk to a minor about homosexuality. Any mention of support of gay rights will bring down the sledge hammer of the law.  Being gay or even telling a child that gay people exist is punishable. Even news reports have disclaimers to ‘protect’ any minors who might hear or read the report.  These draconian laws are also getting the backing of the Russian Orthodox Church – as if that would be surprising.  But what it has done is help further create an atmosphere in which people who are gay or lesbian are simply not accepted. This has resulted in gangs, neo-nazis, thugs and police going on a campaign of torture, rape and killings of those perceived or admittedly LGBT.

Putin angry

 

It is, plain and simple, a genocide on gays.

 

Putin is today’s Hitler.

 

 

 

A 23-year-old man in Russia’s southern city of Volgograd was tortured and killed after revealing he was gay during a drinking session with ‘friends’. Andrei Gapchenko, a senior investigator in Volgograd, said one of the suspects had admitted torturing the victim.

“Four young people were drinking … And one of them already knew, he’d heard from others, that he (the victim) was of an untraditional sexual orientation,” said Gapchenko. “He asked him the question and the victim said yes .. After that, one of them hit him, he fell to the floor, and then they brutally beat him, set fire to the clothes he was wearing, slashed his anal area and then stuck three bottles in there, again beat him and then threw a 20-kg stone onto his head.”

Those who speak out against these atrocities are attacked by gangs of thugs.  It doesn’t matter if one lives in Russia or a foreigner speaking out, anyone not following the Putin program are targets.

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A Russian ultra-nationalist about to punch veteran British gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell during a denonstration in Moscow. Photograph: Maxim Marmur/AFP/Getty images

A Russian ultra-nationalist about to punch veteran British gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell during a denonstration in Moscow. Photograph: Maxim Marmur/AFP/Getty images

 

 

Russian neo-Nazis are using social networks to ask gay youths out for “dates” where they then humiliate and torture them. They then post their assaults online, with nary a worry of being punished or arrested.

russian neonazi gay torture

 

To Boycott or not, and will it matter?

As the exposure of these human rights violations and oppression of LGBT citizens and their supporters spreads around the world, calls for boycotts of Russian products (vodka in particular) and the winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia have gained steam.  How effective these boycotts will become is up for debate. But at the least it brings to the table the atrocities the Russian government and its lynch-mob citizens.  They can not hide any longer.

However, a boycott’s impact will be alerting to the world the plight of Russian LGBT citizens and the perils towards foreigners.

Two of the main targets and getting the most attention are Russian vodka and the winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

dumpstoli

While Russian vodka in general has been targeted, it is Stolichnaya (Stoli) that has so far taken the brunt of the boycott calls.  Gay bars in many cities across the U.S. and Canada, in Britain and Europe, and down in Australia, have joined the rally call of Seattle’s gay rights activist and columnist Dan Savage to ‘Dump Stoli’.

“… there is something we can do right here, right now, in Seattle and other US cities to show our solidarity with Russian queers and their allies and to help to draw international attention to the persecution of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, and straight allies in Putin’s increasingly fascistic Russia: DUMP RUSSIAN VODKA.”

He’s also taken to task Stolichnaya owner Yuri Scheffler, who he identifies as one of Russia’s 100 richest men, with a net worth of about $500 million.

For all the attention drawn to Stoli, people need to realize that Stoli is not the biggest Russian vodka.  That title belongs to ‘Russian Standard’, Russia’s number one Premium Vodka.  And Russian Standard owner Rustam Tariko is far wealthier, with a net worth of $1.75 billion.

 

stoli pride

Yet, Stoli has been thrust into the forefront, mainly because it is one of the more popular vodka brands in the bars of the LGBT community. What makes the boycott against Stoli a bit hard to swallow is that Stoli has historically been a big supporter and sponsor of gay rights, gay prides and LGBT events. That had prompted  Val Mendeleev, CEO of SPI Group, the Luxembourg-based company which owns the brand outside of Russia, to issue a statement.

stoli letter

 

Some have responded that the Stoli response is a disinformation campaign, where it tries to convince the public that it’s not actually Russian vodka because it’s currently distilled and bottled in Latvia. Yet the vodka is made from Russian products and taxes are reportedly paid to Russia (which Putin can then use to continue his hate campaign). Also, company representatives can stress the company has no link to the Russian government and is based in Luxembourg, but Stolichnaya’s parent company, SPI group, is Russian-owned.

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via Joe.My.God. came this press release from Queer Nation:

A Statement From Queer Nation; Marketing Is Not Enough

Val Mendeleev, the chief executive officer of SPI Group, the owner of the Stolichnaya brand, confirmed in an open letter on July 25 that SPI produces this vodka in Russia and that SPI has offices and operations in Russia. Stolichnaya is a Russian vodka that is owned by a company that was founded in Russia in 1991.

On the same day that SPI released its open letter to the Advocate, we learned that Russian thugs, emboldened by Russia’s anti-gay law, have taken to gay web sites to lure gay people to supposed encounters where they are viciously beaten. This is just the latest in a series of violent attacks against LGBT Russians and foreign LGBT nationals in Russia. This violence follows news reports of Russian police and prosecutors targeting LGBT people and groups in Russia for arrests and trials. At least two Russian LGBT groups have gone underground as a result.

In the open letter, Mr. Mendeleev cited a few LGBT events where SPI promoted its Stolichnaya brand as evidence of the company’s support for our community. Mr. Mendeleev, marketing will not save LGBT lives.

