Panarin’s disapproval of Russian leadership leads to a massive media backlash 4,660 miles away, showcasing the power of dictatorial-like rule.

When the Russian-born winger Artemi Panarin signed a deal with the New York Rangers in July of 2019 worth $81.5 million, he became the most talented athlete in the stacked New York sports market. 

Sure, Aaron Judge of the Yankees is more recognizable, and the Brooklyn Nets’ trio is celebrated more. Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills has also arisen to NFL stardom. But, in terms of the talent displayed through their craft, Panarin has all the skills to be the best player in the sport of hockey, as he was one of the finalists to win the Hart Trophy last season.

Panarin was also accused of physical assault in a story released by a Russian tabloid known as the “Komosomolskaya Pravada” on the morning of Feb. 20. 

The allegations brought to the tabloid went as follows: In 2011, a 20-year-old Panarin, who was at the time a player for the Kontinental Hockey League’s HC Vityaz, was at the Radisson Hotel in the city of Latvia and physically assaulted an 18-year-old woman, hitting her with “several powerful blows.” To escape the investigation, it is alleged that Panarin handed over a sum of 40,000 euros in cash to the local police department, leading to the case being dropped.

On a human level, the narrative is certainly sickening. Yet when looking at the circumstances surrounding the incident, American sports media has essentially titled the allegations as fiction — merely a political hit piece intended to destroy the character of a prevalent Russian athlete.

Following the tabloid’s release, here is the information that was later gathered:

Along with there being no record of the event, even at the hotel where the assault reportedly took place, there are no teammates on that HC Vityaz team who had seen or heard about the incident. Nor has anyone within the Lavian hockey community. 

The tabloid itself has been in several reporting mishaps, including a front-page story that accused the United States of orchestrating the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, or when columnist Alisa Titko noted that the city of Manchester, England was “full of fat people.”

The accusations given were not provided by the victim of the crime. In fact, there has yet to be a woman who has referenced the assault. Instead, the details were given by Panarin’s former HC Vityaz coach Andrey Nazarov, who is a former NHLer that has been accused of being a ‘drunkard,’ and is willing to do whatever it takes to rise in the standings of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation (RIHF) which is heavily influenced by the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Meaning, Panarin would have been an easy target to strike after the superstar was highly critical of Putin in a 2019 interview.

“I think he no longer understands what’s right and what’s wrong,” Panarin said about Putin in that interview. “Psychologically, it’s not easy for him to judge the situation soberly. He has a lot of people who influence his decisions. But if everyone is walking around you for 20 years telling you what a great guy you are and how great a job you are doing, you will never see your mistakes.”

Also in that interview, he used his positive experiences in the city of Columbus — where he played before New York — to disapprove of the economic structure of his homeland, proclaiming that the financial gap between the poor and rich cities makes it impossible to survive comfortably outside of Moscow. He even went as far as to state his fear of speaking out against the Russian government and predicted that his words would likely lead to trouble that is not warranted.

If it is true that these accusations were used as a way to generate a political hit piece, it appears that this tabloid story is the form of trouble he expected to face — a story that accused him of not only committing a crime, but also seeming “to have forgotten his roots, his teachers, and some facts of his own biography.”

However, the story did not attract much attention in either the U.S. or Russia once it was released. The real breaking news came when Panarin decided to take a two-week leave of absence from the Rangers, which happened that next Monday on Feb. 22. Although Panarin has not commented on the absence or the motives of his decision, his teammates and coaches have defended him relentlessly, and the team released a statement stating that they “fully support” him.

“Artemi vehemently and unequivocally denies any and all allegations in this fabricated story,” the Rangers stated. “This is clearly an intimidation tactic being used against him for being outspoken on recent political events. Artemi is obviously shaken and concerned and will take some time away from the team.”

It is impossible to declare what Panarin’s reason for stepping aside was without hearing the reasoning from his own mouth. With the severity of these accusations, many will take his reaction as a confession of sorts; why take that step when there are so many holes in the evidence that was brought to the table?

The only reasonable explanation to that question, it appears, is the continued political upheaval that may arise in his personal life from his comments on Putin. The proof behind this lies within both what Panarin did and did not do.

What he did not do is silence his concerns about his country’s powerful government. When some of the NHL’s Russian players have spoken about Putin, such as Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, they have generally favored Putin’s presidency. Ovechkin even went as far as to start a social media movement under the hashtag “#PutinTeam” in order to support the president’s 2018 re-election campaign.

However, a majority of Russian athletes, particularly in the United States, avoid political discussions such as this unless they are asked to be involved in an event with Putin. This is what made Panarin’s dissociation with Russia so shocking — it is a point of discussion that is almost never addressed by individuals in his shoes.

“If you are a 25-year-old hockey player and you grew up in Russia, you know what that country is all about. You are not in some vacuum to naively say things and think there won’t be an impact,” an undisclosed agent told The New York Post. “If a player asked me [whether or not to comment on politics], unless you have a strong reason, I’d say, ‘What’s the benefit?’”

With this in mind, it makes sense why Panarin would be terrified after these serious allegations were thrown at him. He is dealing with an unconventional situation in which he feels as if he is being targeted. The developments in Russian politics that have occurred over the last several months make everything even more disturbing.

Alexi Navalny — someone who Panarin publicly supported through social media — remains Putin’s most valiant opposition, as he attempted to run for office in order to advocate for reform against corruption in his country and to end Putin’s reign. What resulted was an attempt at his life in August, when he was poisoned with a nerve agent while flying to Moscow, and in February he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for accusations of violating parole conditions set from a prior conviction in 2014. Both incidents, Navalny believes, were a product of Putin’s authority. If true, there is reason for Panarin to fear backlash for his words.

An unnamed source who knows of the political circumstances in Russia told the Post that the tabloid story is not connected with Russian intelligence. Instead, it is likely to be a vengeful third-party in Nazarov who is simply using personal motives to attempt and obtain some sort of favor, certainly with the RIHF. 

Nevertheless, the tabloid story’s ability to draw Panarin away from the game for a short period of time hurts the New York Rangers — who have gone 2-2-0 since their star’s departure — and the league itself. More importantly, it undoubtedly was most painful to Panarin, who just last summer became a fiancé to his wife Alisa Znarok and prides himself on his giving personality, showcased by his donation from last April of 1,500 masks to the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.

Despite the winger’s skill and media personality of pure class, there is no justifying the actions that he was accused of. If the NHL’s investigation proves the rumor true, the punishment must be severe and sufficient. Yet, understanding the political influence of a story like this and the motives that have been acknowledged between the people involved is absolutely essential — not only to Panarin but also to the victims of such physical abuse.