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You can hate Putin but love the World Cup

Fans cheer before the group A match between Russia and Egypt at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the St Petersburg stadium (Photograph by Gregorio Borgia/AP)

The football World Cup has barely started, but it has already created a moral dilemma for some. Ukrainian artist Andriy Yermolenko made a series of “alternative promo posters” for the World Cup now unfolding in Russia, replete with blood, skulls and dead babies. They’ve gone viral in Ukraine, but Ukrainian state TV still broadcasts the World Cup despite the war that Russian proxies wage in the country’s east. The official reason is that the national broadcaster does not want to lose the rights to the 2022 World Cup, which it has also bought. But then some four million Ukrainians watched the World Cup’s opening game between Russia and Saudi Arabia, so it wasn’t a bad business move, either.

In Britain, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson agreed with a Labour legislator’s suggestion that the World Cup is similar to Hitler’s 1936 Olympics and said Russian president Vladimir Putin’s “glorying in this sporting event” would be “an emetic prospect”. Britain has sent no officials to the tournament, and the Royal Family have made a point of not having any of their members attend. Yet Britain is one of the top ten countries outside Russia when it comes to World Cup ticket sales: 32,362 Britons decided to attend the games.

Despite the Russian-centred political storm, which has convinced many Americans that Russia tried to undermine US democracy, Americans bought the most tickets to the World Cup of any foreign nation — 88,825.

“Fans and politics are the hopeless combination,” Nick Cohen wrote in The Guardian. “The battle is always unequal. If you wonder how you would have reacted to Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, look at how you are reacting to Putin’s 2018 World Cup and learn something about yourself and the nature of sport.”

But the sports fans visiting Russia despite warnings of anti-Western sentiment, homophobia, racism and rampant crime inevitably will see more than just the football games or the propaganda façade that Putin would like them to see.

Unlike Olympic Games, held at a handful of heavily guarded, easy-to-monitor locations, big football tournaments are wide-open affairs. The World Cup is played in 11 Russian cities, from the Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic Sea to Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains. Some Australian, Chinese and Japanese supporters took the Trans-Siberian railroad to get to Russia’s European part, where the World Cup is played.

There and everywhere, fans have been exposed to an unadorned version of Russia. Despite the many attempts to spruce things up for the event, including the jails, many fans will witness cramped, barely furnished apartments renting out for a fortune on Airbnb. They will brave the potholes on Russian roads, fly rickety aircraft on local routes and ride the shabby but convivial trains. German fans will encounter youths with mocking Nazi salutes, and the British will be asked disbelievingly about the Skripal poisoning affair. There will likely be racist incidents, too, and communist lawmaker Tamara Pletnyova actually warned Russian women against having sex with people of other races during the World Cup — not that anyone was listening.

On Saturday, a Moscow taxi driver drove into a crowd of people, injuring eight, including two Mexican World Cup visitors. The driver, from the impoverished former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, had spent 20 hours behind the wheel after only three hours of sleep; he lost control of the car after mixing up the brake and gas pedals. With crowds of foreigners of every conceivable nationality revelling in central Moscow, exposure to this side of the Russian capital’s life is inevitable.

In other words, there is no way to build a Potemkin village big enough to deceive the visitors about what Russia is really like; Leonid Brezhnev had a much better chance at that with the 1980 Olympics.

Sure, Putin and his allies use the opportunity to milk the event for some soft power. Putin, not a football fan, kicked a ball around with Fifa president Gianni Infantino in the Kremlin. Chechnya’s brutal ruler Ramzan Kadyrov had his picture taken with Liverpool and Egypt striker Mohamed Salah, presumably to boost his standing in the Muslim world, where Salah is a superstar. But then fans will not see much of Russia’s rulers, nor do they care one way or another.

They get to party with Russians, see the country and watch the games, which, so far, have been impeccably organised and mostly exciting. Only 28 per cent of Russians hold passports that enable them to travel abroad, so many others now get to see the world at their doors.

Those who have compared the World Cup with the 1936 Olympics, held when German Jews were already being stripped of citizenship and after their businesses had been “Aryanised”, should keep in mind that Russia is not about to launch a version of the Holocaust or a world war.

It’s a country teetering between closing down to the world and staying as open as it became in the 1990s. It can be both ugly and welcoming, sometimes at the same time; and in any case, it is not adequately represented by its leaders, as anyone will find out even after a few days spent going to football games.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru