Wednesday 23 January 2019

World Cup will reveal true Russia to outsiders – the good, the bad and the colossal mysteries


An activist of Reporters without Borders wears a mask depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin during a protest. Photo: AFP/Getty
An activist of Reporters without Borders wears a mask depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin during a protest. Photo: AFP/Getty

Paul Hayward

Where are we, and how did we get here? A journey that began eight years ago with Roman Abramovich jumping up and clapping in a Zurich conference hall is about to bring all the Russias speeding across our eyeballs.

"All the Russias" is a term used deliberately, because just as America defies definition by a handful of images, so the 2018 World Cup hosts are a Russian doll of stories, eras and peoples.

The monolithic image we in the West imagine will be the first thing to go at this tournament - even before Russia's team, who will be relieved to advance beyond a World Cup group stage for the first time since the break-up - or breakdown - of the Soviet Union.

Abramovich was there as a delegate in Zurich in 2010, when ­Russia took 13 of the 22 second-round votes to win the right to stage this World Cup; and later that day, St Petersburg's most famous ­modern son swept into town, declaring: "We're honoured by your decision. From the bottom of my heart, thank you."

England's nearest metropolis is a fine prism for this World Cup: better than Moscow, because the former Leningrad is where a young Vladimir Putin reputedly walked into the KGB headquarters on Liteiny Prospekt and told the receptionist he wanted to sign up.

The commonly told version is that Putin was instructed to go away and join the army or acquire a law degree. He chose books and study, at Leningrad University, in a city he referenced several times in his Zurich victory speech.

Putin, whose earliest years were spent in a room in a communal apartment, also said football had helped Russians escape "tragic" deprivation: a reference, one ­assumes, to Joseph Stalin's ­murderous domestic policies, the 900-day siege of Leningrad and the other horrors of the ­Second World War. But this is not ­primarily a World Cup of nostalgia for sport's role as morale-booster.

Its chief purpose is political engineering and infrastructure hot-housing, from which business elites here draw the biggest financial benefit.

The magnificent Saint Petersburg Stadium, for example, is a monument to Gazprom, whose company tower has become the city's highest landmark - not in the centre, where the company wanted to locate it, but in the north, away from the Winter Palace, the prime location in the mythology of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Anyone taking a train from England's base at Repino would come into Finland Station, where Lenin arrived in 1917 to lead an uprising that embedded a repressive one-party state for more than 70 years.

In St Petersburg, Peter the Great's Tsarist epoch mingles with Soviet Russia and the Gazprom era - the age of the oligarchs. ­Probably no city on Earth can provide such a cross-section of history.

At Moscow Station in St Petersburg, a statue to the dead of the Leningrad siege (with Soviet star on top) is a hundred paces from a "Gallery" mall with Jack Wolfskin and Uniqlo outlets.

Gazprom's football cathedral, where Russia, Brazil, Egypt and Argentina will play group games, is approached via a statue of Sergei Kirov, the local Bolshevik icon assassinated before ­Stalin's "Great Purge" of the late 1930s.

Russians inhabit all these realities simultaneously, as if walking through a series of film sets, not knowing which to believe or trust.

The Western impulse is to assess this country from the top down, starting with the Kremlin, and the oligarchs we see in Europe.

But a country of 80 nationalities and vast geography is about to reveal an awful lot more of itself, certainly to ­visitors from other lands, though not so much in the packaged images that will be served up to television viewers, who may reach July 15 thinking Russia is really just Moscow's Red Square and then a colossal mystery beyond.

World politics have changed plenty since Abramovich rejoiced in Zurich. Chelsea's owner has run into UK visa problems, taken out Israeli citizenship and ditched plans to rebuild Stamford Bridge. Convulsions have ­followed the downing of a Malaysian ­Airlines flight over Ukraine, the ­annexation of Crimea, the Syria conflagration, hacking and the Salisbury poisonings. Anti-­homosexuality legislation is another element that cannot, and should not, be ignored.

Russia's stance in all these areas is ultra-defensive, and many people here have taken on this hostility to Western judgements and supposed double standards.

In the middle of all this, a 32-team World Cup will try to sell itself as a fiesta, as global ­bonding, sporting esperanto. Some of it will feel quite forced. But it ought to deepen the audience's ­interest in what Russia really is, good and bad. It will also start to show whether Fifa has destroyed its greatest asset for ever, with their 2018 and 2022 (Qatar) votes, as many fans around the world take a big step back to see how this one turns out.

We do know that the weirdness of the age is not confined to ­Russia. On the day England ­arrived, Russians switched on TVs to see Donald Trump calling Kim Jong-un "a very talented man who loves his country."

Western pieties are probably harder to comprehend when the leader of an authoritarian fantasyland, where millions have starved to death, is being rehabilitated and praised by an American president. With all this going on, at least we know where we are with a football tournament. Or, we think we do. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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