MOSCOW — It was an amazing month in Russia, as the long-awaited 2018 World Cup of soccer unfolded in 11 cities that typify what this country looks like west of the Urals. Figures differ, but over a million foreign fans — not your usual sort of tourists — came and mingled freely with crowds of curious but friendly Russians in the streets of those cities. Just about everyone reported having a great time.
I’ve lived in Russia for over 30 years, so nobody needed to tell me that Russians don’t hate foreigners, that they are in general very warm and welcoming people. That many visitors expressed surprise at discovering this fact is probably a tribute to the overwhelmingly bad press Russia has been getting lately in the international media. Some of it may be justified. After all, the East-West geopolitical tensions dominating the news aren’t imaginary. However, the Word Cup experience has hopefully dispelled a few widespread false impressions about Russia, and maybe even changed the global conversation — if only just a little bit.
Not only are Russians not xenophobes, they are also [mostly] not mad-dog racists, homophobes or KGB honey-traps. Unlike previous times, they have largely shed their inferiority complexes and seem to feel fine about expressing sincere pride in their own country in public. That is actually something quite new. And we saw lots of those emotions being projected, in totally positive ways, in the streets, the stadiums and the late-night bars during that extraordinary World Cup month.
The Russian state also gets some credit for proving, once again, that they can stage a huge international event like this, and do it well. The promised infrastructure, such as stadiums, transport links, hotels, etc., was ready on time and proved to be of quite acceptable quality. Security was a tad draconian, but it worked effectively. The Russian government also proved that it is possible to relax and simplify the visa regime. They allowed large numbers of foreigners to almost unrestrictedly flood into the country without provoking colored revolution or some other disaster. Actually, that is the one key lesson we should hope that Russian officialdom will take to heart.
Nobody should expect the geopolitical tensions to melt, or even ease, because of that overwhelmingly positive World Cup experience. Indeed, the conversation has already reverted to election meddling, novichok and the generalized global menace that is Putin. But for a brief moment there the spotlight was on Russia and it looked like a real place, even a normal place. That was good to see.