It’s probably easiest to start this layered story at the top. Artemi Panarin, star winger of the New York Rangers, is taking a leave of absence from the team as a story back in Russia broke today about him allegedly beating up a 18-year-old girl in a bar in Riga in 2011. While this may at first appear just the outing of yet another domestic violence monster in sports, it’s not nearly that simple.
Panarin outspokenly criticized Vladimir Putin, and is perhaps the biggest Russian celebrity figure to do so. In the summer of 2019, Panarin sat for an hour-long interview in Russian, where he took a metaphorical flamethrower to Putin and his supporters. Panarin railed against the corruption of Putin’s regime, its deference to big corporations (sounds familiar), the risk or outright banning of speaking out against Putin, election fraud, the favoring of Moscow over the rest of the country, and Putin himself.
Panarin has also been a vocal supporter of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s opposition leader who was poisoned several months ago and jailed by Putin earlier this year. Panarin posted this on Instagram just a few weeks ago as protests were waged all over Russia over Navalny’s imprisonment.
In addition to that, Panrin’s former coach Andrei Nazarov is the one claiming Panarin committed this act in 2011, and Nazarov isn’t exactly a bastion of stability. He’s a former NHL goon who, as a coach in the KHL, once went after fans with a stick. That’s not been his only unhinged incident. Nazarov has frequently been an outspoken critic of Panarin for speaking out publicly against Putin, in fact using the recent Black Lives Matter protests as a cudgel against Panarin.
That’s not to say Panarin has been angelic in his past, either. He came under fire when he was playing for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2017 when a video surfaced of Panarin in 2012 saying he would never sleep with a Black woman.
While all claims of incidents like this should be taken seriously, it’s not hard to conclude something stinks here. Russia has rarely been a place that has ever cared about domestic violence. It’s not even a crime there. And here is a proud Putin supporter smearing a player who has spoken out against the Russian president/tyrant. It’s not exactly unheard of for Putin and his allies to retaliate against opposition support in various ways.
This story probably still has many turns to come. Given Russia’s general indifference to domestic violence/violence against women, this could be a well-time unearthing of an actual incident for political gain. Or it could be an out of the blue hit piece against an outspoken critic of the current regime and opposition supporter. All we have are Nazarov’s story and Panarin’s denial at the moment, with the underlying story of their opposing political views and the tendencies of the Putin government right now.