The “Russia experts” have been busy the past week. In column after column, from the NYT to the New Republic to Forbes (well, it is Forbes, after all), the self-proclaimed “experts” have explained to the rest of us how ineffective our boycott of Russian vodka really is.
Their man points seem to be that nothing will ever change in Russia, the Russians simply don’t what the West thinks, and in fact our efforts will be, if anything, counter-productive.
Hmm. For people who don’t care about what we’re doing, the Russians (and the International Olympic Committee (IOC)) sure have gotten prickly of late. And one thing I’ve learned in my decades of activism, when your target starts throwing a hissy fit, you’re winning.
As quick background: The Russians have been cracking down on gay and trans people for the past few years, and then went into overdrive this summer by passing a law banning “gay propaganda,” a law that’s so vague that it could throw people in jail simply for wearing a rainbow pin, or holding hands with their same-sex spouse.
Back to the present. While politics is often the art of reading tea leaves, with the Kremlin it’s often even tea-ier. But here’s a snippet buried in a recent AFP story that gives me hope, and parallels with my sense of where things stand:
But behind the bluster, some believe that Russia did not expect that the law — which appears to have sprung from a “family values” campaign from conservative lawmakers worried about the declining population — would cause such an uproar.“They had not thought this through,” said one high-ranking diplomat in Moscow, suggesting Russia has now put itself into a corner with no way to get out.
Here’s what I think happened:
1. The Russians didn’t think the law was any big deal, and didn’t expect much pushback from anyone.
2. On the contrary, Putin et. al., figured this was simply another part of their ongoing family-values crusade that they hoped would save Putin’s failed presidency by giving the public an enemy to rally against.
3. The response has, to put it lightly, caught them off guard.
4. Now the Russians are ticked, and embarrassed, and digging in. (The pundits weren’t wrong on this last point, but anyone who thought we were going to win this in three weeks was naive.)
As I wrote before, the goal of this part of the campaign, the boycott of Stoli vodka, was simply to get attention. The Russian anti-gay crackdown had been out there languishing for two years or more, and while it got the occasional mention in the press, that was it. We needed to explode attention in the media and concern among the public. And the vodka boycott galvanized everything.
As for Stage 1, the PR campaign: Mission accomplished. The very fact that we have people writing in the NYT about how much we’ve “failed” proves how much we’ve already won.
So what’s in store for Stage 2? It’s hard to say.
None of this is going away until Russia’s anti-gay law goes away. And the fact that the Russians have dug-in means that we will continue to hold them and the IOC accountable as the Olympics approach. And I’m not sure either the Russians or the IOC want that. Though they may not know how to avoid it. And that’s their problem.
One good thing about pain in politics, it’s quite good at creating opportunity where previously there was none.
This morning I quoted something Russian journalist and activist Masha Gessen, who authored a critically-acclaimed biography of Putin, said the other day: “There’s no way Russia will repeal the laws, but with pressure they might dial back the hate campaign.”
In the end, I don’t know if we can get Russia to repeal the law. I do know that the next time Vladimir Putin, or any other anti-gay politician, company or organization, decides to take a swing of opportunity at our community, they’re going to remember the black eye we gave both Russia and the IOC over these coming months, and it’s going to make them think twice.
It’s all about the cost-benefit analysis. And the gays just put a big pink thumb on the scale, changing the calculus everywhere, and forever.