The Deafening Silence Surrounding Artemi Panarin

Nearly 32 years after Sergei Fedorov boldly defected from the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and Soviet Russia to join the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League (NHL), Russian homers are taking aim at another skilled scorer playing abroad.  This time the target is former Russian National Team and Kontinental Hockey League star Artemi Panarin, currently employed by the New York Rangers.

Lightly covered in US media, Panarin took a two-week hiatus from the NHL season to face accusations leveled by his former coach that he struck a woman ten years ago in Latvia.  The unnamed victim of the alleged assault has not come forward, no report has been filed with police, and the source of the accusation is a Vladimir Putin acolyte named Andrei Nazarov.  Panarin left the Rangers when the allegations hit, although reportedly more out of concern for the safety of his family in Russia than for his own legal standing.

Hockey fans may remember Andrei Nazarov as the low-talent thug who picked a fight with your first line center between 1993 and 2006, when he played for seven NHL franchises as a journeyman enforcer.  Now he is an oft-maligned KHL coach and a hatchet man for an entrenched government.  Quite the resume – going from hockey enforcer to political enforcer.  Nazarov and fellow Russian hardliners reacted harshly when Artemi Panarin spoke out against Putin in 2019, and this quote appears to have particularly stuck in their craw:

“The mistake in our society is treating (Putin) like a superhuman. He is a regular person, like us, and he is serving us… Yes, to be a president you have to be smart and enlightened, but our biggest mistake, among many, is thinking that we have nobody better than Vladimir Vladimirovich. This is nonsense. How many million people live here? No question there is someone better.”

Now Panarin has been silenced through overt legal threats and rumored threats of violence.  Whether there have been actual threats delivered to Artemi and his family is known only by them.

Dissidents get no guarantee of safety in Putin’s Russia, proven by the shocking case of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Panarin has been an outspoken supporter of Navalny, which reportedly drew the ire of Nazarov more than Panarin’s disparagement of Putin.  In the West, it is hard to imagine the leader of a major opposition party being poisoned and imprisoned, but that’s what happened to Navalny.  His supporters have been assaulted and arrested in droves, and Navalny himself remains in a penal colony where his health is said to be deteriorating rapidly in the harsh conditions just two months into his 2.5 year sentence.

Artemi is the only outspoken Russian athlete of any stature in the last decade, which is incredible considering that systemic doping run by the state will prevent all Russian athletes from competing under a Russian flag through 2022.  Panarin’s relatively tepid criticisms of Putin likely seem benign to Americans, who are used to a much more combative tenor when discussing politicians.  In Russia, celebrities do not speak out against the government; intimidation being the key to this unspoken arrangement between the despotic Putin and Russian citizens under his rule.

More than a month after Panarin left the Rangers – and two weeks since his quietly triumphant return – there is no new information regarding the political turmoil that abruptly halted Artemi’s season.

As many in sports media have noted these last few weeks, that silence around Artemi Panarin has become deafening.  He spent two weeks away from hockey, speaking only to his NHL coach and his family.  He kept practicing in private as he worked to clear his name in Russia, but Artemi was unwilling to speak publicly about the accusations at all.  He remains unwilling or unable to speak on any subject matter surrounding his native nation and its entrenched leader.  The weight of being muted must hang heavily on the young man’s heart.

Of course, Panarin’s priorities are right where they should be – clearing his name and ensuring the safety of his family.  For an American athlete, this saga would play out very explicitly in the media and be the subject of pointed debate.  Artemi might have released statements through an attorney, spoken on ESPN, and taken a couple of games off while the news cycle vetted the claims.

That public review would have happened in most hockey nations, with the accused able to speak freely about the charges.  Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Finland, Germany, and most Eastern European states formerly under the Soviet banner have outgrown the old ways.  Not Russia.  In Russia, Putin and his cronies rule, and they have substantial influence over everything from media to courts.  Panarin must have thought he was safe to speak freely from the US about domestic politics in Russia.  The hard-liners he opposes want to prove him wrong, and hold him up as an example of what happens when pro athletes speak against the state.

For now, Panarin has the solace of whatever his coaches and teammates have said to him privately, along with this strongly-worded rejection from the Rangers:

“Artemi vehemently and unequivocally denies any and all allegations in this fabricated story. This is clearly an intimidation tactic being used against him for being outspoken on recent political events. Artemi is obviously shaken and concerned and will take some time away from the team. The Rangers fully support Artemi and will work with him to identify the source of these unfounded allegations.”

Nevertheless, Panarin will spend a year in the prime of his career navigating the adversarial politics of a deeply divided Russia.  He will wait for his vocal support of Navalny to fade from memory, and for leash-less attack dog Nazarov to find another target.  He will likely not speak again, certainly not during the season.  Artemi may end up like so many other Russian athletes and entertainers… permanently silenced by fear of violence and imprisonment.  Or perhaps Panarin has other plans.  Only time will reveal what we cannot know now in the clinging quiet that permeates this story.

Despite the silence, Artemi may find himself another unwilling proxy for cold warring between Russia and the West.  Whether he utters another word or continues to lay low, he has made himself a target of powerful people by challenging their power publicly.  These accusations against him required no substance for them to stop his season.  For jingoistic supporters of Putin, Nazarov has served up a base-rallying narrative; Old KHL Coach Takes on Young Dissident Playing in NYC.  This may fade from memory here in the West, but for Panarin it waits like an anvil over his head, held in place by an unseen hand.

In the meantime, Artemi is taking out his frustrations on the ice.  In six games since his return, he has logged three goals and seven assists.  The Rangers are 4-1-1 over that stretch following a prior three-game losing streak that saw New York outscored 13-3.  Panarin is every bit the reason for the winning turn, even though some pundits have laughingly pointed to the Rangers’ coaching staff being forced out of games by COVID-19 protocols as the prime factor in their awakening.

Those watching the games know better.  Artemi is absolutely flying right now.  He logged three assists versus the Sabres on Monday and will look to keep rolling against the Flyers tonight.  He is +8 over those recent six games.  And with each goal, each assist, each body-rocking hit – Artemi Panarin sends a silent message back home.  That they can shut him up, but they cannot shut him down.

More than three decades after Fedorov’s flight, Andrei Nazarov is eager to prove that Russian Players belong to Russia and the KHL, not to themselves, not to their NHL teams, and not to the great game.  Artemi cannot speak his mind, but he can still fight back against Nazarov through shear excellence.

We can only hope that Shakespeare was right when he wrote “at the length truth will out.”  Artemi Panarin will keep scoring.  And the KHL will continue losing premier talent to nations where speech is protected.  For now, Rangers hockey is red hot.  Artemi Panarin is a demon unleashed on ice.  And Andrei Nazarov is still a maniac and a thug shaking his untalented fist at the stars.