The other World Cup: how various riots turned Russia against Putin

The other World Cup: how various riots turned Russia against Putin

Under the mandarin and pink clouds of a fading Moscow summer evening, on a bench amidst the old white oak trees that line the Moskva River’s southern bank, Kiril Kotov prepared himself for the beating he would receive that night. Like many before him, Kotov had come to the gentle, pine-forested slopes of Moscow’s Khamovniki district for a moment of silent reflection. The hills’ moist air, their view of the city’s golden river basking in the warm colours and shadows of the evening sunset, promised to tranquilise the mind.

It was upon these slopes that Leo Tolstoy had lain and dreamed of writing War and Peace, that Boris Pasternak had sought refuge from the demons of his mind. But as Kotov stared across the Khamovniki’s moonlit waters towards the muscular colonnades of the Luzhniki Stadium in which the World Cup would start tomorrow, he could find no respite. He couldn’t shut out the stream of thoughts coursing within.

The creaking, rusted chairlift that hung in the air directly above him was the first trigger. As its pocked, copper frame battled its way up the steep ascent of Khamovniki’s hills towards the valleys below, the sound of its spluttering generator had brought back memories of a fellow activist. Dmitry Pchelintsev, a 26-year anti-fascist campaigner from the industrial town of Penza, was arrested by Russia’s main intelligence agency, the FSB, in February. He stood accused of planning a terrorist attack on the World Cup’s opening game between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Pchlentisev was charged with being part of an underground organisation called The Network, a group that allegedly sought to instigate a popular uprising through a series of terrorist attacks on World Cup games. Despite no evidence of such an organisation ever being adduced, FSB agents reportedly wired Pchlentisev’s genitals to a DC generator as punishment. Pchlentisev describes clenching his teeth so hard in agony that they broke into shards.

As the fleeting beauty of Moscow’s vanishing sunset gave way to darkness, the cruelty of a single memory sparked Kotov into action. Whilst rowdy teenagers in Adidas jackets and black leather jeans climbed drunkenly onto the next chairlift, their alcoholic consciousness radiating noisily into the night, Kotov rose solemnly to his feet and accepted what was about to come next. Like a moth to the flame, he walked passively across the bridge, almost in a trance, towards the bronze glow that hums and radiates from each side of the Luzhniki’s glorious stadium bowl, consuming the darkness that surrounds it.

Each step on Kotov’s lonesome march brought with it a new landmark of political pain. To his east, the Khamovniki district court where Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the hope of Russia’s opposition movement, was jailed in 2010. Beneath Kotov, hanging from the underside of the Luzhnetskiy bridge, a linen cloth with bloodstained words: “Oleg Sentsov.” The Ukrainian film director, incarcerated following his protests against Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, is on day 22 of his hunger strike. The prognosis is poor. He looks likely to die.

To Kotov’s North, the speckled marble and golden steeples of the Church of Christ Our Saviour. Here, in 2012, the screaming green and blue balaclavas of Pussy Riot shocked a nation with their sacrilegious hymns desecrating Putin and the Orthodox Church.

It is here in Khamovniki, in the quiet avenues of yellow birch trees and painted houses that straddle Russia’s national stadium, that a nation’s political opposition is mobilising. Behind the Luzhniki’s imposing concrete walls, Russia’s opposition is building its own political fortress. And they are doing so quickly. In 2009, not a single vote was recorded as having been cast against Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party in the State Duma elections. Fast-forward to 2017 and Khamovniki failed to elect even a single United Russia candidate to the Duma. Over 50 percent of its population voted for independent candidates.

Where the walls of the Luzhniki feature artwork paying tribute to former Russian leaders, the walls of Khamovniki’s street are smattered in graffiti defacing the regime. The sociologist Richard Sawka has found this district to have the highest amount of anti-regime art of any major Russian city. Walk 10 minutes north of the Luzhniki’s golden-tiled roof to the bleached, off-coloured walls of Yefremova street and you find a mural of Vladimir Putin playing football with the heads of Russia’s political dissidents. Beneath it is a quote from the German philosopher Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”

Kotov walked down the walkway that channels fans towards the Luzhniki’s turnstiles nervously. He had seen police beatings before. In the dry summer heat of Kuban in 2014, he had watched his friend Darya Polyudova be struck to the ground by riot police then sentenced to almost four years in a penal colony on charges of political provocation. Now, as the memory of the bloodied torso of his friend dissipated into the cool Moscow night, Kotov prepared his own body for the bludgeons it was set to receive.

