Sid, Alex and Michael: the Canada-Russia nexus

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There's more to those Crosby-Ovechkin, Sid the Kid vs. Alex the Great duels in the Pittsburgh-Washington playoff series than hockey.

The Russia-Canada nexus has a long backstory. We tend to focus on our imperial-colonial history, our relations with France, Britain and the U.S. But Russia has a formidable place too, because it's a northern country, like us. Though we're keenly aware of the U.S. border, Russia is our other neighbour and rival. It is our obverse. Flip us over at the top and there's Russia. It has always given Canadians palpitations. Those hockey cataclysms in 1956 and 1972 weren't the first times we were shaken by comparing ourselves with Russia.

In 1890, a Canadian literary critic wrote: "Could Count Tolstoy write War and Peace or Ivan Turgenev hold you ... if they lived in Canada? How could they? They could not learn war here, could not be fired by the daily, hourly human agonies which a Russian sees ..." This is sheer misery envy. Those lucky Russians: They suffer; they can write novels! We Canadians, on the other hand, "sit in broad sunlight by day, in the glare of electric light by night; we are nice and warm in summer ... equally nice and warm in winter; we love conveniently and properly."

In fact, Alexander Ovechkin sounds and acts like a character from Dostoyevsky or Turgenev. He glories in his gappy teeth; he doesn't try to hide them. He rejoices wildly when he scores. He's far more a man-child than Sidney Crosby, the one who seems burdened by a sense of greatness.

Don Cherry says Ovie shouldn't "show people up" by celebrating goals, but the exuberance works if you think of him as a big Russian kid. (Anyway, the idea of Don Cherry criticizing others for showing people up is a hoot. There should be a literary term for any statement that oblivious. How about a Cherry?)

Now, we have prince Michael Ignatieff, a descendant of the former Russian nobility, poised to become our prime minister. I once found it embarrassing, this turning to a Canadian who was away for decades in London and the U.S., who often described himself as one of them and bolstered their imperial projects, like invasion and torture, with articles and arguments. But what the hell, it's probably payback we deserve for getting suckered into phony globalization schemes like free trade.

And on further consideration, in the light of Crosby/Ovechkin, I think prince Michael comes by his imperial proclivities honestly. He wasn't just a colonial trying to pass in the metropolitan centres. He has roots. Russia had a true empire. There's a touch in him of Sarah Palin, another imperious figure coming out of the north, where we hadn't expected it.

During the Cold War, people from Soviet satellites often noted how similarly overbearing were the Soviet and U.S. attitudes toward others. The empire is gone, but the straitened Russia that replaced it still has its ancient reflexes. How must they feel when one of their best, Alexander Ovechkin, deploys his genius in Washington, D.C.? I bet it rankles. Maybe they were making a point of pride this week by expelling Canadian diplomats from Moscow in a tit-for-tat over spying when they could have picked on any NATO member? Was it a shot at Sid our Kid, and a little furtive flag wave for Alex, their wayward star?

It's sad that this moment in the history of Canada-Russia relations is playing out entirely on U.S. soil, or ice. But it's a sign of the times. Russians cling to dreams of imperial restoration (in Georgia, Ukraine, Chechnya) and expel some diplomats. While we -- what do we have in lieu of a foreign policy? Unlike Russians, we can't dream of an empire that never was. But there's Jim Balsillie and his own project of restoration: Bring back one of our teams from the air-conditioned deserts of the U.S. Southwest. More power to him.

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