That Vladimir Putin took to the ice earlier this week in Sochi isn’t news: the 63-year-old Russian president plays hockey all the time with posses of ex-professional pals. Putin had Viacheslav Fetisov and Pavel Bure skating with him yesterday and, guess what: they beat the other guys, 9-5, winning the trophy that, who’s kidding who, they were always going to win. The big shocker? Putin scored but a single goal, set up by Fetisov. I’m no Kremlinologist, but this has to signal some kind of crisis at the Russian top, doesn’t it? In a birthday scrimmage last fall, Putin potted no fewer than seven goals; a year before that, he tallied eight in a hockey commemoration of the end of the Second World War. Watching this week’s highlights, you can’t really say that the man has lost a step — he skates as he always has, slowly, squarely, with the supreme menace of a man who might at any moment give the order to have you invaded. I guess that it’s possible that Putin’s power is starting to crack and crumble. Just because a man can’t score several hattricks with the help of some of the best hockey players ever to have played the game doesn’t necessarily mean he’s losing his grip. Even presidents, I guess, suffer slumps. Maybe this is simply one of those.
He said he would — at least, his spokesman said he would — and he did it: Russian President Vladimir Putin played hockey in Sochi on Wednesday on his 63rd birthday. The game was broadcast live on Russian TV; as the teams of former professional stars and oligarchs and politicians (including Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu) put to ice, Russian naval vessels in the Caspian Sea began a missile bombardment of targets in Syria.
TASS.ru reports that Putin’s team won, 15-10 in a game in which International Ice Hockey Federation president René Fasel served as referee. I guess the victors could gave done without Pavel Bure’s hattrick, but Putin’s seven goals were obviously vital to the effort. After the game, Russian Ice Hockey Federation president Vladislav Tretiak awarded the Putin a medal for gall. That, or else it was the nation’s highest hockey award, recognizing loyalty to and love for the game.
None of that’s surprising. I am puzzled that they didn’t let Putin score all the goals, but he seems to have to been satisfied with just the seven. And it’s not as though there weren’t other gifts, as well. His teammates presented him with a portrait of himself garbed for hockey, in mid-crossover, by the painter Nikas Safronov.
BBC Russia reported that the rapper Timati recorded a song for Putin, along with a video filmed in Moscow’s Square, called “My Best Friend,”
in which he calls Putin calls his “white lord,” “the most desirable man to all Russian women” and “a great hero.”
Meanwhile, in the president’s honour, (from wired.co.uk):
Luxury Russian jeweller Caviar has released a limited edition iPhone 6s that features a golden emblem of Putin’s head. But you had best be quick — Caviar is only selling 63 of the gold and titanium phone, and each costs £2,000.
There were more paintings, too, and not just in Sochi. An exhibition called “Putin Universe” got underway this week in both London and Moscow, collecting 30 works in which the Russian supremo has been painted — non-ironically, as far as I can tell — as figures from history, including Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali, and Robin Hood.
Finally, there’s … well, I’m not quit sure what to make of the Irina Romanovskaya chapter of the president’s birthday. As you probably already knew, she’s an artist in St. Petersburg who paints with her breasts. Were you aware of the Putin portrait she recently executed, all in blue, using only her left breast?
No, I wasn’t either, for a long, long time before yesterday. I thought at first there had to be an interesting reason why she does what she does, but I don’t think that now. There’s no evidence of that. You can read about her oeuvre here, and even witness her method, if that’s something you want to do. Romanovskaya apparently travelled with the Putin portrait to Moscow this week with the idea of presenting it to the man itself. Not to spoil the birthday mood, but I have to report that at last word the painting had been stolen before she could make the president’s day.
• The Globe and Mail, September 7, 1972
What, now? Another alphabet, you say? Six days and three games into the Summit Series, cryptographers at Canada’s National Newspaper [sic] finally cracked the case that had been, I guess, bedevilling the nation: what in hell was that word stitched across those Soviet sweaters?
