World Cup 2018: Can Russia’s experiment in openness survive after successful tournament?

Oliver Carroll

It was trailed as the “World Cup of shame”, a magnet for terrorism, or, more simply, “Putin’s cup”.

In the event, Russia’s month-long showcase will be remembered for none of those things. Not that elements weren’t there. An embarrassing pitch invasion by punk activists Pussy Riot during the final – with corresponding demands for the release of political prisoners – will certainly cast a shadow. It is even suspected that two terror attacks may have taken place in Moscow and Sochi that have been covered up by local media and authorities. And the soft power benefit of a super-smooth tournament, complete with foreign fans berating the media for misleading them on Russia, cannot be understated.

But Vladimir Putin was, in fact, largely absent from the stage. Not only literally – he only attended one match before the final, leaving his sleepy deputy Dmitry Medvedev to stand in – but also in a broader sense. Russian authorities were in light-touch mode: no clashes with riot police, no arrests for public gatherings, no excessive bureaucracy, no strongmen clamping down on the weak. In short, the Kremlin did everything it doesn’t usually do; and it allowed Russians to be open to the world.

The world, generally speaking, liked what it saw.

The football was good, too. With teams much closer to one another than previously thought, it was a tournament of drama, incongruity and the triumph of the supposed underdog. The final was a worthy finish to that, with Croatia, with a population of merely four million, more than competing against football’s establishment. In a thrilling match, they were unlucky to lose by two goals.

A win would have been more than just the romantics’ choice. It would have allowed the hosts to claim they were one just goal away from the final. But in the end it was left to the French to do what they always seem to do – attack on the break and take their chances..

The world will now move on. Russia will have nothing but memories. But what memories they are: the five opening goals against Saudi Arabia; the superstar Cristiano Ronaldo turning up in provincial Saransk; the crazed and colourful Iranian, Peruvian, Colombian supporters; the Senegalese warm-up dance; the Japanese fans picking up their litter; the German machine breaking down; the Argentine despair amid Brazilian smugness; the Brazilian despair amid Argentine smugness; the sublime Belgian football; Pickford’s saves; England’s unexpected progress; and Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat.

And, of course, for the hosts: that victory over Spain.

Plenty of moments came off the field too. Across the country – from Saransk to Volgograd, Kaliningrad to Nizhny Novgorod – forgotten, somewhat neglected provincial cities were given a chance to shine.

Imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov timed his hunger strike to coincide with the tournament (AP)

But the capital was always the centre of the party. Many years from now, Muscovites will remember how the usually nondescript Nikolskaya Street, in the heart of the government district, became the centre of a colourful international carnival. It was here that fans of all nationalities celebrated and consoled one another. Here that friendships and more were formed. Here that foreigners joined Russians in bellowing “Ra-si-ya” – a three-syllable chant previously associated with Vladimir Putin’s post-Crimean election campaigns, but now, somehow, removed of toxicity.

According to cultural commentator Yuri Saprykin, Russians united in the absence of politics.

“Russians came together not for Crimea, or for Putin, but for an idea of being with everyone – of being with the losing Spaniards, and the victorious Croats, and being for everything that is good, including the ability to be nice with other people,” he wrote in a much-cited column.

The World Cup has been the first good-news Russia story since Perestroika, said another commentator. It cast Russians as normal people, with normal aspirations, hopes and fears. And it has allowed Russians to see foreigners in a different, less suspicious light.

“The most positive thing is that it put paid to a widespread belief that Russia was a besieged fortress surrounded by enemies,” says Tanya Lokshina, lead Russia researcher for Human Rights Watch.

State television was the architect and lead contractor for that besieged fortress; even they took an internationalist break. Throughout the tournament, propaganda flagship programmes kept negative stories to a minimum. Ukraine. Syria and Skripal were replaced by heartwarming tales of the foreigners’ free metro travel, visa-free travel, of exciting, exotic, and, yes, free train journeys between host cities.

Hosts praised the foreign football fans, and they worshipped the fans who posted about their love for Russia.

That social media triumph has been music to the ears of Russian authorities, long convinced of a Russophobic bias in the western media. Maria Zakharova, the outspoken press secretary of the foreign ministry, has wasted little time in feigning “surprise” at the words of gratitude coming by foreigners. Foreigners had finally seen through the lies, she triumphantly told her weekly press conference on Thursday.

Part of her criticism is, no doubt, justified. The world saw a different Russia from the crass caricature often presented to them by lazy publications. But Russians also saw a different country to the one they were used to. This new Russia was more open, friendly, chaotic, and confident than the old one. Whether it remains once Fifa packs its bags is another matter – and largely out of the people's hands.

If the past is any guide, the window may not stay open for long. After the end of the 1980 Olympics, for example, authorities spent the next few years perfecting a crackdown of the dissident movement. More recently, the 2014 Sochi Olympics, which began with the release of several prominent political prisoners (though it ended with the annexation of Crimea). Two of Pussy Riot’s members, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were included in that amnesty.

The signs of the older, blunter Russia have never been very far away.

As the world watched football, an anti-gulag activist was rearrested on rape charges many believe to be trumped up. Imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov continued a hunger strike, now surely entering its final days. Amazingly, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, was allowed to parade alongside superstar Mo Salah and the Egyptian team, even though he is widely believed to have ordered the torture and killing of gay men in Chechnya. And Oleg Titiev, an activist critical of Kadyrov, remains in jail on scarcely believable drugs charges. His case moved to trial last week; he faces up to 10 years in jail.

Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch says she views the World Cup as a lost opportunity. She criticises football’s governing authorities for failing to use its leverage over the Kremlin.

“Fifa clearly hasn’t done justice to its new human rights policy,” she says. “Make no mistake: the overall picture remains pretty grim.”