Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Sergei Magnitsky Murder: Siloviki Circle the Wagons

BROOKLYN, New York -- It has been more than two months since the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in police custody after being refused medical attention. Magnitsky represented British investor Bill Browder, founder of Hermitage Capital Management, in a case involving a huge tax fraud allegedly perpetrated by Russian police officials and uncovered by Mr. Magnitsky. He had spent nearly a year in pre-trial detention, imprisoned without charge by the very people he accused of perpetrating the fraud against his clients and the Russian government.

Were it not for his British citizenship, Mr. Browder himself could have wound up in similar circumstances. He has been refused entry to Russia since 2005, despite the fact that he runs one of the largest investment firms in the country and has been a tireless booster of investing in Russia. He is not a political activist or human rights campaigner; instead, he champions investors' rights, which are also severely trampled in Russia. He refused to play by the crooked rules of the coterie of Kremlin insiders and current and former members of the security services, the so-called siloviki, who control business in Russia. Magnitsky was a tireless advocate of his client's interests, and he was murdered because he refused to flee the country or commit perjury by implicating himself or his client for the crimes of his captors.

Since this case became an international sensation (though only after Magnitsky's captors had succeeded in killing him), President Dmitry Medvedev has done some house cleaning, firing top prison officials who oversaw Magnitsky's detention and non-existent medical treatment (he died of untreated pancreatitis and gall stones, not a heart attack and toxic shock as the government claims). As for the men who orchestrated the fraud and arrest, Viktor Markelov, a sawmill foreman and likely a bit player in the $230 million tax fraud, was convicted in April 2009 of stealing government funds (his conviction was in fact based on the investigative work of Magnitsky himself). The two police officers who orchestrated the whole affair, Lt. Col. Atryom Kuznetsov and Maj. Pavel Karpov, have been reassigned to desk jobs at the Interior Ministry, and no charges are pending against either one. Not a penny of the $230 million has been recovered.

This is how things usually work in Russia when a scandal like this breaks. The government offers up a few sacrificial lambs – this time in the form of Moscow prison director Vladimir Davydov and 19 other prison officials and the fall guy Markelov – but it always protects its own in the police.

For more details on the Magnitsky case, read Bill Browder's letter published in Foreign Policy in December. You can also listen to an interview with Browder from The Economist, which I highly recommend.

Hermitage has set up a website, Law and Order in Russia, which chronicles this entire ordeal and contains a wealth of documents related to the tax case and Mr. Magnitsky's detention, all of which have been translated into English.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

More Hockey: Playing and Watching the Game Outdoors

BROOKLYN, New York -- Hockey was meant to be played – and watched – outdoors. On New Year's Day, the National Hockey League pulled off another spectacular Winter Classic, an outdoor game between the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers at historic Fenway Park. I was not able to make it to Boston for those festivities, but this past weekend I did make the trip to Beantown to see college hockey rivals Boston University and Boston College face off at Frozen Fenway.

It seemed a bit sacrilegious that my first visit to Fenway would be to see a hockey game – a lifelong Red Sox fan, I've never seen them in their home ballpark – but you could not ask for a better atmosphere for a hockey game. As my brother and I shivered through three periods, and temperatures dropped to 15F, we did not complain that we had to watch the game through binoculars from the bleachers, or that the public address announcer kept talking during play. That's acceptable in baseball, but not okay in hockey – once the puck drops, the PA, organ, and infernal jock jams must all cease so that the crowd can hear the swish of the skates and the crack of the puck off of stick blades and boards. Our sightlines were not great, but they did a great job micing the ice; and I'm fine with an obstructed view seat, if that view is partially blocked by the Pesky Pole.

The trip to Fenway brought back memories of places both very near to and very far from my home. Playing shinny on local ponds was a big part of growing up, and quite a few of the rinks I played on in youth hockey in Connecticut were outdoors. But this was the first time I had been to an outdoor hockey game since I lived in Russia. While in Irkutsk, I was a rabid follower of our local bandy club (not exactly hockey, but close), Baikal-Energia. 15,000 fans braved temperatures that dipped well below freezing – at their most recent home game, against Stroitel Syktyvkar, the official game time temperature was -13F – on a regular basis. I guess I have grown soft and used to the warmth and comfort of an NHL arena; so had most of my fellow spectators in Boston, as the crowd had thinned out significantly by the third period. What we all needed was a few belts of honey pepper vodka and some slices of salo, a type of Ukrainian salted pork fat. Neither was on offer at the concession stands, however; just beer, which promptly froze in the plastic cups.

