Khokkeynaya diplomatiya (Russia)
|Author: Yoshiko M. Herrera* and Yuval Weber**|
|Affiliation: *University of Wisconsin-Madison, **National Research University - Higher School of Economics, Moscow and Harvard University|
Original text: Yoshiko M. Herrera, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Yuval Weber, National Research University - Higher School of Economics, Moscow and Harvard University
Khokkeynaya diplomatiya refers to the informal practice of utilising amateur ice hockey for the development of personal, business, and governmental relationships in Russia. The term is widely used by the Russian media, as evidenced by millions of online results for the term on Yandex’s Russian-language search engine. The equivalent English-language term ‘hockey diplomacy’ can be found in the West in countries where ice hockey is a major sport, notably Canada and the USA.
Hockey diplomacy has its origins in 1960s America, with an initiative taken by the CBS Television network to televise the Winter Olympic Games at Squaw Valley, California, in defiance of the prevailing political will. The coverage of ice hockey matches proved to be particularly popular with television viewers, and saw America defeat the USSR to win the Gold medal. However, rather than being portrayed simply as adversaries in a capitalist versus communist contest, the Soviet players came to be much admired worldwide, paving the way for a softening of attitudes between the West and the USSR. It was hailed as a triumph in ‘soft diplomacy’ for both sides.
The successful introduction of Soviet ice hockey players to a worldwide audience saw a continuation of hockey diplomacy. This culminated in the famous 1972 Summit Series which saw the best Canadian professional players of the National Hockey League challenge the Soviet national team, the best ‘amateur’ players in the world (Soviet teams were not commercial organisations; their players were technically employees of the army, police, and trade unions who played hockey in their spare time, although in practice they trained as professional players). Although the Canadians expected to defeat the Soviets easily, it was a closely fought contest and the experience left both sides transformed: the so-called ‘Red Machine’ of the Soviet Union emerged with its reputation further enhanced; and the Canadians learnt a valuable lesson about hubris; their eventual triumph following adversity was noted as a key element in the development of post-war national identity.
A revival of khokkeynaya diplomatiya has taken place in twenty-first century Russia, led by the initiatives of Alexander Medvedev, currently the Deputy Chairman of Russian energy company Gazprom and former Director-General of Gazprom Export (2006-2014), whose responsibilities include finding new export markets for Russian natural gas. Medvedev, a former hockey player at Leningrad State University, conceived the idea of organising informal hockey matches and tournaments in new and emerging gas markets. Gazprom executives were invited to take part in the games, which were intended to provide a relaxed environment in which to engage with potential clients and partners.
In 2006, Medvedev and Gazprom executives developed the initiative further. They held an energy symposium at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and during the same visit arranged hockey matches for the Gazprom officials in Boston. Scott MacPherson, an American hockey executive working in sports media, publicised the efforts of Gazprom, which served as a way of attracting former Soviet hockey stars now living in the United States. The event brought Exxon, Chevron, PetroCanada, Alcoa, GM, and other energy sector representatives together to participate in both the symposium and hockey matches, and successfully demonstrated that khokkeynaya diplomatiya could be a contemporary successor to 1970s-era diplomacy between Canada and the Soviet Union. Moreover, there was an expectation that if this khokkeynaya diplomatiya continued to develop it might emulate the success of the so-called 1970s ‘Ping-Pong diplomacy’. This initiative saw the United States and People’s Republic of China engage in a series of table tennis (ping pong) exhibition matches that signalled a thaw in Sino-American relations, and more importantly paved the way for President Nixon’s visit to Beijing. Chinese Premier Chou En-lai later said, ‘Never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy’. It was hoped that Russia’s khokkeynaya diplomatiya, would be similarly successful in terms of bridging the differences between Russia and the Western business community.
In February 2006 an event was held in Russia in which Igor Larionov, a serial winner of the Olympics, World Championships, Stanley Cup, and the Soviet League was invited to play. The Gazprom Export Hockey Team comprising of Gazprom employees, played alongside Russian hockey legends against other corporate teams featuring other former professionals. Subsequently, Medvedev and MacPherson organised matches for the Gazprom Export Hockey Team in regions where Gazprom was already doing business or wanted to do business. Territories visited by the team included the United States, Canada, England, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Kazakhstan, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia.
