This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
Russia and the West have a famously tempestuous relationship. Seemingly every month there's a new story about an international falling out over something or rather, whether it's meddling in each other's elections, rumours of tapes that show President Trump engaging in a golden shower with Russian sex workers, or allegations of Russia poisoning a former spy and his daughter in a mid-tier UK Italian restaurant.
But 2018 offers Russia a chance to rebrand itself a little to the world, when – from the 14th of June to the 15th of July – the country hosts the 2018 FIFA World Cup and welcomes people from all continents, about a million in person, and billions via their TVs.
A few weeks before the start of the tournament, I travelled back home to Russia from my new home in Germany to try to understand the mood in my native country ahead of its hosting duties. In the quietest, most peaceful of times, there are few things that make people feel as fundamentally tribalistic as sports. But throw in the rampant nationalism of a World Cup and anything can happen.
My first stop was Moscow, from where Vladimir Putin works hard to antagonise as many Western leaders as he can. Only a few months ago, the Russian president was elected with 77 percent of the vote in an effective one-man contest, where the most prominent opposition candidate, Alexei Navalny, wasn't allowed to stand. Most of the media is state-owned and, according to Reporters Without Borders, Russia is now ranked 148th in the world for press freedom.
Like every host city of the past, Moscow is doing what it can to temporarily hide its imperfections ahead of the World Cup, straightening out the very things that give the city its texture. Areas designated as dedicated fan zones have been cleaned up, and the city's marshrutkas – colourful, informal minibuses – have been banned until after the tournament.
Ban aside, the marshrutkas wouldn't have been able to drive through Moscow the day I was there. It was the 9th of May, and usual business had been suspended for Russia's annual Victory Day celebrations, marking the surrender of the Nazis in the "Great Patriotic War" – or World War II, if you prefer.
Putin watched from the Kremlin as soldiers and tanks marched towards Red Square, while Air Force fighter jets painted the colours of the Russian flag across the morning sky.
"There are people actively trying to downplay the role of our glorious homeland in defeating fascism," Putin later said in his address to the country. "We will not let that happen!" The tone of Victory Day speeches is usually more conciliatory, emphasising the collective struggle of the international community's fight against the Nazis. But not this year.
It was clear from his speech that Putin feels as secure and confident on his throne as ever. Though, for added confidence, he was joined this year by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. Over the last few months, Putin has been keen to stress that he's not isolated internationally, and hosting the World Cup will no doubt help strengthen that image.
That day, Moscow looked like the government's idea of a perfect summer s. It's a very hot day, there's no alcohol in sight, and plenty of young people are here working as volunteers, handing out water to the marchers.
Close to where I'm standing, a group of elderly veterans wearing polished medals walk past a few isolated banners promoting Stalin. But signs like these are few and far between – this is mainly a family event, where children dressed in military uniforms run around shooting each other with fake guns.
Amoung the crowd, one man stands out in particular. He's wearing a red baseball cap and a grey t-shirt. The man, holding up a photo of his dad in uniform, introduces himself as Regis Tremblay from Maine, in the US. "I'm on a search for truth," he tells me, cloaked in the smoke of a nearby BBQ. The 73-year-old independent filmmaker and self-proclaimed peace activist is documenting his trip to Moscow to show people back home that Russia isn't as bad as it's made out to be.
"They think that everything here still looks like it did under Stalin," Tremblay says, glancing around. "In fact, Moscow looks much more orderly than the majority of big American cities."
Seconds later, an elderly Russian veteran, helped by his daughter, gently walks over to welcome Tremblay to Moscow. "I'm happy you're here," the man says as the two shake hands. From there, more and more people smile and wave at the filmmaker, like he's the embodiment of what could be if only Russia and the United States could get along a little better. "We used to fight side-by-side," another vet later explains to me. "Why does everyone always forget that?"
The power of sport – especially football – to heal the world is a bit of a tired narrative often promoted by FIFA, likely mainly to sell more tickets. But the majority of Russians I speak to here seem genuinely excited about welcoming visitors from around the world. It's a bit surprising to me, considering that Russian state television constantly reminds its audience that many of these countries are out to take Russia down. People here tell me they believe that a warm welcome could change the negative perception the world has of their home country.
I approach the security checks leading into the Red Square – the focal point of the day's events. With the added security measures that are now in place throughout the city – both as a reaction to recent terrorist attacks and as a precaution ahead of the tournament – locals are used to the added inconvenience, and queue patiently.
