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Religion & Liberty: Volume 25, Number 3

The Cold War and the soul of Soviet hockey

    Review of the 2014 documentary Red Army.

    This year marks the 35th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice,” the stunning 4-3 victory of the United States men’s hockey team over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The new documentary Red Army provides the broader context of this seemingly singular event as it traces the career of one of the most decorated Russian players of all time: Viacheslav Fetisov. Fetisov was a young member of the 1980 Soviet national team who would go on to international fame. But even then he was a star. The 21-year-old defenseman grew up playing hockey in Moscow, and while his impoverished family scrimped and saved to pay for his youth programs, Fetisov was eventually accepted into the national training program. Vladimir Pozner, a famed interpreter of the Cold War period who is featured in the documentary, describes the Soviet plan to dominate hockey on the international stage as involving a nationwide system to pick out “the best of the best of the best.”

    As the young boys would advance through the ranks of the training program, the pinnacle achievement was to become a member of the Red Army hockey team. According to the film, “The Red Army Hockey Club was created under Joseph Stalin,” with the idea that, as the film puts it, “to demonstrate Soviet superiority, Stalin would create athletes to dominate the West.” The Red Army would draft the best prospects and, in this way, make up the bulk of the national team playing in international competition.

    Sports and the Soviet Union

    In the context of the decades-long Cold War, the hockey rink became a battlefield, a testing ground for the validity of competing ideologies and worldviews. Thus, says Pozner, “Hockey was the most popular sport in the Soviet Union because the Soviet hockey team represented the peak of what the Soviet Union had achieved and was proof that the Soviet system was the best system. So it was politics, really.”

    The ice of the hockey rink was a venue uniquely suited to act as a crucible for the competing ideologies of capitalism and socialism. The individualism of the West was pitted against Soviet collectivism, and the scoreboard would show the winner to the world. The Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev once boasted to the West, “For the moment you are ahead of us. We still have a lot of work to do to catch up with you … But when we overtake you, we’ll wave our hands and say ‘Capitalists! Good bye. Our train is going ahead. Catch up if you can!’”

    “To the Soviets, sports were, in a way, a kind of warfare,” Pozner says. “The game to them wasn’t just a game. It was also part of what you would call propaganda, actually. Making it very clear that we’re the best, and we’re the best because of the Soviet system, because of socialism: that’s why we’re the best.”

    Both sides undertook this kind of sloganeering. When talking to President Jimmy Carter after the 1980 Olympic win, U.S. coach Herb Brooks said that the victory “proves that our way of life is the proper way to continue on.”

    Individualism and collectivism, true and false

    A great virtue of Red Army is that it takes us beyond such simplistic propagandizing. The success that the Soviets enjoyed on the ice was due in large part to the work of Anatoli Tarasov, “the father of the Soviet system,” as Fetisov puts it. In Tarasov’s philosophy we see a much more complex understanding of the relationship between the individual and the collective, the player and the team, than we might otherwise expect.

    A war waged within the confines of an ice rink is limited in scale and scope. Hockey, as a proxy and even replacement for actual conflict, in this sense becomes the coldest of cold wars. As Tarasov wrote in a preface to Canadian readers in a 1969 book, the image of sport as warfare would hopefully give way to the reality of sport as a catalyst for peace. “I believe hockey could accomplish much in the way of aiding young people of various countries to know each other better so that they could live in peace and harmony, work and study and, of course, take an interest in sports,” writes Tarasov.

    Tarasov was an innovative genius. He looked to things like chess and ballet for inspiration and applied the lessons learned in these other contexts to hockey. Hockey, for Tarasov, was an art, an art that required creativity and flexibility. We see footage of Tarasov, who passed away in 1995, encouraging young players with the challenge, “Where’s the smile? You’re playing hockey!”

