The World Cup Changed Russia, but for How Long?

MOSCOW — More than anything, Boris Belenkin was excited by the prospect of finally being able to get his hands on some good, quality chewing gum.

As the 1980 Summer Olympics approached, the Soviet authorities wanted to make sure the tens of thousands of international visitors they were expecting got the best possible impression of Moscow, the host city.

They cleared out undesirable elements — pickpockets, drunks, prostitutes — and children, to ensure they would not be corrupted by exposure to capitalists, and started work to renovate some of the city’s run-down hotels.

Most exciting for ordinary Russians like Belenkin, officials promised to fill grocery stores with precious Western luxuries, an attempt to prove to the visitors that life was just as good, if not better, behind the Iron Curtain. They vowed to stock the shelves with bottles of Pepsi, Marlboro cigarettes and, Belenkin hoped, American chewing gum.

“It was a facade, of course,” he recalled 38 years on. “There were a few things but it was really limited. I went to a couple of the venues that were hosting events, thinking there might be good beer or cigarettes, but there was nothing.”

The fresh paint in the hotels soon started to peel, too; an initiative to improve the famously inattentive Soviet-style service in restaurants — as Belenkin remembered, “the slogan was something like: ‘Soviet service: You will not be bothered.’” — made no lasting difference.

The greatest disappointment, though, was the chewing gum. “It was the usual Soviet stuff,” said Belenkin, a 26-year-old poet and dissident in 1980. “I wanted Hollywood, real American gum, but it was just the same really bad stuff in a different, more Western packet.”

If the government saw the Olympics as a way to parade Moscow as one of the world’s great cities — the capital of a thriving Soviet empire — its significance, to most Russians, was very different. In 1980, this was still a closed country. Only a select few were allowed to travel abroad; those Westerners who were permitted to enter were tightly policed.

The Olympics, for many in Moscow, provided a rare chance to come face-to-face with representatives of another world: not just the athletes — their number reduced by a widespread boycott following the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan — but the people who would come to watch them, too.

The parallel with what the modern Russia has experienced during this World Cup summer is imperfect. This is no longer a closed nation. Tourists are free to visit whenever they like: 3.6 million foreigners came to St. Petersburg alone in 2017.

Even with Western sanctions, consistently tightened over the last few years, consumer culture here has not visibly suffered. Moscow is no more a city of shortages than Paris or London.

Lavish window displays of designer handbags and shoes shimmer on the chic boulevards of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Russians sun themselves at the extravagant hotels of Sochi and Anapa. People take Ubers and swipe through Tinder; hipsters drink craft beer and flat whites in cafes soundtracked by Dua Lipa and Hozier. Pepsi is no longer a luxury. The chewing gum is fine.

Yet, given the political circumstances as this tournament started, it was impossible not to hear the echoes of 1980. Now, as then, there were those who felt Russia was not an appropriate host for one of the sporting world’s crown jewels.

“It felt impossible to me that the Soviet Union would ever host the Olympics,” Belenkin said. “It seemed almost amoral to have the Games when there were so many political prisoners. I was not a sports fan, but the Olympics seemed to belong to the other side, to be the culmination of the free world.”

There was no boycott this time, of course; the world is not quite as neatly divided as it once was. Still, the World Cup arrived here at a time when Russia’s relationship with Europe and the United States had reached its lowest ebb for decades, fractured almost beyond repair by conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, accusations of poisoning both individuals and democracy, by doping of athletes and the downing of MH17.

Some felt uneasy given Russian soccer’s poor track record of combating racism; others pointed to the persecution of the gay community, both in national law and specifically in certain states, most notably Chechnya. Calls to strip Russia of a World Cup it most likely did not win through an entirely clean process were rare. The sense of moral ambiguity over the tournament’s being held here was much more widespread.

That was not the only similarity. Just as the Soviet authorities had hoped the 1980 Olympics would demonstrate the success of the great Marxist-Leninist experiment to the world, so Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, saw the World Cup as the perfect stage on which to show off the modern, dynamic Russia. It would, he promised back when Russia was announced as host in 2010, change the way the planet saw his nation. It was the same promise that accompanied the 2014 Sochi Olympics, awarded in 2007.

Traveling around Russia these last few weeks — from St. Petersburg to Siberia and all points in between — that perception has been the primary concern of most Russians.

FIFA estimated that more than a million fans descended on the country in the past month. In every host city, the first questions most of them were asked were how much they liked Russia, whether they were having a good time, whether they had been treated well. People are eager for what they see as the negative image of the country created by the Western news media to be corrected.

