Mother Russia

Putin’s Hockey Pal Tells All: Slava Fetisov on ‘Red Army,’ Soviet Nostalgia, and What Drives Putin

The hockey great and subject of the riveting documentary Red Army, about the legendary USSR hockey team, discusses U.S./Russia relations and why the U.S. despises Putin.

10.09.14 10:14 AM ET

They were derisively dubbed the “Bolshoi Ballet on Ice”—a graceful unit that operated like a multi-headed Hydra emphasizing teamwork over individual performance. They were, if you believed the Soviet propaganda machine, a shining example of communism at work. They were also, according to NHL coaching great Scotty Bowman, the greatest lineup in the history of hockey.

The Russian Five, which played for the club CSKA Moscow and the Red Army Soviet national hockey team in the ‘80s, consisted of defenders Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov, as well as scoring machine right-winger Sergei Makarov, center Igor Larionov (a.k.a. “The Professor”), and center Vladimir Krutov (“The Tank”). The group won five gold medals at the World Championships during that decade, as well as gold at the ’84 and ’88 Olympics. Most Americans, however, remember them as members of the 1980 Red Army team that lost in the “Miracle on Ice,” toppled at the height of the Cold War by a group of amateur and collegiate Americans at the Olympics in Lake Placid.  

Gabe Polsky’s thrilling, informative documentary Red Army, which is one of the very best films of the year, shows not just the other side of what many Americans consider one of the greatest sports moments in U.S. history, but also examines the history of the Soviet Union, the disturbing link between the Soviet government and sports, the crisis of national identity, and how one player challenged the system so guys like Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin could play in the NHL today.

That player is Slava Fetisov, the Russian Five captain, one of the greatest players in hockey history, and the main subject of Polsky’s documentary. After clashing with coach Victor Tikhonov, a KGB-installed tyrant, he chose to challenge the government and defect to the NHL. Fetisov was threatened and beaten by the authorities, and abandoned by his closest friends, but managed to succeed, and went on to win back-to-back Stanley Cups with Bowman’s Detroit Red Wings in ’97 and ’98 (as a member of “The Wizards of Ov,” an all-Russian lineup based off the Russian Five). In 2002, Fetisov returned to Russia at the behest of Vladimir Putin, and the two became close friends, with Putin installing him as the Minister of Sport from 2002-2008. Fetisov currently serves as a senator in the Federal Assembly of Russia representing the far eastern region of Primorsky Krai.

The Daily Beast sat down with the hockey legend and documentary star in New York, where the film is making its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival, to discuss Red Army, and more.

I heard Red Army played very well over in Russia.

It opened the Moscow Film Festival and I took this movie to Vladivostok—I’m a senator from the Primorsky, about a 9-hour flight from Moscow—and we showed the film at Festisov Arena, the hockey stadium there with my name on it, for 3,000 people, and there was a good reaction. It got the same reaction that it did her at the New York Film Festival.

But Gabe told me that Russia is the only country where the film hasn’t sold.

Cause he’s too greedy, probably! He wants to make too much money from a poor country. That’s the only problem, I guess. But everyone seems to like it. My wife liked it, and my daughter liked it. She’s finished this year studying film at Fordham University, so she got to go to Cannes, Toronto, and the New York Film Festival.

The film also seeks to, I think, right the history books when it comes to the Soviet hockey team, which has been colored by the 1980 loss to the U.S.A. lot of people don’t even know that the Soviet hockey team rebounded to win gold medals in ’84 and ’88.

It’s propaganda! They blame us for propaganda, but look at that. I moved to the U.S. in 1989 to play for the New Jersey Devils, and in the U.S. you do things by decade, so they called it the decade of that “political situation” and named the “Miracle on Ice” the best sports moment in U.S. history of that decade. So, I start press conference and didn’t speak English and had a translator, and they asked me, “How did you guys lose to students?” and I said, “It’s tough to explain losing…” and I told the PR people, “I don’t want to talk about this stuff because I have nothing to say.” Look, in ’81 at the World Championships we beat Sweden 13-1, which was the most shameful moment in their sport’s history. That same year, we played the Canada Cup and kicked out the Canadian team in the final in Montreal 8-1 with Scotty Bowman, the greatest coach ever, on the bench, and against the best players—Gretzky, etc. You look at the political situation nowadays and think, OK, this is the most aggressive game on the planet, but the Soviets play artistically, creatively, and never fight. We beat you with character and team spirit.

There was a lot of national pride on the Red Army team for the Soviet Union.

Patriotism, respect—like there is here. I lived in the U.S. for 13 years. In the ‘90s, [Russians] lost our soul and pride for the country. We’re not patriots anymore. We exchanged our patriotism for the American Dream, and they think that the American Dream is all about money, but I tell people that the American Dream is about being a patriot. The reason why America became a superpower is because they didn’t think “money first,” they thought, “patriotism first.” We had such great pride, but we lost it.

That does seem to be a big part of Putin’s agenda—bringing that sense of pride that existed during the Soviet Union back to Russia.

Yes, that’s what he’s doing right now, and that’s what he gets blamed for constantly. It’s our interests, it’s our country, it’s our business, it’s our history, our people, our future, and our kids.

I heard you taught Putin how to skate?

