FOOTBALL, POLITICS AND LIFE IN RUSSIA
I am not sure how closely my American friends have been able to follow the World Cup and the impact of the games on life here in Russia. It has been big! Frankly, I know very little about soccer, aka “football” over here in Russia. (I hate calling soccer “football,” but I’m a minority of one here.) The only soccer games I’ve ever watched was when one of my sons was on the high school team back in South Carolina. I went to every game I could, but I learned almost nothing about the game. My son got a team trophy, but I couldn’t even figure out what “offside” meant. They all were running back and forth all over the field! I guess “football” for me will always be the American version.
The games, however, have had a tremendously positive impact on Russia on more than one level. First, the Russian team was not expected to do well at all. I read one article that said they were something like the 68th ranked team in that writer’s view. Yet they made it to the quarter finals—and almost won that game. I watched their match against Spain and became a nervous wreck. They won on an unbelieveable save by their goalie. Thus, I did not watch their game against Croatia because it was at night, and I knew I’d get too nervous and lie awake too long. Despite the fact they lost that very close game, the people here were still very proud of their team. Russia had something else to cheer about. In addition to the unity created by pulling for their team, however, there are other “victories” or benefits.
First, there have been financial benefits for Russia. There were some rumblings in a few circles that the government was having to spend too much money on preparing for the games. They suggested the cost was too big a burden on the budget. Most countries, they pointed out, actually lose money on hosting such events. I watched a video of an interview with Sergey Budrunov, the president of the International Union of Economists, as he explained the cost and benefits of the game. (The video can be seen w/ English subtitles and transcript at https://russia-insider.com/en/politics/host-countries-usually-lose-money-world-cup-russia-scores-250-return-russian-tv-news-video). It cost Russia between $10-$11 billion to provide 12 new stadiums, 5,000 miles of new roads, upgrades to already existing roads and making sure airports and other public service locales were ready for the expected crowds. That’s a lot of money and the Federal Govt. would have to provide well over half of it. Big crowds came, however, and the revenues from ticket sales and associated prices to customers will pay for the cost involved. Mr. Budronov said that by the time the games are over the costs will have been recovered. Profits stand to be substantial from the future revenues that will come in through sales tax on shirts, souvenirs, hotels, food, etc. Judging from the clips I’ve seen of fans eating, buying clothes, gifts, parties, etc., that profit should be substantial. Some estimates say Russia will recover 5 times what they spent. Also, the new stadiums, new roads, and upgraded infrastructure will still be in place after the games are over. There will be future profits to be added from these improvements in the years to come.
Second, the bigger pay off, in the opinion of many, is in the area of what I’ll loosely call “Public Relations,” although “International Relations” may actually be more appropriate. There have been many interviews shown here with fans from many countries who testify to how different their experience in Russia has been from what they were told to expect. Most admitted they came here with a significant apprehension because of what they had heard about Russia. Many from the Western countries said they were warned not only of criminals, but also maltreatment they would probably receive from the Russian police and the Russian “hooligans.” In interview after interview we heard from visitors from all over the world praising Russia and the treatment they received here. Some said police did check their documents, but usually with a friendly smile. Several recounted that when taxis were overwhelmed by the crowds they were given free rides from “regular” folks who did not charge them anything and would not take money when offered. Our son Roman went into the “center” of St. Petersburg and said the atmosphere was great. He said from the languages he heard there were more “foreigners” than Russians out in the streets and all seemed to be having a good time. My FB friends who are “real” European football fans reported the same in their experiences at the games and the parties after the games.
It hasn’t been just the fans talking about the dissonance between what they were told to expect and what they actually have experienced, however. I read many reports filed by journalists from outside of Russia reporting on the same phenomenon. The one that surprised me the most was by Steven Goff of The Washington Post. The Washington Post has been one of the “lead dogs” in anti-Russian propoganda production. Goff admits even up until the last moment he was wishing he did not have to go to Russia. His experiences here were not at all what he expected, however. It turned out to be a wonderful experience and his description of Russia is quite different from what one expects to find in The Washington Post. (See https://m.sfgate.com/news/article/After-seeing-Moscow-I-understand-why-FIFA-gave-13004407.php?utm_campaign=fb-mobile&utm_source=CMS+Sharing+Button&utm_medium=social). I have no doubts that the anti-Russian propoganda will continue, but for those who have been paying attention it will be a harder sale. It was gratifying to me and to other Americans living here in Russia to see and hear of the experiences of others who discovered the truth of what we have been saying: the Russia you read about in the main stream Western press is a creation motivated by the political and/or social agendas of the writers.
