Anti-Russia Protests Hit Wrong Target

Retailers around the world are dropping Russian products from their shelves, but many are aiming at the wrong targets.
Don Kavanagh · Tuesday, 01-Mar-2022
In light of the horrific invasion of Ukraine, Russian Vodka is taking a hit.
© Russian Standard Vodka | In light of the horrific invasion of Ukraine, Russian Vodka is taking a hit.

It gives some idea of the depth of international opposition to Russia's war on Ukraine when an international brand of vodka is loudly declaring that it isn't Russian after all.

Following last week's shocking invasion of a sovereign nation, Russia is increasingly being seen internationally as a rogue state, and Western countries have finally levied economic sanctions against Russia in an effort to make Vladimir Putin see sense. Non-governmental sanctions are also being applied, with retailers removing Russian products from sale – however, not everything is as Russian as it first appears.

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Well-meaning retailers across the US and in parts of Europe have been taking vodka brands like Smirnoff and Stolichnaya off the shelves in solidarity with Ukraine, even though those brands no longer have any connection to Russia. Indeed, Stolichnaya went to the trouble of publicly announcing over the weekend that it was definitively NOT a Russian product and was instead a Luxembourg-registered company that makes its spirit in Latvia.

In a statement, Stoli Group said it "unequivocally condemns the military action in Ukraine and stands ready to support the Ukrainian people, our teams and partners. For decades, Stoli Group has supported the marginalized and those at risk of unwarranted aggression. We stand now with all Ukrainians and Russians calling for peace."

Stolichnaya has been famously disputed since the break-up of the Soviet Union, when it was privatized and various parts sold off. The Luxembourg-based Stoli Group was set up by Yuri Shefler, who left Russia to avoid Putin's baleful influence, and probably has a sincere feeling of empathy for Ukraine at present.

The other big "Russian" vodka, Smirnoff, hasn't been actually Russian since founder Pyotr Smirnov's son Vladimir legged it from Russia during the 1917 October revolution, which brought the Bolsheviks to power. These days it is part of the Diageo stable and distilled in at least a dozen countries.

The backlash

Meanwhile, Reuters reported that governors of several US states had ordered government-run liquor stores to stop selling Russian-made vodka and distilled spirits in solidarity with the Ukrainian people, but crucially failed to realize that neither Stoli nor Smirnoff were actually Russian.

Utah Governor Spencer Cox became the latest over the weekend, instructing the state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control on Saturday to take off all Russian-produced and branded products from the shelves of its retail stores, following the governors of Virginia, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania in taking what is largely a symbolic gesture of support for besieged Ukraine.

"We will do our part to push back on the Russian invaders and stand with our sisters and brothers in Ukraine," said Cox. He also said that Utah would review all state procurements to check for any Russian ties.

The boycott is really just virtue signaling. Only 1.2 percent of US vodka imports came from Russia in the first half of 2021, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Russian Standard vodka, the most popular Russian-made vodka sold in the United States, is distributed by Moscow-based Roust Group and Roust International. It is also sold under the brand name Green Mark Vodka.

Joining this decade's iteration of the "Freedom Fries" campaign has been the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, frequently described as the world's largest purchaser of alcoholic beverages. It has also banned all Russian products from its stores. Let's hope they work out which products are actually Russian.

The big worry for Russian producers is that of their top five export markets for spirits, three have already condemned the invasion (the UK, Germany and Latvia), another – Kazakhstan – is also currently being bullied by Moscow, and the fifth is, well, Ukraine. 

Vodka has long been associated with Russia – there is a long and often bitter dispute between Russia and Poland over who actually invented it – and many, many brands have worked hard to cultivate a brand perception that is at least vaguely (if not explicitly) Russian. After all those brands braying about their authenticity over the years, it must be a relief for the Belvederes, Grey Gooses and Absoluts of the world to finally be able to boast about their non-Russian heritage.

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