The World Cup and Moscow

John Harrison

There is something about the atmosphere in central Moscow right now that reminds me of the centre of Madrid, Paris, Rome or just about any continental European town in the summer. The atmosphere is relaxed, football fans are hanging out just about everywhere, adding an welcome sense of cosmopolitanism to the place. Moscow has temporarily become an international city where Russian is just one of a myriad of languages heard. The fans are clothed in fantastic outfits, some look like visitors from other planets. Gradually Muscovites are getting used to all of this, indeed the foreigners will be missed many are now saying. At first, Muscovites said “we will survive”, that was a few weeks ago. Since then, things above changed.

This extraordinary event is set against the background of intense international criticism of Russia. Justified, not justified, partly justified clearly depends on your point of view, and there are, undoubtedly vastly different points of view even within Russia. Such a political background has added to the sense of bizarreness about the event we are now witnessing. Right now,  thousands of youngish foreigners are experiencing street life in the big bad Russia and actually enjoying what they see. OK, they perhaps are not all that typical, after all, who would venture to come to Russia to attend Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, as the UK foreign secretary so delicately put it in May. After so many warnings in our (the UK press at least) papers and on TV about racism, the number of police on the street, honeytraps and so on and so on and so on, you had to be quite strong minded to travel to Russia. But such warnings have been more prevalent in some countries than others, and are prevalent (to a lesser degree) prior to all international sorting ecents. The South Americans have come to Russia with a very different set of concepts than the Brits for example, and even the latter, by all accounts, have been bowled over by the place. As a Brit myself, I find this to be quite amazing. There is some engagement with the outside world. One guy from Norwich I met a few days ago kept repeating that he didn’t expect it to be like this. I wondered if he was alright. Is he experiencing a sort of brain short circuit syndrome when he realises that quite a lot of what he has been told about Russia simply isn’t true?, I thought to myself. Would he like to sit down? Will smoke rise above his wide eyes and will collapse on the CP floor, and will he experience PTS when he gets back home? Will the English press get hold of him and hang him up as an example of a brainwashed Putin’s Useful idiot?

Seriously though, the story that I keep on hearing is that nobody has even been mentioning issues that they were told were really important. It’s summer, it’s hot. People can enjoy football, the football is great, and who cares about the rest of it, all that political stuff, thank God! Russia for many of these people, it seems, is a sort of looking-glass world, one which shouldn’t really exist, at least in the way that they are perceiving it, and will probably be forgotten about within a month or two of people returning home. It didn’t happen, no, no!

Russians have, it seems, somewhat begrudgingly, come to at least accept the presence of tens of thousands of foreigners in their beloved citadel. Muscovites are not overly proud of course of being Muscovites (not half), and when this all started, in my opinion, the vibe was similar to that in Edinburgh when the summer Arts festivals begin – many locals not involved in street retail and renting out flats basically accept the inevitable. Likewise, many Muscovites have retreated to their dachas, or, ironically, to the lands where the invaders hail from. Albeit that is a seasonal activity, only to return, gingerly when it is safe, when they think that they have gone. At least that is what I felt when the tournament started, and the presence of foreigners started to be seen, and heard (grotesquely for some) in places like Nikolskaya Ulitsa and ‘Papa’s’. But then, something amazing  happened. Russians seem to realise that they like to be around the barbarians, and actually like it a lot. Barriers are starting to melt, along with some of the roads. Foreigners are figuring out that Russians don’t always respond to the same jokes and themes in the same way, but that doesn’t make them any less genuine. The cultural coding is different, that’s what it is. Most foreigners I have spoken to see Russians to be sincere, and have great senses of humour. Then Russians started making friends with foreigners, and what do you know? On any busy night on Nikolskaya you can probably find a few hundred Russians bedecked out in the colours of their national football team, of course, but also sharing the joys and woes of the Brazilians, Belgians, Ecuadorians, Germans (before they left) and so on. In other words, a sort of cross-cultural football-driven experience is going on. It doesn’t effect everybody, not everybody loves football or fans in our own countries, there is a real divide there, but the spirit of communication is highly contagious, and that can affect everybody. Or perhaps it is because Russia has been cut off for so long from this sort of mass communication, that any multicultural experience like this is completely mind blowing.

Naturally enough, there have been some horror stories, you would expect that, and they will, or have already, been exaggerated out of all proportion in certain newspapers and TV channels. Problems with flights and accommodation top the bill. People have had their airnb or booking.com bookings cancelled at the last moment, as Russian hosts have simply decided to go for guests who pay more, in some cases, a lot more. Yes, there are some dishonest Russians. But judging by the snippets of conversation on the  streets that I have been party to, most foreigners are saying that Russians are almost embarrassingly honest. There may be a real problem with registration as guests who have arranged their own accommodation are supposed to register with the local authorities themselves. I wonder how many of them are doing that and whether the authorities will turn a blind eye to the matter?, after all, this sort of regulation does seem very Soviet. Perhaps after a few beers foreigners hear that many Russians are annoyed that the Russian government chose to announce that the pension age has been raised, and that VAT has been increased, on the first day of the championship. But for many foreigners, hearing that Russians can criticise, even joke about their own government comes as more of a shock than the news itself. In short, the cultural codes may be different, but there is enough common ground to allow communication. None of these difficulties have managed to influence the general carnival mood in Russia, and carnivals are all about celebrating the differences between cultures, and in that, transcending such differences.

As it happens, Moscow is looking incredible. Everywhere street cafes are sprawling out onto the streets. Muscovites are now wondering what will happen once everyone goes home. Certainly the vibe will change, but what about street trading, something that is immediately visible and very much associated with large numbers of visitors? Unsuprisingly, Kommersant reported (27.6.18) that the World Cup has resulted in a boom for ‘street retailers’, mostly restaurants. Vacancy rates are down to 4.8%, that’s a decrease of 2.3%, and the lowest rate for 4 years. In retail a least, we have temporarily returned to the good times of late 2013. But the trend will be short term. Or will it?

Victoria Kamlyuk, the director of street retail at Knight Frank Russia told Kommersant that she does not expect that there will be a significant increase in the vacancy rate for street retail after the end of the Championship: “Most lease contracts for street retail premises are long term.” Colliers International, too, predict that at the end of the year the proportion of free premises will stay  at 4.5-5%.

Will Russia return to normal after all this is over on other fronts? Yes, just as it returned to normal after previous large international sporting events in the distant past. The issue this time, is what is ‘normal’? The norm seems to be changing, and as somebody who has lived in Russia for over 30 years, I can say that this is the first time that mass level communication between Russians and foreigners has happened without restrictions inside Russia. Of course the World Cup is a massive PR event, one does not have to a rocket scientist to figure that out. But so is every other large sporting event held in the world today. Our cultural coding sharpens our perceptions of what is happening in other countries, and dulls our vision of what is happening in our own. That’s normal. What makes this World Cup different is that it is being held in Moscow at a time of great international tensions. The friendships created now may well have a lasting effect, both in terms of how Russians view the rest of the world and in terms of how the rest of the world views Russia. It is going to be more difficult to categorise Russia as being that far off place with bears, snow and the mafia. It is a pity there are so few Americans here. One might hope that a certain feeling of goodwill is being established between people of many different cultures, beyond politics, but then I am an optimist.