    “Tarasov, who was an extremely creative man, he saw hockey as this amazingly intricate game of passing the puck,” Pozner says. This emphasis was one of the key distinctions between Soviet and Western, largely Canadian, styles of hockey. Thus, writes Tarasov, “Our school of hockey differs from the Canadian school in that Soviet hockey players pass much more frequently than do the Canadians.” A truism of football, for instance, is that only three things can happen with a forward pass, and two of them are bad. For Tarasov, however, the pass represented a way to keep all of the skaters involved and active. Each pass was an opportunity to probe the defense, to put pressure on the opposition, and to exploit any weaknesses.

    Tarasov explained an aspect of this in his 1969 book: “Someone has to mastermind a pass. Among overseas players, this function is usually performed by the man who has the puck. But among Soviet players it is the man without the puck—the man who has taken the best position. This means that among overseas hockey players four men depend on one man, while in Soviet hockey one man depends on four. That is why it is more difficult to play against us, because it is harder to look after four men than it is to look after one man.” The Western style of play was characterized by a far more rigid division of labor, with defined roles for scorers, passers, and defensive players, whereas the Soviet style required flexibility and fluidity.

    For Tarasov, the individual player and the collective team were not engaged in a kind of zero-sum scheme, where the person had to be subsumed and erased by the coach’s personality or their circumscribed role. Rather, as Tarasov puts it, “The essence of hockey, in our opinion, would lie in a sensible balance between team work and individual play.” The individual must be able to develop his own unique and personal talents within the context of the team. This was the soul of Soviet hockey under Tarasov. “Such is the logics of life,” wrote Tarasov. “That is why the principles of team work form the groundwork of our history. This is the kind of team work we are for—team work which does not preclude, but on the contrary, provides for the complete and free development of talents.”

    Tarasov’s dynamic personality eventually earned him disfavor in the regime, and Leonid Brezhnev removed him from his position. Tarasov was replaced by Viktor Tikhonov, a protégé of the KGB chief who put him in position as head.

    From Red Army to Red Wings

    Tikhonov embodied a far more rigid and authoritarian approach than Tarasov. It’s true that Tarasov was difficult to please and demanded excellence, but from Fetisov’s perspective, Tikhonov did not earn or deserve the personal respect of his players. Tarasov was Fetisov’s mentor, while Tikhonov presided over the Lake Placid debacle in 1980. The Soviet team had decisively beaten the U.S. team 10-3 in an exhibition game just a few weeks prior. It had been two decades since an American team had beaten the Soviets, and after the first period ended with a 2-2 tie, Tikhonov made the audacious move to bench the consensus number one goalie in the world, Vladimir Tretiak.

    After the loss, the pressure on the Soviet team was enormous. The veterans were largely released, while Fetisov was one of the small group of younger players who remained on the team. But Tikhonov pursued a harsh program of training and control, keeping the players at the hockey training camp 11 months out of the year, with rare opportunities to visit family or friends. “You win by being merciless in training. The coach must perpetuate this tradition,” Tikhonov said.

    The new coach had inherited a talented team, however, and a system flush with talent. Despite the challenges presented by the coach’s personality and approach, Fetisov flourished on the ice. He became the youngest captain ever of the Soviet national team, and along with forwards Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov, Fetisov partnered with fellow defenseman Alexei Kasatonov to comprise the top line up of the Russian team and perhaps of all time: the Russian Five. As Canadian journalist Lawrence Martin describes it, “The skill level of that team was astounding. They elevated hockey to an art form.”

    Following the Olympic defeat, the Soviets crushed a Scotty Bowman-coached Canada Team 8-1 in the 1981 Canada Cup. They continued to dominate throughout the 1980s, with Olympic gold medal wins in both 1984 (Sarajevo) and 1988 (Calgary). The “Miracle on Ice” was beginning to look more like a small bump in the road to Soviet dominance.

    But Tikhonov’s approach was beginning to wear very thin, and the fate of the Soviet hockey team would be tied to the broader fate of the nation. As for Tikhonov, Fetisov increasingly wondered, “Why play for a guy who doesn’t respect us as a human being?” This became the worry of the Soviet people more broadly, as the socialism that had promised prosperity and success was increasingly unable to deliver and the inhumanity of the system became undeniable. When promises to allow Fetisov to pay in the National Hockey League following the 1988 gold medal were continually deferred and denied, Fetisov eventually quit the team and refused to play. As a Reuters report described it at the time, “Fetisov accused the coach of regarding his players as ‘ice robots’ to be used at his personal whim.” Fetisov held Tikhonov, who passed away in 2014, personally responsible for much of the opposition to his release to the NHL.

