Ovechkin, Babchenko and the Politics of Russian Hockey

At an exhibition game in Sochi, Russia, in 2015, President Vladimir Putin greeted hockey players including Alex Ovechkin, third from left.

On Tuesday, the day after the exciting first game of the Stanley Cup finals — a 6-4 victory for the plucky Las Vegas Golden Knights over the veteran Washington Capitals, led by the Russian star Alex Ovechkin — the news came from Ukraine that a Russian journalist who had fled Moscow last year after receiving death threats had been shot in the back and killed while returning home with groceries.

The journalist, Arkady Babchenko, served in the Russian Army in both Chechen wars two decades ago. He had then come home to Moscow and started writing about what it was like in Chechnya, and was hired as a journalist. He kept writing about the war. “I wrote compulsively,” he recalled, “on my way to work in the metro, on my journalistic assignments, at home at night.” He needed, he said, “to squeeze the war out of my system.”

These writings became a sad, humorous, brutal book of stories, “One Soldier’s War,” which came out in English in 2006. Babchenko helped publish a magazine of other war veterans’ writings. “I always dreamed of writing stories for children,” he wrote, “but for nine years already I’ve written stories of bloated corpses in the heat on the streets of ruined cities. You want a great Russia? Here she is.”

Babchenko harbored no illusions about Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, initiator of the first Chechen war, but under President Vladimir Putin, Babchenko’s opposition to the regime and its supporters hardened. In late 2016, he wrote on Facebook that he had no pity in his heart for the Red Army choristers who had perished when a Russian military plane crashed into the Black Sea on its way to Syria, where they were to sing for the Russian forces that had recently bombed Aleppo.

The Facebook post was harsh and uncompromising, and it turned Babchenko into an enemy of the people inside Russia. Two months later, he left, moving first to Prague, then Israel, and eventually Ukraine’s capital, Kiev. He promised to return to Moscow eventually “in a NATO tank.”

I am a hockey fan, with a particular interest in Russian hockey and its complex fate in the wake of the Soviet collapse, and I had spent the morning after the first game of the Stanley Cup finals reading up on the Washington Capitals. I read a charming essay by Evgeny Kuznetsov, a brilliant young center on Washington’s first line, originally from the industrial city of Chelyabinsk, near the Ural Mountains, about how he’d dreamed as a boy of one day playing in the National Hockey League.

“When I got older, maybe 14 years old, I finally got to see a computer for first time,” he wrote. “YouTube was everything. I get to see how Wayne Gretzky plays, how Red Machine play. I get to see how Alexei Kovalev, Ilya Kovalchuk and Ovi play.” (Ovi is a nickname for Ovechkin.)

I watched a clip from the Canadian writer Dave Bidini’s film, “The Hockey Nomad Goes to Russia,” where he happened to visit a 12-year-old Kuznetsov in the Siberian city of Omsk, where his family had moved for his hockey career. It was a “Hoop Dreams” sort of situation, an impossible and even pathetic dream. Kuznetsov was just a kid, and burdened with so much hope. And yet he actually made it. This year he leads all playoff players in points (goals plus assists) scored.

And then the news came that Babchenko had been killed. I spent the afternoon reading about him and taking in the social media reaction. The head of the state-sponsored Russian broadcaster RT calmly explained on her Telegram channel that “everyone knows” that if you’re in danger for defying the Kremlin, you shouldn’t go to Kiev! “But may he rest in peace anyway,” she said. Another poster was more direct: “Bye,” he wrote, adding a homophobic slur.

The Russian-American hockey writer Slava Malamud, who has long criticized Ovechkin for his poor leadership, his selfishness and for his politics — Ovechkin announced on Instagram that he was heading up a social movement to back Putin’s re-election — took to Twitter to put two and two together. Babchenko had been killed, he said, and people like Ovechkin who supported this murderous regime had made it possible: “This, #Caps fans, is your boy’s idol,” he wrote. Before too long, Malamud, who lives in Maryland, was receiving death threats himself.

I spent the evening reading Babchenko’s book about Chechnya. Malamud was right, of course: Hockey is just a game; to enjoy Ovechkin’s prowess on the ice — he is not my favorite player, but the sheer force and exuberance of his game is something to behold — is to support, however obliquely, the continuation of a terrible regime.

The next morning I woke up to learn that Babchenko’s “death” had been a sting operation carried out by the Ukrainian security services. As officials proceeded to claim at a news conference attended by Babchenko, they had learned that a former Ukrainian fighter had been hired to assassinate Babchenko. But the fighter decided to cooperate with the authorities; the news of the killing had been meant to entrap the person who had hired the assassin. That person was now in custody, the Ukrainians announced.

Babchenko was not dead. “I’m not going to give them the satisfaction,” he told reporters.

This was good news! Babchenko was alive. Though announcing his death wasn’t, maybe, the best way of going about catching his would-be assassin — from now on, news of another Kremlin opponent killed is going to be treated with justified skepticism. Already some people believe that these events are staged — the Russians, for example, have been implausibly insisting for years that it was a Ukrainian fighter jet, not a Russian missile, that took down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in August 2014. In that case, the evidence that it wasn’t the Ukrainians is overwhelming. But here was a literal fake operation.

Also, it was not good news, if the Ukrainian authorities were telling the truth, that someone had been hired to assassinate Babchenko to begin with. And it didn’t change the fact that other journalists and activists had been killed and that in Russia it has become common for government critics to be arrested, imprisoned and tortured.

I believe that Putin does not “give the order” for these things. It was widely reported, for example, that the president was angry after the killing of the politician Boris Nemtsov, a vocal opponent of Putin’s, in Moscow in 2015. But while some of the foot soldiers who carry out these killings have gone to jail, none of the higher-ups who may in fact have given the order — most notably, Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic — have suffered any consequences.

At this point, saying that Putin does not actually order these murders is a distinction without a difference. He may not order them. But he is the president of Russia. He has created an atmosphere, legal and ideological, where they go unpunished. He is therefore encouraging them. And in some cases he may be ordering them, too.

So where does this leave the Stanley Cup finals? I have never turned to hockey for moral or political instruction. Mostly I like the way the puck goes back and forth, the skill required to corral it, the speed with which decisions are made, the way the best players seem to anticipate where the play is going before anyone else does. Ovechkin’s cheerleading for Putin strikes me as unfortunate, but less offensive than, say, the Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas’s refusal to visit Barack Obama’s White House in 2012 after the Bruins won the Stanley Cup.

Ovechkin is well within the mainstream of Russian political life, and furthermore he has to go back there eventually; most Russian hockey players return to Russia after their playing careers are over in the West. It would require a bit of courage for him to stay out of politics entirely, and a lot of courage for him to speak up about his country’s problems — whereas Thomas was perfectly free not to be a jerk.

And anyway I am rooting for the delightful Golden Knights of Las Vegas — a team founded only last year, a group of outcasts “unprotected” by their previous teams during the expansion draft who started their season just days after the terrible mass shooting in Las Vegas and expressed grief and solidarity with their new hometown. They are fearsome and relentless forecheckers, unselfish with the puck and before our eyes discovering new possibilities within themselves; the former enforcer Ryan Reaves, for example, has scored two goals in the last three games. Their games are exciting and edifying to watch.

Maybe I do look for moral and political instruction in hockey, at least during the playoffs.

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