Amidst a crowd of confused tourists, Budweiser stands and smiling policemen, Kotov unveiled a scarlet banner. “Decree 202 is illegal, the People will be heard,” it read. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Decree 202 banned political protests in 41 Russian cities and towns during the World Cup, yet this has not stopped Kotov and his fellow dissidents. According to Alexey Navalny, the leader of Russia’s main opposition party, the World Cup period featured a protest of 3,000 people or more in 27 different cities. Kotov concluded his protest in front of the 25-foot Lenin statue that guards the Luzhniki’s entrance. There he announced: “On this Day in Russia, we demand freedom. Political change must come. Boycott the FIFA World Cup.”

But then a curious silence. Where Kotov expected police batons and kicks to fall upon his body, instead came the hand of a smiling policeman. “Please move along, sir,” the voice said kindly but firmly. Slowly edged away from the confines of the stadium by a team of smiling, always polite, policemen, Kotov eventually ventured to central Moscow’s Manezh Square. It was only here that he was arrested in plastic handcuffs, calmly led by pleasant officers to a nearby police station.

Across the country, images of smiling policemen at World Cup games have enflamed political activists. “They are presenting themselves like they are Uncle Styopa,” Nadya Tolokonnikova, the leading activist in Pussy Riot, raged on her blog. A cosy Soviet propaganda cartoon from the mid-1960s, Uncle Styopa is about a good cop who humbly helps everybody he sees.

For Dmitry Pchlentisev and the 12.3 percent of Russians who, according to Moscow’s Metodicheskaya Laboratoriya human rights organisation, report to having been brutally attacked by the police, the discrepancy between the image being portrayed and the political reality is hard to bear.

The political reality is far removed from the comforts of Uncle Styopa. According to a 2015 government report accidentally leaked to independent journalists, 197 people have died in police custody each year on average over the last decade. The report accepted that police administered torture was the most likely cause in each case. When Russia’s opposition movement held the “He’s Not Our Tsar Protests” against Vladimir Putin in Saint Petersburg and Moscow one month before the World Cup, footage went viral of riot police punching minors and schoolchildren.

As four members of Pussy Riot dressed in Russian police outfits ran in joyous, anarchic circles across the Luzhniki’s playing surface, high-fiving players and bringing to a halt Moscow’s World Cup final, a pointed political commentary was being made. This is a World Cup in which “we have pretended our policemen are from heaven,” Pussy Riot’s Twitter account later elaborated. “But in reality all we have in Russia our are everyday, real policemen who beat up political dissidents and throw you in jail merely on the basis of liking a social media post.”

Pussy Riot halted play for just 54 seconds. Yet reading the editorials of Europe and North America’s leading broadsheets, there has nevertheless been a certain amount of gratitude for this brief moment when political reality pierced through the veil of temporary bliss and escapism that comes with enjoying any World Cup. For many commentators who have found it difficult to reconcile Putin’s politics with their guilty pleasure in gorging on a sporting spectacle hosted in stadiums built by North Korean slave workers, 54 seconds of reality was enough to allow for a feeling of catharsis- enough to satisfy conflicted minds that the whole image of Putin’s Russia, both good and bad, had been accounted for.

For many Russians dissatisfied with the Putin regime, however, there has been much less difficulty in reconciling a regime’s politics with its hosting of a carnivalesque football tournament that is there to be enjoyed.  As the Russian cultural writer Peter Pomerantsev has written, Kiril Kotov aside, Putin’s critics have not seen it as a choice of one or the other. Namely, that you can either let yourself be swept away by the World Cup and therefore implicitly consent to Putin’s success, or abstain from it completely and maintain your integrity.

The beauty of Russia 2018 has been in how Putin’s critics and everyday Russians have taken ownership of this World Cup, using it to project the messages they wish to present to the world. This is a World Cup where many Russians have integrated political dissent into their enjoyment of the carnival. At the most banal level, this has been seen in the internet memes and street art produced during the tournament. Many who watched the World Cup will remember the scene spotted on TV of three Russian fans sporting kokoshnik hats, scoffing down hot dogs as the Russia-Spain game reached its climax.

As Russian sociologist Yuliya Zabyelina has explained, this image of the fans in the VIP section did not become an internet meme sensation overnight merely because it was funny. Rather, the parody had a political undertone, as one of the fans was Dmitry Hnatyuk, a senior partner in the IMA advertisement company exposed the previous year as having been awarded a serious of controversial contracts with the Putin government. As Zabyelina notes, the comments on Twitter reflected a general mirth at how Russia works: Putin’s chosen few get VIP tickets for the games, greedily gorge on hot dogs and do not even pay attention to the game.

