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‘It’s about making a stand’: a history of boycotts, from the Boston Tea Party to Russia | Ukraine

Alexei Zimin.

A couple of weeks into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Alexei Zimin realised something unfortunate about his London restaurant, Zima: there was a capital Z right above the entrance. Zimin, who comes from a small town two hours north of Moscow, was horrified by the association with the dominant symbol of an imperialist adventure that disgusted him, and he ordered its removal. But it wasn’t enough to exempt his business from the boycotts that have become a central feature of western outrage at Vladimir Putin’s war.

Bookings at Zima, which has recently added chicken kyiv to its menu of Russian staples such as borscht, pirozhki and blinis with sour cream, had already started to drop off. Staff were fielding abusive phone messages from anonymous callers who had concluded that they must be supporters of Putin, and were perhaps unaware that 80% of kitchen staff there are from Ukraine. Zimin didn’t really take it seriously, but he put security on the door just in case.

Seeking a way to express his opposition to the war, he posted a series of videos on Instagram of him smoking at his kitchen table as he sang anti-war songs, a gesture that led swiftly to the cancellation of the cooking show he had hosted for 12 years on the Russian broadcaster NTV. It wasn’t surprising, but, he reflected as he drank a vodka tonic in the Zima dining room last week, he doesn’t think he can go home now. “I never wanted to be an emigrant,” he said. “But I’m not a fool. Every action has a reaction.”

Zima is donating 10% of its revenues to the Red Cross in solidarity with Ukrainian refugees. Zimin cooked Ukrainian dishes – “super-delicious, the fattest food in the world” – for a special fundraising night. All the same, there were those who demanded further clarification of the restaurant’s loyalties. “The food was great!” one poster wrote in Russian on Instagram. “Unfortunately, Putin spoiled our appetites by invading Ukraine. Stand up to your dictator, stop killing innocent people!”

For a gentle, dishevelled chef who has never voted for Putin in his life, all of this is as painful as it is surreal. But even if boycotts are a blunt instrument, Zimin understands why they are happening – and knows that his troubles are trivial compared to the devastation wreaked on the residents of Kyiv and Mariupol. While he is not sure what anyone cancelling a booking at Zima would hope to achieve, he recognises the urge to act, the same urge he has wrestled with himself. “It’s not helpful, exactly. In Russia it’s the small people who are in pain. But I don’t know a different way. You know?”

Alexei Zimin.
Alexei Zimin. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Zimin is describing the central dilemma of boycotts, a tool aimed at bringing about political change that can be extraordinarily effective expressions of disgust – precisely because they prioritise impact above fairness. “Boycott movements often try to make a distinction between boycotting responsible entities and boycotting individuals,” says David Feldman, the director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism,University of London, and editor of a history of the subject, Boycotts Past and Present. “That is a very fine principle. But in practice it’s often hard to maintain that kind of distinction.”

While government sanctions are a kind of boycott, they are distinguished by their coordination and relative deliberation; boycotts instigated by private citizens, civil society and companies have always been noisier, messier and more expressive. And, even as businesses with a Russian connection in the UK were beginning to feel the impact of anti-Putin campaigns in the past month, something similar was beginning to touch Russian consumers, Russian celebrities and even Russian cats.

A swathe of major brands from Apple to Uniqlo to LVMH shut outlets in Moscow and St Petersburg. British supermarkets dropped Russian products. The new Batman movie and Pixar’s Turning Red were pulled from Russian cinemas. Russian athletes were barred from international competition, and the World Taekwondo governing body stripped Putin of his honorary black belt.

Netflix halted work on a slate of Russian-produced dramas, from a neo-noir detective drama to a reimagining of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Comparethemarket pulled its meerkat ads from news bulletins lest Aleksandr Orlov’s accent cause offence. Russian artists were asked to disavow the invasion, and in some cases – such as that of Valery Gergiev, the “greatest conductor alive” but also a friend and supporter of Putin – dropped from major appearances if they failed to do so. The Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra removed Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture from its programme because of its genesis in commemoration of Russian military success. And the Fédération Internationale Féline banned all Russian-owned competitors from its international cat shows. To critics, it seemed as if 144 million ordinary Russians had been cancelled – a claim made on Friday by Putin himself. But to supporters, the sheer breadth of responses was a powerful sign of how widely the invasion of Ukraine had outraged the world.

