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Ontario's liquor retailer pulls vodka brand after Ukrainians complain name refers to Stalin

Ontario's provincially owned liquor retailer is no longer selling Stalinskaya Silver Vodka due to complaints from the Ukrainian community that the name evokes memories of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. 

Stalinskaya Silver Vodka doesn’t meet name and labelling standards, LCBO says

The vodka company's website says the name was inspired by the Russian word 'stal' — meaning steel. Stalinskaya, they say, means strength. But the Ukrainian community says its reference to Joseph Stalin is 'offensive.' (CBC)

Ontario's provincially owned liquor retailer is no longer selling a Romanian vodka brand due to complaints from the Ukrainian community that the name evokes memories of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. 

The Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) was selling Stalinskaya Silver Vodka online and in its stores. 

The vodka company's website says the name was inspired by the Russian word "stal" — meaning steel. Stalinskaya, it says, means strength. 

But Julia Mikhailova, an associate professor at the University of Toronto , who holds PhD in Slavic Linsguistics, told CBC News that while the word Stalin may mean "made out of steel," the word stalinskya is a direct reference to Stalin himself.

"We are dealing here with the derivational morphology," said Mikhailova, which refers to the process of forming a new word from an existing word.

"Theoretically, I would say that stalinskaya was derived from the word "steel" (stal) only because Stalin was derived from "steel". However, factually, stalinskaya came from the word Stalin."

Alison Smith, a professor at the University of Toronto specializing in the history of Russian food and drink, told CBC News the term "refers explicitly to Stalin the person, even though Joseph Stalin absolutely took the name Stalin (his birth name is Dzhugashvili) because it was linked to the word for steel and it had the connotation of strength."

'Shock and disappointment'

For Ukrainians, the memories dredged up by the use of the name are anything but positive. 

"Our first reaction was one of shock and disappointment," said Nick Krawetz, one of many in the province's Ukrainian community who contacted the LCBO to demand the brand be taken off its shelves.

"It's definitely offensive just given the history."

Joseph Stalin ruled from 1927 until his death in 1953, sending around a million citizens to labour camps and executing about 700,000 people. His campaign to collectivize agriculture resulted in a famine in the early 1930s that killed millions of people in Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union.

Krawetz was browsing the LCBO website when he stumbled upon the brand of vodka. 

"It definitely caught my attention. [It] just seems so odd that such a product would even be on that website. And so it caught me by surprise," he said. 

"I felt inclined to reach out and voice my concerns because I don't think that product has a place in Ontario or any province or territory in our country."

'A misunderstanding,' vodka company says

In a statement to CBC Toronto on Friday, the general manager of Prodal 94 SRL — the company that makes Stalinskaya Silver Vodka — said the name "had no intention to spark a debate" and clarified what the brand name meant to the company "on a cultural level."

It maintains the brand is focused on promoting the word's original meaning of pertaining to a "man of steel."

"None of our internationally registered brands have been created with the intent to promote, or associate with, the name, the policy, or the ideology promoted by Stalin," general manager Cristian Nastas wrote.

"The historical reality of Romania, as related to this dictator, is one of shared suffering alongside our neighbouring nations, including Ukraine," Nastas added. "Therefore, we feel the deepest understanding, respect, and sympathy for the cultural trauma experienced by all our neighbours in the Eastern European community, as a result of Stalin's actions."

The company did mention it was "aware of the possibility that such negative interpretations might occur" and said it considers the issue a misunderstanding.

Prodal 94 SRL has reached out to the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and the LCBO to establish "constructive and responsible dialogue."

Ukrainian community voice their concerns

The LCBO removed the vodka from its online and in-store offerings after The Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) sent a letter expressing concern over the name.

"Following feedback from a number of our customers, the LCBO further reviewed Stalinskaya Silver Vodka and found it does not meet the LCBO's name and labelling standards and is no longer available for sale through the LCBO," the statement read. 

Ihor Michalchyshyn, the CEO and director of the UCC said, "I think anything that makes reference to Stalin needs to be put in the context of him being now very much recognized as a murderous dictator who used his communist regime to kill millions of people in Ukraine and in other parts of the Soviet Union."

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (Josif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, 1879 - 1953). (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Using Soviet symbols 'very inappropriate,' UCC says

The UCC says it wants all businesses to be mindful when using symbols or names associated with the Soviet Union.

"Unfortunately, we've seen that people, various companies or individuals try to use the Soviet Union, the USSR, as a hip or cool or ironic branding," said Michalchyshyn.

"For us and for many other communities who suffered because of the Soviet Union, we don't see it that way. We see it [as] very inappropriate."

The UCC wants to review the LCBO's community and product standards to make sure nothing like this happens again. 

"Our job is to educate people about Stalin, about the impact of his terror on the Soviet Union, on the people of Ukraine, and, quite frankly, on the descendents in Canada," Michalchyshyn said.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story stated that Stalinskaya Silver Vodka was a Russian vodka brand. In fact, the LCBO's listing indicates it is produced in Romania.
    Jun 24, 2021 12:10 PM ET

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