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World Cup a Huge PR Success - Firsthand Account from St. Petersburg, Russia

"The golden opportunity for Russia to project an inviting identity to the world was surely not lost on the planners of the World Cup ...  Russian kindness and empathy, often considered national qualities, are on display everywhere."

The city is alive with partying in many languages and well-wishers greeting each other in ways that do not need translation.

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

I have been in St. Petersburg for two weeks, and will be here for two more weeks before traveling to points south in Russia. My impressions of two events of great importance to Russians and international observers of Russia can join the other news briefs appearing in the media these days.

This year the month of June is notable for both Russia Day, celebrated on the 12th each year, and the FIFA World Cup, which will be hosted in eleven Russian cities. My specific comments will have to do with St. Petersburg, since this is where I am located and I have been an eyewitness to much of what I describe. I also offer some generalizations about Russian identity, national values, and culture that connect with Russia Day and the early days of the World Cup.

St. Petersburg, typically a strikingly beautiful metropolis during the White Nights that define May and June, this year has been exceptionally clean and dressed up for the Russia Day celebrations (a four-day week-end for most people) and the longer, more intense period of the World Cup (June 14-July 15).

One sees larger crowds of various ethnic groups all over the city and hears even more languages than is the norm for this cosmopolitan city of high culture and counter-culture as well. I am struck by how civil and well-behaved people are to each other, how well-organized both the Russia Day and FIFA Fan Fest activities have been thus far, and how helpful the Russian police and World Cup volunteers are being to the many thousands of people who have come to St. Petersburg. 

What is encouraging on the geopolitical level is how genuinely friendly Russians are to all their international guests in St. Petersburg—even those whose countries have unfairly imposed sanctions on Russia—and how well-wishing and un-Russophobic the foreign guests are to the Russians.

This represents how real intercultural communication and successful cultural diplomacy are carried out—by people visiting each other’s countries, trying to understand the other person’s culture, and honestly confronting their own inaccurate stereotypes. The Russian committees planning Russia Day and the World Cup are to be commended for making extraordinary efforts to ensure that visitors will have a positive experience while in Russia and will feel safe and comfortable in this country.

The golden opportunity for Russia to project an inviting identity to the world was surely not lost on the planners of the World Cup here, who had to determine creatively how to carry out the massive coordination necessary for such an event. Russian kindness and empathy, often considered national qualities, are on display everywhere.

On June 11, the day before Russia Day, I waited in the early afternoon in the large crowd lining Nevsky Avenue (one of the main arteries of the city and surely the most famous), impatient for the start of the parade of international military bands and themed floats covered with various flowers. There was excitement and even tension, since the start of the World Cup only several days away was on everyone’s mind.

The parade began with the Russian Naval Band performing with characteristic precision, and with the crowd cheering and applauding as it marched by. Second in order of the bands was one from Germany, with the musicians wearing lederhosen and dirndl-type attire. The band was superb, but its position as second only after the Russian band made me wonder if this had any political soft-power significance: perhaps this was Russia’s way of validating the multiple overtures made in recent weeks by various officials of the German government, including Chancellor Angela Merkel herself, for some kind of rapprochement between the two countries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has maintained the posture of willingness to talk, negotiate, and work out differences peacefully; thus the ball is in Germany’s court and Russia awaits some action besides the same, tired words—to paraphrase, the Minsk accords must be fulfilled. The rest of the parade was splendid, with brightly-colored floats and numerous military bands cheerfully marching by, accompanied by retro-automobiles and elegant vintage carriages drawn by draft horses reminding me of paintings of medieval Russian warriers on their mythical steeds.

Three days later at the Grand Hall (Bol’shoi zal) of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic I attended a historic musical event, the first appearance in Russia of the Tehran National Symphony. Its significance was marked by formal remarks made by Iran’s ambassador to Russia Mehdi Sanaei before the concert began.

Additionally, when one bought a program for the concert one also received a high-quality, glossy booklet containing beautiful photos of Iran’s cities, villages, flowers, birds, and mosques. Clearly the opportunity to present content about Iran, rather than mainstream media clichés, could not be lost. The world-class symphony performed both Slavic and Iranian music. The immediate reason for the symphony’s travel to Russia was to support Iran’s team in the World Cup; the symphony would be touring each city in which a match involved Iran.

In a conversation with a man from Uzbekistan I was reminded of the potential effects that the strict month-long fast of Ramadan could have on Muslim teams in this tournament. The last day of Ramadan was Thursday, June 14—the same day as the start of the World Cup. Russia beat Saudi Arabia in the opening match in Moscow with a score of 5-0. My Uzbek friend had heard some members of the Saudi team remark that they had felt weak and not energetic after the long fast—one in which the Muslim faithful do not eat or drink from sun-up to sundown.

Orthodox Christians participate in four fasting periods each liturgical year, and they would understand both the rigors and the physical weakness of fasting. This does not imply that the Russian team did not deserve its victory—but without the Ramadan factor the final score might have been 5-2 or 5-3. The fast is a legitimate consideration.

The Iranian team did indeed win its first match, against Morocco, on June 15 with a score of 1-0. The result was awkward for Morocco, with an “own goal” that ended the match in an unfortunate way. Despite this loss, the Moroccans and Iranians displayed honorable courtesy and sportsmanship towards each other. A St. Petersburg volunteer at this match heard that out of the 64,000 fans in the stadium, only 15,000 were Russian.

This high number of foreigners indicated the lack of success of the unsportsmanlike warnings of the U.S. and U.K. to fans everywhere not to travel to “dangerous” Russia for the World Cup. Russian cities are safer than most of those in the U.S. and Europe. Millions came, are here in eleven cities, to support their teams and experience Russian hospitality. Cultural diplomacy goes hand-in-hand with the best behavior of sports fans.

Pigeons stroll contentedly around St. Petersburg, like their human counterparts from all over the world. Except that some of the humans have draped themselves in flags of their countries. Friendly chants of “Ross—i—ya” (Russia) fill the air. The night does not grow dark in St. Petersburg these days: the sky only turns gray for two hours between 2 and 4 a.m. The city is alive with partying in many languages and well-wishers greeting each other in ways that do not need translation. Some people wear t-shirts with the word “Peace” on it. Russians should be proud of their accomplishment of a fine start to the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Valeria Z. Nollan is a regular contributor to Russia Insider. She is professor emerita of Russian studies at Rhodes College. She was born in Hamburg, West Germany; she and her parents were Russian refugees displaced by World War II. Her books and articles on Russian literature, religion, and nationalism have made her an internationally-recognized authority on topics relating to modern Russia.

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