This political satire was resurrected when Ivan Panteleev, the head of another advertising agency contracted Putin, used state funds allocated for World Cup-themed street art to mount a 120-foot high mural of his wife in flimsy sports gear holding a football. Ironic tributes have appeared in Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, with dissidents painting pictures of their wives and partners over state advertisements.

Whilst Levada Centre, Russia’s leading polling body, reports that an overwhelming majority of Russians enjoyed the World Cup, there have also been notable political flashpoints. A number of incidents suggest a society that has been willing to push back against state policy. One example is the controversy caused by Tamara Pletnyova, head of the Russian Parliament’s committee for families, women and children, who was forced into a public apology after warning women not to have sex with foreigners. This was after 25,000 Russian women signed a petition demanding that she do so or be convicted for “political extremism” under article 282 of the state’s Criminal Code.

Russia’s smaller World Cup host cities have also seen widespread political dissent against the broken promises of the Putin regime. When awarded the tournament in 2012, Moscow promised to use the event to harness regional development. Over $42bn was to be spent on 1,129 projects that would upgrade the transport links, parks and housing of provincial cities such as Samara and Yekaterinburg. Yet this budget was subsequently cut down to just $11.8bn spread across 191 projects. Towns such as Novgorod and Samara have received just $550m and $400m respectively.

Considering that the stadiums in both cities will cost the local government $225m  to maintain alone each year – in cities where average attendances are below 4,000 – and the budget’s inadequacy becomes apparent. In Samara, decrepit houses that were supposed to be rebuilt for the World Cup have instead been hidden from the eye of foreign tourists by 6.8 miles worth of fencing. The result has been local anger.

The World Cup saw three social protests against failed budget promises in Novgorod’s Minin and Pozharsky Squares. The previous year, anti-corruption protests against Novgorod’s Regional Governor Valery Shantsev, accused of squandering the precious World Cup budget, forced him from office. In Yekaterinburg, a year’s worth of protests against the city’s underfunded schools and infrastructure led mayor Yevgeny Roizman to come out against the World Cup. Joining 5,000 protestors in a march against Putin, he denounced the wasting of money on both World Cup stadia and a war in Syria when there was so much local deprivation.

To suggest, as many have, that this World Cup was a political masterstroke by Putin is simply untenable. It did not, as predicted, spur a wave of nationalism sufficient to distract Russians from their domestic political concerns. According to the Levada Centre, Russians’ trust in Putin dropped to its lowest level ever in the history of his Presidency during the World Cup. Just 38 percent of Russians now trust Putin; only 46 percent think the country is heading in the right direction.

Putin’s attempt to use the euphoria of the World Cup to bury extremely unpopular reforms has not escaped the attention of a nation. His reform of the pension age for men from 60 to 65 – the average life expectancy of a man in Russia is 63 – and for women from 55 to 63 led to protests in 80 Russian cities on 1 July. According to BBC Russia’s Sergey Goryashko and Elizavetha Fokh, so low are Putin’s opinion ratings that, for the first time, splits are emerging within the United Russia party about his continued suitability as president.

The World Cup was a tremendous sporting success. But the collective commentary of the tournament has tended to present a rather condescending and mono-dimensional account of the Russian people. They have often been presented as swept away by the tournament, overwhelmed by the arrival of foreigners and their strange customs, and unquestioning of a governing philosophy that priorities security over democracy. There was little reflection on the ambiguities of public opinion towards the tournament, nor the social movements that swept the country in July.

In the binary presentation of Russia as composed of ‘bad’ Putin and the ‘good’ ordinary Russian, commentators often missed out the intermediate layer that lies between the two: civil society. This is a shame because this World Cup was principally the triumph of Russian civil society, from the A Cup for the People project in Saint Petersburg that hosted a Diversity House for LGBT fans to watch the games to Pussy Riot’s organisation of a football match contested by refugees in Moscow’s Red Square.

Perhaps we might find in the rhythms of the Khamovniki district a new paradigm through which to explore Russian society’s nuances. Khamovniki might be a hub of political dissent against the Putin regime, but it is also to the district’s lime green and sky blue avenues that Muscovites travel each Friday night to taste gem-coloured cocktails and seek momentary escapism from their bleak political present.

As socialist Yuliya Zabyelina notes, Russians have grown adept at this form of political doubliing, both fighting against society’s injustices whilst allowing themselves moments of carnival, forgetting and happiness. Russians might have had a good time during this World Cup but it does not mean they have abandoned politics. It might be that Putin is the one who wakes up with a political hangover.

By Alexander Shea @alexjshea

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