Boycotts got their name in 1880, but they were a vital tool of dissent for at least a century before that. The Boston Tea Party, wherein 342 chests of imported tea were dumped into Boston Harbor in 1773 by protesters furious at unfair British taxes on the American colonies, was a kind of boycott; a few years later, so was the free-produce movement, a British and American campaign to reject sugar made by enslaved people. Crucially, Feldman writes, these proto-boycotts were “both expressive and instrumental”, a way of doing something but also declaring who you were. “Tactics pursued with the aim of achieving concessions … but at the same time [helping] to constitute and consolidate a political identity.”

The term we use today was coined in 1880, when Irish tenant farmers facing ruin because of a global agricultural depression sought reductions in rent to English landowners, an end to evictions of those who could not pay it – and ultimately the complete removal of the landlords. The president of the Irish Land League, Charles Stewart Parnell, urged supporters to shun anyone profiting from evictions “by isolating [him] from the rest of his country as if he were the leper of old”.

A week later, an English land agent, Capt Charles Boycott, was targeted over the eviction of 11 tenants who could not pay their rents. He wrote a letter to the Times, complaining that even “my laundress has been ordered to give up my washing”. Considering what to name the practice over a whiskey with a visiting American journalist, a campaigning local priest, Father John O’Malley, proposed: “How would it be to call it to boycott him?” Two years later, the term was in the dictionary, and spreading rapidly over Europe.

If we tend to view boycotts as a means of punching up – a way for ordinary people to pool their resources in opposition to an oppressive policy or regime – we should note that they have also been used to more sinister ends. In the US, the far right has sought to boycott businesses that have expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The boycott of Jewish businesses in Nazi Germany was an early manifestation of the hatred that would culminate in genocide.

Charles Boycott (centre) in a woodcut from 1880.
Charles Boycott (centre) in a woodcut from 1880. Photograph: ullstein bild/Getty Images

Still, the campaign that formed our modern understanding of what boycotts can do was one of unimpeachable moral clarity: the anti-apartheid movement. It began with the boycott of potatoes produced in slave-like conditions in the farming town of Bethal in 1959, and grew to a crippling rejection of South African goods, services and cultural output by the time of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990.

Christabel Gurney, who joined the movement in the 60s at the age of 26 and edited the journal Anti-Apartheid News for 21 years, expected it to be like most boycotts: unsuccessful, at least in terms of achieving its formal aims. “It was a long game,” she said. “I never really thought about whether it was going to change – the government seemed so strong – but it was a way of life. And we felt we were supporting a people’s struggle.” The boycotts did not bring about change on their own, she added, “but they were a very good campaign tactic, because everyone can not buy South African fruit. It helped to create a more general atmosphere.”

The anti-apartheid example is a helpful frame for thinking about boycotts of Russia, Gurney said, more because of the differences than the similarities. It took years to exert the pressure that forced major corporations to ostracise the South African regime; today, in an era in which even the most ruthlessly profit-driven businesses seek to burnish their ethical credentials, many businesses severed their ties to Russia before most of their customers had thought to demand it. We might note another critical difference, one almost unprecedented in the history: ordinarily, boycotters hope to persuade their own governments to change their stances. In this case, boycott and sanction are acting in unity. The question is whether that makes them more likely to succeed, or pointless.

Inspired by the anti-apartheid campaign, the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) – which seeks the end of Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and the restoration of the rights of the Palestinian people – has a far more contested reputation.

BDS has targeted companies from SodaStream, over a factory in an illegal West Bank settlement, to Caterpillar, for selling the Israeli government bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes; it also advocates an academic boycott of Israeli universities and urges artists to refuse to perform there. Supporters say that since the movement began in 2006, it has been instrumental in mobilising global opposition to the Israeli government, as well as communicating to the Palestinian people that they are not alone. On the other hand, critics argue that the campaign has not benefited Palestinians or made a serious impact on the Israeli economy; Israel and its allies say that the campaign is antisemitic.