A single open letter that was discreetly placed with a single gay publication in the US will not help LGBT Russians nor will it have an impact on the Russian government’s anti-gay campaign. This and your refusal made in an earlier statement to confront the Russian government’s anti-gay bigotry make clear that you are not the fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community you claim to be.

By its own admission, SPI Group operates in Russia and pays taxes to the Russian government. That money funds these continuing attacks on LGBT people and organizations in Russia. Queer Nation will continue its boycott of Stolichnaya and other Russian vodkas until this anti-gay law is repealed and the Russian government guarantees the safety of its LGBT citizens and foreign LGBT nationals in Russia.

We will not help you fund the Russian war on LGBT people.

Queer Nation

Swirl-Line

In an interview with Michelangelo Signorile on SiriusXM Progress, CEO Mendeleev spoke about the boycott against Stoli and how SPI/Stoli are against the Russian government’s agenda.

In response to the boycott, Mendeleev said the company is in the beginning phase of seeking a 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.

Mendeleev explained the history of the SPI Group’s dispute with the Russian government and that his company is upset by the lack of tolerance in Russia and the law itself.

“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.”

Listen to the full interview here:

 

Regardless of one’s stance on a boycott of Stoli, or any Russian product, the financial hit on Russia itself will frankly be minimal at best. The global economy is not that tied to Russia’s vodka.  Putin will still have his cretins carry out his orders. Putin doesn’t care. The Russian government doesn’t care nor will it be swayed by outsiders. Real change has to come from within Russia’s borders.  The main good of any boycott attempt is to keep the focus on the atrocities happening to the LGBT community in Russia.

A better response from other governments, particularly the U.S., is to encourage and welcome Russian LGBT refugees. It’s a matter of life and death.

 

sochi gay olympics

With the Winter Olympic Games taking place in Sochi, Russia, there is also a call to boycott the games in protest to the Russian law and human rights violations. Most of that focus has been on the athletes, which if a boycott were to occur, would just give Russia that many more medal wins which they would use as propaganda and false claims of athletic prowess. Hardly having a negative effect on the Russian ego or forcing the law to be rescinded.

Responding to the furor, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) said it has received assurances “from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.” It pledged to ensure there would be no discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators and the media in Sochi.

The Human Rights Campaign, a leading U.S. gay-rights group, said the IOC should take a stronger stand.

“They should be advocating for the safety of all LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people in Russia, not simply those visiting for the Olympics,” said HRC President Chad Griffin. “Rescinding this heinous law must be our collective goal.”

While the athletes might be assured of their safety as they focus on their events and the Olympic Village will be separated from the public venues, it remains to be seen how the IOC can offer those assurances when the athletes are done with their events and mingle with the townspeople and spectators.

When questioned about a possible boycott, Patrick Sandusky of the U.S. Olympic Committee has said that “Past boycotts have not worked, and the USOC is not planning on boycotting these Games.”

New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup, a gay athlete, says he will be wearing a rainbow pin at the Olympics, and “If that gets me in trouble, then so be it.”

“I have no interest in going back into the closet in Sochi,” he told the Daily Xtra, an online news outlet in Canada, where he was training. “This is not about defiance. This is me standing up for what I believe in.”

Charley Sullivan, associate men’s rowing coach at the University of Michigan and one of the first openly gay coaches of a major-college sports team, suggested that other athletes could adopt similar tactics, wearing gay pride pins and carrying rainbow flags to the closing ceremonies.

At least Russia won’t send in the troops to mass arrest all the athletes. Or would they?

Vitaly Milonov, the Russian politician who introduced locally the law which became adopted by Russia and signed by Putin, claims that the law cannot be selectively enforced nor suspended. He says the  law has been approved by the federal legislature and signed by the president, and the government has no right to suspend it. It doesn’t have the authority. Therefore, according to Milonov, the law can not be suspended during the Olympics, which would put athletes and visitors at risk of arrest and expulsion, after incarceration for up to two weeks and fined.

 

As for the broadcast of the Olympics, don’t expect NBC to just walk away. They bid too much money (obscene, overpriced),  and taking in too much commercial money, to just sign off.

Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports Group, was asked about the matter during a weekend meeting with television critics.

“We will address it if it becomes an issue,” he said. “If it is still their law and it is impacting any part of the Olympics Games, we will make sure that we acknowledge it and recognize it.”

Whatever THAT means.  They will ‘acknowledge it and recognize it’ … “if” .. IF? It IS ‘an issue’. It IS their law.  This is must NBC’s opening attempt to downplay the whole matter.  Be prepared for worthless, empty, disingenuous responses as the Games approach.

 

So any boycott of the Sochi Olympics will ultimately rest with the non-athletes.

The fans, the ones who fly from their home country to Russia, are the ones who would be at greater risk. They are also the ones who can directly have an effect by boycotting. Not showing up to hotels and Olympic venues will certainly hit their bottom line.  The Sochi games are already over budget and there are reports of massive monetary theft. Sochi is on track to be double the expense to build as the last city to host. Figures are already in the double digit billions.  Overall Russia will not really care if they lose record setting amounts of money, nor by more losses caused by any boycott.

It’s a lose/lose situation for Russia.  And in the end, they don’t care.

However, the rest of the civilized world does, and should, care about those who are victimized by Putin’s onslaught of LGBT human rights and will keep the pressure on to let those in the Russian LGBT community know that they are not alone in their fight for equality and human rights.

The genie is out of the vodka bottle, and silence is not an option by the world community.

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