News that Vladimir Putin was skating and scoring on the ice yesterday wasn’t really news: the 62-year-old Russian president’s love of hockey is as well-known as his penchant for archaeology and for riding bare-chested on horses. He was at the Bolshoi Ice Palace taking part in a “gala” game dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the victorious end of the Great Patriotic (a.k.a. the Second World) War.
Putin’s team was also Slava Fetisov’s, and they lined up with Pavel Bure, Alexander Yakushev, and Sergei Makarov as well. It will shock no-one to learn that they won by a score of 18-6, or that Putin scored eight of his team’s goals. The fact that Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, added a hattrick — that, I own, caught me a little off my guard. Recognized as the game’s best player, Shoigu was rewarded with a trip to the Crimea. As a satire enthusiast, I wish I’d invented that last detail, but no, it’s true enough.
I was checking in on Canada’s semi-final at the World Championships yesterday afternoon when I saw the Putin news. Feeling good about Canada’s team in Prague, I’d decided that they were strong and confident enough to do without me watching the whole broadcast of their game with the Czech Republic and that I — and they — we could get away with updates on my iPhone.
And so it proved. Taylor Hall had just scored, on a pass from Sidney Crosby; Jason Spezza would add another goal to guarantee the 2-0 Canadian win. The Putin story was just filtering out by that time, along with news from the other semi-final where (also unaided by my viewership), Russia dismissed the U.S. by a score of 4-0.
That’s when my eyes began to open to the bigger picture. Of course. President Putin wasn’t just playing in a friendly game of pick-up by the Black Sea. He was, as Putin likes to do, sending a message. Sometimes they go out disguised as unmarked armoured columns headed west, towards Ukraine, while on other occasions they resemble air-force bombers skirting along the edges of foreign airspace.
Mostly, messages Putin sends have a distinct sabre-rattling sound, but who says they can’t also clack like hockey sticks on ice? Anticipating that today’s Prague final would pit Russians against Canadians, Putin knew what he was doing. The fans in Sochi may have enjoyed Putin’s goals, his preening, but they weren’t the intended recipients. Even as he entertained them, he was trolling us, Canadians, marking his territory, telling those of us who hold the maple leaf high that when it comes to ice, that’s Russian territory, as it ever was, just like with Crimea and Novorossiya.
I don’t know why we haven’t responded. That’s what puzzling. When I say we, I mean, of course, Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Diplomacy dictates that if Canada wanted to answer a display like Putin’s, it would have to come from the PMO. Is it possible that they missed it? That Putin sent his message and it wasn’t received? I don’t know how else you could explain Ottawa’s silence. Are you telling me that the PMO couldn’t at short notice have organized a game at Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre to answer to President Putin? Maybe last night would have been pushing it, but what about this morning? The Conservative Party is always dialling up instant crowds of hard-working Canadians to backdrop the PM as he pretends he’s not already electioneering, so how hard would it have been to this morning?
As for players to skate, well, what’s the Cabinet for other than to lace ’em up whenever the boss calls, needs interference run, a screen in front of the opposition’s net/pertinent inquiry during Question Period. And it’s not as if actual hockey players are in short supply around the capital — Ottawa not only has a whole NHL team of players with nothing to do, they’re called the Senators, after our national chamber of sober second-thinkers (mostly) beholden to the man who appointed them.
It would have been easy to outdo Putin at his own game — that is, at our game. Harper could have taken to net, maybe even played both ends, skated away with a pair of shut-outs, awarding himself a trip to Kurdistan. That would have shown the Russians.
I’m not saying our lack of leaderly showing-off is going to make any difference in today’s final in Prague: what happens there is up to the Crosbys and Eberles and Ovechkins and Malkins. All I’m saying is, I don’t know — either our PM isn’t the prince of propaganda I took him for or else he was genuinely impressed by Putin’s feat of never scoring fewer than two hattricks in any game he’s ever played. I guess that could explain why Stephen Harper held himself goalless this weekend.