SOCHI 2014 FEBRUARY 19, 2014
After Russia lost to Finland 3–1 in hockey today in Sochi, Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, tweeted "Russians haven't won a best-on-best in 30 years. They're no longer a hockey superpower."
That may be true now, but someone forgot to tell the Russians. Despite a crushing early loss in the last Olympics—the Russian city of Tomsk even held a moment of silence—and a general slide in national hockey prowess, Russia still sees itself as, well, a hockey superpower. Hockey is up there with the ballet and figure skating on the list of the country's things to be proud of. It's a pride they inherited from Soviet times when the country did regularly rock the hockey house. Back then, the team was called the Red Machine. So confident were the Russians in their hockey dominance, so hopeful for a win on home turf, that heading into Sochi, Svetlana Zhurova, an Olympic champion in speed skating, went on TV to say that hockey was essentially the most important Olympic sport. "I think the worst thing would be if we lost in hockey," she said in an interview on Dozhd. "For many people, the loss of our hockey players will be our [Olympic] team's main loss."
And now, here it is. There are four more days left of the Olympics, the figure skaters are still skating, but none of it will matter, because the Red Machine is out. Once again, it was seen as a national disaster. Twitter filled with photos of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev—and the Olympic bear—looking utterly distraught, of player Ilya Kovalchuk collapsed on the ice. "Our hockey players are left without medals for the third Olympics in a row," one young woman tweeted. "No comment." On "Evening Urgant," Russia's version of the "Johnny Carson Show," the host came out in a hockey jersey, looking utterly, comically crushed.
"I feel empty," Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk told the press.
"This is a real blow," defender Anton Belov said, wistfully noting the medals now totally out of reach. "It's hard to say anything right now."
And this time, the Russians didn't have the Americans to blame. They had lost, fair and square, and then the self-flagellation began.
"I take all the responsibility for the loss on myself," said the coach, Zinetullah Bilaletdinov. "All I can say to our fans is that I'm sorry for this outcome." He even offered himself up as sacrificial meat to one reporter.
It was such an uncomfortable moment that the triumphant Finns couldn't even be triumphant. Instead, they too apologized. "I understand how badly they wanted to win the Olympics at home, and it really would have been a beautiful moment," the Finnish captain said. "We understand that we probably ruined the Olympics for the Russians, but that was not our intent," a Finnish forward said.
After the loss, all hopes seemed to turn to wunderkind figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya.
("Now only little Yulia Lipnitskaya will be fighting for the gold that a whole team of men couldn't win. #hockey #tears #ashes #rockbottom)
And then little Yulia Lipnitskaya wiped out on the ice, tumbling to fifth place, ushering in more grief and national self-loathing (Russians are themselves notorious Russophobes).
Which is weird because no one seemed to notice or care that Russian Adelina Sotnikova leaped beautifully into second place. Or that Russians seized medals in snowboarding earlier that day. Or that Russia had pulled into a very, very respectable fourth place in the medals count. There was a hockey loss and Lipnitskaya fell, which means it's a sad day. And Russians are really good at being sad, but maybe it's a question not of results but expectations. Maybe it's time that Russia recognize that, in hockey and in pretty much everything else, it is no longer the Red Machine. And that's okay, because it's now something else. Maybe it's time to finally figure that out, and be proud of it, rather than being mad at the Americans—and themselves.
New Republic Senior Editor Julia Ioffe will be writing dispatches from Russia for the duration of the Olympics. For the entire collection of her pieces, click here.