Will Nail Yakupov don a Russian jersey again after these comments? (Photo credit: Ted Rhodes, Calgary Herald)

On Saturday, the Russian media outlets Sports.ru, Kulichki Hockey, and SportLook posted some blockbuster quotes from the NHL’s top draft-prospect Nail Yakupov at the NHL Combine in Toronto. Yakupov downplayed his Russian image and refused to be compared to Nikolai Zherdev (a notorious NHL bust who was drafted 4th in 2003). There hasn’t been a lot of talk about this in North America yet, but I would still like to clarify some points now.

Here’s what Nail said, per James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail:

You know, every player has his [own] way. I’m Muslim, I’m not Russian. If you [ask] what happens with the Russian factor, it’s [Zherdev’s] life and I have my life. I’ve got to work. It doesn’t matter what team is going to [take me] in the draft… My new team is my first favourite team in the NHL. I’m going to play and do everything for this.

(Emphasis ours.)

Some Russian hockey fans think this quote is treasonous, leaving bombastic comments on stories: “Don’t take him to the National Team!”; “He betrayed his homeland!”; “This person does not exist for me anymore!”, etc. You get the idea.

But this probably wasn’t what Nail actually wanted to say. Let me explain. There are two words in Russian language that can be translated as Russian: one is ethnic, and the other is nationalistic. Because the concept of Russian identity is a pretty controversial topic over here, I’ll lay out the details for you.

One word for Russian is Russky (Русский), which means a person who is ethnically Russian (i.e. the East Slavic ethnic group native to Russia, speaking the Russian language and primarily living in Russia and its neighboring countries). Another is Rossiyanin (Россиянин), which means “a citizen of Russia” and is sort of a modern replacement for the term “Soviet people”. That word is often criticized by nationalists for not being “patriotic” enough.

Here is the nationalist newspaper Russian Observer:

Our people will not accept any other name [except Russkie]. And the consequence of imposing the “Rossiyanin-ship” will be only the full rejection of the great Russian word Rossiaynin [a long-time synonym for Russky] and its full disappearance from Russian language.

Basically, you can be Russian or Ukranian or Belarusian, and so on, but if you have a Russian passport, you’re Rossiyanin.

Russia, just like the US, is a multi-national country. Nail Yakupov isn’t Russian ethnically; he is a Tatar, born and raised in Tatarstan, the region of Russia where the majority of the population are Turkic and of the Muslim faith. He has a Tatar name. Nationalists will say that Tatars are Russians. Most Tatars might disagree on that point.

Off the top of my head I can remember two other hockey players in North America with Tatar names: Nikolai Khabibulin and Stan Galiev, but neither was born in Tatarstan. National team coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov — who just recently led Russia to a World Championship — is Tatar.

So what exactly does Yakupov mean about being Muslim and not Russian? He might simply mean that he doesn’t smoke, drink, or participate in the loud parties that some Russian players are known for. Maybe he means that he doesn’t accept the national identity of Russians used by some nationalists.

Either way, it would be wise to consider the vagaries of language and complexities of Russian culture before jumping to conclusions.

  • Dark Stranger

    On Zherdev, I wouldn’t classify him as a total bust. He was actually reasonably productive in the goal scoring department while in the NHL, generally about 20-30 goals. However, he clashed with the management of the Blue Jackets and of his other teams. And was not good at defense. Hence, his demise in the NHL.

    He was actually born in the Ukraine but to further his development as a hockey player, he played with a Russian team and had to apply for Russian citizenship to do that.

  • Shinaain

    I have appreciation for any blog (hockey-related or otherwise) where I actually learn something. No snark involved – I’m genuinely pleased.

  • Dean

    While not a hockey player, the great soccer goalkeeper Rinat Dasaev was a Tatar. The Iron Curtain. He was awesome.

  • Novosibirsk Hockey Fan

    Does Vladimir Tarasenko agreeing to sign with the #stlBlues help Russians like Yakupov on draft day, or does it have no impact?

  • I don’t think it affects Nail much, or at least I don’t see HOW It might. He’s the #1 pick.

    I do think, however, that each player choosing the NHL over the KHL is a net positive for Russians in North America. It normalizes the decision.

  • Dmitry

    So which word did he use-Russky or Rossiyanin? Isn’t that answer the key to the article?

  • He talked in English, probably meant Russky.