On Thursday, Alex Ovechkin held a press conference ahead of his annual youth hockey tournament in Moscow. Ovechkin was asked by a reporter about fellow Russian NHL player Artemi Panarin, who recently made comments critical of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The press conference was reported by Sport24, as translated by Igor Kleyner.
The reporter asked if Ovechkin agreed with Panarin’s comment that nothing has changed in Russia since the 1990s.
“I don’t know. Maybe nothing has changed since the 90s where he lives,” Ovechkin said, according to Sport24. “My life has changed, a lot has changed in sports in the country.”
The reporter then made comments about Panarin’s agent, Paul Theofanous, seeming to allege that Theofanous works for the US Central Intelligence Agency.
“Maybe he made such a critical statement about Russia because his agent works for the CIA…,” the reporter prompted.
“I don’t know about that, I don’t work for CIA!” Ovechkin replied.
Panarin is the highest-profile Russian athlete to speak critically of Putin and his politics, which he did openly in a Russian-language interview. The 27-year old winger said that he is frustrated to see economic development unfairly limited to the elite in Moscow, making life in Russia just like it was in the 1990s.
“It’s the same…The changes are small, almost nothing…We have two cities that are developing, Saint Petersburg and Moscow, but the rest of them are a joke,” Panarin said, via a translation of the interview posted by Slava Malamud. “I lived in Columbus, which isn’t even in the top 10 American cities, but look at the pictures and you will see how nice it looks. […] American cities are developing thanks to local taxes which stay in the state. But here, a lot of money goes to Moscow, so people everywhere work for Moscow’s benefit. I always thought it’s unfair.”
Panarin also did not hold back about why he thinks Putin is unfit for the office of President.
“I think he no longer understands what’s right and what’s wrong,” Panarin said, via the Malamud translation. “Psychologically, it’s not easy for him to judge the situation soberly. 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.”
As pointed out by Deadspin’s Lauren Thiesen, who covered the controversy between Panarin and Putin, this isn’t the first time Panarin has dipped his toe in politics. He posted on Instagram in March, protesting Russia’s increasing control over citizens’ access to the internet.
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Panarin said in the interview that he knows many in Russia will view him as a “foreign agent” after his critical comments on the Russian president. But he affirmed that pointing out problems with the government is a patriotic act.
“I am more of a patriot than those people who hush up the problems,” Panarin said. “They are playing with people’s emotions by saying that you have to love your country no matter what and hate others. I think it’s wrong. If I see issues and don’t talk about them, I think it’s a greater treason than when I talk about them.”
Alex Ovechkin has been an outspoken supporter of Putin. Putin and Ovechkin talk on the phone, Ovechkin supported the “#putinteam” campaign on Instagram, and Putin sent the Ovechkins a wedding present.
Panarin recently signed a 7-year, $81.5 million dollar contract with the New York Rangers.
Translation by Igor Kleyner
Headline image: @teryushkov
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