Russia soccer fans celebrate during the opening match of the FIFA World Cup between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

World Cup Gives a Glimpse of a Happier Russia

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Artem Dzyuba, No. 22 on the Russian national soccer team, has scored a goal in each of of Russia’s winning games against Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the 2018 World Cup. He is probably the most fitting symbol of the event, which is all about surprising external transformations.

The lumbering, 6-foot-five-inch son of a cop and a shop assistant from a Moscow concrete slum was once accused of stealing cash from a Spartak Moscow teammate (he denies it) and exiled to a second-rate Siberian club. Now, he’s almost 30 and nearing the end of his soccer prime. He spent the last season at Arsenal Tula, which placed seventh in the Russian Premier League. At the World Cup, though, he's displaying a fluid freedom and a joy of playing that no one expected. Russian fans jokingly call him Dzyubinho because he’s so unlike light-footed Brazilian stars like Ronaldinho or Philippe Coutinho. But during the Egypt game, a German commentator described one of Dzyuba’s goals as “Technisch klasse,” the highest compliment in the country of the reigning world champions.

The entire Russian team is defying expectations: It’s going to the round of 16 for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, and even though it has won against weak rivals, it’s playing a more inspiring game than fans have seen for years. But Dzyuba’s transformation matches most closely what foreigners and Russians alike are writing about the changes the World Cup has brought to the host country, and its capital in particular. And I don’t just mean those who are only there for a few days; “This is not the Moscow I knew” is the refrain of jaded long-time residents.

“Taxi drivers who get out to open a door for you,” wrote the Moscow-based German journalist and blogger Katrin Scheib. “People singing loudly as they stream through our streets in the evenings. Cops that wave off things that once would have been stopped immediately or would have led to an arrest: Unfurling signs, climbing onto monuments and so on.”

“Never seen so many happy people walking around downtown Moscow,” Bloomberg’s Scott Rose tweeted

It takes an effort to recall that this friendly, partying, carnival Moscow is the same old grim metropolis stuck between its Soviet past and its Putin-era visions of chic painted on with stolen money. Yes, this is Vladimir Putin City, the capital of a country that threatens and invades its neighbors, a country with political prisoners and un-European levels of violence! Yes, that is bear-like Dzyuba playing spectacular soccer!

“How beautiful the world was (though we didn’t realize it of course), in which authoritarian regimes were poor and democracies looked rich in comparison,” Kirill Rogov, an anti-Putin economic commentator, wrote sarcastically. “Now authoritarian regimes have gotten rich and, against their background, democracies somehow look miserly and uncreative. Authoritarians ‘give hope.’ That’s the World Cup.”

Like Rogov, I was born in Moscow; we both have seen it celebrate, grieve, fall apart and fight. But, unlike him, I don’t see the face the city’s showing the world these days as a mask put on by the Putin regime.

Those who were around for the 1980 Olympics remember how empty the city looked. The authorities had moved out drunks, beggars and ex-convicts. Parents were told to ship kids off to summer camp, or in any case out of the city, for fear of “provocations.” Stores suddenly filled with food many Muscovites had only seen in the movies. There was Fanta! I remember it though I was only nine; my mother failed to send me away.

Vladimir Vysotsky, the beloved semiofficial singer-songwriter, died during those games. The crowd that gathered to see him off was the closest approximation of an angry demonstration we’d seen in those days. The real Moscow existed in a parallel universe to Leonid Brezhnev’s Olympics.

That’s not true of Moscow today. The festivities are real and the locals are eager participants. The fun isn’t contrived or held on specially constructed stage sets. Everything Moscow has during the World Cup will still be there after it’s over, except those crowds of curious Peruvians and baffled Europeans, who had expected worse.

Except, maybe there will be something missing. Remember those lenient cops from Katrin Scheib’s post? The day after the last fans leave, they again will start picking people up for drinking beer in the street (banned by law in Russia) and smoking too close to a subway station. They will no longer look the other way when they encounter loud laughter or song. And when people gather holding up signs, they will use their rubber sticks without a second thought.

The daily reality of Putin’s regime doesn’t differ as dramatically from low-friction normality as Brezhnev’s decaying “developed socialism” did. The World Cup shows how easily that difference could be removed. All it would take is slightly more reasonable rules, less paranoia, less pressure on people, less “patriotic” propaganda and a diminished siege mentality. Removing all that for a month or so clearly isn’t impossible. Why not forever, then? Could Dzyuba just keep playing as he has in these two games?

That may be possible – someday.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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