World Cup host Russia defies Soviet-era, hostile image with smiles

In the spirit of the World Cup and with the convenience of Google Translate, Russians are setting aside political tensions and language barriers to eagerly welcome visitors and fans from all over the world. 

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russian soccer fans celebrate the national team victory after the match between Russia and Egypt during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Moscow on June 20, 2018. Many citizens of Russia are celebrating their country's role as this year's World Cup host.

Chilly, gray, threatening. To many outsiders, that's the image Russia conveys to the world. But that's not the Russia World Cup fans are discovering.

A Moscow subway security guard gives a visitor a thumbs-up sign. A waitress in Saransk bubbles over in wonder at meeting her first-ever American. Buoyant Russian fans sing, party, and share face paint with foreigners.

And forget about the language barrier. It seems like everyone is using translation apps to surmount it – and laughing together when it produces nonsensical results.

From the Black Sea to Baltic, from the Ural Mountains to Moscow's Gorky Park, Russians largely see this World Cup as an opportunity. And they appear surprisingly eager to set aside political tensions, welcome visitors, and share their rich culture and history.

"We thought Russians would be, well maybe not rude, but cold," said Jose Oscar Rodriguez, who came with his father from Peru's capital Lima to follow his national team. "But everyone is nice. The taxi drivers, the host in our building, the people in the streets. Everyone."

That doesn't come naturally.

For many Russians, the default stance toward foreigners is caution and suspicion. It's partly left over from Soviet-era worries about both Western espionage and the KGB's watchful eye. And it's partly a renewed wariness cultivated by President Vladimir Putin, whose rule and popularity ride on the belief, propagated in state media, that Russia is under siege from outsiders who want to undermine its political stability.

At the moment, Russia is under siege from outsiders who just want to have fun. Mexican fans wearing sombreros, Peruvians wearing headdresses, Belgians wearing French-fry hats, all happy to be part of Russia's first-ever World Cup, all hoping for their team to win.

The 11 host cities, many still grungy not long ago, are resplendent.

Giant inflatable soccer balls and flags of the world dangle from the gleaming glass ceiling of 19th century GUM shopping mall abutting Red Square. Children kick balls on the pristine plaza beneath the Kul Sharif mosque in Kazan.

"Russia is wonderful," said Ignacio Dufort from Uruguay.

"We arrived to Yekaterinburg at midnight, without a ruble, couldn't communicate with anybody, and couldn't find our apartment, but we met this woman who was our savior. She helped us to find the place and the next day she spent four hours with us helping our landlord register us with authorities."

"She was an angel," said his girlfriend Claudia Mena from El Salvador.

Things don't always work that way in Russia, where the first answer to questions posed by foreigners is often "no." Earning a "yes" takes work. Eliciting a smile often takes even more.

Yet despite their aloof image and hostile-seeming foreign policy, many Russians want to look good to the rest of the world – especially now.

Viktoria Latishova, a 19-year-old waitress in Saransk on the edge of the steppe, rejoiced at meeting an American for the first time, spilling with curiosity despite her limited English. The city had little tourism industry before hosting the World Cup, and is showing a certain giddy graciousness about the chance to be a part of it all. Residents ask about foreigners' fears and apprehensions. Some offer assurances that geopolitical tensions have nothing to do with their personal feelings about foreigners.

English is more widespread in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, Russia's western-most city. But the menu at a takeaway restaurant selling skewers of meat was only in Russian. Seeing a puzzled customer, a smiling woman came over and read it all in English, and helped order lamb kebab.

Russia's World Cup isn't all smiles. Security and the threat of extremist attacks remain high, and discrimination against minorities is a real concern.

And the event won't transform Russia's relations with the world overnight. Since the tournament opened Thursday, the European Union extended its sanctions and United States investigators stepped up their probe into alleged Russian election meddling.

But the atmosphere feels markedly different from even just a few months ago, when Russian and US forces nearly went to war in Syria, and Moscow taxi drivers were wary of talking politics with a foreigner.

And even the weather for Russia's World Cup has been a pleasant surprise.

In the host city of Sochi, fans join Russian vacationers in diving into the Black Sea. And in Moscow's Gorky Park, Peruvian fan Rodriguez sought relief from a piercing sun Monday.

Reclining on a shaded bench, he said, "I didn't realize Russia could be so warm."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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