Friday, 17 August 2018

Russia staged the best World Cup of modern times

The bitterness when Russia pipped England in the race to stage the World Cup was palpable.

Very soon, there were incessant implications that the tournament would be a disaster and countless attempts to organise a boycott on flimsy pretexts. Nick Clegg was one of the quickest out of the blocks, demanding British teams refuse to participate in protest at the Kremlin’s insistence on confronting Jihadist maniacs in Syria.

Russia’s stubbornly independent foreign policy and resistance to western groupthink has resulted in it being treated as a pariah. Yet it confounded its critics by staging the most entertaining World Cup in living memory and proved itself an exceptional host. From the opening ceremony to the trophy presentation, which took place in a near biblical rainstorm, Russia 2018 was an unqualified triumph.

The conspiracy theorists will allege that Vladimir Putin stage-managed the event carefully in order to cultivate a positive image of his country (as if micromanaging the experiences of hundreds of thousands of football supporters and thousands of journalists were a simple thing or even remotely possible). In reality, Russia embraced the carnival of football and showed itself to be far from the forbidding place portrayed by Russophobic cliche.

The country is routinely demonised on a range of topics and the thread that links them is a refusal to try to understand the Russian point of view or accept any complication or nuance. Most blatantly, the war with Georgia is depicted as a result of aggression by Moscow, even though the EU’s fact-finding report conceded that it was started by former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s decision to shell and then invade South Ossetia.

After such a flagrant misrepresentation, is it surprising that Russia often treats western governments with hostility and mistrust?

Its attitude was vindicated some years later, when US and EU meddling in Ukraine helped provoke a populist uprising that unseated a democratically elected president. The civil war that ensued was again portrayed in the west as simply an outcome of Russian aggression, without any examination of the views of Russian speakers and Russian citizens in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Many western commentators, who are accustomed only to looking for signs of ‘progress’ toward liberal democracy and freer markets or backsliding away from that ideal, have profound difficulty understanding Vladimir Putin’s uniquely Russian conservatism. In particular, they find it impossible to accept the Kremlin’s position on homosexuality, which is not tolerant, but reflects the influence of the Orthodox Church and the mood of the country’s people.

Attitudes to sexuality have changed at dizzying pace over a short period of time. We forgot, almost instantly, how fiercely these matters were contested and the controversy they created in the UK, the US and Europe.

Putin pacified the strife-torn, bandit-ridden province of Chechnya, by contracting a messy deal with the thuggish warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, but because Kadyrov adheres to the unpleasant interpretation of Islam that has seen gay people mistreated across the Muslim world, we’re asked to believe that it is a result of Putin’s homophobic policies.

Throughout his tenure, the president and former prime minister has prioritised economic and political stability rather than ideology. His state-building schemes may seem undemocratic, but they have created a stronger, steadier, more affluent country. He centralised power, where previously it had been dispersed unevenly across a baffling array of republics and regions, rendering Russia practically ungovernable.

Putin took over a state without an agreed flag, without words to its national anthem and struggling to establish a sense of shared purpose among its people. He will leave to his successor a powerful, diverse nation, spanning practically endless ethnicities and cultures, bound together by a strong sense of common citizenship.

This was the Russia that was equipped to hold the best World Cup of modern times.