The World Cup in Russia
During the World Cup, Russia presented itself in a different way. Already on the Monday after the final match, the exuberant mood seemed to be lost.
He attended only the wearying opening match of the Russian team against Saudi Arabia and the final at the Moscow Luzhniki Stadium, the arena where he had sought the favor of the Russians a few months before personally: as a candidate for the presidency surrounded by Russian sport stars and without real opponents. For Vladimir Putin, re-election was a home match. But the sports success of the Sbornaya was less predictable, and that was probably the reason for Putin’s absence at the team's matches. A president who has to witness the defeat of his team at the stadium does not look fine.
But even if the Russian president was the important absentee of the World Cup, his assumptions seemed to come true: this sport unites Russia. Especially after the national team's unexpected win over Spain, the country was elated for a week. And even the defeat by Croatia in the quarter-final was celebrated as a win in the streets of Moscow: the Sbornaya captured the Russian hearts at last. And the country found its team. The debates over Russia’s right to be called a football nation got onto the agenda. The national team fought, they pushed themselves to the limit.
Before the World Cup, the Sbornaya players had been considered overpaid, mediocre players. Now, monuments erection in their honor is under discussion. The Moscow zoo named a young steppe eagle after goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. He had saved two shots of the Spaniards on penalties in the Round of 16. The zoo management substantiated such a nickname with "a fast-lightning reaction and a keen eye". Internet memes are going around showing Akinfeev as a multi-armed Hindu deity who ensures a reliable defense against goals. The totally defensive strategy of Russians was frantically reinterpreted as the great winning strategy.
"Friends! We did that for our country!"
Before a hail of criticism on the Sbornaya and before their head coach Stanislav Cherchesov was oppressively loud, pleasers had not wanted to keep silent. The concert pianist Denis Mazujew compared the team’s performance to the gradually emotionally intensifying orchestral piece "Boléro" by Maurice Ravel.
On the talk shows by the pro-Kremlin broadcaster, there is no hotter issue than the support of the national team as a patriotic civic duty, and the endless enthusiasm of foreign visitors about Russia. Also, the typical state newspaper "Rossiyskaya Gazeta" said of a miracle. And Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov joined the public celebration after the triumph over Spain, what reminded of the victory celebration after the end of World War II. What he saw in the Moscow streets, perhaps, "resembled reports of 9 May 1945 in many ways," Putin's spokesperson said.
The fact that the unexpectedly good performance was a reason for celebrating – even political enemies, representatives of the Kremlin elite and the opposition, were unanimous in that by way of exception. The national team tweeted: "Friends! We did that for our country! We did that for you! Thanks for the support!"
The patriotic pride means nothing revanchist
The Russians’ elation was enthusiasm about the honest victory, about the equal participation in a competition of nations, and about the international recognition as host of a major sport event. Unlike 2014 at the Olympics in Sochi, where criticism of the major event obscured the Russian sport achievements, the world seems mostly to be happy with the Russians now: the best result achieved with (as it turned out later) unfair means could not have been expected. An underdog surprised itself and others. The patriotic pride means nothing revanchist, it can go without political undertones and is not to fear of. It has nothing in common with triumph. One could say that it is nice just due to a feeling of joy at the moment.
At the same time, the Kremlin could not host the World Cup better. The event had been a matter of the highest priority before, a super building project which had required vast investments, and a prestigious event. But now, people have caught enthusiasm – voluntarily, without having to be persuaded to join the atmosphere.
The Russia which you could experience these days was very welcoming, presenting an alternative version of itself: everything was happening so as it could. With lively, alcohol-accompanied gatherings in public, informal meetings between locals and foreigners, helpful policemen who were not so busy sometimes – and who turned the blind eye in view of beer cans in fans’ hands. Citizens enjoyed those last days to the full. The majority of the Russians were well aware that they were part of a spectacle which would over on the 16th of July.
The repression machine was also in use during the World Cup
The fact that the repression machine was also in use during the World Cup is one more characteristic of the country. In Chechen Republic where President Ramzan Kadyrov appeared as the feudal host of the Egyptian national team, the court case against the local head of the human rights organization Memorial was started. Ojub Titiyev is accused of drug possession; he denies all the accusations. The allegations against a Memorial representative in Karelia are similarly doubtful – the local authorities brought charges against Yuri Dmitriev again. He is accused of sexual abuse of his adoptive daughter. Previously, he had been acquitted of child pornography charges. And Ukrainian Oleg Sentsov had been on a hunger strike in prison in the far north for a long time. President Putin did not use the chance to set an example and pardon Sentsov.
As the Kremlin makes it clear that it will not embark on a political liberalization course, the answer to the question whether anything has changed in Russia after the World Cup is quite clear: one should hope but not expect.