Has this World Cup changed Russia? Yes. Permanently? I don’t think so. But, for at least a month, the tournament made the country colorful instead of gray, cheerful instead of grim, courageous instead of fearful. Both for the outside world and for the people who live here.
Even if I saw the gray of the Russian police among the many colors of the fans in the last few days, for once, I did not immediately think about restrictions on the freedom of expression. Rather, I thought of Russia successfully mastering the security at the biggest sports event ever in the country.
Russia’s metropolises like European cities
This success was mainly due to the unique mixture of safety and exuberance that made Moscow and the other World Cup venues truly European cities. It was not the nationwide Wi-Fi coverage, nor the live broadcast of games on the subway, nor the Russian railway’s free fan trains or the high-tech bus stops where you could charge your mobile phone. Everyone was able to benefit from this.
But there was something completely different that was much more important – the feeling that you could be whatever you wanted to be.
Being able to shout “Goal!” on the patio of a pub or spontaneously embracing strangers, for joy or comfort. Dancing, singing and, yes, drinking alcohol on the sidewalk without having to wrap the bottle in newspaper. Flirting with Brazilians, despite the warnings from moralists in the Duma. Drinking to world peace with Mexicans in a dacha and then chugging back into town on a tractor with a hangover.
Scratching together the last bits of English learned in school to explain to an irritated fan from Saudi Arabia that Novgorod, where he had just landed, is not Nizhny Novgorod, where he should have landed to see his team’s game. To help this fan change his ticket, push a jar of home-made gherkins into his hands and wish him a good trip to the right Novgorod – these were things that were part of this World Cup, which belonged above all to the people and not to the state.