On the Red Square, an even bigger army of earnestly enthusiastic volunteers are on hand to greet the crowds, keep spirits up, offer an arm to help the elderly cross the street and explain to tourists in careful detail how the metro network works. According to the Russian government, a large number of students from across the country have signed up as volunteers – which it sees as a sign that young Russians are just as patriotic as previous generations.
A few days later, I want to see how the tournament is impacting other parts of the country. I take the train from Moscow to the eastern-most host city, Yekaterinburg, in the Ural region, where I was born. The journey from the Russian capital to Yekaterinburg is like a trip back in time. The recent global economic sanctions have hit rural areas hardest, only widening the gap between Russia's richest and poorest. According to the Russian Department of Statistics, 20 million people in the country are considered poor, living on less than 9,452 rubles (£113) a month. This figure is up from 15 million in 2012.
About halfway through my train ride – over 15 hours in – I meet Sascha in the dining carriage. For much of this seemingly never-ending trip, I've watched him sneak away every 20 minutes to stand and smoke in the rattling, incredibly dangerous metal divide between the carriages.
"I've never spoken to someone living in the West before," he tells me, before getting straight to the burning question on his mind. "Is it true Europe has been ruined by refugees?"
For years, Russian state television has been portraying western Europe as a society in free fall – overrun by immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. "Interesting," is Sascha's only reply when I explain to him that, to me, integration is actually working quite well. Sascha doesn't think he'll ever get the chance to find out for himself. "As a soldier, I doubt the army will ever give me permission to travel to the EU," he says. "And anyway, a European holiday would be way too expensive on my salary."
After another smoke break, we move on to the World Cup. Despite the mounting cost of hosting it, Sascha is happy the money will at least be used for something he can enjoy. "I know it's expensive, but if they hadn't spent that cash on the World Cup, it would have been stolen anyway. So at least we're getting something from it, like the new stadium in Yekatinburg." His view on Russia's elite is one that I have heard often in the past few days. "We know that there are people at the top who have made themselves wealthy. But they've also made our country a real superpower again."
When I arrive in Yekatinburg, I make my way straight to the stadium. From close up, the arena looks an incongruent mashup of two visions. The façade is from the Soviet Era, but the stadium's facilities are modern – complete with two stands that will be taken down after the tournament.
At the heart of all this talk of nationalism, political healing and cultural rebranding is a basic sporting contest that Germany will probably win. That last likelihood has not gotten to the group of young men making their way towards me yet. A few are wearing the Russian national team jersey and all are singing songs about Russia winning the Cup. Based on the Russian team's recent performances through, these songs are clearly fuelled by the blind optimism that fills every football fan ahead of the World Cup. When I ask them if they actually believe that their home advantage will be enough to see them through, they lose a touch of their confidence. "Russia is big, but our football team is…." one of the guys eventually offers, before making a gesture to suggest that the side are very, very small.
My final stop takes me to Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg, where the stadium alone has cost more than £800 million. The city itself, with its palaces, bridges and canals, can seem like Amsterdam or Florence at times. There's already signs hanging everywhere, pointing future supporters to their designated fan zones.
In the city's historic central square, I meet with Dr. Petr Woskrenski, a doctor and vocal human rights activist who tells me that he was fired from his last hospital for taking part in an illegal demonstration for gay rights in Chechnya. But Dr. Woskrenski believes activists like him will be able to openly speak out without fear of punishment for the duration of the tournament, as the Russian government won't want to appear cruel in front of global news media. He'll be doing his part during the World Cup by offering alternative city tours in English, to show tourists that St. Petersburg is more than golden cathedrals and statues.
"We live in a state where anti-fascist groups are discriminated against, but the far-right are free to demonstrate as they like," he explains. "And nobody speaks out because the way we deal with problems here is to pretend like they aren't happening. For example, there is an HIV crisis in Russia that the government is trying to hide, and I've known doctors to be persecuted for speaking out."
It's hard to be in Russia without seeing contradictions everywhere. Russians are looking forward to meeting people from countries they believe want to destroy them. They say they're fed up with corruption and the way the country's resources are used to make the rich even richer, but appear happy for billions to be spent on a four-week sporting indulgence without much accountability.
It feels to me like Russia has a hard time deciding what it wants to be or where it wants to go. Whether they'll ever figure that out or not, their first focus should be on what's coming in the very near future: Saudi Arabia, their first opponent.