Moscow is inviting the whole world to the soccer World Cup in Russia. International media are reporting on team line-ups, individual players, and potential favorites competing for the title of world champions. In our interview, the Russian author and journalist Maxim Trudolyubov takes a look behind the scenes of the World Cup in Russia: What does the global sporting event mean for Moscow? Can the World Cup help improve the recently rather strained relationship between Russia and the Western world?
Are you a soccer fan, Mr. Trudolyubov?
I am not a typical soccer fan. Sometimes I watch European clubs playing, sometimes Russian clubs, but not that often. What I like about it, apart from the sheer thrill of the game, is the fact that it is essentially constituted by the rules, you have to play by the rules. And it is global. All countries are fascinated by a kind of activity which is strictly regulated by a very strict set of rules and everybody agrees to that, even those who break rules in their everyday lives. I love this aspect of soccer. By immersing yourself in a game, you kind of move into a different reality.
What significance does soccer have in Russia?
Well of course there are soccer fans in Russia: People follow the Russian national championship, and also the European clubs or the Champions League. Many Russians follow the European leagues, including the Bundesliga. But I would not say it is such a big thing if you compare it to Spain or Italy.
In Moscow there will be the final in mid-July. How has the city been preparing for the soccer fans from all over the world?
Moscow has been renovated in a way I have never seen before. People who know the history say it can only be compared to the years of the late 1940s and 50s, when the central parts of Moscow were essentially created the way they look now. Almost every square inch of the territory has been meticulously renovated and redone. There are shiny new sidewalks and cafés. I have never seen Moscow as it looks now. It’s a big project that should please the visitors. According to the Russian news portal RBC.ru the Moscow city government has spent 137 billion rubles (1.9 billion euros) on urban improvements between 2015 and 2017. And there are all the new stadiums too. In the run-up to the World Cup, Russia has spent 360 billion rubles (5 billion euros) according to the Russia's sports officials on stadiums and other sporting infrastructure alone.
What does it mean to Russia to host this year´s World Cup?
Events like this are always a big business and PR thing. Obviously, Moscow wanted this World Cup. The idea was to showcase Russia as a place that is stable enough to build modern sporting facilities and organize complicated logistics, the logistics of holding these events in many different locations.
To get to know Russia a little better: What is typical Russian?
Russia is a European culture. In terms of art, music, literature, or sports, there is really no difference between Russia and Europe. Russia is peculiar in the sense that its institutions of government are different. Russian society has always revolved around a very strong center of power.
“People from the EU and Russia should expand their cooperation and deepen their networks on a civil basis.”
Under Vladimir Putin that focus even strengthened. Russia does not have strong independent institutions such as parliament or an independent press. They do exist, but their function is limited and they are strictly controlled by the center of power.
The atmosphere between Russia and the West has been tense recently. How would you describe the current relations between Russia and the EU?
You can tell from the news that the relationship is difficult right now. The biggest disagreement is over Russia’s foreign policy, especially about the war in Ukraine. The story of the Malaysia Airlines plane, a passenger airliner downed in 2014, continues to evolve. Australia and the Netherlands recently accused Moscow of complicity in the incident, as they presented evidence that the missile system involved in shooting down flight MH17 came from a Russian military base.
Russia denies any involvement in the case. This creates a strange situation where things happen and we don’t get to the truth. It creates a very unpleasant atmosphere, which we might feel around the World Cup too.
The media play a significant role in influencing people´s perception of national politics and international relations. How would the Russians themselves describe the current situation between Russia and the EU? Where do Russians get their information from?
In Russia, most of the media are owned or controlled by the state. That means there is a very strong media policy. The way events are presented in Russia is very different from the way they are presented in Europe. This influences the attitude of many Russians. Most Russians agree with the official point of view that Russia is being blamed by western countries or media for things it didn’t do.
But it is not just willful agreement, there is a fear factor there too. Hundreds of people are sentenced, including to real jail terms, for saying things on social networks or even reposting somebody else’s statements. According to the think tank SOVA, which is studying Russia’s policies on so-called “extremist” behavior, 85 percent of all criminal cases that involve charges of “extremism” are based on statements people make online. In 2016 alone, the Supreme Court statistics show, over 600 people were convicted for their public statements.
What can be done to relieve these tensions between Russia and the EU? What could civil society contribute?
We should keep talking. In times when political relations are tense, it’s very important to have international exchange and networking at a horizontal, non-governmental level. People from the EU and Russia should expand their cooperation and deepen their networks on a civil basis. Personal exchanges between people who share interests, such as soccer fans, professional exchanges among doctors, lawyers, or city managers are of great importance now. These contacts can help maintain relations between nations which struggle with political issues. NGOs play a very important role in this: They offer an endless open field of interaction.
What about the freedom of NGOs and the press in Russia? Is their space to work independently shrinking?
Yes, there are obvious restrictions for certain organizations which are seen as “foreign agents” by Moscow. And yes, there are obvious restrictions on freedom of expression and the press. But at the same time Russia has a small but vibrant scene of independent media supported by distribution via social networks. So there is a segment of the public sphere that is free. The Russian people have the chance to get to know different points of view, which is crucial to understand the world.
Soccer can connect and unite people. Do you think an event like the World Cup can strengthen mutual understanding?
The Olympic Games in 2008 helped the world accept China the way it is, the World Cup in 2014 helped the world understand Brazil, and so on. Some governments invest huge amounts in these events to influence the international perception of their countries. One has to be aware that the big sporting events are projects, which are meant to change attitudes toward the host country. Russia is no exception here.