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Artemi Panarin Becomes Highest-Profile Russian Athlete To Criticize Vladimir Putin

Photo: Adam Glanzman (Getty)

The New York Rangers’ marquee free-agent signing of the summer, Artemi Panarin, gave an interview that posted on Thursday where he did something unprecedented for a Russian athlete of his caliber: criticize President Vladimir Putin.

In part of the hour-long interview, which was conducted in Russian but helpfully translated by Slava Malamud, the ex–Columbus Blue Jacket spoke in detail about his opposition to Putin’s long-running administration and explained why he should no longer be in office.

I think he no longer understands what’s right and what’s wrong. 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.

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Panarin admits that he used to not be so politically aware, because he was focused on hockey and his career, but a few years of living in America (he’s entering his fifth NHL season now) helped him come around to an opposing point of view:

We have two cities that are developing, Saint Petersburg and Moscow, but the rest of them are a joke. 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.

It’s immensely refreshing to hear a Russian athlete speak like this, and Panarin’s interview stands in stark contrast to the past words of Alex Ovechkin, who has openly complimented Putin and called on other Russians to support him. Panarin dipped his toe into politics when he spoke out earlier this year against a law that gave the Russian government more control over the Internet, and he explained in the interview why few Russians feel they can speak openly if they disagree with those in power:

There is still this belief in our society that you can’t say bad things about the government or you will be killed or poisoned. This should not be happening. [In America] a star or an athlete can directly badmouth the president, and nothing will happen. They can refuse to go to the White House. But here, it’s impossible.

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Panarin’s interview also included some intelligent thoughts on the difference between loving your government and loving your country, and why patriotism doesn’t equal relentless positivity. It’s applicable to any country, really:

I am more of a patriot than those people who hush up the problems. 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.

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Panarin seems like he’s coming from a really earnest place as he ventures into rare territory for an athlete of his background. He admits that he’s thinking about these issues all the time, and that even his girlfriend wants him to slow down and just play hockey. But his desire to create change in Russian society sounds much more motivated by love than obsessive anger or negativity.

“Yeah, I may look like a foreign agent right now,” Panarin said. “But it’s not like that. I think that the people who hush up the problems are more like foreign agents than those who talk about them. If I think about problems, I am coming from a positive place, I want to change something, to have people live better.”

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Read more of the interview here.

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