It's Friday lunchtime and there's a problem with my railway ticket. The passport number on the ticket doesn't correspond with the actual passport number on the document. The guard standing at the doorway to the carriage of the 13.42 to Moscow has tried to scan it three times. There's a line of about 300 seriously emotional Argentine fans who are becoming ansty: they just want to get on the train, close their eyes and dream of Claudio Cannigia.
The soldier sighs. He's about 20 years old and looks as worried as a Basset hound. He wants to help. He wants to be accommodating here. But the numbers don't match and his grave look says 'this shit will not ride'. It's bloody hot. There is a good reason for this quandary which I try to explain to the official with a helpless shrug. What happened, see, was that just a few days before my departure here, to Russia, was that my old passport left the Russian embassy with its newly adorned visa. But somehow, it got lost. It vanished into the ether or Ireland's postal system.
There followed an intensely stressful and strange series of negotiations between two of the most resolute and proud institutions in international administrative history: the Russian embassy and An Post's sorting office. Both representatives of their respective wings were sympathetic to the point of sorrow. Neither accepted the blame. "You must consult the post office," suggested Alendander in a tone which suggested he wasn't entirely convinced by Ireland's postal system. "If the Russians sent it, we'd have found it," declared the emissary from the Loughrea sorting office.
The passport was gone: a new one obtained and all has been fine until now, on Platform 1, in Nizhny. I’d explain all of this to the soldier except the only Russian words I’ve mastered are spaseebo (thanks), which has been put into a kind of verbal slave labour and dusha (soul, not so much). The Argentines, still traumatised by the Shame of Nizhny, are threatening some sort of coup. The Russian soldier looks at the passport, the number, the passport’s sorry-assed owner and finally at the ground. His dilemma is clear: how could he believe what he was seeing?
In a way, it's a question which presides over Russia's entire World Cup.
On the opening day of the tournament, several things happened over the space of a few hours. That afternoon, Vladimir Putin met Saudi's Crown Prince what's-his-face for a quick coffee and a chat about how to manipulate the world's oil supply, Robbie Williams sang 'Angels' and gave everyone the finger. Russia won 5-0 and started a patriotic fire across the Motherland. All of this was reported across the globe.
But earlier in the day, Alexei Navalny, one of Putin’s most outspoken (and battered) political opponents had been released from one of his frequent stays in Moscow’s prison. His experience hadn’t deterred his outspokenness a jot: he immediately made caustic fun of the refurbishment of the cells, made luxurious, he claimed, so that the World Cup visitors who got themselves arrested (the English fans, in other words) wouldn’t be left with a bad impression of the Russian detention system.
Navalny reported that his prison had been transformed into a virtual hotel (albeit one where the doorman is liable to bludgeon you with a truncheon): footballs, LCD televisions in the cell, restaurant-standard catering and students brought in as English translators who were becoming so bored by the lack of clients that they were agitating for more arrests. But as promised by the Russian authorities, there was zero crowd trouble. Navalny warned fellow Russians who wanted to experience this enlightened regime to make haste. “After the World Cup is over, the gold carriage will turn back into a pumpkin.”
In that sentence, he captured the dilemma for everyone who has come to Russia to see the football. The tournament is just an illusion bought (crookedly) by Vladimir Putin so he can put a glossy front on his political regime. So anyone who warms to the Russia that they are discovering as they criss-cross its cities on the stunning railway system has been fooled. They are seeing the Russia that Putin wants to present. An opinion column in the New York Times by Alexey Kovalev, a Russian journalist, this week caught the irony of the fans slurping tins of beer and singing as they move in rowdy packs through the metro corridors or the streets without a care in the world. Soldiers and Rosgardvia stand back, a discreet tolerant presence.
“But some Russians are wondering why these foreigners are getting away with things that would land us in jail for ‘unsanctioned rallying’ or with a hefty fine for ‘public disturbance.’ The authorities have used the excuse of the World Cup to further stifle the barely existent threat of freedom of assembly: a special decree signed by President Putin in 2017 restricts ‘public events not related to sports competitions’ for the durations of the tournament. Refusing to have fun is a public offence.”
It’s probably true that the vast majority of World Cup visitors haven’t really given this contradiction much thought. They’ve paid a small fortune to get here, now they want to take a selfie at Lenin’s Tomb, skip the Dostoyevsky walking tour of St Petersburg when they learn that it lasts four hours, buy a Russian doll of Uncle Joe, hammer vodkas, marvel at the white nights of Western Russia and sing their terrible football songs.
But it’s also true that almost everyone you meet has been genuinely disarmed by the Russian people they are coming across - the service workers, the volunteers, people on the street: people. Russia’s got 130 odd million of them. If it’s true that this World Cup has been a marketing dream for Putin, then it’s also the case that by bringing it here, he has invited the outside world into Russian cities in a way that has never happened before. And he can’t know how this is going to work out.
You can’t escape from seeing just how strange, how deeply weird this whole thing must be for Russians in the host cities. After a century of unfathomable mental and physical upheaval, the Russians have reached what seems, under Putin, like a period of relative stability. His promise is like the inverse of MacMillan’s famous ‘you’ve-never-had-it-so-good’ boast to Britons. Putin’s promise seems to be: ‘you’ve never had it less shit’.
