Gene Collier: Team Russia postgame analysis via Dostoyevsky
February 19, 2014 9:54 PM
Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty Images
A Russia supporter reacts during Team Russia's 3-1 loss to Finland Wednesday in the Olympic men's hockey quarterfinals.
By Gene Collier / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Olympics reliably spark an overload of imagery, much of it readily disposable but some of it enduringly iconic and even historic.
Which side of that subjective dividing line the final image of the Russians on the hockey pond by the Black Sea in 2014 shall fall is pure speculation, but, for the moment, it’s the one I’ll remember most — the white jerseys in a loose circle at center ice, raising their sticks to salute the home audience, an audience whistling at them in utter contempt.
Whistling is the aural equivalent of booing in Russia, so Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and the boys, in a week that was to include perhaps the greatest moments of their hockey lives, were instead getting the full Philadelphia.
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Their nation did not scare up $50 billion to stage these Games with the expectation of watching a 3-1 quarterfinals loss to the Frolicking Finns, but there it was in the quivering flesh.
By some vague and fading global convention, we’re not supposed to feel bad for the Russians. That’s likely some remnant of expired Cold War ethos, but it’s also because they’ve made a reputation of feeling badly enough about themselves.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, an incomparable Russian novelist and his country’s unofficial soul provider, is on record with this from some 19th-century postgame show:
“The most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything.”
You shouldn’t argue with the dead, but it’s hard to understand how Russia is feeling today is, by some twisted sense, spiritual fulfillment.
Its hockey team’s efforts Wednesday might have appeared perfectly insufferable, especially some of the third-period tactical choices made by Ovechkin, but, at an organic level, these are still just hockey games, and hockey games easily can be won by a swarm of talented Finns. That’s something one or more additional sovereign states easily could find out this very weekend.
Reportedly, Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov soon found himself answering questions about whether or not all this constituted “a catastrophe,” which I guess is typical of lock-focused international hockey writers not getting much news from Ukraine or Syria, where actual catastrophes continue to pile up.
The way Finland’s determined forwards skated around Russian defenseman Nikita Nikitin as though he were a lamppost was something of a spectacle, but it’s not the kind of catastrophe that will keep Nikitin from returning to the comfortable anonymity of the Columbus Blue Jackets in just a few days.
Nor is the failure of the hockey-playing Russians to be depicted as some kind of cultural allegory for the regressive policies of President Vladimir Putin. Putin’s early analysis that Bilyaletdinov’s roster was more a list of individuals than an effective team proved perfectly prescient, but his broader viewpoints were destructive on their own merits long before the Olympian efforts of Malkin and Ovechkin amounted to one goal apiece.
If, as a society, you like your gays officially repressed and your Cossacks dressed to literally beat the band, as they did with whips in an impromptu performance by the punk band Pussy Riot the other day, I don’t think the absence of the Russian hockey team on the medals stand is going to change any attitudes.
Politics are inextricable from the Olympics, which, frankly, are not terribly interesting absent political implications, at least in my view. But you didn’t need political maps of both hemispheres to understand what happened Wednesday in Sochi. That could be explained comprehensively using nothing more than the grease boards in Finland’s locker room.
Finland’s discipline and patience so frustrated Russia’s puck-handling thoroughbreds, particularly Ovechkin, that errors began to flow, many of them unforced.
Malkin fed Ovechkin on a perfect give-and-go through the left circle in the third period, but never got the puck back. Geno was open, but Ovechkin just fired the puck into the belly of Tuukka Rask, a Boston Bruins goaltender who stalks your freshest playoff nightmares.
Not five minutes later, Ovechkin had his pocket picked behind the Finland net by Penguins rookie Olli Maatta, one of the best players on Olympic ice. Instead of whirling back on Maatta and fighting to regain the puck, Ovechkin floated away far enough for Maatta to clear the zone. As the clock began to expire, Ovechkin’s errors only worsened.
It should ease the disappointment in Russia that its Olympic failings were essentially from nothing more complicated than three periods of bad hockey, but the players and the citizenry can always turn back to Dostoyevsky.
“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart,” said the dear Fyodor. “The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”
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