The 2018 Soccer World Cup impact on Russian image abroad and the politics of the country

While the biggest Canadian public broadcaster CBC/Radio Canada has recently posted the article on how the Soccer World Cup contributes to a positive change of Russian image in Western media, the doubt, if it truly transforms Russia in a democratic way, remains up in the air. However, as always, not everything has a single meaning.

It must be owned that Russia is often demonized in mass media, especially in Europe and North America. A shift for a better, unbiased representation is needed in any case. It would endorse greater understanding and bring countries closer to each other, with, hopefully, further de-escalation of tensions and reset of cooperation. And stakes are still high in Ukraine and Syria, although a new angle on them would be beneficial for all parties involved.

What is important, is that the transformation happens from both sides – externally and internally. Due to soccer fans travelling to Russia for the World Cup, Western states have suddenly recalled that the country is represented by its people and not only by the Kremlin. In turn, Russian citizens (and not only those who travel abroad) got a chance to see that the world is not that hostile toward their Motherland as it is usually portrayed by certain domestic TV channels, that it lends credence and extends hospitality.

At the same time, the Kremlin should not be forgotten. It obviously possesses its own tasks and strategies. And again, they are measured in at least two dimensions of a Russian foreign and interior policy. So, for the external usage, the World Cup serves as an opportunity to demonstrate that Russia is reliable (managed to successfully organize the tournament), open (welcomed visitors from all over the globe despite, basically, a clash between the West and Russia provoked by Crimea and others) and free (allowing a lot of what is prohibited by the existing legislature for the sake of this festive occasion).

But for the internal use, this show extremely reminds us of the USSR-type of ostentation. As it was, for example, when such Uzbek cities as Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara became a sort of show-window of the Soviet Islam which was important for establishing close ties among the Soviet Union and other countries of the Islamic world during the Cold War. Or as in the late 1950s, it was decided to use Muslim pilgrims to promote a positive image of Soviet Muslims.

In accordance with the USSR rhetoric, the imposition of conventional ethics and morality is taking place right now in Russia. It started on the eve of the World Cup with advice to Russian women not to have sex with foreigners in the course of the event, verbalized by Tamara Pletnyova, the chairwoman of the Family, Women, and Children Affairs Committee of the State Duma (the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament). And finally, it brought an unbelievable distortion in a form of the frankly insulting newspaper essay titled Non-athletic behaviour: how Russian women disgrace themselves and the country. By the way, on the newspaper’s website, the title was even more abusive – Time of whores – and the context was totally inappropriate.

Moreover, the soccer tournament works as a good counter-attraction for the introduced pension reform meant to increase a retirement age in Russia. It is a standard practice in the country to initiate changes while people are busy.

Thus, everything will be exactly as the Canadian journalist quotes the Russian policeman, “after the World Cup, it will be Russian law, Russian rules.” There is only a glimmer of hope that the awareness of people will switch if the Kremlin doesn’t launch a new wave of propaganda of some sort. And is it possible at least to trust in the Western audience who was reminded that the same average people live within the Russian state borders? After all, an enlargement of individual contacts will save the world.

Anna Tsurkan, Ph.D., is the associate fellow at the Centre for studies in religion and society of the University of Victoria, B.C., Canada and the head of the Canada-Russia Research Initiative

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