As a crowd of more than 100 demonstrators massed across the street from the Russian Consulate on Manhattan’s East 91st Street to protest new anti-gay legislation in that country, Bob Fluet, one of the owners of Boxers NYC in Chelsea and Boxers HK in Hells Kitchen, and two of his bartenders poured bottle after bottle of Stolichnaya Vodka into the gutter.
“We know that we cannot cripple the Russian government,” Fluet said. “We can bring attention to the issue, and it’s working. It’s just one piece of the puzzle.”
Stoli, he said, had been Boxers’ second-best selling vodka until the bars took it off the shelf last week.
The Boxers crew appeared at a July 31 rally organized by RUSA LGBT (the Russian-Speaking American LGBTQ Association) and Queer Nation, a direct action organization recently reconstituted from its 1990s roots. The action came in response to the Russian government’s escalating campaign of anti-gay repression.
In June, that nation’s parliament unanimously adopted a law barring “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,” with penalties including fines that become particularly harsh if such “propaganda” is distributed online or in the mass media. Any outreach or assistance to LGBT minors is banned under the legislation.
Visitors to Russia charged under this law can be arrested, held for 15 days, fined, and deported –– something that has already happened to a group of Dutch tourists working on a documentary about the new law.
“It’s not illegal to be gay in Russia,” Queer Nation activist Ann Northrop said at the protest. “They did away with that years ago. It’s now illegal to be open about being gay.”
The new law, she said, “gives permission to thugs to entrap gays,” which has led to an escalation of anti-LGBT violence and even some deaths.
The Russian crackdown, widely seen as an effort by President Vladimir Putin to scapegoat both gays and foreigners for domestic political consumption, follows on years of brutal repression of LGBT rights demonstrations in Russia’s major cities. The nation’s political leaders are now discussing a push to remove children being raised by gay and lesbian couples and single parents from their homes.
Among the demands the groups have voiced are the repeal of the new anti-gay legislation, a boycott of all Russian imports as well as of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and the withdrawal of leading corporate sponsors of the Games –– including Coca-Cola, Omega Watches, VISA, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Procter & Gamble, Samsung, and Panasonic. NBC, which has broadcast rights to the Games, has also come under criticism.
Nina Long, a Russian immigrant who came to the US in 2002 who is co-president of RUSA LGBT, said that “international pressure is helpful” to the cause of gay rights in her native country. Saying her group will not support the Olympics going forward in Russia unless the new measures are repealed, said she finds recent assurances from the International Olympic Committee and the US Olympic Committee that athletes, spectators, and media in attendance will be safe “offensive.” She expects Russia to offer the world a benign face on human rights during the Games without altering its ongoing crackdown on its LGBT citizens.
Long conceded that activists on the ground in Russia have not developed a consensus position on an Olympic boycott. Nikolai Alexeyev, a prominent activist who has spearheaded numerous Gay Pride celebrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg and challenged government efforts to ban them in the European Court of Human Rights, proposes that the Olympics be used as an opportunity to show LGBT defiance and illustrate the Russian state’s denial of basic rights.
In contrast, a group of more than 20 LGBT activists in Russia signed on to a letter supporting a boycott, which they forwarded to Queer Nation last week.
“A diversity of actions will hopefully get us where we want to be,” Long said of the disagreements between activists in Russia.
In the past week, the SPI Group, which owns Stolichnaya, has tried to distance the vodka brand from Russia, noting it is bottled in Latvia and that SPI is headquartered in Luxembourg. SPI ‘s CEO Val Mendeleev also stated that Yuri Scheffler, the wealthy Russian who controls SPI, is on the outs with Putin. In an interview with SiriusXM Radio’s Mike Signorile, however, Mendeleev acknowledged that the company maintains a distillery in Russia and employs several hundred workers in country.
Regarding SPI’s public relations efforts, Boxers’ Fluet said, “They need to move on from trying to convince us they’re not a Russian vodka and have a real conversation. They have the ability to pick up the phone and talk to Russian officials and we don’t.”
Roman Mamonov, a television and radio journalist who fled Russia last October after receiving death threats for being gay, emphasized, “I love my country,” but said it is vital that the international community “pressure the Russian government” over its anti-gay politics. Threats against him, he explained, began after he tried to file a complaint against a nationalist group that was promoting anti-gay violence. Authorities discouraged his complaint and when he reported that his apartment door had been sprayed with the words “Die Faggot,” police also declined to take any action.
Alexis Danzig, a member of ACT UP, said she was motivated to turn out for the protest by the danger that new proposals before the Russian parliament could mean “families are going to be disrupted and torn apart.” Putin, she said, is responsible for encouraging violence and bullying.
“We’re here to support the Russian LGBT community,” Danzig said.
The protest was peaceful, though police intervened at one point to demand that RUSA LGBT remove its banner from a gate across the street from the consulate building.
The consulate action followed by one day an ACT UP demonstration that interrupted the opening of the Most Original Stoli Guy New York competition at Splash bar in Chelsea. The bar’s security team quickly hustled the activists, who numbered less than a dozen, away from the stage, while the event’s drag queen host said, “Look at those assholes being taken out of the bar. This is America, not Russia.”