How Russian athletes are aiding Putin’s propaganda war

Successful athletes help a state maintain soft power, and perhaps no leader knows this better than Vladimir Putin.

A collage of Vladimir Putin talking with a microphone and various Russian athletes
Getty Images/Charly Triballeau; DeFodi Images; Getty Images News; Tim Clayton; Toru Hanai

Ivan Kuliak wasn’t a very well known gymnast before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. After racking up domestic accolades as a junior elite athlete, he made headlines worldwide at the World Cup in early March, when the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) announced that Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials would be banned after the conclusion of ongoing competitions. Already stripped of his country’s flag and anthem, Kuliak opted to cover the emblem on his uniform with a white paper letter “Z”, appearing on the competition floor and the medal podium alongside Ukrainian athletes donning a symbol of the Russian army’s invasion. Overnight, Kuliak went from an unknown competitor to an international representation of Russia’s aggression.

The image of the athlete as an actor of the state is nothing new. The Cold War pitted the American athlete and the Soviet athlete against each other as representatives of each state’s respective global influence and stature, culminating in back-to-back Olympic boycotts. While the Olympics ostensibly promote peace and international cooperation, the Games are, for many, an opportunity to blur the line between patriotism and nationalism — an issue further exacerbated by the banning of the Russian national anthem and flag at the postponed 2020 and 2022 Games due to state-sponsored doping. Although the spirit of Olympic unity has been exploited for fluffy photo ops in the past — including between Russian and Ukrainian skiers mere days before the invasion began — Russian President Vladimir Putin made it clear that the Games are mere optics by agreeing not to launch the invasion of Ukraine until after the Beijing Games, at the behest of the Chinese government.

Although U.S. championship teams are still invited to the White House and famous athletes are commemorated on postage stamps the world over, Russian athletes have taken a notably major role in state propaganda surrounding the Ukraine invasion. Gymnasts in particular have been front and center, including members of the gold medal-winning team from the Tokyo Games last summer. Viktoria Listunova and Vladislava Urazova (who are both minors) appeared at a March 18 rally for Putin in Moscow alongside rhythmic gymnasts Dina and Arina Averina. All four athletes were wearing large “Z”s in the colors of the Russian flag. (Kuliak was also in attendance.) While Russian athletes can be found in various sports leagues all over the world, those who compete for their country rather than a team bear the additional burden of representing both a people and a government.

“Self-censorship is easier and more important than government-enforced censorship.”

The presence of athletes at political events like these is guaranteed to further provoke the international sporting community. But it’s worth asking if they had a real choice in their participation. In early March, the Russian legislature, called the Duma, passed a law making it a felony to spread news it designates as “fake,” with additional fines for expressing support for sanctions against the country. Citizens can be imprisoned for up to 15 years if the information they share leads to “serious consequences,” according to a statement from the lawmakers. The rule also applies to statements made on social media.

But “enforcing a law is different from making a law,” Karl Qualls, a professor of history and the chair of international education at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, tells Mic. It may be near impossible for the Russian government to monitor the activity of all civilians — especially as the virtual private networks, or VPNs, make access to banned sites like Instagram or Western news media possible — but the fear that the law breeds may have a wider effect than any action. “Self-censorship is easier and more important than government-enforced censorship,” Qualls said.

With harsh laws targeting activities as commonplace as likes and shares on social media, it’s easy to see how some Russian public figures could acquiesce to making pro-government appearances — especially considering many athletes train with military-affiliated clubs. Athletes may be coerced to make appearances at events like the March 18 rally in Moscow regardless of their knowledge of or opinions on the government’s actions, especially if “one knows that lack of participation will lead to an end in their support,” Qualls notes. While athletes outside Russia — like the many NHL players of the Russian diaspora — face pressure to denounce the regime and voice support for sanctions, athletes within Russia face this same pressure to help maintain the status quo for their fans and prop up the image that the West is unfairly subjugating their nation, Qualls explains.

Some Russian athletes’ support of the government, meanwhile, goes way beyond basic PR. Nikita Nagornyy, a member of the men’s gymnastics team that won gold in Tokyo, is the chief of staff of the Young Army Cadets, a pro-military youth movement established after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Since the war broke out in Ukraine, Nagornyy has posted on Instagram about the importance of the Young Army Cadets and the role they and the Russian army play in delivering humanitarian aid to Russian speakers in the contested areas of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine — signaling not only de facto support for the Putin regime, but also an active role in perpetuating Kremlin propaganda.

Nagornyy’s actions, like Kuliak’s brazen display of nationalism, reflect how athletes help the Russian regime maintain soft power. The ideology of the Russian apparatus is as important and wide-reaching as its military operations, and elite athletes help enforce images of Russian dominance. “Their achievements in international events are supposed to validate the regime,” Qualls explains, likening the role of the Russian athlete now to the Soviet athlete during the Cold War. “Lots of gold medals is supposed to equate to the strength of the nation and the government.” This idea can apply to any nation’s sports programs, but is particularly relevant in the current Russian climate.

The examples of different Russian athletes’ role in war propaganda may feel contradictory — some level of participation may be voluntary, but others are likely not. Rather than protest live on television — like journalist Marina Ovsyannikova, who has already been found guilty for an action prior to her widely publicized March 14 call for “No War” — many Russians will opt for subtler anti-war expressions to avoid prosecution. As Western media outlets have documented, protesters throughout Russia face arrest and police brutality, and even blank signs can be interpreted as references to the misinformation law. In some ways, silence on social media could be indicative of support for Ukraine — especially among popular public figures who have stopped posting since the invasion despite the proliferation of VPNs, which would allow them to access blocked sites.

One example is Olympic rhythmic gymnastics champion Margarita Mamun, who posted, “The world needs peace!” on her Instagram the day the invasion began. She followed that up with information in her Stories on how to donate to humanitarian efforts in Ukraine and Poland. Though her account has been quieter since the Duma passed its misinformation bill, she still signs off posts with “love and peace,” a reminder that feels pointed in light of her prior actions and the potential ramifications she faces.

The nuances of this new reality may call into question the efficacy of banning Russian athletes or others outside the oligarch class from international events. It’s important to take all posts and statements from Russian public figures with a grain of salt and look at them with an investigative eye that goes beyond simply running the text through Google Translate. There are multiple nuances and factors at play with every post, and only by doing our due diligence on all possibilities can we judge those living under the fist of an oppressive regime.