Feldman is neutral on BDS. “The important thing to say is that boycotts are the point at which politics become personal – they force painful choices on people,” he said. But he argues that while there are those engaged in the movement who are guilty of antisemitism, that is not typical of BDS as a whole – and that the sense of many Jews that the movement is antisemitic must be reckoned with, but is not enough to prove the case on its own. The argument he makes can be extended to the boycotts being faced by Russians today: “There’s always the potential to slip into racialised forms of enmity, but even when that doesn’t happen people who are boycotted feel got at personally. And sometimes, that’s what boycotts are meant to do.”

In reporting this piece, I contacted seven people in the UK who have faced boycotts in connection to the invasion of Ukraine. Other than Zimin, they all declined to be interviewed on the record. One woman, whose shop’s name includes the word “Russian” but also sells produce from Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine, wished that those who had called her to say that they would not be visiting again had been aware that she is Lithuanian herself. The same man has come in to shout “Slava Ukraini” – glory to Ukraine – at her three times. “I’ve stopped buying from Russian companies,” she added. “What else can I do? I just run a shop.” Another played a recording of a voicemail calling her a “Russian cunt” and threatening to kill her. A third has recently changed the name of their food business to remove the Russian connection and emphasise the quality of the produce instead.

Against those grim examples is the inescapable fact that as power has become ever more remote from ordinary people, even the most targeted boycott movements have been bound to rely on collateral damage as a means of raising pressure on the real targets. The abusive treatment of individuals whose businesses happen to have the wrong name has little in common with a more concerted campaign against major companies or institutions. And when executed carefully and separated from xenophobia, boycotts have an urgent moral force.

Take Marko Husak, the owner of Bundobust, a chain of Indian street food and beer halls. Husak has family in Ukraine – one cousin who has joined the army, another forced to flee the country with her baby son. When the war began, he set about organising a boycott of Russian products among hospitality businesses. “It’s just a small thing,” he said. “But it’s about making a stand, showing solidarity. And showing that to Russians who feel the same way.”

The image he shared on Twitter promoting his idea features a crossed-out bottle of Stolichnaya vodka – which has a complicated history in Russia, and until recently used grain sourced there. But as the brand has been at pains to point out to its multiple boycotters, the company is owned by an opponent of Putin, produced in Latvia, headquartered in Luxembourg, and has declared its opposition to the war.

Damian McKinney, the company’s CEO, said on a Zoom call from his home in Barbados that the impact of the boycott was such that in the first week, “it looked like we were going down”. Even so, he understands the response. “When I saw people pouring vodka down the drain and governors in the US saying we’re going to boycott, honestly my reaction was, I get it, I don’t blame you at all.”

McKinney embarked on an urgent round of explanatory phone calls, including one where a British supermarket boss mistook him for the CEO of Grey Goose. Now the Russian grain is being replaced by a Serbian alternative – and the company is rebranding as Stoli to emphasise the change. “In this situation, boycotts, there’s this mob ‘let’s all get behind it’ feeling,” McKinney said. He spoke in front of an image of the Ukrainian flag. “And I think that’s where we need to be a bit calmer and say, making a stand is a good thing, but let’s understand why we’re doing it.”

Stolichnaya’s (sorry, Stoli’s) story is a parable of the baffling nature of global supply chains for those seeking to make a difference – but its response also emphasises that, however messily, boycotts can do exactly that. At Zima, Alexei Zimin took a last sip of vodka before taking me to the bar to meet a group of Russian expats, all of them a little shaken by how they are viewed in the world, but willing to accept that their discomfort may be necessary, or at least inevitable. “The problems of the Ukrainian people who lose everything are much worse,” Zimin said. “I should not be crying in Soho Square. I understand your feelings. I don’t believe in collective guilt, but I can understand collective anger.”