In the same week of July, two athletes prominent in North America sat down in front of a camera and offered their views on their country’s leaders. Both views were unflattering and both produced inevitable controversy. This is where the similarities ended. One of them, US soccer captain Megan Rapinoe, who spoke to CNN’s The Van Jones Show on July 20, has long been politically active and as such hardly surprised anyone with her assessment of U.S. President Donald Trump. The other, New York Rangers star Artemi Panarin, has only hinted on having political viewpoints in the past, and his absolute evisceration of the Russian leader Vladimir Putin in an interview with the Vsemu Golovin YouTube channel (aired on July 19) was, to put it in the mildest terms possible, quite a bombshell.
On its face, Panarin’s criticism of Putin’s Russia looks a bit more subdued than Rapinoe’s of Trump. Panarin did not accuse Putin of being bigoted or otherwise evil. He pointed out the “lawlessness” of the Russian society, the fact that politicians have insulated themselves from the population, Putin’s inability to “tell right from wrong” after being surrounded by sycophants for 20 years in power and suggested that the president has stayed in office way too long. He also offered some rather pointedly unflattering comparisons of Russian realities to those of the United States, all while joking that there might be a laser sight trained on him from a building across the street. On the issue of keeping sports and politics separate, Panarin merrily retorted by saying that, with that principle applied, maybe politicians, and Putin in particular, should stop playing hockey. “Sell your skates, Vladimir Vladimirovich”, he chirped, smiling at the camera.
What makes Panarin’s statements more hard-hitting than Rapinoe’s is, of course, the fact that in Russia they are absolutely unprecedented. North American athletes have expressed their displeasure with political leaders plenty of times before: Tim Thomas, Braden Holtby, LeBron James and many others have all done so without risking any serious repercussions. In Russia, however, athletes only get involved in politics on Putin’s terms.
Be it Olympic champion pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva’s tearful proclamations of “We all love you very much” directed at the Russian strongman, or figure skater Alina Zagitova’s taking part in Putin’s presidential campaign, or soccer player Dmitri Tarasov’s ripping off his jersey to display a t-shirt with the image of the president in military fatigues, Russian athletes are expected to show nothing but blind loyalty to the regime. Nobody is a better example of this than Panarin’s NHL colleague Alex Ovechkin, who had founded an entire political movement called Putin Team and shilled Putin-themed merchandise in the run-up to the 2018 presidential election. Other Russian NHLers, such as Evgeni Malkin, Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Kovalchuk, have also expressed support of Putin himself or his policies.
While the critiques voiced by Panarin won’t sound like major revelations to most Russians, it is the fact that they are voiced at all that was earth-shattering, especially by someone of his stature. There isn’t a single active Russian athlete who has ever offered so much as mild criticism of the people in power. Most governing bodies of Russian sports are controlled by Putin’s associates or are otherwise depended on the government. When it comes to the interactions of sports and politics in Russia, any possible criticism can only go one way.
This is why it is particularly difficult to predict just what might happen to Panarin in the aftermath of his candid comments. Will there be any retaliation? What exactly is he risking? These and other questions are hard to answer precisely because there is no precedent. That laser sight comment may have been a typically morbid Russian joke but, knowing how Putin deals with his enemies, can anyone be truly sure?
With that in mind, it should probably be noted that Putin’s usual response to criticism from people who don’t pose any immediate danger and enjoy wide public admiration is to ignore it. He only lashes out when the criticism doesn’t abate or gains traction. This is how Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion, found himself exiled from Russia years ago. Panarin, on the other hand, isn’t likely to become a full-time political analyst any time soon and thus doesn’t stand to lose much more than his spot on the Russian national team.
That latter threat is real, and the conversation is already raging in Russian hockey circles. Several veterans of the old Soviet team, most notably the legendary captain Boris Mikhailov, have already sharply criticized Panarin for his “disloyalty," while Alexander Kozhevnikov of the 1980s Olympic teams, said Panarin would “come to regret his words.”
More interestingly, though, will be the reaction of Panarin’s peers, especially fellow Russian NHLers. While it’s probably not wise to expect any show of support from Ovechkin, the Avs’ Nikita Zadorov has already let it know he has Panarin’s back. In a comment on Panarin’s Instagram account, Zadorov has displayed a “thumbs up” and “fist” emojis, indicating support for his friend’s strength. Previously, both Panarin and Zadorov had criticized a Russian law that sought to give the government greater control of the Internet, which in turn prompted the Russian Embassy in the U.S. to issue an open letter to both players.
Panarin’s defiant words may indeed prove to be a flash in the pan, something to be swallowed up by the next news cycle. Or they might be indicative of something more dangerous to Putin’s regime, such as the fact that he is losing the younger, more engaged generation. It is probably quite safe to assume that, unlike Rapinoe, Panarin shouldn’t expect too many invites on prime-time TV shows in the near future.
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