The World Cup presented a vision of Russia the West doesn't recognise. But the greatest impact is likely to have been on Russians themselves
With only a couple of days left of the World Cup, the West’s worst fears have been realised. The tournament, awarded in controversial circumstances and widely predicted to descend into hooliganism and violence, turned out to be a roaring success.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. From the start, Russia’s World Cup was tainted by scandal and acrimony. Fifa, it is widely believed, was bribed into choosing Russia. Following the poisoning of Russian double-agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury, for which blame was placed squarely on the Kremlin, many heads of state refused to attend the matches. The UK Foreign Office issued a travel warning advising fans to beware of “anti-British sentiment”, while MPs on Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee foresaw “vigilante violence” against homosexual fans.
Contrast all that to the carnivalesque Moscow street scenes, not just in the aftermath of Russia’s shock victory against Spain in the round of 16 but also, much more surprisingly, even following the home team’s gut-wrenching defeat on penalties to Croatia.
In their joy and openness, the images of people dancing with police officers, streaking across packed streets and merrily embracing into the night resembled nothing so much as the people power protests of 1989. What it did not look like was Russia, or at least the one we think we know – an embittered empire seeking victory at all cost, more at home with military parades than street parties.
No wonder President Vladimir Putin declared that the World Cup “helped break many stereotypes about Russia”. Since the 2008 war with Georgia and 2014 annexation of Crimea, “soft power” has not been one of Russia’s key exports. Indeed, it seems every previous attempt at improving its international image – from Moscow 1980 to the Sochi Winter Olympics – has been undermined by some invasion or ham-fisted assassination.
Russia’s image problem went deep, and the World Cup went a long way to solving it. But not in the usual way.
Much has been written about whether attending or simply enjoying the World Cup is tantamount to supporting Putin’s authoritarian agenda. Comparisons abound with that other remarkably successful sporting pageant, Hitler’s Munich Olympics of 1936.
Certainly, there is a long history of Western intellectuals hoodwinked by charming dictators into overlooking the dark undersides of their apparently orderly and well-run countries. And clearly, behind the gleaming stadiums and away from the cheering fans, Russians remain stifled by corruption, censorship, protest bans, political isolation and economic stagnation.
But this World Cup was different in a crucial respect: for the first time, it was not a showcase of national greatness. Unlike during 2014’s Winter Olympics, a monumental spectacle of sporting and political domination that pitted Russia against traditional geopolitical rivals America and China, the host nation could finally relax.
It also helped that, due – literally – to the luck of the draw, some of the most politically tense pairings were avoided: Russia v England say, or, for Brexiteers at least, something even more controversial – an England v Belgium final. The US and China were absent altogether. Even so, the fact remained that no amount of luck or doping could turn Russia into a footballing superpower.
With expectations rock bottom, success meant merely avoiding mass casualties, let alone making it out of the group stages.
And then something happened. Freed from the burden of carrying an embattled nation’s pride and glory on their shoulders, the Russian team – ranked at the lower end of the international tables – let themselves just play, started to have fun, and the rest is history.
The same went for the fans. With the stakes so low, curiosity and open-ended enjoyment – what Politico’s Tunku Varadarajan called the “cheerful humility” of Russian spectators – replaced the old jingoism. Suddenly, sport lost its political baggage: victory was no longer a metaphor for the triumph of Russia’s brand of development over Western liberalism, or a vindication of Putin’s defiance in the face of international sanctions.
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Russia played against type. It acted open, friendly, modest and relaxed – in a word, modern. For a month this summer, its people got a taste of what it means to live in a normal country. Draconian visa rules were suspended, flooding provincial cities that hardly see domestic visitors with Peruvians, Japanese and Nigerians. Police, more used to roughing up citizens than giving directions, were instructed to smile and keep a light-touch approach to minor infractions.
But if that was a shock for the thousands of Western tourists expecting humourless people cowering under a snarling dictatorship, it was no less a revelation for Russians themselves.
For centuries, the country has seen its own repressive and aggressive policies in defensive terms. A long history of invasions and revolutions has inspired or, depending on one’s perspective, been used to justify, an authoritarian government suspicious of outsiders and internal dissent.
The West’s behaviour has done little to dispel mistrust. In the post-Cold War euphoria, former President Boris Yeltsin trusted his US counterpart Bill Clinton’s promises of friendship and prosperity. Yet after less than a decade of democratic rule, Nato troops had crept up to Russia’s borders, its economy was in freefall, and the only beneficiaries of capitalism seemed to be a handful of corrupt oligarchs.
Mr Putin built much of his popularity on appearing to restore the country after the combined treachery of an opportunist West and a venal and weak liberal elite. Order, vigilance and national pride were his mantra: only displays of force would elicit respect from a world that, he believes, had taken advantage of Russia’s weakness. Better to be feared than loved.
Yet here was Russia opening its borders, fraternising with the “enemy”, letting down its guard. And nothing bad happened. The country was not caught napping by a Nato invasion, the government was not overthrown by liberals in a Ukraine-style Orange Revolution and the population did not wither under the influence of so-called “gay propaganda”.
Even if the whole thing was a temporary PR stunt designed to soften Russia’s image – which it was, up to a point – the greatest impact is likely to have been on its own people. Westerners, it turns out, are nothing like their caricatures on state television; having thousands of people in the streets is not a threat to public order; police and other officials can do their jobs perfectly well without shouting or threatening people.
Most of all, it’s ok not to be number one. The love that Russian fans discovered for their brave and tenacious home side showed a patriotism devoid of nationalism – a new experience for a country where the two have always gone either together (Stalin), or were both absent (Yeltsin).
The carnival atmosphere will not last. Once the world champions are crowned and the last of the fans board their planes, reality will reassert itself with a jolt.
Russians will wake up in a still sanctioned country facing a diplomatic standoff with Britain, a frozen conflict with Ukraine, an information crackdown and the prospect of somehow paying for the enormous state-of-the-art football stadiums now dotting its remote provinces.
But not everything will go back to normal. The fear – of military, political, sexual, moral invasion – will have been eroded, at least a little, by the memory of how great it felt to be loved.
In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the writer Svetlana Alexievich said that when Russians faced the question of “what kind of country should we have, a strong country, or a worthy one”, they chose the former. As this World Cup tentatively showed, it need not be a choice after all.
Vadim Nikitin is a journalist and Russian analyst based in London
Updated: July 12, 2018 02:53 PM