President Trump is to arrive in Helsinki, Finland soon for his summit with President Putin, so the attention here will move immediately from football to politics. The two leaders have met before, but it has been at conferences or gatherings when leaders from other countries were present as well. This will be the first meeting with just the two of them, their staffs, and the interpretors. On July 16 they have a meeting sheduled between the two of them without aides present. I do not know what to expect. In my next blog, which I’ve almost completed, I will address the issues of how this meeting has been discussed in the Western Press. I will focus on one particular interview. For now, however, I’d like to offer my observations on how Russians and Americans (not politicians, just the women and men in the street) differ in respect to how they carry out political discussions. These are based totally on my experiences and I have no studies to back them up.
First, Americans, as I have said before, tend to get more emotionally involved with a particular politician or leader. They will often ask, “Do you like Trump (or whomever)?” Or say, “I can’t stand him!” Generally in a discussion on politics, Russians are more comfortable talking about the issues with which one may agree or disagree, rather than whether you like the politician. Further, Americans tend to be “all or nothing” about a candidate. If they like Trump, they will support him no matter what. I have several pro-Trump friends. When Trump indicated he might not sign a particular spending bill, one friend told me how bad the spending bill was. Trump changed his mind at the last moment and signed it. My friend responded to someone else criticizing him by showing how the bill was essential to keep the government running. In other words his one point of consistency was his support of Trump. I think Americans see this as loyalty. Others, the “never Trumpers,” are going to be against whatever Trump recommends. This was clear when Justice Kennedy recently retired from the Supreme Court. There were people in the streets, in interviews, on FB, Twitter, etc., before anyone had actually been nominated, proclaiming their opposition to the nominee. Trump would be nominating the person, that was all the information needed.
Russians tend to keep a little “distance” between themselves and any politician. I’m not saying there aren’t people here who feel strongly for or against Putin or other politicians. In general, these feelings are kept “close to the vest,” however. Most people I know voted for Putin. Most people in Russia voted for Putin. The idea, however, that those people agree with him on every point or fall in line with whatever he says is a completely inaccurate interpretation of how things are here. For example, I chatted with my doctor again this week while he was giving me my neck treatment. He’s a great guy, but he would really like to go back to Communist days and the USSR. He was fondly recalling the times of being a doctor and not worrying about having to charge patients for whatever treatments they needed; he cherishes the memory of the comaraderie among the people here that he believes has been lost. He also “lectured” me (he knows I don’t agree with him) about the labor laws which he believes were far superior then. (Unfortunately, he got excited and starting speaking so fast that I missed a couple of his main points due to my inferior Russian listening skills!) He voted for Putin, however, not his Communist opponent. He said he believes Putin has been more effective in implementing correct economic and social policies that have helped Russia come out of the disaster of the Boris Yeltsin horror of the 90s. His heart longs for Russia to return to Communism, but his head realizes that would not be the best route.
My opinion is that there has always been this basic difference, with Americans becoming more animated in political discussions than most Russians. We Americans have always loved our political debates. The election of Donald Trump, however, has intensified it in a way beyond anything prior to 2016. Now it seems every political decision is a “bone of contention.” This was brought home to me when an old friend I had not seen in years contacted me through Facebook. He and I never agreed on politics and would constantly rib each other in a good natured way when we were young men. Now, however, after we talked about the old times a bit, he said some very negative things about Russia and added, “And I don’t like Putin!” I probed him on where he got his information. He became very angry, said I was calling him a liar, and jumped me like I was a Trump troll or something. My own political views on Trump are that when he makes a decision I agree with I’m not ashamed to commend him, but when he makes one I don’t agree with, I’ll blast away. I guess I’ve become more Russian. I neither like nor dislike him. (Although I admit the hair still bothers me.) It became clear to me through this very unpleasant conversation with a friend from over 30 years ago that things are different in America. I think I realized it before, but never reflected on it. I have American friends I really like but with whom I avoid any political discussion at all. You go there with them, and you better be prepared to fight. I go to my Russian doctor every week for a 40 minute treatment and we talk about everything—including politics. He’s an old Communist, and I voted for Ronald Reagan. Yet, we still can have sane and helpful conversations–even if my Russian is not quite fully up to the challenge.
