The Kremlin, Hockey, & Kompromat
“To keep kompromat on enemies is a pleasure. To keep kompromat on friends is a must.” — Yulia Latynina
If the Kremlin wants you to know something happened, they’ll go to great lengths to make you believe it.
And New York Rangers forward Artemi Panarin was the latest possible target of the Kremlin’s wrath against opposition. Panarin, born in Korkino, Russia, was accused by an old coach of assaulting a woman 10 years ago while playing in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), the Russian professional league. Panarin denied the allegations and the New York Rangers issued a statement calling it a “fabricated story.” In the days since the allegations were first made by his coach to a pro-Kremlin tabloid newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, the evidence to support the story has been scarce pointing in a different direction than one would imagine.
In a statement to ESPN, the KHL said it has “not been aware of or received a complaint in relation to any incident involving Artemi Panarin in December 2011.” Two of Panarin’s teammates at the time said they had never heard anything about those accusations while they were playing together and one said it “sounds like a hoax.” Panarin’s coach said that the incident in question had taken place at a hotel in Riga, Latvia, but Latvian authorities said that no report had been filed on Panarin’s alleged assault. His coach claimed that no reports were filed because “locals” paid off the Latvian authorities. The lack of evidence and the curious timing of the accusations immediately raised some eyebrows because it followed the precedent set by the Kremlin in terms of crackdowns on opposition media and figures. In other words, it pointed to kompromat.
While the accusations against Panarin are serious, coincidentally, they have come weeks after he offered his support for Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, currently serving his prison sentence in a feared Russian penal colony. Panarin posted a photo on his Instagram of Navalny and his family with the caption “Freedom for Navalny.” Navalny was and is an outspoken critic of the Kremlin and was poisoned by who we now know were Russian agents from the FSB’s elite toxins team. Navalny was flown to Germany where he remained in a coma, recovered, and flew back to Russia despite promises from the Kremlin that he would be immediately arrested on a prior conviction (considered baseless and a political hit) from 2014. Navalny’s arrest sparked outrage in Russia, with hundreds of thousands of people defying strict protest laws to signal their disdain at the Kremlin’s measures to silence an opponent. These protests were the largest and most widespread the country has seen in recent decades.
In 2019, Panarin spoke openly in an interview about his own criticisms of Vladimir Putin saying, “I think [Putin] no longer understands what’s right and what’s wrong. Psychologically, it’s not easy for him to soberly judge the situation.” He went on to say, “We have no laws. We have no agencies that would regulate big companies. Everything is bought. I don’t like it. Regular people suffer from this…” Panarin’s old coach who made the accusations in recent weeks said that he was “motivated” to speak out because he disagreed with Panarin’s criticism of the Kremlin.
There is larger theme in this Panarin story, however. Vladimir Putin has repeatedly shown a love for Russia’s top athletes and a specific love for hockey. He enjoys close friendships and receives support from other Russian NHL stars including Alexander Ovechkin, who reportedly has Putin’s home phone number, and Evgeni Malkin. The fact that a Russian star [Panarin] with a platform in Putin’s beloved sport would dare support his opposition likely irked the Russian President beyond belief. Like most authoritarian leaders, behind the façade as an unshakeable and stoic figure, Putin is notably insecure and fearful of rising opposition against him.
Panarin’s support for Navalny in 2021 carried a different weight than his criticisms of the Kremlin in 2019. That longstanding insulation that Putin has delighted in over the past two decades has been chipped away and the arrest of Navalny seemed to be a turning point. The Kremlin has put all of their efforts into silencing groups of critics and implementing strict laws against protests, but as hundreds of thousands of people defied those laws and took direct aim at Putin himself, those critics with a large platform like Panarin become all the more threatening. Another Russian NHL player, Nikita Zadorov, re-posted Panarin’s support for Navalny on his own Instagram account, part of the growing movement of those unafraid to speak out against the Kremlin.
In normal circumstances, allegations such as the ones against Panarin would be taken seriously from the start, but given the precedent set by Russia when it comes to kompromat, the strategy is distrust then verify. In this case, it was a logical assumption to be wary of how the story transpired.
Kompromat is “compromising information collected for use in blackmailing, discrediting, or manipulating someone, typically for political purposes.”
In an article in The Atlantic, Anna Nemtsova detailed how it works in Russia, “Opponents of the government here in Moscow are well versed in the risk of their foibles and vices — from hidden-camera footage of them in bed with lovers to recorded conversations — being used as compromising material, a practice better known by the Russian portmanteau kompromat.” The tactics against Russian opponents range from simple discrediting campaigns by luring them into a hotel with women and cocaine to the murder of journalists who do just enough digging to make them a threat.
What differentiates the Kremlin from other authoritarian regimes that try to imitate it, such as Belarus, is that it has the ability to use tactics like kompromat to silence its opponents. Protests in Belarus in the past months have seen the straightforward strategy of arresting anyone who dares come out against Alexander Lukashenko, but the Kremlin has the resources and outreach to fabricate an entire incriminating story against an opponent — at home or abroad. For the highest-profile of Kremlin critics, arresting them is sometimes too obvious and causes too much backlash (i.e. Navalny), so they’ll use kompromat to stain the opposition’s image or fabricate charges as an excuse to issue an arrest.
But interestingly enough, it doesn’t always matter to them if you actually believe the alleged kompromat. Just having Artemi Panarin step away from hockey for a time to deal with the accusations is a secondary victory. In the world of propaganda and kompromat, the Kremlin has the ability to twist the narrative in their favor at any time. Even if you don’t believe it, you’re still talking about it.