FIFA, certainly, believes its showpiece tournament has done just that, in a way that the facade created by the Soviet authorities in 1980 could not.

“Everyone has discovered a beautiful country, a welcoming country, full of people who are keen to show to the world that what maybe is sometimes said is not what happens here,” FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, said. Putin himself said he was “thrilled that our guests saw everything with their eyes, and that myths and prejudice collapsed.”

The lasting effect of the 1980 Games, though, could not be found in what the outside world saw when it looked in; it was, instead, in what those on the inside discovered when, even if only briefly, they had a chance to look out.

A few years before those Olympics, Belenkin — now a director of the library at Memorial, a nonprofit that works to uncover the hidden history of the Soviet Union — wrote a satirical verse that became famous in the underground activist circles in which he moved. Its first line ran that “there will never be an Olympics in Moscow.” Its second detailed that the Soviet Union would never fall.

As the 1980s passed, his satire took on the air of a prophecy. The Games did come. Mikhail Gorbachev ascended to power. The era of glasnost and perestroika began. Little more than a decade after putting a few cans of Pepsi on some shelves, the Cold War had thawed, Communism had fallen, and the Soviet empire that the Games were supposed to glorify and vindicate had ceased to exist.

In hindsight, to the generation that came of age in those years, the Olympics seemed to represent the start of something: It felt as though “a symbol of the end of the Soviet Union,” as Yury Saprykin, an author and cultural commentator, told Public Radio International in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics in 2014.

Belenkin rejects out of hand the narrative that links the 1980 Games to the end of the Soviet Union, though he does believe that the financial commitment of hosting the Games might have accelerated the economic problems that brought about its demise.

Likewise, he is “not an optimist” that this World Cup might have any enduring impact on Putin’s Russia, that the spirit of openness, of barriers being broken down, that has characterized the tournament might last beyond its end.

Few in Russia are. The World Cup, many feel, has been a wonderful carnival, a chance to mix with fans who might otherwise never visit Kazan or Samara or Kaliningrad, but they know that carnivals move on, that normal life returns.

When hundreds of thousands of Russian fans took to the streets after the country’s victory against Spain, securing an unlikely place in the quarterfinals, they did so with the abandon of people who knew this chance might not come again. Most expected the light-touch policing, in particular, to disappear out of Sheremetyevo Airport on Monday, with the last few fans.

“If anything, it has been a good World Cup for Putin,” said Belenkin, though the President’s approval ratings actually slipped during the tournament. “There will have been an economic boost. The people who came will have seen that we can stage an event like this. We have shown that we are still part of the world.”

That is where it will end, he feels. There will be no sustained change. The news media will remain tightly controlled and genuine opposition suppressed; that Pussy Riot, the punk activists, stormed the field during the final on Sunday night will be used as justification. The monthlong street parties will not be repeated.

The World Cup will not lead to a change in national laws, or regional prejudices, against homosexuality. It will not stop African players in the Russian league from experiencing racism. It will not solve the ongoing conflict in the Donbass. That the citizens are friendly and the country welcoming does not mean those issues were an invention of a Russophobic news media.

The World Cup’s glow has been cast far more broadly than the Olympics could manage. Eleven cities, across the western half of the country, were given a sheen and a polish in order to make them fit to welcome the world. They are used to tourists in sophisticated Moscow and St. Petersburg; far less so in Yekaterinburg and Rostov-on-Don.

It is in those cities that the World Cup has, over the last month, been felt most keenly: Saransk, invaded by delirious Peruvians; Samara, its streets stripped of traffic and thronged with Uruguayans; Volgograd, its history explained to countless English and Panamanians and many more besides.

And yet, Belenkin said, it is in those cities where the memories of this experience will fade. For all that the news media in the West may not have reflected the many faces of Russia, nor does Russian media always depict the rest of the world especially well.

Just as in 1980, this was a month when it felt like that may no longer be possible, when by sheer weight of numbers, by clarity of experience, those artificial divides would start to melt away.

England fans laid a wreath to honor the dead of Stalingrad; fans asked for selfies with smiling police officers; Brazilians and Argentines deafened baffled commuters in Moscow’s marble-clad metro stations. On both sides, it should be hard to believe in monsters once you have seen under the bed.

“Actual reality is not as real as the reality presented to you by television,” Belenkin said, with a note of sorrow in his voice. “In a few months, the reality as it appears in the corner of the living room will be much more powerful than the memories you have of the World Cup. The idea that there were lots of Peruvians and Mexicans drinking in the streets will seem like it must have been an illusion.”


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