    Fetisov wasn’t the only player dissatisfied with his treatment. The young Alexander Mogilny, who played on a line with future NHL stars Sergei Fedorov and Pavel Bure, defected in 1989 to play for the Buffalo Sabres. Contrasting America and the USSR, Mogilny said, “Here people live for themselves. There I lived like a homeless dog.” Such high profile defections were a major threat to the Soviet regime. “Politically, every time something like that happened it was used in the media, so it was a victory for the West and a loss for the Soviet Union,” says Pozner. The Soviets eventually recognized the prudence of negotiating rights for their players to play in the NHL, in most cases with the Soviet government claiming large shares of the players’ salaries.

    Fetisov, however, refused to negotiate such an arrangement. He met with the minister of sport and was offered a similar deal, but Fetisov refused: “I want my contract.” In a meeting with Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, Fetisov remained staunch. At the conclusion of the meeting, Fetisov said, “Mr. Minister, if you don’t do what you promised to me, you’re not a minister. You’re not an officer. Release me from the army. Thank you very much.” A short time later Fetisov was granted the first multiple working entrance visa to the United States, and he made his NHL debut in the 1989–1990 season.

    After an inauspicious stint on the New Jersey Devils, Fetisov was traded to the Detroit Red Wings in 1995 at the age of 37, where he was reunited with his countrymen to form a new Russian Five: Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Sergei Fedorov, and his former teammate Igor Larionov. The Red Wings Russian Five helped lead the team to Stanley Cup victories in 1997 and 1998.

    Collectivism and consumerism

    Fetisov retired after the 1998 season. He had visited Russia with the Stanley Cup for a visit in 1997 and saw the changes that had occurred since his departure. He had left the USSR to play in the NHL and had returned victorious to a different country. The Russia that Fetisov came back to, he said, has “no heroes. It’s got no system. No structure. Nothing. Everybody runs around trying to get something. It’s not the way I want to live.” As Alexei Kasatonov put it, “Everything is about the material side of things: money, finance. Our country’s crisis is now reflected in hockey. Teams have very little money to keep players from leaving.” More than 500 players have been drafted into the NHL since 1989, a steady flow of talent that is increasingly able to more easily adapt and transition to a new style of play. The adjustment was difficult for players like Fetisov and Krutov, the latter of whom had a short and disappointing NHL career. But new players are more thoroughly Westernized, to both good and bad effect. One of the more disturbing elements of the documentary involves one of the NHL’s current stars, the Russian-born Alexander Ovechkin. The forward for the Washington Capitals is doing some sort of promotional video in which he is asked to shoot pucks and destroy a series of Russian nesting dolls filled with Russian salad dressing. He gladly obliges.

    The temptation when coming West, says Fetisov, involves precisely this kind of fetishizing of consumption and fortune. “We forget about patriotism,” says Fetisov. “We are ashamed of what we were before. We lost something. We lost pride. We lost our soul.” Since his retirement, Fetisov has returned to Russia at the invitation of Vladimir Putin in 2002 to work as minister of sport in an attempt to revive Russian hockey. But as Pozner observes, the Soviet history of hockey is equally relevant for the country’s political future: “Much of the problems are still anchored in that past.”

    Red Army makes clear that the history of Russian hockey does indeed have something to teach us, not only about the Russia of today, which is so much rooted in the Soviet past, but also for understanding the strengths and weaknesses of Western societies. “An outstanding athlete cannot belong solely to himself,” says Anatoli Tarasov. This is as true for the athletes on the ice as it is for the producers and consumers in the broader marketplace and, ultimately, the residents of civil society.

    Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow at the Acton Institute and executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality.

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    Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; PhD, Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project.