Rangers’ Panarin shows support for Russian opposition leader Navalny

New York Rangers' Artemi Panarin (10) skates during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Ottawa Senators. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

In an Instagram post shared Thursday morning, New York Rangers superstar Artemi Panarin expressed his support for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Navalny, a longtime critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin who rose to prominence in Russia’s political landscape with his relentless pursuit of fair elections, was arrested at a Moscow airport on Sunday after spending five months in Germany recovering from a near-fatal poisoning at the hands of a Russian agent.

His political views do not end with a belief in election reform, however. Controversially, Navalny has also been a participant in the annual Russian March, a parade uniting Russian nationalist groups. On several documented occasions, he has described groups using derogatory terms and racist epithets as well.

The photo Panarin shared depicts Navalny and his family with the caption #свободунавальному, which translates to “Freedom for Navalny,” a hashtag which became widely used on social media after his arrest. At least one other prominent NHL player, Dallas Stars forward Alex Radulov, liked the photo.

Russian officials had threatened Navalny that, if he returned to Russia from Germany — where he was receiving treatment after falling into a coma in August, caused by a military-grade nerve agent developed in the Soviet Union and Russia — he would be arrested.

Upon his landing at the airport, he was.

Navalny was arrested on accusations that he repeatedly violated parole conditions for a 2014 suspended prison sentence, a type of sentence in which the offender does not have to serve time in prison. Europe’s top human rights court has said that, during that case, Navalny was unfairly convicted of financial crimes.

The day after his arrest, in a rushed hearing that took place at a police station instead of a courtroom, a judge ordered for Navalny to be jailed until Feb. 15 while awaiting another hearing on the parole-breach charges. Russia’s prison service has petitioned the court to convert the suspended sentence into real jail time. If approved, Navalny could remain in prison until July 2024 — after Russia’s next presidential election.

“Do not be afraid,” Navalny said, according to a New York Times translation of a video posted to YouTube, which was recorded in the makeshift police station courtroom. “Take to the streets. Don’t do it for me, do it for yourselves and for your future.”

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Leonid Volkov, one of Navalny’s top aides, tweeted that preparations were being made for large rallies to take place across the country on Jan. 23, without waiting for a new trial. Several leaders around the world, as well as the United Nations, have condemned the arrest and called for Navalny’s immediate release.

Panarin’s support for Navalny marks the latest instance of his consistent, outspoken opposition to Putin, an uncommon — if not unprecedented — decision.

Historically, Russian athletes have either avoided discussing politics or openly embraced Putin, as Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin did in 2017.

Panarin, though, has not wavered in his stance. In 2019 he made headlines for the degree to which he was willing to criticize the Russian president.

“I think he no longer understands what’s right and what’s wrong. Psychologically, it’s not easy for him soberly judge the situation,” Panarin said at the time. “I am not saying this because I see any kind of profit for myself in this. I want the people to live better, for teachers and doctors to have better salaries.

“I don’t want some ballerinas (Panarin is referring to the ultra-patriotic former dancer Anastasia Volochkova) to say, ‘If you don’t like it here, you can leave!’ This is raving madness! Everyone has left already, all the brains are gone. This shouldn’t be happening.”

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