Russians also usually stay on an even keel about political events. They tend not to get to excited when things go bad and neither are they euphoric when events look good. No one here in Luga was riding around blowing their horns or shouting in the streets when Putin got re-elected. Most here were in agreement, but Russians have a history that teaches them not to hope (or despair) based on one leader or one election. Last night I watched a string of Americans (politicians and activists) at some rally deriding the nomination of perspective Justice Kavanaugh. His confirmation, they made clear, would end democracy as we know it. They launched into a string of catastrophic events that would surely follow if he is confirmed. I think the persons who are selected to serve on the Supreme Court are very important. But I’ve lived long enough to see both liberals and conservatives put on the Court, and not one of them has ever had the power to dethrone democracy. I personally think democracy is being dethroned in America, but it is not by any one Supreme Court justice.
Finally, Russians tend not to let one issue impact everything, and they listen to “the other side.” Again, the events surrounding the nomination of Justice Kavanaugh reminded me of this difference. The main issue or point of contention in America based on what I have heard talked about for some time is what his nomination will do to abortion rights. Then it went from, “if he’s confirmed then women can’t have abortions, then it will mean no contraceptives, then all rights of women will be essentially taken away.” That isn’t an exact quote, but—believe it or not—that is essentially what one activist said, and she received cheers and applause for her insights. Abortion is still legal here in Russia, although I pointed out in my last blog it is becoming more infrequent. The Russian Orthodox Church is taking the lead in the trying to stop or at least reduce the number of abortions. They provide financial and other forms of assistance to help women who are thinking of an abortion go ahead and have the baby. Surprising to us they even run anti-abortion commercials through their television network. They don’t attack anyone over the issue. But they make their goals clear. I don’t know if they could do anti-abortion commercials on American TV. The persons who are for abortion here don’t get offended or angry when the other side sets forth their alternatives. They have their reasons, but they are quite willing for both sides to “have their say.” Who would have thought? Freedom of speech is alive and well in Russia.
My hope is that on “the other side” of all this political rancor we are going through in America we will come again to recognizing the ideals which once bound us together. Despite what is shown on TV, I do not believe the majority of Americans want things to be the way they appear on the nightly news. Those people ranting and raging do not represent the Americans I know. To some degree I blame the current leadership. Trump’s tweets get people’s emotions going, and I don’t think they change anyone’s mind. They are calls to the already converted. Then Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Shumer rejoins with responses impregnated with animosity but devoid of intellectual content; now Maxine Waters has given encouragement to harassment and physical confrontation toward those with whom her followers disagree. If Trump says anything positive about Russia and the need to work together one can be sure that Adam Schiff, Lindsey Graham or even the ailing John McCain will make sure people understand that means our President is working for Putin. That is not what I believe most Americans believe or would believe if they had the facts presented to them.
During the World Cup games a reporter happened upon an old Russian man with a basket of crocheted items, e.g., little figurines of football players and other small tokens. He said he had learned to crochet from his grandmother when he was a little boy. He had made these little items to come and give to the people visiting from other countries so they would remember Russia. Another young man brought little jars with jelly his grandmother had made for the same reason. Americans, they won’t show you that on the evening news. Somehow even with 24 hour news coverages, there is no time for stories like these to be shown in America. Those media types and the politicians want to convince you of the evil that is here in Russia and the evil that is in those on the other side of the political debates. They want to appeal to a darker side. I am no Pollyanna. There is evil in the world. But the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who suffered more than I can imagine, reminds us of the true nature and location of evil:
“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.”