This opinion was written by Joel Wasserman, a longtime Washington Capitals fan and a native of Rockville, MD. Joel has been living, working, and volunteering in Ukraine for the past four years. He is now in Lviv, where he is helping with humanitarian efforts. Joel is a longtime reader of RMNB and played in RMNB’s hockey tournaments before moving to Ukraine.
Sports fans in Washington DC had a really rough go of it for most of my lifetime. Starting in 2009 (when I first became a fan), the Washington Capitals, led by their superstar Alexander Ovechkin, started giving the city some hope that a championship could finally come to the city in one of the big four American sports leagues for the first time since right before I was born.
That hope would only be realized after I left the US for Kyiv, Ukraine in March 2018 to volunteer as an English teacher for veterans of the Donbas War and their families. Just as the sun was rising in Kyiv on June 8th of that year, I watched Alexander Ovechkin lift the Stanley Cup. I had my mom with me on a video call, as hockey has long been one of the things we shared together.
The Washington Capitals bowed out of their first-round playoff matchup against the Florida Panthers recently, but I couldn’t bring myself to watch any of the games. Alexander Ovechkin’s relationship with Vladimir Putin is just something I could not bring myself to forgive anymore.
I wrote this piece in Lviv after missiles sent by Putin struck the city while I was out celebrating my girlfriend’s birthday with her and her family. The Russians again tried to hit the city with cruise missiles right before publishing, but thankfully air defense forces shot them down. There are far more tragic and important casualties of this horrible war than my relationship with my favorite hockey team, but it is nevertheless one of them.
Back in 2000, Russian sociologist Yuri Levada coined the concept of the “wily man” to describe how people in Russia adapted to the political conditions of the Soviet Union by being “not only tolerant of deception, but willing to be deceived.” In his masterful book, Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia, Joshua Yaffa profiles a number of prominent Russians through the lens of this paradigm, from high-flying Russian media manager and CEO of the state TV flagship Channel One, Konstantin Ernst, to the widely-respected Russian humanitarian Elizaveta Glinka (popularly known in Russia as Doctor Liza), who was killed in a plane crash on her way to Syria in 2016. It is one of the very best books I have read in my 13 years studying this part of the world to understand modern Russia.
Yaffa shows how these people adapted, with varying levels of willingness, to the pressures exerted on them by the Putinist state. Accommodation with the Putinist state and letting it dip its beak in one’s successes leads to one being able to continue those successes, be they artistic, business, political, or humanitarian. It’s also key to financial and professional survival for university students, state employees, and workers of enterprises owned by the state or obedient oligarchs, who are often “volun-told” to show up to rallies, public displays, and the polls in support of the Putinist authorities. Non-accommodation leads to less pleasant outcomes.
Reading Yaffa’s book made me think of Alexander Ovechkin within the same paradigm. Ovechkin has long insisted that he is just an athlete, and that he is not political. This is despite doing things like posing for a portrait with the writing “#SaveChildrenFromFascism” (a clear reference to Ukraine, which Russia has repeatedly accused of being fascist) in 2014 and (nominally) leading up a project called the PutinTeam during Putin’s reelection in 2018.
I think Alexander Ovechkin genuinely believes that he is non-political. I don’t think he actually had any serious opinions on the war in Donbas in 2014. I think it’s more likely that he was told that he needed to come in for a photoshoot and to post a picture on Instagram. I don’t think he is particularly enamored of Putin’s political leadership of the country beyond how he communicates his and Russia’s love and admiration for its sports heroes when they win. Instead, I think that the “PutinTeam episode” very likely involved a Kremlin-commanded PR firm telling him, Sasha, we’ve got another thing we need you for to help the boss.
Although let’s be real: in a state which employs its security services to super discreetly open sealed tamper-proof urine bottles so that its athletes can dope, and which sends other branches of the security services to retaliate for revelations about this, it is not possible to separate sports, politics, and power. See also: fellow Russian hockey star Artemi Panarin, who came out in support of political dissident Alexey Navalny, and then had a very suspect allegation of assaulting a woman leveled against him by the authorities’ representatives in Russian sports (he was accused of doing so by a former coach, while a teammate who was there rejected the accusation).
I think that Ovechkin sees the clearly political acts that he has engaged in as the same as signing an autograph. It’s just what is required from authority when one is as famous as he is. Authority wants to dip its beak. This is what is done. It’s the way things were done for Ovechkin’s sports star parents. It doesn’t mean one actually embraces, loves, or even thinks very much about political authority.
I used to be able to compartmentalize my feelings about Ovechkin as a Russian and as someone who plays a huge role in me being a fan of sports, which is one of my favorite hobbies and has brought me so much joy. I used to be able to see Ovechkin as someone who, like the vast majority of Russians, sees politics as something that happens above them and not with them. For what it’s worth, Ovechkin’s associations with Putin didn’t even seem to faze Ukrainian hockey fans, who would mention his name every time they saw me in a Capitals jersey or hat when attending matches of HC Sokil Kyiv.
Then February 24 came, and I had to panic as I waited for the woman I love to get out of Kyiv before the Russians had the chance to encircle it. I had to pull my hair out convincing her mother that the Russians were coming to destroy the country and that being too afraid to become a refugee could have mortal consequences. I had to sweat until she texted me that she was aboard the train to safety. Then, like everyone who called Kyiv home, I had to discover what could have awaited my loved ones if their travel plans had been a bit different and the city’s defenders had been just a bit less heroic as I saw what happened in suburbs like Irpin and Bucha. I cannot forgive the people of the Russian Federation for their aloofness, passivity, and complicity in this crime. And I can’t forgive Alexander Ovechkin for what he has done to legitimize the authorities responsible for such unspeakable horrors here in Ukraine.
I checked the scores this year when I woke up, but I couldn’t even bring myself to watch the highlights. In contrast to previous years, where I stayed or woke up at 2 or 3 AM in Kyiv to watch my favorite hockey team try to do something that would fill me with exhilaration and joy, I couldn’t justify doing that this year. I can’t begrudge other Capitals fans who cheered on their team these past weeks. Hockey has brought me so much delight, and especially after I indulged Alexander Ovechkin’s “wiliness” for so long myself, how could I judge other fans for loving what I loved?
But while Alexander Ovechkin is not the only player on the Washington Capitals, and he is not the only Russian in the NHL, he is the face of the Washington Capitals franchise, he is the most prominent face in Russian hockey, and he is a face that I have a really hard time seeing smiling right now.
If you would like to support on-the-ground humanitarian efforts in Ukraine, please consider donating to the GoFundMe campaign created by Joel and his girlfriend to purchase medicine for delivery to people in hard-hit regions of the country.
Editor’s note: The Washington Capitals released a statement condemning the war in Ukraine on March 8, 2022. “Monumental Sports & Entertainment and the Washington Capitals join the National Hockey League in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the loss of innocent life. We urge and hope for a peaceful resolution as quickly as possible.”
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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