With Moscow’s historic squares, pedestrian malls — and, starting today, soccer stadiums — filling up with foreign tourists, President Vladimir Putin’s latest rebranding exercise for Russia is well underway.
The first game of the World Cup kicks off at 6 p.m. local time in the refurbished and freshly re-turfed Luzhniki Stadium on the Moscow River.
After years of weak economic growth caused in part by Western sanctions and deteriorating political relations with most NATO and European countries, Russia desperately wants to demonstrate that Western isolation failed to crush its spirit or lessen its ability to put on a great show with the whole world watching.
Canadian soccer mom Leticia Mandrier says her first impressions of the event and the country have surpassed her expectations.
“I am really pleasantly surprised,” she told CBC News, as she watched her 11-year-old twins play in a youth soccer tournament in Moscow that’s associated with the World Cup.
Her family, from the Montreal suburb of Ahuntsic, won an all-expenses-paid trip to take part in the event sponsored by Russian oil giant Gazprom.
This is Mandrier’s first trip back to Moscow since living here as a child with her diplomat parents in the early 1990s.
“Downtown Moscow has changed a lot. It’s very nice,” she said.
“I have memories … of people, in general, not being very happy people. But they’re friendly.”
For the next month, Russia is expecting more than one million foreign visitors to fly into its airports, take free train trips to 11 World Cup host cities and drop more than $1.6 billion on hotels and other activities.
But the biggest boost to the country could come from the enhanced impression of Russia that all those visitors take home with them.
“People come to Russia, and they can see with their own eyes what we are doing and how Russians live,” said Russian political scientist Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council think-tank.
“And it shows that we will not yield under pressure. We will survive, we will cope, we are optimistic and we are confident. That’s the message.”
With so many Russian cities hosting matches, and visa-free travel available for international visitors with game tickets, Kortunov says there’s never been such an opportunity for one-on-one interactions between foreign visitors and Russians.
And the exchange is equally important for Russians, he says, who generally travel infrequently outside the country.
“We have seen lots of bad news about the West, about westerners and government societies. So for Russians, it’s important to be exposed to people from other countries, to see there is no reason to consider them enemies.”
Russia vs. the West
Still, Kortunov says it’s unrealistic to expect a single event — even one as large as the World Cup — to push either the Russian government, or governments in the West, to make major policy changes.
“We need much more to change the momentum in the relationship between Russia and the West,” he said.
That much was clear last week when U.S. President Donald Trump proposed inviting Russia to rejoin the G7. His colleagues in the group of the world’s most powerful economies rejected the idea, arguing Putin hasn’t changed his antagonizing ways since the group booted Russia over its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Nonetheless, Russian state TV is focused on exploring what first-time visitors think of the country, devoting hours of programming to the topic.
In one recent segment, a Russian TV host took groups of French, Argentine, Brazilian and other tourists on a trip around Moscow, stopping to eat Russian pancakes and dance to Russian folk songs. At the end, they all joined hands and yelled, “We love Russia,” as they jumped into the air.
Another report profiled journalists who are covering the World Cup.
“I was in Moscow 10 years ago,” Egyptian cameraman Mohammed Al Salkhla told Russia’s Channel One. “The city is unrecognizable. The streets are cleaned and very well maintained.”
Indonesian photographer Pancha Sookani was effusive in his interview.
“Everyone must come to see this country for themselves and meet the people,” Sookani said. “They are nothing like how they portray them to be overseas. I haven’t met a rude or aggressive person yet.”
‘Sports without politics’
Still, there’s no shortage of critics who see a World Cup hosted by Russia as an abomination.
Most leaders from Western nations are avoiding the event.
Financier-turned-human rights activist Bill Browder accused British singer Robbie Williams, who is performing at tonight’s opening ceremony, of “selling his soul” to Vladimir Putin.
Browder has been a ferocious Putin critic, and has pushed governments around the world, including Canada, to adopt anti-corruption legislation aimed at punishing members of Putin’s regime.
On the eve of the tournament, the group Reporters Without Borders released a report condemning Putin’s treatment of his opponents.
The report ranked Russia 148th out of 180 countries for press freedom, claiming more journalists are imprisoned in the country now than at any other time.
However, Putin has seemed pleased with how preparations for the tournament have gone. He released a video that features him welcoming visitors in English.
And yesterday, he thanked a gathering of hundreds of FIFA delegates for the help Russia has received to stage the event.
“I wanted to underline FIFA’s commitment to the principle of sports without politics.”