“Take this to the bloke at the back who looks like Lenin.” This was Oksana, the bubbly restaurant-car manager on the World Cup train from Volgograd to Moscow. In between barking out orders from behind the counter, she expressed her delight at the opportunity to interact with so many foreign visitors on this special (and free) sleeper service for fans and media.
As the mother of three young children – looked after, she explained, by their great-grandmother (“babushka”) during her days away on Russia’s endless railroads – Oksana said she would “never have the opportunity to travel abroad”. Yet here she was with her colleagues teaching a folk song to an Egyptian football supporter.
If the 2018 World Cup has given us a box of surprises on the pitch, much the same can be said of the experience beyond the stadiums where preconceptions vanished at the same rate as the fancied teams and star names. Here was a hopeful, two-way exchange taking place: I’ll scrap your stereotype if you scrap mine. Especially – no surprise given the geopolitical climate – when it came to the Russians and English.
The dozen England supporters who took the same Volgograd-Moscow service after the first group fixture for Gareth Southgate’s side against Tunisia had certainly left an impression on Oksana. “They were very funny and not out of control,” she said. Elena, a member of the fan train’s friendly, three-strong multi-lingual supporter liaison team, pulled out her mobile to show me a photo of a large St George flag bearing the legend “Yorkshire”. “This journey is more boring because the Egyptian fans don’t drink,” the pair added conspiratorially.
Ekaterina, a journalist, explained her own response to the English when we met in a café a short distance from the Volgograd fanzone: “We had some concerns about the English fans. We were a little bit afraid but our concerns were exaggerated.”
In fairness, a similar scenario had played out back at home with the drip-drip of negative headlines that preceded this World Cup – and generated the fears that meant fans travelled from the UK in thinner numbers than usual. “Do you think Russia is a dangerous place?” asked Oksana the restaurant-car manager, struck by the scarcity of England followers for that opening game at the Volgograd Arena. One 16-year-old volunteer I met noted: “A lot of people didn’t expect to meet good people because there are stereotypes about evil Russians.”
If this World Cup has prompted Italia ’90 parallels in England, it is worth recording that that 1990 tournament was the last act of the USSR football team, playing for the first time without CCCP on their shirts – and with a sponsor’s logo on their tracksuits (source of a first-ever bonus dispute). With glasnost their world was changing and that squad would depart en masse for the west. This World Cup presented a different window of opportunity, this time for the wider Russian population. A Russian journalist walking through Moscow with me at 3am one morning marvelled at the sight of so many people from different countries out enjoying themselves on the streets of his city.
The warmth, and willingness to engage, of the common Russian has certainly surprised journalists who arrived from England equipped with blank laptops and firm instructions to use only personal hotspots for fear of cyber-mischief. Even if there has been a degree of ‘bigeventitis’ at play – like Londoners wearing broad smiles on the Tube during the 2012 Olympics – the kindnesses experienced by fellow journalists have a heartwarming authenticity.
When the Daily Mail’s Ian Herbert left his mobile phone on the back seat of a taxi from the airport into Volgograd, he was able to retrieve it through the efforts of a hotel receptionist who arranged for her husband and an English-speaking friend to drive him back to the airport to track the cab down. “People are quite keen to demonstrate that they are like we are,” said Herbert, while wondering how many Brits would show such generosity to a Russian visitor. Stuart James from the Guardian, meanwhile, tweeted of his experience at Sochi airport where he got into a conversation with a Russian at a café – then found his drink had been paid for when he came to pay the bill.
My own experience in Volgograd involved six days staying in the tower-block home of a local couple, Dmitri and Yulia, whose hospitality extended to sending me off with a couple of jars of homemade jam and the gift of a scarf for my wife – once, that is, they had thanked me, with touching sincerity, for the opportunity my stay had presented for a rare cultural exchange.
As fans of the BBC series Sherlock, and owners of a box set of Bridget Jones films, they had served me porridge for breakfast (with a slice of butter on top) and were eager to know more about London, the “foggy” home of their favourite detective – and even quizzed me about the Isle of Man TT race. In return I heard their grumbles about the wealth gap between their provincial city and Moscow. With pride they also took me to see Coventry Street, a short distance from the Volga – named in recognition of another city’s suffering at the hands of Nazi Germany.
Of course, there were other conversations that served to underline that people in different places receive their news through quite distinct filters. At the Battle of Stalingrad memorial museum, one man spoke proudly of the tenacity of the Russian soldiers in World War Two – adding that the same applied to those sent by Vladimir Putin to fight in Syria today. “This is why America is afraid of Russia,” he noted, stern-faced. Another described as fake news the acts of Russian hooliganism in Marseille which scarred Euro 2016: “They wore masks, so how do we know they were Russian? They could have come from other countries.” Yet a recurring message seemed to be: don’t judge normal people by their politicians.
My first taste of Russian hospitality had come on the outward journey from Moscow on a standard sleeper to Volgograd. My only companion had been a metallurgist on a business trip who chuckled at the face that dominated the front pages of the newspapers on the table between us – “Putin, Putin, Putin” – and kept bringing me cups of tea served in glasses in ornate steel holders.
The service for fans and media after the Saudi Arabia v Egypt match offered better opportunities for people-watching. It was a 21-hour journey and we departed Volgograd at 2.50am. Eight hours later, the fried eggs were cold, the coffee murky and the promised WiFi did not work. The scenery outside the window was unchanging: a green flatness punctuated by villages with small one-storey houses topped with corrugated iron roofing.
Kareem, one of three Egyptians in my compartment, was still smarting from the previous day’s defeat. “Egypt is very dependent on Saudi money,” he said, hinting at foul play. It was not the only complaint. “If you see how many miles the team flew, you’ll see we’re the team who travelled most miles in Russia,” he added of their base in Grozny which had led to Ramzan Kadyrov, the controversial leader of the Chechen republic, snatching a photo opportunity with Mohamed Salah. And then a quite unexpected segue to another stirrer of controversy: “Do you remember Robbie Savage? I remember Robbie Savage. He is crazy.”
It was back in the restaurant car, though, that my most enduring image of Russia 2018 materialised: that of a peroxide-haired waitress approaching a black tourist and, eyes filled with curiosity, touching his arm. Not something you expect to see in 2018, but then this was a train on a Russian steppe and a fifty-something woman who had never left her country – and a spectacle with a meaning spelled out by a teenage volunteer who recalled for me a similar encounter of her own. “It was really cool speaking to a person from Nigeria,” she said, sounding an optimistic note. “You see that he’s the same as you.”