The direct consequences of khokkeynaya diplomatiya are difficult to assess, because the main benefit is in relationship building, and it is often difficult to judge the precise contribution it makes to business deals in terms of personal introductions and relationships, relative to other factors. However, one might draw inferences based on observations of hockey interactions and subsequent deals. A prominent example of this might be the agreements from 2012 between Cisco Systems and the Skolkovo Foundation, which were worth $1 billion USD; in this case, a top Cisco executive and Arkady Dvorkovich, the deputy prime minister instrumental in representing Russia state interests in relation to the Western business community, were known to play hockey together.
Medvedev and MacPherson’s overseas initiatives also led to a revival of hockey as a popular domestic sport in Russia, and successfully built upon the nostalgia for past Soviet successes. In a rare instance of civil society leading the government, the Russian state gave its imprimatur and poured considerable resources into making hockey a leading participatory and spectator sport.
The success and prominence of the Gazprom Export Hockey Team abroad brought greater attention to the small-scale recreational hockey league they officially played in, the Night Hockey League (NHL – a deliberate play on words referencing the elite US-Canadian league with the same acronym). From 2006 onwards, under the leadership of Alexander Yakushev, the hero of the 1972 Summit Series (and organised by the Russian Ice Hockey Federation under the leadership of Vladislav Tretiak, another hero of the Series), the NHL grew to a membership of over 2000 teams comprising over 10,000 players in nearly 70 regions of Russia, with additional leagues in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Serbia. The NHL league has in effect created an informal business network that forms one of the largest civil society organizations in the country.
President Putin has differentiated himself from his predecessors by identifying himself with sporting prowess – a symbol of strength. Although a latecomer to hockey, he has adopted the sport with relish and regularly plays with friends and colleagues such as the Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu, other high-level politicians including Rashid Nurgaliyev, former Interior minister and current Deputy Secretary of the Presidential Security Council, Andrei Vorobyov, Moscow Oblast governor, and Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich; as well as oligarchs like Vladimir Potanin, leading cultural figures such as saxophonist Igor Butman, and a number of famous former ice hockey professionals. Other important participants are long-time personal friends of President Putin who have accumulated major shares in Russia’s strategic industries since he came to power; they include the Rotenberg brothers and Gennady Timchenko. Such individuals play an important role in sistema, the informal system of governance that has evolved under Putin. Regular sporting gatherings, such as the late-evening ice hockey games, as well as the activities of the Yawara-Neva Judo Club (Putin’s favourite sport) thus provide key settings for the meeting of Putin’s informal inner circle.
The business-friendly approach, coupled with evident support at the highest level, led to success in attracting both expatriate and domestic business executives to participate. They enjoy not only the exercise, but are privileged to have the opportunity of meeting leading figures from both business and government, as well as former sports legends. These matches attract not only legendary Russian players, but also North American greats like Phil Esposito and Mark Messier. The annual NHL season culminates in a countrywide open-entry hockey cup competition. The ultimate prize is winning an opportunity to play an exhibition match against President Putin’s team. It has been suggested that khokkeynaya diplomatiya plays a part in actual diplomatic relations between Russia and the United States, as both John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov have spoken publically of their mutual love of hockey. Indeed, John Kerry noted in 2013 that ‘Sergei Lavrov and I are old hockey players and we both know that diplomacy, like hockey, can sometimes result in the occasional collision’.
In recent developments, a revival of organised hockey at university level in Russia is being encouraged, with an eye toward developing future khokkeynaya diplomatiya. MacPherson is inviting top university teams such as the Harvard Crimson to Moscow, and is planning to send Russian university teams to play their counterparts abroad. The Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas, which continues to serve as an important hub for higher education in the energy business, at both the undergraduate and graduate level in Russia, has an ice hockey team, nicknamed the Oilers. The Gubkin Oilers, supported by MacPherson, are in turn serving as an organisational model for universities across Russia and the former Soviet Union. This University based initiative provides another way for future members of the Russian energy industry to continue the informal practice of playing hockey with business counterparts at home and abroad.
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