Two hours in, the restaurant carriage of the 1.52am sleeper train from Moscow to St Petersburg is bouncing. As the lakelands of central Russia pass by the windows, enhanced by the glow of northern midnight sun, two sets of supporters have formed an unlikely musical bond.
The Brazilians are following locals in singing the classic Russian terrace chants – Ross-i-ya, and Vperyod Rossiya [Go Russia!], but adding the swagger of their own bossa nova rhythms. And the Russians are clapping deliriously as the Brazilians recite their most recent hit, E o argentino está chorando. Messi tchau tchau tchau [The Argentine is crying, bye bye Messi].
There must be fifty fans in the carriage, and it’s standing room only. Some of the Brazilians are sitting barefooted and bare-chested atop the benches, their arms and beer cans outstretched. None of the outlandishness seems to bother the middle-aged waitresses, who scuttle through the carriage with permanent smiles on their faces. The two policemen on duty look on, occasionally sniggering to each other.
These are not normal scenes for Russia. Had this been a regular train, the mere sight of bare feet on the leather seats would have had consequences. Then again, these are not normal times. Russia has waited many years for its World Cup party, and it won’t let its own bureaucracy get in the way of the carnival.
Few observers have failed to notice the absolute revolution in Russian policing. The Kremlin has populated its front line with fresh-faced twenty-somethings, straight out of police academy and the first people foreigners will see. And even the experienced back-up, comprised of battle-scarred OMON riot police, have been seen cracking a smile.
But the old Russia is never far away.
A few days ago, at the time a Swedish fans took over Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s fifth city, two local activists faced trial. The sentencing was not widely reported, but few surprises were expected. Both were convicted. One pro-Ukrainian activist was given a custodial sentence. The other was given a large fine. His crime was taking part an “unsanctioned” march in memory of Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader murdered three years ago.
The irony of the Swedish invasion of Nizhny was that thousands of fans would later occupy the main city thoroughfare. It was an unsanctioned march in all but name.
Russians can see through that and many of the tricks being used by authorities, says the sociologist Alexandra Arkhipova. Most understand how the Kremlin have used the tournament to bury bad news such as raising the pension age, increasing VAT, and placing new pressures on independent universities.
“People don’t like such deception, or the idea of building Potemkin villages to show off in front of foreigners,” she says.
But little of that is likely to dent Russian enthusiasm for the tournament itself. Not only has the national team outperformed all expectations, but major Russian cities have also turned into melting pots of new and exciting cultures like never before.
“Some of us are beginning to see ourselves as part of a bigger world,” says Ms Arkhipova. “Positive social change can come out of this.”
In St Petersburg on Friday, as Brazilian fans celebrated an injury-time 2-0 win over Costa Rica, locals queued up to be photographed with the most outrageous of the costumes. They posed with mohawks, fluorescent wigs, gypsies, Mexican wrestling masks and cross-dressers. Some of them joined in chanting, dancing and beer drinking.
Marina Yermokova, 41, from Bashkortostan, said she had travelled 2,000km to be in Russia’s second capital for the tournament. Things in St Petersburg had become a “touch chaotic” since the foreigners arrived, she admitted, but the “wonderful” scenes on the streets made up for it.
Her friend, Tatyana, 40, said, rather more sternly, that Russians understood all changes were temporary, “normality would return in three weeks’ time”, she added. “Of course, we’ll go back to the way things were, but in the meantime we will enjoy ourselves.”
Many of the Brazilian fans said it wasn’t difficult to understand how different they were.
“Yeah, the stares – it’s like you are from a zoo, another planet,” said Thiago Vitale, 39, a journalist from Brasilia. “The Russians are good people, but perhaps they need to loosen up, smile a bit more.”
“We’re more than happy to do our bit to help them.”
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