World Cup festivities showing a side of Russia not usually seen in Western media

For soccer’s World Cup, Moscow is a city transformed.

Colourful crowds of chanting fans pile into the Nikolskaya Street pedestrian mall near the Kremlin day after day, while nearby churches and monasteries are draped in banners of South American countries and foreign visitors splash in fountains near the famous Bolshoi Theatre.

Others explore the attractions in Red Square with open Budweiser beers in their hands.

“It’s like we’re not in Russia!” exclaimed soccer fan Natasha Novikova, marvelling at the different feel of her city. “So many people from so many different places happy to be here watching football.”

Russian soccer fans pose with a Brazilian tourist in Moscow. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

In the lead-up to the tournament, Russian state TV was obsessed with how the country was being negatively portrayed in Western media, particularly Britain. Several prominent British newspapers ran stories urging fans to stay away from Russia, suggesting they wouldn’t be safe and that racism was rampant.

To many here, Russia’s World Cup party and the warm welcome most visitors have received is vindication that Western reporting was wrong.

“We are kind and hospitable — [foreigners] need to see this,” said singer Anna Prolopieva, a member of the Russian folk group, the Buranovskie Babushki, which has been staging impromptu flash-mob performances around Moscow.

Relaxed police

While Russians are used to seeing big crowds in downtown Moscow during holidays and national celebrations, the mixing of cultures, the boisterous rallies, spontaneous parties and absence of ubiquitous police fencing to control everything has made the World Cup unique.

As has the relaxed nature of Russian police, who by and large have simply watched the merriment unfold — even letting people climb up the facade of buildings or lampposts to mount banners in their national colours.

“They have fun all day and night,” said one chatty Moscow constable.

Members of the folk-music group Buranovskie Babushki stage an impromptu concert in Moscow in support of Team Russia at the World Cup. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

With the globe’s greatest sporting party approaching the halfway point, the World Cup has presented both Russians and foreign visitors with stereotype-shattering revelations about each other.

It’s left others wondering whether a less confrontational relationship between Russia’s government and its traditional adversaries — both internally and externally — might emerge afterward.

“Of course this is good, because the international media has written all kinds of garbage against us,” said Prolopieva, the folk singer.

Yet the happy scenes also undermine a Russian government narrative that is repeated endlessly on state-owned TV channels. It emphasizes that Russia is surrounded by enemies and that foreigners are not to be trusted.

Alexei Kurilov, a recent university graduate and mechanical engineer, said he hopes the World Cup makes Russians think more critically about what their TV tells them.

“Modern Russians are trying not listen to the main Russian propaganda, because it’s silly,” he said.

‘An open, democratic, vivid city’

A Spanish soccer fan climbs a pole on Moscow’s Nikolskaya Street. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)While the organizational success of the tournament is unquestionably a victory for President Vladimir Putin, some observers here wonder if the mixing, mingling and all-around good vibes could work against him in the long run.

“For the first time in a long while, Moscow is an open, democratic, vivid city,” said Russian filmmaker Yulia Melamed, who writes a column for the independent publication Novoy Gazetta. “This feeling of joy and unity won’t be so easily forgotten.”

She said that “for some people who listen too much to Russian TV propaganda, maybe this experience, of being united with the rest of the world, will make some changes.”

But Moscow political scientist and columnist Ekaterina Schulmann believes the impact of the World Cup on Russian politics will be minor and short-lived.

“I do not think this will have any impact,” she said, suggesting most Russians know the tournament is a fleeting event and don’t expect it to alter their lives much afterwards.

“It’s like a New Year’s celebration — you drink and make friends with neighbours, and then it’s over and you have to go back to work.”

And she said there’s often a big letdown when the party is over.

Deep political differences

Schulmann said political differences between the West and Russia — over issues such as Ukraine and Syria — are deep and defy easy solutions. Likewise, she said those within Russia who want more engagement with Europe and North America are unlikely to see much change after all the tourists go home.

Russian authorities have relaxed rules for consuming beer in public places during the World Cup. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

“It’s understood that this is a temporary festive occasion that will end — and then go back to the previous situation.”

On Moscow’s streets, police are spreading a similar message — at least as far as all-night drinking goes.

“After the World Cup, it will be Russian law, Russian rules,” the friendly police officer said.

In other words, enjoy the fun while it lasts.

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