Yekaterinburg Letter: Football euphoria contrasts with sombre reflection
Celebrations at hosts advancing subsides on 77th anniversary of Great Patriotic War
A Japanese fan walks in the streets of Yekaterinburg on Sunday. Photograph: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images
When sport is working entirely well it provides us with opportunities to lose ourselves a little in the celebration of achievement and while enough has happened in these parts over the last few years for every outstanding performance to raise an eyebrow, nobody here is rushing just now to question how the Russian team has outrun every other over the first two rounds of games.
Instead, the euphoria here over the way Stanislav Cherchesov’s team has performed to date is huge and most of the visitors are more than happy that their hosts are getting to enjoy a party they have gone to a great deal of trouble and expense to put on.
So, for a while at least Denis Cheryshev and co are national heroes, pure and simple and Yekaterinburg was a noisy place to arrive into in the early hours of last Wednesday morning as the locals celebrated having secured their place in the tournament’s second round.
The mood was more sombre on Friday with flags flying at half mast to mark the 77th anniversary of the invasion by Nazi Germany. Veterans of the Great Patriotic War are in increasingly short supply. There were a sprinkling of elderly men and women, weighed down by their many medals it seemed, at what were moving ceremonies to mark the occasion in the city. The respect shown towards those who fought fascism is impressive to witness.
The question of just who gets to be regarded as a hero, though, has not been been so straightforward in a country that has changed so much since the days when they fought to defend it.
One of the June 22nd ceremonies took place on the edge of the city pond in Yekaterinburg, a city with origins in mining, metal and its place on the route to Siberia that grew dramatically during the war as factories and people, many of whom never left again, were transported to safety from the West. Now home to 1.3 million people, it is Russia’s third largest urban centre in terms of commerce.
Barely 50 metres away from the waterside event was the Boris Yeltsin Centre, a lavish complex incorporating a museum, exhibition spaces, cinema/theatre and shops. It would not look remotely out of place in Moscow, Madrid or Manhattan.
A lot of money has clearly gone into what is essentially a monument to Russia’s transformation from command to free market economy and the man who oversaw its most traumatic phase. Both President Vladimir Putin, who Yeltsin effectively handed power over to with the much quoted instruction to “take care of Russia”, and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev attended its opening a couple of years ago. The local communists want it closed down (because it distorts history they allege, entertainingly enough) and they occasionally stage protests outside the place.
Yeltsin’s “shock therapy” approach impoverished millions and, as state assets were sold off at huge discounts to a chosen few, created a handful of billionaires almost overnight. A few of those are well known to football fans.
Yeltsin, in any case, faced down an attempted coup which, one suspects, may not have made matters much better, but also invaded Chechnya which undoubtedly made them worse. A survey a couple of years ago found that he had an approval rating of just 11 per cent across Russia (although half the respondents claimed to have no opinion) but it remains far higher more than a decade after his death in what is effectively his hometown.
Under his successor, meanwhile, the economy has obviously improved greatly since the 1990s and Putin clearly enjoys a lot of support although it is interesting that he never seems entirely happy to test the actual extent of it in what might be regarded as a completely free and fairly fought election.
He won the latest one with 77 per cent of the vote a few months back and might well have triumphed comfortably anyway but the most serious alternative candidate, anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, was prevented from running due to a couple of convictions that few outside Russia consider genuine.
It is worth acknowledging that all of this information is freely available over the internet here. Perhaps the searches involved were simply too superficial but in Turkey a few months ago, even checking which club a local player was at was complicated ever so slightly by the fact that Wikipedia was, in its entirety, blocked by the government.
Being a journalist that challenges the authority of the state and those close to it has a habit of ending badly in both countries. In Turkey a great many go to prison and in Russia, according to international organisation the Committee to Protect Journalists, 58 have been killed since 1992 of whom, 33, it says, have been “murdered with impunity”.
Two perished in 2017 but the numbers do not include Maksim Borodin, the 32-year-old investigative reporter who died in Yekaterinburg on April 15th this year, three days after he was discovered on the pavement under the balcony of his fifth floor apartment.
His work on local corruption, prisons and, most recently, the involvement of Russia mercenaries in Syria for the periodical and website, Novy Den, made him powerful enemies.
The authorities nevertheless said there was nothing suspicious about his death and his editor dismissed the notion that he could have committed suicide and friends, who have called for a fuller investigation, are sceptical about the suggested alternative: an accident while smoking.
Borodin’s work doubtless marks him out as a hero to some Russians and his death certainly raises some questions but the wider population might be forgiven for believing it best to go with the flow a little more readily. No matter how things have changed down the years, after all, no one ever gets thanked for trying to spoil a party.