Russia’s World Cup is officially over. After one whole month of living and breathing football, Moscow feels hungover this Monday morning, and the spotlight is already on Helsinki where Russia President Vladimir Putin and United States President Donald Trump are holding their first summit. The World Cup brought Russia amazing games, abundant praise for the host’s logistical accomplishments, and the resulting prestige.
It also brought disappointment and missed opportunities.
Just before Russia’s 2014 Sochi Olympics, the country released several high-profile political prisoners. Russian activists and their supporters globally hoped for something similar with the World Cup. Those hopes have been dashed. Oleg Sentsov, a Crimean filmmaker serving a 20-year sentence on bogus terrorism charges, is now on day 64 of his hunger strike. Oyub Titiev, the Grozny director of Russia’s leading rights group, Memorial, is on trial in Chechnya for a brazenly fabricated drug possession case.
With Titiev behind bars, Chechnya’s governor Ramzan Kadyrov, whose repressive rule is sponsored by the Kremlin, happily availed himself of photo opps with Egypt’s national football team. Titiev faces up to ten years in prison as punishment for his human rights work. Did FIFA, football’s international ruling body, use its full leverage with Russia on his case? They won’t say.
Another prominent Memorial activist, Yuri Dmitriev, acquitted of bogus child pornography charges in April, was re-arrested during the World Cup, apparently as part of a government smear campaign against the organization.
Four members of Russian protest art group Pussy Riot were arrested after charging onto the stadium’s field in a bold political stunt during the final match. A security official who interrogated them cursed and said he regretted today wasn’t 1937, the worst year of Stalin’s Great Terror, when hundreds of thousands were executed.
So as the largest football tournament winds up, the big picture is grim, and it’s no wonder many are concerned that after the World Cup, the already unprecedented crackdown on government critics will worsen.
That said, there was one undeniably positive dimension to the 2018 World Cup. After years of increasing isolation, Russia opened up to over 800,000 fans from across the world. Hopefully, after cheering together and making friends with foreigners over football, the broader Russian public will realize the country is not a besieged fortress surrounded by enemies, and that the Kremlin’s rights crackdown and isolationist policies are both baseless and ultimately harmful to the country’s future.