To celebrate his 63rd birthday last week, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin participated in an exhibition hockey game. This was no ordinary pond hockey, however. It featured a cast of former NHL and professional stars. It also featured a stellar performance from Putin, who netted 7 goals in his team’s 15-10 victory.
This is a notable athletic achievement, particularly for a full-time politician who never had the chance to devote his life to sport. It is second only, perhaps, to the exploits of Kim Jong-Il, former North Korean dictator and “the greatest golfer in history.”
Of course, Putin’s achievement is far more legitimate. We have tape for one thing, and a bit more of an explanation: his team included former NHL stars Pavel Bure and Viacheslav Fetisov, for instance.
But to understand why hockey is so important to Putin, it is important to understand why hockey is important to Russia. And to do that, you need to look back to the modern origins of Russian hockey in the Cold War period. In the latest issue of Religion & Liberty, I do just that in a review of the documentary film Red Army, which focuses on the career of Viacheslav Fetisov, perhaps the greatest and most decorated Russian hockey player ever.
Fetisov was on the Soviet team that lost in the Olympics 35 years ago to the United States in Lake Placid, New York. He was also on numerous Soviet teams that won various championships after this “Miracle on Ice.” But towards the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, Fetisov was a trailblazer from the USSR to the USA, becoming the first Soviet citizen to gain a multiple working entrance visa.
His NHL career saw some great success, including back-to-back Stanley Cup championships with the Detroit Red Wings. Fetisov’s story helps us understand the paradox at the heart of Soviet hockey. As director Gabe Polsky puts it, “The Soviets really took hockey to a whole new level, the passing, the combinations, the opportunities that they created every single time they touched the puck. It really inspired me and made me curious about this team and how they lived. I wondered how under such oppressive conditions in the Soviet Union could such free hockey exist.”
Such seeming contradictions abound. Fetisov, who once fought so hard to have his own contract in the NHL free from Soviet control, is now a politician, having served as Minister of Sport under Putin, and advocates restrictions on Russian players who would like to play in the NHL.
As I conclude in my review, “Red Army makes clear that the history of Russian hockey does indeed have something to teach us, not only about the Russia of today, which is so much rooted in the Soviet past, but also for understanding the strengths and weaknesses of Western societies.” It can help us begin to understand the paradoxes and complexities of Russian prestige and the ongoing ideological conflicts over liberty, democracy, and national identity.