Yeah, he wanted to skate and had never skated before, so I taught him when he was 58. And he plays and enjoys the game. He’s pretty good. We built 300 indoor stadiums during my time. You know how many existed when I played? Thirty. After the inauguration, he played a charity game against some amateurs at a hockey arena, and he’d only skated for probably a couple of years only, and he scored on a penalty shot in front of 14,000 people.

Sony Pictures

Do you think they had to let him score, though?

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It’s tough to score backhand top-shelf! You have to be blessed to do that. He’s a good man, come on.

You say he’s a good man, but that’s not what many people think of him in the U.S.

He tried to bring respect and pride for our country back, and do what he had to do as president. We did a lot in our seven years for the kids, brought the Olympic Games to the country. Remember how much people here liked Putin in 2001? After Sept. 11, he flew to the United States and held a big event at the Russian Embassy in Washington D.C., and I was invited. All the representatives came to pay respect to Putin after Sept. 11. Then came all that stuff during the coming Olympic games.

You helped petition to bring the Olympics to Sochi, and the “stuff” you’re talking about is President Obama and a coalition of other world leaders refusing to attend the Opening Ceremony to protest against the treatment of the LGBT community in Russia?

There’s no such a thing! That’s another brainwash. We’re not oppressing those people. I know so. It’s fake.

What about all those right-wing groups like Parents of Russia that are literally snatching gay kids off the street and beating them up?

No, no. It’s another propaganda thing from news sites. They live freely, trust me. Lots of them live successful lives and nobody oppresses them.

There are also strict laws in place in Russia banning “homosexual propaganda.”

For the kids, yes, I support this. You can’t promote this stuff with youngsters. But those who live that lifestyle, they live free… and are very successful.

What about Pussy Riot?

I grew up in the Soviet Union, and with the culture. Can you believe someone could get into a cathedral and do a concert? What kind of reaction should there be? Why did they do this? You can do this anywhere… why do it in a church?

They said that they were protesting the connection between Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, which they claim is too strong, and that the Church helped Putin get re-elected.

They just blame Putin for everything. Go to Red Square. There’s freedom to protest there, but why the church? Why do you insult thousands of years of tradition in such an awful way? The punishment may have been too great, but 90 percent of the people said you cannot do this in a place of worship. In our culture, it’s impossible to think to do something like that. And where is Pussy Riot now? They forgot about them. The media and political factions used them when they were hot—even Hollywood came in and supported them—and where are they now? They used them like a condom and now—poof—they’ve disappeared. If they were so powerful and did something right, they’d build on it.

Your Red Army coach, Victor Tikhonov, was installed by the KGB and seemed tyrannical, punching the players in practice and making them skate until they pissed blood.

Yeah, he was. The government gave him power—he’s a product of the KGB system, and he took it. My fight was not against Tikhonov, but the system. Tikhonov was just a product of the Soviet system. For a year-and-a-half, I fought against the system to be free and play in the NHL. When I told them, they said I’d get $1,000/month and have to give them the rest of my contract money, and I thought, “I’m not the big guy that I think… I’m a slave.” Something clicked inside me and I thought, “I should fight this, for my people.” It wasn’t about the money; it was the fact that they treated even the biggest superstars like slaves. I had no support and no friends. Everyone was scared.

In the documentary, your wife says you were abducted in Kiev and beaten after voicing your desire to play in the NHL. Did Tikhonov order that hit on you?

I don’t know. Maybe it was the place, and that it happened accidentally, but it wasn’t that hard to recognize my face in the Soviet Union at that time because I was very popular. They grabbed me in front of a hotel, threw me into a car, drove me over to the police station, tied me, and beat me up. Then, a few hours later an assistant coach came and they released me. Then, I went public the next day and said, “What’s going on here?” They never thought I’d fight the system. I went straight to the newspaper and said, “I’m not going to play for Tikhonov anymore."

Your relationship with the KGB is a bit strange because they installed Tikhonov, who terrorized you, and then in 2002, it was Putin—a KGB product—who convinced you to return to Russia and serve as the Minister of Sport.

Well, the KGB is like the FBI and CIA here—it’s part of the system. After a while, you start to realize that they were just tools used by the leaders and the Politburo. Bush is from the system, right? From the CIA? People who work for these special organizations are raised as patriots because they must protect the land, and Putin was elected president. He has 80 percent support of the Russian people. They love him. Putin called me in 2002 after the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City and I flew to Moscow, and he said, “We need you back. You need to build the system and run the sport as a governmental responsibility. You have experience being a Soviet athlete who grew up in the system.” It was tough to say no. And in 1989, I left from the system, not from the country—and not from my people. I’ve got respect. I have eight Orders from my country. No one living person, even the political or military people, have as many awards as me from the government.

Are you nostalgic for the days of the Soviet Union, and the way things were?

I’ve spent 31 years of my life living in the Soviet Union—more years than I have not. I never regret what’s happened, or not happened. It’s my life. I try to keep the world at peace because it’s very dangerous now. I was discriminated against around the world because I was born in the Soviet Union. Why? I have so many friends here, and all over the world. My daughter has a U.S. passport. And they’re saying we’re aggressive? If you look at the history of Russia itself, it’s a great nation and we’ve never attacked anybody—we’ve just defended our land and our territory. Napoleon, Hitler, Genghis Khan, etc. They all tried to take over Russia, and it never happened. It’s the same with the Canadians. They tried to beat us on the ice physically and looked up at the scoreboard and saw it: 8-1.