Two events in the aftermath of this last National Hockey League season raise an interesting and ongoing question about the perception of “Russians,” going into the upcoming Winter Olympics at Sochi. While there is no longer the width and breadth of the old Soviet Empire that made Lithuanians their primary purveyors of basketball, the modern Russian Federation remains a place that is 80% Russian. While that is a resounding majority by any measure, our minority report reveals some of their most prominent athletes.
Take ice hockey hero Alexander Ovechkin, who just claimed his third Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player. The big, gap-toothed winger was born in Moscow, certainly suggesting he is Russian enough. His onetime Olympian basketball mother has the maiden name Tatyana Kabayeva and her ethnicity is part Mordvin. What’s a Mordvin? To Westerners, there can be no more unknown Europeans than the Finno-Ugric peoples in the northeastern part of European Russia. Mordvins are one of the ethnic groups with their own republic within the federation. It is unclear if Mrs. Ovechkina’s ancestry is of the Erzya or Moksha portion of Mordvins. Biathlete Ivan Tcherezov is of Udmurt descent, another of those Finno-Ugric groups and from Izhevsk, the Udmurt republic capital. AK-47s are made there in the birthplace of basketball star Andrei Kirilenko.
Ilya Kovalchuk “retired” from the New Jersey Devils, giving up $77 million remaining on his contract at age 30 in July. Homesick for Russia, he signed two days later with SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League. He may represent Mother Russia on Sochi ice come Olympic time and he was born north of Moscow at what was Kalinin (again Tver). Like Ovechkin’s fiancée, tennis player Maria Kirilenko of Moscow, and AK-47 above, Kovalchuk also likely has Ukrainian roots.
When it comes to the head coach of the Russian men’s national ice hockey team, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, well, that mouthful should tell you that might not actually be an ethnic Russian. The former defenseman from the Soviet era is in fact a Tatar, one of the Turkic peoples with their own republic also along the Volga River. Ildar Fatchullin, a ski jumper, is also an ethnic Tatar, as is 40-year old NHL goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, aka, “The Bulin Wall.”
Ironically, Russia finally hosts a Winter Olympics in one of its southernmost cities. Sochi’s coat of arms and flag bear a palm tree and there is genuine concern about the threat of terrorism on this west coast edge of the Caucasus Mountains. About 6% of the city’s population is Muslim and mostly of the surrounding Adyghe peoples. Controversy surrounds some Olympic facilities being built over the mass graves of Adyghes killed during ethnic cleansing by the Russians in the 1860s. And the liberal Western media is fretting over Russia’s new policy on sexual orientation.