If you were asked to describe Russia, there’s a good chance that you might choose one of the following words; big, scary, dysfunctional.
But for the million-plus soccer fans who traveled to the country for the World Cup (myself included), “scary and dysfunctional” are probable the last two words they would use to describe their experiences at the tournament.
One of the recurring themes I discovered talking to fans in St. Petersburg and Sochi was their surprise at how well-managed the World Cup has been so far. The stadiums were sleek and modern. The volunteers were eager to help. The St. Petersburg Metro put New York City’s MTA to shame. And the security forces, by-and-large, took a hands-off approach — unless you were that one idiot who thought it’d be a good idea to jump on a moving police truck.
But it’s not just tourists who have been treated this World Cup, the atmosphere has infected ordinary Russians as well. The national team’s win over Spain in the Round of 16 sparked jubilant celebrations on the streets of Moscow, and viral moments like the video of Bolshoi ballerinas watching Russia’s heroic penalty shoot-out victory have only added to the Russian feel-good factor this summer. Even Russia’s eventual exit to Croatia in the quarter-finals was apt — good enough to have given Russians a reason to cheer, but also managing to avoid the inevitable doping suspicions that might have accompanied a deeper run into the tournament.
For the Kremlin, all of this has been nothing short of a public relations coup, a point that Putin himself was eager to make last week. “People have seen that Russia is a hospitable country, a friendly one for those who come here,” he told FIFA officials. “I’m sure that an overwhelming majority of people who came will leave with the best feelings and memories of our country and will come again many times.”
“The World Cup has been rather successful in terms of being a soft power win,” Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security and politics for the Institute of International Relations, told the Los Angeles Times. “Not just in terms of fanfare, but also the coverage in press that says, ‘Russia isn’t such a horrible place after all.'”
Of course this all papers over some pretty major domestic issues within Russia. Political dissidents are arbitrarily detained and tortured, LGBTQ rights are non-existent, political corruption is endemic. Putin has also used the World Cup as a distraction for a long-dreaded political reform, raising the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women. Internationally Russia has been accused (to name but a few) of meddling in the US election, shooting down a passenger plane and using a deadly nerve agent to poison a former spy and his daughter on British soil.
It’s also not the first time that Putin has used sports to show off the better side of Russia. In 2014 Russia spent tens of billions of dollars to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and the games were a success polishing Russia’s image. However, a few days after the world had moved on from the Games, Putin promptly spent any good will he’d accumulated by annexing Crimea from the Ukraine.
It would be incredibly unfair to dismiss the joyous World Cup experiences of millions of fans and Russians as simply a tool for Putin to use to his advantage. But Russia’s success does send a message to other authoritarian countries — notably Qatar, which is set to host the World Cup in 2022. If you put a good summer spectacle, people will forget about your crimes.