When Moscow hosted the 1980 Olympics, locals were stunned by the sudden (and temporary) appearance of exotic goods like Fanta in the shops. The city’s larder was empty then. You should see the boulevard’s around Red Square now: the preposterous wealth and the luxury boutiques, their window-displays like a beautifully lit black joke at poor Lenin’s expense, lying in his mausoleum just 10 minutes walk away, not knowing that the big idea would come to this. Downtown Moscow makes New York look second class.
But go to the edges of the city and the concentrated wealth disappears. Go to the provincial cities and you’ll quickly see a distinct absence of that new wealth. You’d see couples (yup, heterosexual only) out on a date on a World Cup night and the guy might order a 700 roubles cocktail for his girlfriend and have a coffee himself. If the Russian reputation for industrial-strength boozing is true, it’s not done in its pubs.
It’s hard to get a definitive assessment on the average monthly wage: most reports list $550 but in parts of Novograd, for instance, it was reported to be half that - and everything is dependent on the volatile rouble anyhow. So it’s a good time for foreign currency holders to buy the Russian currency. The irony of this World Cup is that the fans will see more of Mother Russia than many of Putin’s citizens ever will.
“What’s it like there, anyway?” People ask. “Met many oligarchs?” For a few seconds one day, I’m actually convinced I’ve spotted one. It’s lunchtime on a high street and he is surrounded by minders as he moves through the crowd with extraordinary confidence, rotating a lollipop between his teeth. His style is hip-hop but everything is immaculate and set-off by a magnificent summer parka jacket whose back reads, in English: Until The Tears Run Into Your Mouth. I’ve never been as envious of a coat in all my life. The only problem is that this young go-getter is five years old, at best. No matter how well connected you are, it seems unlikely that you’d be running one of Russia’s oil distributaries before you’d even made first communion. But along with his family, he is proof that some are thriving.
What's it like here? Bewildering. Exhausting. Energising. Beautiful. Nostalgic in its architecture and artwork for this revolution and that hero. Very white. And most of all: of itself. It's Russia. That language. Those cathedrals. You couldn't be anywhere else. It takes four hours by train from Moscow to Nizhny and the football fans have been whizzing along its route for the past fortnight. One of the cities not too far from its route is the chemical-production stronghold of Dzerzhinsk, which has for many years distinguished itself as home to the first factory in Russia to produce cyanide (1915) and, by 2007, as the most polluted city in the world where, according to a Blacksmith Institute report, the life expectancy for men is 42 and for women is 47. It's like that: everything, whether fact or story, whether dazzlingly beautiful or terrible, is more extreme and more dramatic and on an epic scale.
In 2006, Germany hosted a World Cup that was cathartic for the nation. It was a wonderful tournament and brought to the cities an unselfconscious exhibition of German flag-waving and nationalistic exhibitionism that had not been seen since . . . that other time.
Russia weren't at that World Cup. Nobody noticed. That same year, a Russian poll found that approval ratings for Josef Stalin was soaring, even though he had killed at least 15 million of their predecessors. This week the Moscow Times reported that the revisionism on Uncle Joe continues. The Glaswegian comedian Frankie Boyle happened to be in Russia making (a brilliant) documentary about the Russian football and life when Boris Johnson made his remarks agreeing that Putin's World Cup was akin to the Berlin Olympics of 1936.
“It’s an emetic prospect of Putin glorying in his sporting event.” Johnson said. “Like a malevolent Baked Alaska” was Boyle’s description of Johnson as he snorted at the idea of British MP’s calling for the World Cup to be ‘taken’ from Russia. “It’s like a branch of Tie Rack deciding on the schedule for the Eurostar.”
But Johnson’s words travelled here and given the exalted role the Battle of Stalingrad claims in Russian history and identity, his comparison was especially gauche. There’s a word you hear Russians using when they refer to how they are portrayed by the outside world: “Propaganda.” All the assumptions; the Russians don’t smile, the hooligans will beat you up, the food will be awful. How dumb and insulting it must all seem to them.
The thing about the World Cup is that it’s possible to separate Putin’s Russia from the people living in it. Although he doesn’t believe it, the day will come when Putin will be gone. Russia will remain. In bringing this World Cup to Russia, he inadvertently brought a taste of care-freedom to the streets. And it’s hard not to think that the future generations of Russians are going to want more of that.
There was a moment in the opening weekend when a dozen Mexicans came stomping up a staircase in Moscow, costumed, young, singing and recording their performance on Iphones. Two very elderly women were making their down the stairs each carrying a handle of a bag of shopping. They were definitely of an age to have been children in the last years of Stalin.
You can only guess at the hardships, the privations, the perseverance. They stopped to let the carnival past and gazed at it with a combination of amusement and amazement: incomprehensibly different lives floating past them. Sometimes in Russia it’s hard not to feel like a spoiled Westernised shit who has no cause to be bitching about anything.
But bitch we must. The train is cramped, the coffee’s spilling; the Wifi’s not working. The Argentines have found their voice again. The conductor is starting to grow a bit concerned: hopefully she will turf them out near Dzerzhinsk. But mostly, you’re just glad to be on the train. In the end, the passport mistake didn’t matter. Maybe in ordinary times, faffing about with different passport numbers would earn you a month’s torture in one of Putin’s de-luxury cells on the grounds of being a moron.
But this is the World Cup in Russia.