Three weeks is a long time in football.
On Saturday morning, 16 June, I joined a squad of Croatian supporters on the 6.30am bus from the Lithuania city of Klaipeda. We drove for five minutes to a ferry port, then floated across a few hundred metres of steely Baltic water to one of Europe’s geographical curiosities.
The Curonian Spit is a 100km-long sand dune: draped in pines, shrouded in legend and inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage list. This delicate finger of nature is a political curiosity, too. Halfway along, Lithuania ends and Russia begins at a scruffy border post. This is the gateway to Kaliningrad, the westernmost fragment of Russia: as close to Amsterdam as it is to Moscow, and separated from the mother country by the Baltic Republics and Belarus.
Here, for the first time in my life I entered Russia without a visa. For one summer only, you can avoid the absurdly tangled and expensive red tape required for a Russian visa – which necessitates a trip to London, Manchester or Edinburgh to have your fingerprints, and a minimum payment of £108. Bona-fide football fans are entitled to visit with no more fuss than buying a match ticket for the World Cup and spending a few minutes applying for a “Fan-ID”.
The World Cup presents a genuine once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunity to bypass bureaucracy, and to visit the biggest country on the planet in a brighter mood than ever.
The bus deposited the Croatians and me in Victory Square, which commemorates the triumph of the Soviet Red Army in the last days of the Second World War. As the Allies carved up Europe, the ruins of Königsberg, former capital of Prussia, were assigned to Russia. The westernmost outpost of the USSR was rebranded as Kaliningrad after one of Stalin’s henchmen.
As a key naval base, the city was closed to foreign visitors until the final whistle was blown on the Soviet Union 45 years later. It has taken until the summer of 2018 for Kaliningrad to welcome the world – but the citizens have done so in style. In place of red tape, a red carpet has been rolled out. Football fans, as well as plain old tourists like me who have taken advantage of the relaxed rules to explore more of this intriguing nation, have been treated as honoured guests. And the organisation has been superb.
Russia has amazed the world. In a good way, for once.
Since the highly controversial decision to award the World Cup in successive tournaments to Russia and Qatar, the 2018 host nation has annexed Crimea, backed a tyrant in Syria and stifled domestic political dissent at home. Russia has also been blamed for downing Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 with the deaths of all 298 on board, and bringing lethal poison to Wiltshire.
Yet even before next weekend’s final, plenty of people say that the undisputed World Cup winner is Vladimir Putin. The president will seize upon the success of Russia 2018 to bolster his corrupt and cruel regime.
My sense, though, is that the World Cup could end up as a victory for openness and tolerance – with travel at the forefront.
As with football, so with tourism: Russia has long punched below its weight. A nation that encompasses a rich heritage, spectacular landscapes and the world’s greatest urban creation in the shape of St Petersburg should attract more than 177,000 British visitors annually; Spain gets that many UK tourists in four days.
As a lifelong support of Crawley Town FC, my aspirations are naturally limited. But if you will permit me to dare to dream for a moment, I think the 2018 World Cup will be seen as a defining moment for Russia. Just as we in the West have been urged to be wary of the world’s biggest country, the Kremlin has encouraged citizens from Kaliningrad to Yekaterinburg to be mistrustful of outsiders. They have now seen that when hundreds of thousands of foreigners are allowed in without visas, the results are joyful.
A month-long festival of football may achieve what decades of detente could not: mutual, people-to-people respect. More pragmatically, millions of Russians have discovered that tourists bring in billions of roubles, create employment and are happy to regard a Soviet-era apartment as a perfectly good place to stay when there is no room at the Intourist Hotel.
Students of the effect of international competitions on tourism will recall that Ukraine suspended its visa rules for the 2005 Eurovision Song Contest and never reinstated them. It is fanciful to imagine that the gates of Russia will suddenly swing open in similar fashion. But Kaliningrad is the obvious testbed for freer movement, using its splendid isolation to relax the rules and become a window on the West.
With all the Poland-bound buses fully booked, I went to Kaliningrad’s South Station. The exclave’s status is emphasised by the double clocks: trains to St Petersburg and Moscow operate on the mother country’s schedule, while local trains operate to local time, an hour behind the capital.
I spent a couple of pounds on a rail ticket to Russia’s westernmost station, Mamorovo. When I stepped from the big red train, a soldier demanded to see my travel documents.
“Where are you going?” he demanded.
I explained I was aiming for the Polish border, 5km further.
“Get in the car,” he ordered. Then he drove me to the frontier, wished me well in reaching Gdansk and said he hoped we would meet again. I hope he’s right.
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