'We're just trying to survive it': Russian cities brace for World Cup

The Russian prazdnik – celebration – must not be ruined at any price as hosts prepare to give enemies five-star treatment

On a riverboat between the World Cup cities of Kazan and Samara last month, a Russian couple in their 50s asked earnestly whether “all these rumours” about Moscow’s poisoning of Sergei Skripal could lead the west to boycott or cancel the tournament.

“Russians don’t surrender to pressure like that, we push back hard,” said Yevgeny Prigov, a hefty businessman who trades in machine parts, echoing a popular Russian cliche.

Their belief, summarised, was that the west wants to see Russia fall on its face when it hosts the World Cup this month, and that Russia would pull it off in spite of its guests.

It’s a bit like inviting your enemies over for dinner: the best revenge is a five-star meal.

“This is supposed to be a prazdnik,” or celebration, said his wife, Maria, sipping a lager. “And that’s what we’re going to give them.”

For the defiant World Cup hosts, this month’s celebration of football comes amid its worst relations with the west since the cold war, after the annexation of Crimea, accusations of interfering in US elections, and the recent nerve agent attack in Salisbury.

Fifa’s president Gianni Infantino with Russian Vladimir Putin.
Fifa’s president Gianni Infantino with Russian Vladimir Putin. Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA

There was a time when Russia saw prestige sporting competitions like the World Cup or the Olympics as an occasion to woo the west and seek acceptance into a club of great nations. Russia still paid lip service to detente when it was awarded the tournament in 2010, and championed a reset with the US under its liberal-ish president Dmitry Medvedev.

But forget about rehabilitating Vladimir Putin through sport now.

“Russia is so toxic that the Mundial [World Cup] can’t help Putin to change anything, including his image,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst and senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre.

Not that anyone here much cares. Defiance to the west has been enshrined in public policy and the national media since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, with officials wearing western sanctions as a badge of respect.

On national television last week, Putin said that the main reason he had not sacked Vitaly Mutko, the disgraced former sports minister, was because the west wanted him out.

“We know what kind of attack was made against him in connection with the doping scandal,” Putin said. “Under those kinds of circumstances, it is not possible to have him retire.”

The main intrigue of Russia’s World Cup will likely be how Russia’s regional cities cope with the influx of tens of thousands of fans, many of them seeing foreign tourists on this scale for the first time in their history. Security will be extreme.

The rule with prazdniki is that they mustn’t be spoiled, not by protests, provocations, faulty planning or poor security.

“The best [Putin] can do in terms of soft power is to properly organise the championship without unpleasant episodes, especially in the security sphere, and get some pure pleasure from sports,” said Kolesnikov.

Russian officials still bristle when they recall gleeful foreign coverage of a “double toilet”, two commodes in a single stall, at the Biathlon centre ahead of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. To the west, it was a symbol of slapdash planning or official corruption. To Russia, it was a construction mistake blown out of proportion.

A person close to the Kremlin said that the Russian leader played up the geopolitical nature of the Olympics to justify the criticism over massive expenditures, a reported $50bn, to remake the Black Sea city of Sochi.

“There were a lot of questions about why it was costing so much, so he came out and said it’s about promoting Russian values and developed a narrative behind it,” the person said.

By contrast, the World Cup, costing an estimated $14bn across 11 cities according to the respected RBC business daily, has kicked up less fuss. Among the reasons? The country’s main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who publicises reports on official corruption, was sentenced to 30 days in jail last month, and will only be let out after the opening day of the tournament.

Mohamed Salah poses with the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in Grozny.
Mohamed Salah poses with the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in Grozny. Photograph: Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images

Regionally, it’s a moment for leaders across Russia to preen. Down in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov has already secured his photo op with Mo Salah, the world’s most famous Muslim footballer, as he leverages the World Cup in his push to be Putin’s envoy to the Middle East. Kadyrov reportedly had the Liverpool star summoned from his hotel, where he was asleep, for the meet-and-greet on the Grozny pitch.

In regions across Russia, local officials have gladly taken the money offered for new stadiums and urban development, while also gritting their teeth for the daunting prospect of ensuring an incident-free tournament.

“Where are you from?” growled the governor of Volgograd, a veteran of the first Chechen war, when I asked him about fan safety ahead of last month’s Russian Cup finals between FC Tosno and FC Avangard Kursk. “I assure you we are taking every possible precaution to ensure their safety.”

It wasn’t an overstatement. The city has closed streets and shut public transport for several kilometres around the stadium during games. The security measures and other preparations are so extensive that match days have been declared public holidays because no one can get to work.

Residents in one apartment block in Yekaterinburg have been told not to use their balconies, open their windows or stand near their windows on match days, in case they’re mistaken for attackers and shot by police snipers, Reuters reported.

“To be honest we’re just trying to survive it,” Olga Khavanskaya, a schoolteacher, told me in Volgograd during the city’s Victory Day parade. “There’s this feeling like the city has been ripped up from the ground and flipped over. The city looks better than I can ever recall … but I’m ready for it all to be over.”

Even the hooligans are under lock and key. “We’ve pretty much been sidelined,” Kostya, a member of a CSKA firm, told me in a Moscow pub recently.

It’s a tightrope walk, a vast balancing act across 11 cities, and your greatest rivals have front-row seats. Perhaps deep down, the Kremlin may still hope that a successful tournament will earn recognition. But the real concern is not screwing up. So don’t ruin the prazdnik.