NOVOSIBIRSK, Russia — A train from the Pacific coast city of Vladivostok, rumbling through central Siberia in the midst of its seven-day trip to Moscow this week, was carrying babies, veterans, pensioners and construction workers — and World Cup fans from Japan, China, Thailand, Australia and Argentina.
All of the soccer fans were in Russia for the first time. Nick Skinner, one of the Australians, hadn’t told his mother.
“I didn’t want to make her panic,” he said, imagining her horrified reaction: “ ‘He’s in this dangerous place, Russia.’ ”
The once-every-four-years soccer World Cup — the most-watched sports tournament on the planet — starts on Thursday in the world’s biggest country. Despite calls for a boycott, cost overruns and security jitters, it could become Russia’s biggest-ever international event. Russia is about to come face to face with the world, on a scale both intimate and grand.
Svetlana, a retired fire-emergency communications engineer from Russia, had a question for the migration lawyer from Canberra who was sitting across from her and sipping vodka out of a traditional Russian tea glass.
“Do you want President Putin of Australia?”
“No!” said the lawyer, Nicholas Houston. “Where is the democracy?”
“I think in our country very good democracy,” said Svetlana, who declined to give her last name. “Our people can say what they want, can travel where they want — we are free now.”
The train rumbled on. One evening, as smokers gathered in the spaces between the train cars, the closest one could get to fresh air, a pipe worker named Alexander told a joke: “An adviser comes to Putin and says, ‘I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you were elected president. The bad news is that no one voted for you.’ ”
A successful World Cup would be sure to augment Russian President Vladimir Putin’s global prestige, as the Kremlin works to shed the international isolation ushered in by the Ukraine crisis in 2014. But Britain and Iceland have announced their government officials will boycott the competition. Human Rights Watch has called it “the World Cup of shame” because of Russia’s support for the Assad regime in Syria. Ukrainian officials have urged the world to stay away.
Nevertheless, more than half of the 2.4 million tickets sold for the World Cup have gone to non-Russians, including some 90,000 to fans from the United States — more than any other foreign country.
“If you boycott for moral reasons, you’re not going to go anywhere in the world except for maybe New Zealand and Canada,” said Daniel Futcher, 41, a travel agent from Australia.
The westbound train wove past goats and cows, swamps and streams, wildflowers of orange and lavender and rail cars of lumber and coal. It traveled slowly enough that you could pick out the finely cut trim of shutters of passing wooden cottages. The sky glowed blue. Bits of crooked wooden fencing stuck haphazardly and illogically out of the lush grass.
By the third day of the journey, Kensuke Utsumi had already learned that train passengers fill up bottles with hot water to take showers in the restrooms, packing shampoo and a towel “like going to a hot spring.”
He could say “ya lyublyu futbol” — “I love soccer,” as well as “ya ne lyublyu vodka” — a slightly mangled version of “I don’t like vodka.” Danil Serov, an Internet marketer for Chinese natural-health supplements, had already taught Utsumi the quintessential Russian long-distance-travel card game called durak , which means “fool.”
The 40-year-old Utsumi fell in love with soccer watching his father’s tapes of the 1986 World Cup. He quit his job on the first day of the 2002 tournament to backpack across Japan as it co-hosted the event. He still remembers the “angel” who came to him at the train station in his home town of Kobe — a woman who asked him for directions to the stadium and turned out to have an extra ticket to see Belgium play Brazil.
Sixteen years later, Utsumi runs a language-learning travel agency and is a World Cup veteran, having visited each of the three tournaments since. In one pocket of his red camouflage cargo pants, Utsumi has a white and red hachimaki headband, a Japanese flag and a foldable fan at the ready.
The Australians and other foreigners would board the train after making a connection in Irkutsk, still ahead. Up to that point, Utsumi had had practice separating unpeeled Siberian pine nuts with his teeth, but he had yet to meet another World Cup traveler.
“There’s no World Cup feeling here,” Utsumi said, reflecting on the mood in his third-class car somewhere between the cities of Chita and Ulan-Ude. “I’m trying to make it World Cup season.”
The easternmost of Russia’s 11 match host cities, Yekaterinburg, still lay some 2,000 miles and three time zones away. Some of the passengers said they were taking the train because the crush of tourists had made it too expensive to fly.
“I don’t give a damn about the World Cup,” said Yevgeny, 35, a broad-shouldered, tattooed welder sitting across the aisle from Utsumi. He wouldn’t give his last name. “They should give all this money to the pensioners, the workers and all the teachers instead.”
A litany of complaints followed from Yevgeny and fellow riders about poor roads, poor pensions and low wages in Russia. The government was pouring untold sums into Ukraine and Syria without taking care of its own. Yevgeny said he would try to move to America if he could speak English. Serov, fresh from a round of durak with Utsumi, hopped over onto the bunk next to him.
“Everyone is used to complaining,” Serov said. “But no one wants to change anything.”
There was an awkward silence.
The three Australians boarding at Irkutsk were recovering from what Skinner called “a blinder of a night” sampling the city’s “actually really good” craft beer selection. Three Argentines boarded having lost their Yerba Mate vessel and were now sipping their tea out of a glass.
Wang Gang, 40, was perusing his smartphone outside the sleeping area of his third-class car. The sales and marketing employee for an educational newspaper in Shanxi Province in China was hoping to get tickets to see his favorite team, Germany — “Their will is very strong. They’re very cold. Quiet.” He gave three reasons for wanting to visit Russia: its literature, its architecture, and its “culture of alcohol.”
“I heard about vodka many years ago — now I want to try it.”
There were, in fact, few signs of drunkenness on the train other than in the dining car, which was mainly frequented by a few all-day beer drinkers. As Wang spoke, one of them rushed past: A construction worker at a natural gas plant, Sergei Malyshkin, 33, who had been waiting all morning for his wages to arrive in a bank account in a time zone several hours behind that of the train’s current location.
“Got the money transferred!” Malyshkin yelled over the din as he slid open the door between cars on his way to the diner. “It wasn’t stolen!”
Dmitry Medvedev — a veteran paratrooper now helping to build a fish processing plant in the Kuril Islands — asked a Washington Post reporter to translate: If this train were to break down in the middle of the taiga, the endless Siberian forest, would the tourists be able to survive?
“I think so,” Utsumi answered. “I survived two earthquakes.”
The young men from Argentina, who had met on a work-and-travel program in Australia, brought their own wine and snacks to the dining car and were promptly shooed out by the waitress, who then asked if all Americans were that rude. The Argentines were unfazed. They had already spent several days at Lake Baikal, where they said their vision of Russians as cold and distant had been dispelled.
Martin Graffigna, 26, displayed the evidence on his smartphone: a video of what looked like an impromptu dance party in a general store. One of his friends had been trying to talk to a woman in the store when her male companion appeared. The Argentines thought this meant trouble. But then, Graffigna recalled, the man seemed to ask the shopkeeper to turn on Latin music, brought over beers, and said, “Welcome to Russia!”
A few times a day, the train stopped at a station for a long enough time that travelers could go outside. The usual ritual is to stand around, buy snacks and smoke. The Argentines added something else: a soccer ball. When a kick overshot the group at the busy Krasnoyarsk train station, Utsumi sent it back with a header — the ball slicing miraculously parallel to the parked train without hitting a window or disappearing under the car.
Passersby stopped to watch. A pair of policemen on patrol walked past without a word. A conductor abandoned her post at the door of the train car, walked toward the group, pulled out her smartphone and started filming.