Unlike previous Winter Classic events, the NHL decided to leave the ice down in Fenway for a full month, making it accessible for public skating and youth, high school, and college hockey. That is, for those who could afford it – two hours of ice time cost high schools upwards of $20,000, meaning only wealthy private schools could have the privilege of staging a game there. Nonetheless, the rink's extended stay was a big success, and the league hopes the next host of the event will make similar accommodations. Connecticut hockey fans had a lot to cheer about; not only did Avon Old Farms and Taft square off on the Fenway ice on December 21, but the honorary captains for the BC-BU game included two of the state's greatest players: former Eagles standouts and NHL stars Craig Janney (of Enfield) and Brian Leetch (Cheshire).

Outdoor hockey used to be ubiquitous, and even though leagues are staging more and more outdoor games, fewer and fewer kids are growing up playing on natural ice. I was lucky to play a few games last year at an outdoor rink in Nederland, Colorado, located at 8,500 feet amidst beautiful mountain scenery, but few have such a privilege. Interestingly, no Stanley Cup final has ever been held outdoors. Even in the early days of the trophy, when the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada battled for the title, all the deciding games were held inside. When the Montreal Hockey Club won it for the first time in 1894, they played at Victoria Rink, which opened in 1862. Even when the cup was contested in far-off Winnipeg in 1896, the city hosted the games in the recently-constructed, 2,000-seat Granite Rink. The Vancouver Olympics are fast approaching, where the hockey tournament will be staged at the Canucks' home, GM Place. When the Games were held in Cortina d'Amprezzo in 1956, all the on-ice events were held at the open-air Stadio Olympica (which has since been covered), including the Soviets' gold medal game victory over the United States (Canada finished with the bronze, though their goaltender was Denis Brodeur, father of the team's current backstop, Martin).

As for the game we watched outside, the Terriers dominated most of the way. A late rally drew the Eagles within a goal, but they came up short, and BU earned some bragging rights with a 3-2 victory. Let's hope this great tradition continues, and more fans and players get to experience the game out in the open.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Hockey and Nationalism Should Be Kept Apart

BROOKLYN, New York -- Tuesday was an historic day for American hockey. The United States defeated Canada in the final of the World Junior Hockey Championship, winning just the second gold medal in the country's history. Canada had been aiming for history themselves; having won the tournament five years in a row, a sixth consecutive gold would have set a new record of dominance. Instead, the US came out on top in an end-to-end overtime thriller that was without a doubt one of the most exciting hockey games I have seen in years.

Meanwhile, my friend Gene sent me this blog post from The New Republic by Adie Tomer, which relates an idea by everyone's favorite pop psychology maven, Malcolm Gladwell, about how to fix the National Hockey League. Apparently, I have not been experiencing enough diarrhea of the mouth, so I subjected myself to reading his interview with serial ego-blogger and self-referential nincompoop, ESPN's Bill Simmons. Simmons and Gladwell think it would be totally radical if the NHL were realigned into two 12-team conferences divided equally between the US and Canada. Not only would this endow hockey-mad Canada with the six more franchises it richly deserves, but it would also set up an awesome "border war" in each Stanely Cup final, stoking national pride and making everyone from sea to shining sea (in both countries) totally excited about hockey, regardless of which cities are represented in the final.

So, how are these two things related? Well, if this national showdown would be so awesome for hockey, why does nobody in the US care that we just had a cross-border battle for the ages? Not only does Tomer make no mention of it (his commentary was posted the day of the final), but it was totally ignored by the national media (ESPN only mentions it on their NHL page, not their main page). The reason is that the appeal of teams isn't just limited to their respective cities; the appeal of hockey in the US is limited, period.

While there are lots of deserving cities in Canada without NHL teams, and lots of undeserving American ones with them, this hare-brained idea will do little to help hockey. Fewer teams in the US might be better for the overall health of the league, but it won't do much to grow the game in the US. Gladwell and Simmons' idea of creating national buzz about the Stanley Cup final is already true in Canada, as it's non-stop national news whenever there is a Canadian team in the final or even the conference final.

