If the assault allegation against New York Rangers star Artemi Panarin was aimed at kicking up a public storm against the politically outspoken 29-year-old winger on the home front—where public criticism of the Kremlin is discouraged—it appears to have failed.
As the Rangers rushed to Panarin’s defense, calling it “intimidation tactic” and a “fabricated story”, much of the Russian sports world also reacted with varying degrees of wariness to a claim by his former hockey coach, Andrei Nazarov, that Panarin assaulted an 18-year-old woman in Riga, Latvia, in 2011. Virtually no evidence has emerged to back up his allegation, and Latvian police said they have no report of the alleged incident.
Critics believe the claim was revenge for Panarin’s public support for opposition leader Alexei Navalny; Nazarov and several other figures from the Russian hockey world have been critical in the past of Panarin’s support for the anti-corruption politician.
While Nazarov’s comments made a splash, according to Egor Paraskun, a Russian sports writer who covers hockey for the outlet Sports.ru, it’s still unclear whether it’ll seriously hurt Panarin’s reputation. “Some won’t understand and will think Panarin truly made a bad move,” he says, “and some will closely follow all the facts and attempt to collect as much information as possible.”
In a recent post, Paraskun picked apart the circumstances around Nazarov’s claim—including what he describes as the curious absence of a significant online footprint by the author who published the original interview with Nazarov in Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia’s leading tabloid. That’s in addition to reporting from Latvian journalists appearing to further discredit Nazarov’s story that Panarin “sent her to the floor with several powerful blows.”
Further doubt emerged Wednesday after a former teammate who was with Panarin during the alleged incident denied there was a level of physical violence that Nazarov alleged. “The maximum that could have occurred is that [Artemi] pushed one of the girls,” Mikahil Anisin, who played alongside Panarin on the Russian professional team Vityaz at the time, told the outlet Sport Express. “And it’s not a fact that it even happened.”
Four other previous teammates from his time in the KHL also said they never heard of the incident.
Meanwhile, commentators in the press have also cast doubt on the claims. While few paint Panarin as scandal-free, they point to Nazarov’s penchant for attention, unbuttoned commentary and fealty before the Kremlin. He’s long been deemed untrustworthy, said Sport Express columnist Alexei Shevchenko in a video blog, “while all the ex-coach’s statements really make one wonder.” Olympic tennis champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov went even further, voicing his full support for Panarin to local media and urging the embattled hockey star to “stay true to yourself.”
Yet despite the lack of public outrage in Russia against Panarin, the damage to his career may have already been done. For example, Paraskun, the Sports.ru writer, and others are waiting to see whether he’ll face disciplinary action that could keep him off the Russian national team during this year’s world championship—or next year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing.
In a column for the daily newspaper Sovetsky Sport, one commentator invoked the infamous 1958 rape trial against Soviet soccer star Eduard Streltsov ahead of that year’s World Cup. Some believe Streltsov may have been framed, though he confessed to the crime after reportedly being told he’d be allowed to compete in the championship. He was sent to the Gulag for 12 years; he served only five, but his legend was forever tainted.
While criminal charges against Panarin appear to be off the table for now, it remains to be seen whether he’ll face a similar level of ostracism from the sport back home. “I am very afraid that something similar will happen to the leader of the Russian national hockey team,” writes the commentator Vitaly Slavin (though he appears to suggest American pressure would play a role).
Whatever happens, experts say the affair is a cautionary tale about mixing politics and sport, or any other cultural pursuit, in Russia—a sentiment echoed even by those who support Panarin. According to Richard Arnold, a political science professor at Muskingum University in Ohio, public figures have long since learned to self-censor themselves lest they fall afoul of powerful forces.
“There’s nothing definite—that they’re going to be punished for saying something—but there’s always the chance,” says Arnold, who has studied the intersection of sports and politics in the former Soviet country. “People don’t want to stick their head out above the parapet.”
Other observers say the saga reflects the general dynamics in Russia, where two camps—comprising those cheering for Vladimir Putin and those fed up with two decades of his heavy-handed rule—appear increasingly polarized.
Yet they also imply the showdown between the two is not an equal one.
“You can break a person by someone else’s hand,” reads a Tuesday column in the critical Novaya Gazeta newspaper, which describes Nazarov as a pro-government zealot. “This form of discrediting is much more subtle than any recent projects involving the Russian secret services.”
Panarin has taken an “indefinite leave of absence” from the Rangers since the allegations went public earlier this week. ESPN reports that he has no plans to return to Russia but still has family there.
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