Why the World Cup Is a Rare Chance for Stay-at-Home Russians to Meet Foreigners

Why the World Cup Is a Rare Chance for Stay-at-Home Russians to Meet Foreigners

Brazilian football fans in a souvenir shop on Arbat Street in Moscow.

SourceArtyom Geodakyan/TASS/Getty

Why you should care

Because this  host country isn’t as globally minded as you might expect.

The scenes from nearly a dozen Russian cities have been inspiring: International soccer fans of all stripes have descended in merriment and good cheer on a country once all but closed to foreigners. After the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, this year’s World Cup is only the second event of such global magnitude to take place in Russia.

It’s not only great for local businesses but also good PR for a country whose reputation has taken a beating on the world stage in recent years. For ordinary Russians, meanwhile, these sporting extravaganzas present opportunities to mingle with foreigners they might otherwise never meet. That’s because:

Only 11 percent of Russians say they’ve traveled abroad in the past 12 months.

The Levada Center, the country’s only independent pollster, also found that just 9 percent of Russians have a foreign visa in their passports. In Moscow, where living standards are much higher than elsewhere in the vast nation, those figures more than double.

Statistics from the Federal Security Service, which controls the Russian border, paint a slightly different picture: Last year, it clocked nearly 42 million visits abroad. It’s unclear how many of those trips were made by unique travelers, as opposed to, say, travelers making multiple trips. But if they were all made by unique travelers, that would mean around 29 percent of the population went bounding over the border. Here’s another surprise: That’d be 2 percent higher than the same statistic for the U.S.

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The vast majority of Russians may have to settle for meeting foreigners at home.

Source Christopher Furlong/Getty

Not so fast, says the Moscow-based Association of Tour Operators, which ascribes a significant portion of the 42 million figure to individuals making repeat visits. The best way to approximate the real number of Russians traveling to foreign lands, the organization says, is to look at passport ownership. The same Levada survey, which polled 1,600 people across the country, found only 24 percent of respondents held a document allowing them to travel abroad (there are two types of passports in Russia — internal and foreign). In the U.S., passport ownership hovers around 42 percent.

You have to be connected to the world to have this idea to go and see other countries.

Denis Volkov, researcher, Levada Center

The dominant explanation for why Russians travel so infrequently is money — or lack thereof. With a salary of around $650 per month, the average Russian can’t afford much of a getaway. “Two-thirds of Russian families have no savings at all,” says Sergey Aleksashenko, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. (By comparison, nearly one-quarter of Americans have no savings.) For anyone in Russia’s distant regions, many of which are poorly served by international connections, the trip to Moscow alone is a significant expense.

But apart from the considerable cost of transportation and accommodation, there’s also the question of visa fees and procedures. Russians are required to jump through multiple bureaucratic hoops to visit countries that Americans, for example, can access relatively easily. “It’s rather complicated if you don’t have the resources,” says Denis Volkov, a Levada Center researcher. Another factor preventing Russians from leaving is the state itself: Many public employees in security, defense and other strategic sectors aren’t allowed to travel abroad. Neither are some 2.3 million people currently in debt.

Then there’s the historical aspect. Long closed to the outside world, Russia has reemerged as a pivotal player in the global arena — and with a new middle class to show for it, although its standard of living lags behind Western counterparts. But even if Russians have the cash, it doesn’t mean hordes of them are ready to explore what’s out there. “I think it’s mental as well,” says Volkov, “in the sense that you have to be connected to the world to have this idea to go and see other countries.”

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Experts say opening up to the world is a gradual process for many Russians.

Source Vladimir Artev/Epsilon/Getty

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