Why you should care
The presence of international fans is letting Russians break — temporarily — from the sense of siege they’ve experienced in recent years.
Alexei Sidorov had traveled from his home inside the Arctic Circle to see Russia play — and lose — its final group game in the World Cup in far-off Samara. But neither the vast distance to the banks of the Volga nor the national team’s sobering defeat could dampen his delight at being a small part of a feel-good factor sweeping the country.
“I think everyone realizes this is the sort of thing that happens once in your life. Everyone wants to get a part of it before it ends,” says Sidorov, a 35-year-old civil servant from Novy Urengoy, as he joined the throng on the streets.
Aided by a strong start by the previously underwhelming national team, Russia has embraced the country’s largest-ever international sporting event to a degree that few had expected. For citizens of a nation treated with suspicion by Western rivals, encounters with unprecedented numbers of foreign visitors have helped them feel that relations with the rest of the world need not be as mistrustful and hostile as global geopolitics would sometimes suggest.
I’ve never seen anything like this in Russia. It’s like having a Brazilian carnival in Moscow.
Daria Strekhnina, Russian soccer fan
To a degree that has surprised some Russians, the Kremlin under President Vladimir Putin has played its part. The heavy-handed policing that usually accompanies mass gatherings in Russia has been dropped, allowing supporters from as far away as Peru and Australia to create a party atmosphere around the clock, both in the heart of Moscow and in provincial cities. Bars have run out of beer, and fast-food chains have opened around the clock.
“The Australians made off with half the town; they were just grabbing stuff left and right. They drink beer out of shoes. Apparently it’s their tradition,” says Dmitry, a volunteer in Samara. “We were totally unprepared for it.”
Cheap travel has helped fans join in; Sidorov had taken advantage of special five-ruble tickets for Russia fans on Aeroflot to follow the Russian team. “They’ve made it so convenient for everyone to come to the games,” he says.
Putin has used aggressive nationalism to help rally domestic support in recent years, but the World Cup has allowed patriotism to find broader expression. The country united in cheering the national team as it scored eight goals in its first two games; after a 3-1 win against Egypt, thousands of fans flooded central St. Petersburg, waving flags and singing songs.
Nationalists hailed the scenes — the biggest outpouring of popular joy since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 — as a triumph. “Russia is coming to life as a civilization. It is rising from its knees to free itself from colonial dependency on the West,” says theater producer Eduard Boyakov. “That process needs signs and symbols. Here’s one. What a team.”
But the team has also won over many of Putin’s opponents. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in court over probation for a fraud conviction that he says was concocted by the Kremlin to stop him running for president, watched the Uruguay game on his laptop during a hearing. Singer Semyon Slepakov, who had a viral hit before the tournament lamenting Russia’s poor play, recorded a new one to apologize.
Legions of foreign fans have joined the enthusiasm. After Russia defeated Egypt, fans from Mexico and Brazil joined chants of “Ros-si-ya!” and gave Russians high-fives on the metro escalator.
“Russia’s been the ‘bad boy’ of the world in the last few years, and everyone’s got used to only hearing bad news from it,” says Dmitry Navosha, publisher of sports.ru, a popular independent website. “Traveling around Russia during the World Cup has made me feel that Russians are becoming more open now than before — and that they’re sick of this forced ‘us against the world’ stance.”
Russians’ euphoria is tinged with a niggling fear that the country’s authoritarian streak will soon reappear. In normal times, much of the revelry would be illegal: Peru fans in Saransk and Sweden fans in Nizhny Novgorod paraded through the cities on the way to matches — an activity that requires receiving a hard-to-get permission from the mayor’s office and is often violently dispersed.
Political protests, including attempted rallies by Navalny against a recent decision to raise the retirement age, are banned in World Cup host cities. Moscow State University students were detained and fined when they protested against a loud “fan zone” set up near their study halls during final exams.
Few of Putin’s critics believe the Russian police’s friendly face will last beyond the World Cup.
“Obviously, a month from now you will not be able to go up to that cop in the metro who took a photo in a sombrero, [who will say] ‘What sombrero? Get your documents out and let’s go,’” columnist Oleg Kashin says on Republic, a website.
Others believe, however, that simply showing a side to Russia at odds with perceptions abroad and the Kremlin’s own behavior is a triumph to be enjoyed while it lasts. “I’ve never seen anything like this in Russia,” says accountant Daria Strekhnina, 28, enjoying the aftermath of another match in a fan zone in the capital. “It’s like having a Brazilian carnival in Moscow.”
Navosha says: “Hopefully people will understand Russia isn’t just the people who take foreign policy decisions in the country’s name.”