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Boycotting the Sochi Olympics and Vodka Won't Save Russian Gays

Russia's horrendous treatment of their LGBT citizens has garnered attention recently, with horrific news emerging from the country of anti-gay legislation passed on Tuesday banning information on homosexuality, hate crimes by neo-Nazi groups, and police brutality on a peaceful gay pride march. Obvious outrage has been sparked in the global community — and gay bay bars everywhere are dumping out their Russian vodka. Dan Savage, a U.S. gay rights activist and founder of the It Gets Better Project, recently called for a boycott of Stolichnaya and other Russian products on his blog. Soon an avalanche of boycott support came down, going so far as to encourage the boycott of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

In theory, the boycott sounds great. Boycotts have a long and illustrious history of engendering social change, so hit them where it hurts, right? Unfortunately, the proposed ideas may not hurt all that much. Stolichnaya released an open letter defaming the Russian government for its actions, emphasizing that it "stands strong & proud with the global LGBT community." The reality that Stolichnaya is not representative of the Russian government, in no way condones the government's actions, and has no social impact over it becomes clear. Since an unjustified decline in Western sales won't even bruise the vodka brand, it will hardly crumble the Russian economy.

Well, what about the Olympics? RUS LGBT, a Russian gay rights group, called for its boycott. However, the Russian LGBT Network urged against it. This is not the first time the Olympic games have been embroiled in political controversy and boycotts, and likely not the last. The games are meant to be apolitical, often achieving their social ends through avid participation when it is least expected. This article by the founder of the You Can Play Project to combat homophobia in sports made the point that the attendance of LGBT athletes could be the biggest symbol.

"In 1968, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar refused to play in the Olympics as a protest against the treatment of blacks in America. The same year, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on a medal stand, gloved fists in the air, as a protest against the treatment of blacks in America. History remembers the athletes who showed up."

The real question in this boycott is who it will matter to — since it doesn't to our favorite cuddly villain, Russian President Vladimir Putin. "I don’t think it will matter to Putin because the boycott will just mean there won't be any gays at the Olympics and that makes them happy, but the international noise will matter," said Kargaltsev. It turns out the Duma actually intended to create a backlash. Right now, Vladimir Putin is thriving on the reinforcement of the idea that the West does not share the same values as Russia. He absolutely intends to be a beacon of anti-Westernism and Russian exceptionalism.

Dan Savage was not unaware of the fact that the economic impact wouldn't be too significant when he started the boycott — the point has always been about symbolism and international solidarity with Russia’s marginalized LGBT community. The problem with the Russian boycott is that Russia is thrilled with it, vodka isn't the enemy, it doesn't actually hurt the Russian economy, and it seems the only ones who would be affected by a Sochi protest would be LGBT athletes. Perhaps we should focus our energies on where it may actually have an impact: by putting pressure on our own political representatives who engage with Russia, and American companies who invest there. The only people who are terrified of our anger are the people who have to answer to us.

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