Frank A. Guridy is an associate professor of history at Columbia University. Tinatin Japaridze is an M.A. student at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, working on U.S.-Russian relations with a focus on cybersecurity and digital diplomacy.
The World Cup is looking pretty good for President Vladimir Putin’s Russia right now. When the president was asked to predict the winner of the World Cup at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in May, he confidently replied that the “winners will be the organizers,” meaning him and his government. After the first weeks of the tournament, which included surprising victories for the underdog Russian team that allowed it to reach the quarterfinals, Putin is looking more like a winner than even he might have imagined. But recent history suggests that the ultimate political verdict may prove otherwise.
The fervor generated by Russia’s performance notwithstanding, Putin’s bet that the World Cup will produce a win for his government is a big gamble. The global political climate of 2018 is very different than the environment that existed when Russia was awarded the World Cup eight years ago, or even four years ago when Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimean Peninsula after hosting the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, where a massive, government-sponsored doping scandal later tainted the entire Russian Olympic team.
The well-known disastrous consequences of the World Cup and the Olympics in Brazil, and the uncovering of FIFA’s bidding scandals, continue to expose the corruption embedded in international soccer. At the same time, organizations such as the human rights group Fare are bringing attention to racism and homophobia in the sport, and the struggles to keep its Diversity House open in St. Petersburg indicates that they are meeting resistance in Russia.
Commentators in the West have been fixated on the ways Putin is using the World Cup to alter Russia’s tainted image as his regime seeks to gain “respect” on the international stage. Yet the seemingly endless chatter about the impact the tournament will have on Russia’s global image obscures the fact that Putin’s greatest concern is how the international spotlight will affect his domestic standing.
Similar to a matryoshka doll, the Russian authorities are wrestling simultaneously with foreign policy goals and the domestic implications embedded in them. The authorities are also not immune to, or unaware of, the internal threat posed by a weakening economy and brooding social unrest. It is just as possible for the World Cup to backfire on Russia and trigger the potential for political protest. Mass demonstrations in Moscow protesting against electoral fraud in the winter of 2011-2012 could be reignited if the population is no longer under the thinly veiled illusion that the recently reelected ruling party is succeeding at making Russia great again.
The distant and recent past of sporting mega events suggest that hosting the World Cup can cause problems that will persist long after the fans walk out of Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow after the World Cup final on July 15.
The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City exposed both the repressive nature of the Mexican government and the ongoing oppression of African Americans in the United States. The 1978 World Cup in “dirty war” Argentina projected a temporary facade of national unity, but it did not quell ongoing resistance against the military junta’s repression of dissidents.
And, as is now painfully clear, the most recent World Cup and the Olympics blew up in the faces of the Workers’ Party of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. Worse, millions of their fellow citizens were negatively affected by the enormous resources wasted on the events that were supposedly going to bring respect and international stature to Brazil. The recent Winter Olympics in PyeongChang produced memorable performances and kindled hopes for a unified Korea, but it left behind an economic and environmental disaster for the South Korean government to clean up.
Questions about LGBTQ rights and the Putin regime’s treatment of political opposition, along with the ongoing international tensions surrounding Russia, will not be easily glossed over by the cheering and flag-waving during this World Cup. Although mass demonstrations were banned for the duration of the World Cup in major cities across the country, this past weekend seven people were detained in four Russian cities, including Moscow, following protests against the Russian government’s plans to raise the retirement age.
As witnessed in history, the temporary feel-good shine of the World Cup will fade, and Russians themselves will have to deal with the consequences of celebration capitalism. The seductive spectacles generated by events such as the World Cup may seem to work in tandem with the Putin government’s agenda, but the enormous financial, logistical and potential political challenges posed by staging such events make their outcomes far from certain.
The sporting mega event of today is fool’s gold. While the Putin regime may be successful at its short-term goal as the momentary winner, the long-term negative effects of the World Cup will likely linger, affecting the real losers — the Russian people.