Follow-Up: Boycotting Russia

[TW: Homophobia, violence]

I recently wrote a post explaining why I am boycotting the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. In it, I expressed my outrage with the new Russian law passed back in June that effectively bans queer people from public life and has ushered in a new era of public violence towards queer people in Russia.

A few people commented on the post that calls to boycott the Olympics would be ineffectual at best. I strongly disagree, and I ‘d like to explain why in more detail. I’d also like to update you on the continuing violence towards queer people in Russia, as well as how boycotts of Russian products are already working.

Over on AmericaBlog, John Aravosis eloquently describes why and how boycotts can be successful. He notes that the goals of boycotts are not necessarily to influence money (contrary to my last post, when I said that sometimes fucking with people’s money is the only way to get their attention). He makes a compelling case. The reason that boycotts of Russian products and the Olympics in Sochi will work (and are already working) is not because they will destroy Russian companies or make them go bankrupt:

Rather, the boycott is a tool – a foil, really – to foment and galvanize public ire in a way that generates publicity and eventually harms the brand of the ultimate target, in this case Brand Russia.

If the damage to the brands of tactical targets like Stoli, Russian products generally, individual governments around the world, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) becomes so extensive, pervasive, and unceasing, they will be forced to help us pressure the most important brand of all, Brand Russia and its leaders in parliament and the Kremlin, to make permanent change on this issue – if for no other reason than to simply make us all just go away.

It’s a multi-front psychological war, really.  You’re trying to throw as much at the enemy as you can, from all directions (caveat: without watering down your assault by overextending yourself or your message), in order to make them finally admit, even if just to themselves, that it simply was not worth the price they are paying for having taken you on.  And hopefully, once burned, twice shy.

In essence, the point of the boycotts is to associate Russia with anti-queer violence to such an extent that it opens up ways of creating social change. And the boycott seems to be starting to work. Dan Savage’s call for a boycott of Russian vodka has quickly spread around the world. Stolichnaya has already responded to the boycott, stating that they support the LGBT community in the US and a few other places around the world. They also state their company uses Russian ingredients but processes its products in Latvia. As Dan Savage points out, this really doesn’t do much for queer people in Russia, and it tries to hide the fact that Stoli is part of SPI Group, which is owned by Yuri Scheffler, one of the richest men in Russia.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has also responded. As I said in my last article, they initially said that they would work to ensure the safety of queer athletes at the games. In a more recent statement, the IOC now says that the Russian government has assured them that all athletes and spectators attending the events in Sochi will be exempt from the new law. Again, they miss the point that it’s not about simply making sure that people aren’t affected by the law while the games go on. It’s about not supporting a country that actively and openly persecutes and tortures segments of its population. Further, I’m not sure how much I believe the assurances given to the IOC, considering there is at least one Russian lawmaker who claims that gay athletes and tourists will be arrested at the games. He also says that he has spoken to politicians in the US who support his position. NBC isn’t helping matters either, stating that they will remain mostly silent on the issue until the broadcast. Way to use violence and human rights abuses to draw in viewers, NBC!

As I also noted in my last post, there has been a rise in attacks against queer people in Russia since the law’s passage. Neo-Nazi groups have been using social media (warning: that link goes to one of the social media pages with images and videos of the abuses) to lure queer teens (particularly gay male teens) into situations where they are bullied and tortured.

It is also important to point out that many Russian LGBT activists agree with and are encouraging boycotting Russian products and the Olympics. Not only is boycotting all things Russian a political act meant to help manifest social justice for queer Russians, it is also a sign of solidarity with them. Back at AmericaBlog, Aravosis makes another point that I think is particularly true for the skeptical community: often people need proof that activism and advocacy work. And until they get that evidence, they remain skeptical. I get that need for evidence, but what’s really most frustrating is when, as Aravosis points out, the naysayers think they know better and claim that any efforts being made are uninformed, ineffectual, and counterproductive. It is really frustrating when trying to encourage people to be active in the best ways that they can to have hyperskeptics and cynics come and shit all over it. It’s discouraging and can have the effect of making the activism—in this case, the boycott—not work as well as it could. Which is somewhat ironic because if they would be more encouraging than cynical, perhaps the boycotts would be more effective. Perhaps boycotts aren’t as effective as the cynics say for the very reason that they encourage non-participation. Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

So I’ll end with a request. Be supportive. Be encouraging. If you don’t think the boycott is working or will work, that’s fine. But keep your pessimism to yourself and let those of us interested in social justice do the best work we can to make it happen.

Help us, or get the hell out of our way.


Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. They are a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Their other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at

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  1. I’ll stick to Finlandia (Finnish), Absolut (Swedish) or Danzka (Danish) for my future vodka needs. I’ll even rename the drink White Scandinavian.

    1. The moment I posted that, I realised just how terrible White Scandinavian would be. Let’s just call it a Dude in honour of the great philosopher.

  2. So on the one hand, fuck Russia, but on the other hand, I already don’t drink vodka or care even a little bit about the Olympics. Is there anything else I can do to stick it to the Russians?

  3. “The bottom line is, if you stay home, your message stays home with you,” he said. “If you stand for justice and equality, you have an obligation to find the biggest possible megaphone to let your feelings be known. Don’t let your message be buried and don’t bury yourself. To be heard is to be greater than a boycott. Had we stayed home, we’d never have been heard from again.”
    -John Carlos


    1. I don’t agree. At all. Staying home sends a message that we do not condone or lend support to governments and organizations that are involved in these sorts of human rights abuses. I’m unconvinced that by VOCALLY and PUBLICLY shaming these governments and refusing to support companies and orgs that are behind them that that is somehow not letting our feelings be known.

      Skepchick is the biggest megaphone I have at my disposal. I’m doing my part to spread the word about the shit going down in Russia. People can make their own choice whether they can in good conscience lend support to the Olympics in Sochi or Russian products. To imply that I am somehow not standing for justice and equality because I’m not going to protest in Russia is bullshit.

      1. “To imply that I am somehow not standing for justice and equality because I’m not going to protest in Russia is bullshit.”

        Didn’t mean to imply that. The quote is from an Olympic athlete to other Olympic athletes. I was following up on my thought that I hope in addition to any boycott action, there is a strong presence at the games of people speaking out. Though I’m beginning to think I underestimated how far Putin is willing to take this, and how low the IOC would sink to appease him.

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