The news dropped like a bombshell out of nowhere, or at least it did if you weren’t already versed in some of the more shadowy corners of the Russian news ecosystem:
Artemi Panarin, star winger for the New York Rangers, is stepping away from the team following allegations that he assaulted a woman 10 years ago, allegations he “vehemently and unequivocally denies,” according to a statement by the Rangers.
Sorting out the nature of those allegations is a little more complicated, but the referenced “political” motivations referenced in the team’s statement would be clearer: Panarin has been one of the very few Russian athletes, and certainly the most prominent, to speak out against Russian President Vladimir Putin, and to support opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Panarin reportedly feared some sort of retribution for his vocal politics—certainly other Putin critics have faced retribution in various forms—and is implying that this report is it.
The initial report first appeared on something called the Greanville Post, an English-language site with subpar English that runs an awful lot of pro–Russian government stories. It claims that in 2011, Panarin, then a member of KHL team Vityaz, was charged in Latvia for punching an 18-year-old woman after she refused to have sex with him and he tried to rape her. It goes on to claim that charges were dropped after authorities were bribed by “respected residents of Riga.”
The outlet is obviously questionable; Sport Express, a respected Russian outlet that’s generally pretty good and evenhanded, asks rhetorically, “Have you ever heard of The Greanville Post?” and goes to say that “the assertion of an underground American journalist about an attempted grave crime would have looked completely unfounded, if not for one thing.” That one thing is former Vityaz coach Andrei Nazarov, who is quoted in the initial report from Feb. 16, and has given more detailed accounts to at least one other Russian outlet. (You can read some of his quotes and summaries of his claims in the translated Sport-Express story. It’s worth noting that, in this other interview, as translated by Google, Vityaz claims Panarin beat the woman but does not mention sex or rape.)
Nazarov is not a disinterested party when it comes to the potential political angle here. A vocal Putin supporter, he has repeatedly criticized Panarin in the past for his support of Navalny. So far, Nazarov’s claims remain the only source for the allegations against Panarin.
Panarin, who still has family in Russia, is leaving the team for the time being, according to a statement on his behalf put out by the Rangers, who say they fully support him:
It should go without saying, but often doesn’t, that the questionable provenance of these allegations do not inherently mean that it didn’t happen—nor does the presence of the allegations mean that it did. What a mess.