The Current

Russia's corrupt hockey playoffs mirror Putin's ideology, says sports writer

It's hockey night in the Russian Federation, and some observers say recent controversies in the KHL — Russia's professional hockey league — have resonance off the ice.
Russian President Vladimir Putin suits up for a game with players from the country's elite hockey league in a friendly ice hockey match in the Bolshoi Ice Palace near Sochi, Jan. 2014. (Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters)

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The current Russian Hockey League (KHL) playoffs reveal a lot about the state of Vladimir Putin's Russia today, according to sports writer Slava Malamud.

Malamud, who was born and raised in the Soviet Union, said Russian hockey is loaded with cronyism and corruption and it all serves the Russian president's political ideology. 

In the quarter-finals battling for the coveted Gagarin Cup, the feisty underdog team the Severstal Cherepovets played against defending champs SKA Saint Petersburg. The game ended in controversy over a goal that Malamud says is very telling.

"Once you watch the replay the puck was about a foot offside, it definitely came out of the zone — pretty impossible to miss. The KHL's explanation that they didn't have that camera angle is kind of ridiculous," he told The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

Malamud suggested SKA's sweeping of the series is a metaphor for life in Russia under Putin beyond hockey.

"Putin eliminated very methodically throughout his reign all the vestiges of a free democratic society from Russia," he said.

"He set himself up basically as the Tzar of Russia," by taking over most of the major media outlets, then moving to major companies and eliminating the political opposition over the course of 18 years, Malamud explained.

"His cronies own the league and the fact that it's his election year and he's actively using players on his electoral campaigns — I mean, you don't really have to be a genius to connect the dots."

Malamud's account of hockey treachery highlights the cynicism in Russian culture that journalist and author Michael Idov says has created "a self-fulfilling prophecy." 

The author of Dressed up for a Riot, a memoir of his years in Russia, told The Current the reason everything is rigged in Russia is because everyone thinks it's rigged. 

So why do Russians accept the fix? 

For those who lived in criminal chaos in the past, Idov says Putin represents stability. Even with a weak currency, for them, life is good.

"They're still living better than they had in the 90s, and in the last couple of decades of the Soviet Union, which a lot of Putin's base still remember quite vividly," he said.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Geoff Turner and Rosa Kim.