Gladwell keeps harping on the mismanagement of the NHL, but the fact that the Phoenix Coyotes are a mess does not give his ideas any more credence. Here is one of his nonsense analogies about how to improve hockey:
I was once in Brazil when Brazil was playing Argentina in soccer, and the entire country was in a state of advanced hysteria. I was at a conference and they stopped the proceedings, in the middle of the day, so everyone could go watch the game. Unbelievable. That's what happens when you combine sports and national loyalties. Can you imagine this happening every spring?
Perhaps this would be a better idea if Canada shared a border with Sweden or Russia, but even these countries cannot match Canada's obsession with hockey or its sheer output of talent. The Coyotes should definitely move back to Canada, and Gary Bettman should have been fired many, many years ago, but drawing analogies between the hockey rivalry of the US and Canada and soccer matches between Brazil and Argentina is ridiculous (see my point above re: diarrhea of the mouth). And we really need this in hockey:

I think this realignment is an idea dreamed up by an American (Simmons) who likes the example of Green Bay – a small town with a big professional franchise – and thinks it would be quaint to have NHL teams in places like Saskatoon and Winnipeg. Practically speaking, not only is it tough to decide which 12 of the 24 US franchises should be cut (once you get past the usual Sunbelt suspects, it gets much harder to decide), but it's hard to find six more Canadian cities that could support a $200 million+ hockey franchise, especially considering that Toronto won't let anyone into their southern Ontario fiefdom, which contains most of Canada's larger cities (my picks were Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Quebec City, Halifax, Hamilton and Victoria, hypothetically speaking).

Gladwell's other idea is that Canadians "secede" from the NHL and run their own league. Many Canadians have in effect done this. Instead of trekking to the league's six Canadian outposts, they watch junior hockey in their hometowns, where 17- to 20-year-olds ply their trade in the Western, Ontario and Quebec Major Junior Hockey Leagues, and in the various junior A and B circuits across the country. Canadians may be happy to spend their ticket dollars on their local youngsters, but they still tune in every Saturday night to watch Hockey Night in Canada. If the NHL is to remain the world's pre-eminent hockey league, it needs the revenues that large US markets and American TV networks and advertisers provide.

Lastly, I would like to take aim at a larger point made by Gladwell and expounded upon by Tomer, and that is that melding sport and national pride is a good thing. Why do we need to inject nationalism into the NHL? It is a cosmopolitan league with players from around the world who are embraced by their adopted cities across North America. The Washington Capitals are captained by a Russian, the Ottawa Senators by a Swede. The Montreal Canadiens are without a captain, but their three alternates are two Americans and a Russian; Toronto is in a similar situation with a Czech, an American and a Canadian wearing the "A" on their sweaters. There are plenty of opportunities for players to wear their national colors, such as the annual IIHF World Championships (another non-event in North America), the WJC and the Olympics.

Sport may on occasion be a peaceful proxy for actual confrontation between nations, but nationalism and sport often make for a dangerous combination that can boil over into real violence. Just watch the soccer hooligans at this summer's World Cup in South Africa. Hockey has been largely free of fan violence on this continent, but there were a pair of ugly nationalism- inspired incidents during the 2002-03 NHL season, when Montreal Canadiens fans booed "The Star-Spangled Banner" in response to the invasion of Iraq; Florida Panthers fans responded by booing "O Canada" at their own arena. We don't need to encourage that nonsense every year at the Stanley Cup final. The World Junior Championship has also experienced that nationalist boobirds, when Canadian fans in Vancouver in 2006 jeered the American squad while cheering on their traditional rival, Russia. Booing teenagers is always a classy move. I have made my opinions about the Olympics well known here and elsewhere – they just provide another tool for xenophobes and bigots to manipulate national sentiment, and international events are no less sullied by corporate advertising and fraud than the professional athletic circuits. But the vocal fans in Vancouver should add a little flavor to the usually tame Winter Olympics, especially during the hockey tournament.

I will admit to feeling a great deal of pride in my country when John Carlson netted the game winner in Saskatoon last night, but I would be far happier to see the Boston Bruins Slovak captain Zdeno Chara hoist the Stanley Cup. Let's keep nationalism out of the NHL, and let's keep people who don't know what they're talking about out of hockey.