Newly signed New York Rangers forward Artemi Panarin sent shockwaves through the hockey world recently by giving an interview in which he sharply criticized the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin, becoming the highest-profile Russian athlete to express opposition to the country’s longtime ruler.
The 27-year-old’s English remains a work in progress, which limits his ability to express himself to the North American media. But perhaps feeling emboldened by his new seven-year, $81.5 million contract, the reticent winger opened up in an hourlong Russian-language interview on YouTube in July. Panarin said that earlier in his career, he was apolitical and career-focused, but Putin’s mismanagement of the country has motivated him to speak up. “I think (Putin) no longer understands what’s right and what’s wrong,” Panarin said. “He has a lot of people who influence his decisions. But if everyone is walking around you for 20 years telling you what a great guy you are and how great a job you are doing, you will never see your mistakes.”
The compelling story of Panarin’s hard-luck childhood and drive to escape poverty was told well in a 2018 profile by The Athletic. Born in the hard-luck mining town of Korkino and abandoned by his mother at an early age, Panarin like many Russians was hopeful that Putin could lead Russia past the misery and lawlessness of the Soviet Union’s collapse. His perspective changed, however, after beginning his pro career in Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, and seeing the contrast with home.
“I don’t want to see retirees begging. I saw a normal-looking grandma in the metro yesterday, singing for money,” Panarin said, adding that tax revenue from throughout Russia is spent to prop up Moscow as a sort of Potemkin village while Russia’s hinterlands languish. “We have no laws, we have no agencies that would regulate big companies. Everything is bought. I don’t like it. Regular people suffer from this.”
But worst of all, Panarin says, is Russia’s lack of free speech, noting: “There is still this belief in our society that you can’t say bad things about the government or you will be killed or poisoned. This should not be happening.”
Panarin’s barbs toward a corrupt, thin-skinned president who bristles at any form of criticism are reminiscent of NBA center Enes Kanter’s clash with Turkish ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or of U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe’s feud with President Donald Trump during the World Cup in June. As Adlai Stevenson once said, “you can tell the size of a man by the size of the thing that makes him mad,” and it says a lot about Trump that he has spent so much of his time locking horns with entertainers such as Rapinoe and “Saturday Night Live” guest host Alec Baldwin.
Similarly, Panarin is facing backlash from Russia’s political and hockey establishments; former Soviet captain Boris Mikhailov blasted Panarin for “disloyalty,” and Panarin’s status with Russia’s national team is now in doubt, even though his talent is unquestioned. Supporters of authoritarian types such as Putin and Trump often tell their athlete critics to “stick to sports,” as if their narrow expertise in that subject precludes knowledge of others.
But if athletes’ opinions were really so irrelevant, they wouldn’t need to be dismissed. And perhaps we should pay more attention to the political endorsements of scientists, economists, educators and the like, and less to those of entertainers. But conscientious, informed stars such as Panarin and Kanter, who use their connection with the common man to fight for justice despite great personal risk, deserve our respect and praise.