The airplane was not the most modern, actually it still had ashtrays in the arm rest, bathrooms, and corridors. The last time I was in one of these planes I was going from Quito to Guayaquil, and that time I remember being scared. We felt safe in this old plane; “at least the Russians had cosmonauts and space technology,” we commented among our group. We were anxious to land in Saint Petersburg, we imagined it to be rugged and unwelcoming, maybe even hostile. What did we know, we were victims of anti-Russia propaganda, our minds were littered with anti-Russian constructs.
To our surprise we were welcomed in English, I guess it was expected, we were all wearing our FIFA Fan I.D. passes. Our Visa was the FIFA I.D., it had our passport number and other personal identification information. It is incredible that the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) can have the multilateral capabilities to coordinate and effectively implement the logistics behind such as global endeavor. Immigration was smoother than entering the Canadian border, it had to be; FIFA needed to show the world that Russia was a good decision and Putin needed to show the world that Russia was distant from the negative propaganda portrayed by the west.
We began to get lost in translation as soon as we came across the teller at the official currency exchange kiosk. From that point forward communication was tough but who cared, we were joining a global gathering that spoke one language and only one language, football (soccer).
Saint Petersburg reminded me of the contrasts of Colombian urban centers, opulence and modernity intertwined with decadence and poverty. For some, maybe not so appealing, but for me it was beautiful in its own unique way.
Our hotel was stuck in the eighties, our television was and old Zenith with dials and antenna, no mini fridge, and an old black dial-up phone was our only connection to the front desk; not to mention the absence of an elevator in order to reach the fourth floor. The stairs were uneven, making it a challenge to time your steps correctly, but it did not matter we were here to enjoy the World Cup and not to relax.
Right next to our hotel there were many run down empty buildings, it looked like the industrial corridor of Buffalo, New York; there were abandoned cars on the street, I remember an old Lada jeep and an eighties Mercedes Benz next to a Simca and an Italian Sastaba. It brought old memories of Colombia, although in Colombia these cars are still up and running. After walking to the subway station and popping up at the city center, things changed. It was another city with modern architecture, high-end boutiques, and other signs of opulence.
It seemed that our hotel was in Russia but the city center was in Europe. The Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati parade was impressive, and the fashion show was surreal. There were, at least in my mind, two Russias.
The subway was impeccable, as my friend Jim Warhola had indicated to me. It was like visiting a museum; actually the whole city was impeccable. Maybe it was part of Putin’s propaganda system to the world, but even next to the rundown buildings and the abandoned cars there was no trash.
At the stadium they had staff that were assigned to attack any spill with their mops seconds after incident, as if they had cameras exclusively dedicated to littering. In the isle next to ours some Costa Rican fans accidentally dropped their beverage and seconds afterward came a cleaning staff member with its mop and took care of business in seconds; this was right as the match was unfolding, minute 24 of the first half when Brazil was trying to break Costa Rica’s defensive lock.
The FIFA Fan Fest zone and the surrounding bars and restaurants were immaculate even though thousands of global fans were roaming the streets in the city where the sun never rested. The FIFA Fan Fest was the epicenter of soccer in the city, they had the gigantic public screens, the massive shops and food courts that opened three hours before the first match and closed minutes after the last match (11 pm). This was the United Nations of soccer, people from all corners of the world, and of course Russians, gathered together with nationals from the respective teams that were being shown on the gigantic screens. A peaceful and wonderful time shared between Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists and all the other religions of the world. Football unites the world; I believe it, I saw it with my own eyes.
This does not mean that interaction with locals was tough, the language and cultural barrier was sometimes hard to overcome. The isolation from the West and from the rest of the capitalist market during the long Cold War definitely impacted Russians. Although I am generalizing, it was evident that the Boomer generation was mono cultural, mono linguistic, and ethnocentric; the result of not being able to connect to the rest of the world.
Our big difference and advantage as a nation state is our ethnic, cultural, and racial diversity. We take it for granted; being in Saint Petersburg, the most westernized part of Russia, made me reflect on the fact that it is the foundation for the development and advancement of capitalist markets. Without cultural and racial plurality there is no innovation and change but stagnation.
I wonder if our current ethnocentrism will lead us down the same road in the future. Will isolating ourselves from the global market lead us in that direction? Will only speaking “American” have the same effect? Will the idea of American exceptionalism lead us in a similar path? Communist protectionism and isolationism eventually constructed a society of generations that live in the past under ideas and worldviews that do not match the reality of today or tomorrow. I would speculate that market and cultural isolationism would lead to unprecedented results under the current dynamics of globalization in which we live in.
Many Russians suffer today from the social, cultural, political, racial, ethnic, and economic constraints imposed by Putin’s regime. They live in a world of have and have nots, where those who benefit from the regime are secured a good life and those that do not, end up disenfranchised and marginalized. The contrast between wealth and poverty is tangible even in the most western of Russian urban centers. For many the answer is leaving Russia, the option of building nation and markets is no longer there; the promises of the post-Cold War era are gone.
The World Cup was a success for Russia, but who benefitted? Did the profits and revenues trickle down to the masses? Political leaders are very clever at masking this reality through their propaganda systems. The same thing may be asked back home; who will benefit from the renegotiations of NAFTA? Who will benefit from the bipartisan fight? Who benefits from economic embargoes and tariffs? Who benefits from Wall Street’s bullish market? Who benefits from the economic recovery? Are the savings, profits and revenues tricking down to all sectors of society?
At the end we visited Russia just like foreigners visit our country, returning back home with their own constructed reality based on the one percent that was observed. What happens inside a nation is very distant from the perceptions of those who are looking at it from the outside. We are subjective observers, that I learned from my trip to Saint Petersburg. We are disconnected from the fact that in today’s world what happens globally impacts the local and vice versa.
Isolation and protectionism is a Russian reality and a Trump fantasy. If our policy makers do take us there at some point, I predict the outcome would be very similar to Russia’s, but they do not want to go there and neither does the local and global corporate sector. It is good political rhetoric but just that, rhetoric. The NAFTA renegotiations showed that it is impossible to reverse its path, the power of the global market is beyond local control. You may change its name to U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), but not its function and purpose. Justin Trudeau, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and Donald Trump can claim success, but in reality it was the success for the hundreds of thousands of businesses that profit from NAFTA. I wonder who will benefit from these renegotiations? I doubt there will be a trickle-down effect that will benefit civil society in each of the three countries.
I also doubt that the World Cup generated the conditions for a sustainable growth model that would benefit all Russians. At the end it was just one big party, now the host is left with the task of cleaning up the mess.