Putin Takes the Ice for a Game That’s Over

Politicians, especially those who were once good at sports, tend to get competitive when they find themselves in a game (witness Boris Johnson’s famous rugby tackle of a 10-year-old boy). So why does Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his youth a pretty successful wrestler, keep playing in exhibition ice hockey games in which he is allowed to score numerous goals, seemingly without much opposition? He scored eight, plus an assist, in the most recent one, on May 10 (some of the goals can be seen in this state TV video starting at the 1:52 mark), and that probably wasn’t even his personal best — in 2019, he scored between eight and 13 in a single game, according to different sources. 

The obvious answer would be that self-satisfied autocrat Putin, who only learned to play hockey when he was about 60, credits his seeming success to his prowess rather than others’ sycophancy. But, as usual in Putin’s Russia, even the current congealed dictatorship version of it, reality is likely more nuanced. And Putin’s hockey-playing explains him at least as much as golf explained former U.S. President Donald Trump.

The exhibition games in which Putin plays every year are gala events for the Night Hockey League, a series of regular nationwide amateur competitions that Putin helped start in 2011. By appearing on the ice, Putin, of course, is showing that the league still has his support — an important condition of prosperity in the country he’s built. But what’s with the prodigious scoring? Putin was, after all, a serious athlete, champion of his native Leningrad in two forms of wrestling, sambo and judo — and serious athletes don’t usually want others to take it easy on them. When George Weah, formerly a top soccer pro and now president of Liberia, returned to the pitch in 2018, at age 51, for a Liberia-Nigeria game after which his number 14 jersey was retired, he didn’t score and his team lost 1-2. He still got a standing ovation when he was substituted after 79 minutes.

Even lesser athletes among top politicians don’t appreciate deference from sports rivals. Former high school basketball player Barack Obama regularly matched his skills against younger ex-pros as president and didn’t mind being forcefully blocked and pushed. John Kerry, the presidential climate envoy and former secretary of state, in his youth a mediocre college hockey player, once showed up at the White House with black eyes and a broken nose after a game. And if by this point you’re thinking that dictators behave differently from fairly elected politicians in this respect, consider Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, a much more experienced hockey player than Putin. Since 2005, his team has been playing in annual amateur Christmas tournaments he’s organized, and in three of these, Lukashenko failed to score a single goal; his team has lost final games, and the determined jailer of protesters even has been sent to the penalty box for playing rough.

The story of former North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il’s famous five holes-in-one during his very first golf game was apparently the result of the state news agency’s lack of understanding of par-based scoring. It says a lot about Kim and his regime that the story was never officially corrected — but the Putin regime, even as it became more repressive in recent years, never veered in the faux-religious direction of the North Korean one: Putin is proud of what he clearly thinks of as his streetwise common touch. He knows he’s a terrible hockey player and has admitted as much. “What I do can’t be called playing,” the government news agency TASS once quoted him as saying. 

So what’s with all the the goals?

The psychological interplay of a sports contest involving a senior officeholder is always complex, a game inside a game, and the politicians often appear to enjoy it. In that sense, Putin the hockey forward may have more in common with Obama the basketball playmaker than what meets the eye. Michael Lewis’s description of a game he once played with Obama refers to a set of unwritten rules: Those who take it easy on the president weren’t invited back — but a player who had “pump-faked, turned, and just connected with the president right in the mouth,” giving him 16 stitches, never showed up again, either. The unofficial rules around Putin appear to be weighted slightly more in his favor. “At our age, checking is banned,” Vyacheslav Fetisov, a former NHL hero on Putin’s team, once said of the games — but, while nobody hits the Russian leader, the goalkeeper doesn’t get out of his way as he surely would have for someone like Kim Jong Il; instead, Putin’s shots are frequently blocked.

Both in Obama basketball of old and in Putin hockey of today, worry about injuring one of the world’s most powerful men has added an extra layer to other players’ calculus. In Washington as in Moscow, getting too carried away and thus too physical could lead to getting disinvited — and in both capitals, that’s a serious penalty. The difference is that in Russia, letting no harm come to the leader is taken for granted rather than punished. Putin appears to enjoy this layer of protection as a kind of superpower that puts him on an equal footing with much better players. He doesn’t appear to see it as obsequiousness but rather as recognition of his value off the ice; his friends are taking care of him, as they should — and as he takes care of them: As anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny has pointed out, the opposing team is packed with recipients of government contracts. 

Other differences between the playing styles and setups of Putin and Obama are even more telling. Obama selected a strong team for himself — but the opposing team was at least equal in skill. Putin’s team of retired NHL greats — he plays center on a line that includes former NHL stars Pavel Bure and Valeri Kamensky as wingers — faces off against amateurs; even without him, it would have been assured of victory. It’s a bit like Russian troops taking on the Ukrainian military or the Russian air force flying missions against Syrian rebels.

Lewis described the former U.S. president as a kind of playing coach, fond of masterminding the game, from picking the teams to issuing a constant stream of sometimes biting instructions to teammates, all more accomplished players than himself. During the game in which Lewis took part, Obama appeared to be content with being in the background as a player but not as the brain behind his team’s actions. Putin, for his part, prefers to head toward the goal, leaving his superhero teammates to deal with the opposing team’s defense and knowing full well that they’ll pass the puck to him when it comes to scoring. Could two ways of harnessing and enjoying the strengths of one’s teammates be more different?

I’m not saying Obama’s way is necessarily superior, by the way; there are times when I’d rather just pass the puck (or ball) to a team leader than have them tell me continuously what to do and what I’m doing wrong. 

But perhaps the most important difference is in athletic backgrounds. For Obama, as for many other politicians, playing a sport is a nostalgic pursuit, a way to remember a simpler, nicer time in high school or college. For Putin, who learned skating with a chair in late middle age, the nostalgia is for Soviet hockey’s days of glory — days when men like Fetisov ruled the ice. Taking passes from these men brings him back to a time when he couldn’t play at all, but when his country was a feared superpower — not necessarily a simpler or nicer time, but, in his perception, a more heroic one.

Of late, Putin makes it easy both to fear and to mock him as a cartoon dictator with the uncomplicated predatory reflexes of a crocodile. As the country he rules sinks into a post-modern imitation of the Soviet Union of the 1970s, his personal complexities no longer seem important. But it is these complexities, as much as his clinging to power well beyond his originally allotted time, that are driving the transformation. Putin is scoring goal after goal for a country that is long gone, but one that he can’t bring himself to let go.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team based in Berlin. He was previously Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He recently authored a Russian translation of George Orwell's "1984."

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