Observer writers and Russia experts run behind the spin to analyse the host nations social and political landscape

Part 1. Racism
‘Young fans assure the predominance of far-right chants. Anyone who challenges it faces a threat of violence'

It is the most politically charged World Cup in recent memory: Russia, resurgent under Vladimir Putin, is set to host the 32 -team tournament next month amid scandals ranging from athletics doping to spy poisonings. Relations between Moscow and London are at their coolest since the cold war and the recent events in Salisbury even led to brief speculation( is supported by Boris Johnson) that England could skip the tournament, remembering the Olympics boycotts of the 1980 s.

While individual matches such as the United States and Iran's face-off in 1998 were political lightning rods in their time, the host country has not faced such heated criticism perhaps since the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, held just two years after a right-wing military takeover backed by the United States.

Last week Human Rights Watch released a 44 -page guide detailing repression and discrimination in Russia, targeted at the thousands of journalists expected to arrive in the country for the tournament.

” Fifa still has time to show that it is ready to use its leverage with the Russian government to fulfil its own human rights policies ,” Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Russia's aspirations have changed since it was awarded the World Cup back in 2010. Then, it still seemed set on wooing the international community by holding prestige tournaments. Dmitry Medvedev was president and the reset in relations initiated by President Obama was still on track, with the objective of repairing relations after the war in Georgia. But even then, long before Salisbury, the war in Ukraine, laws against “gay propaganda” and hooligan violence in Marseilles, racist incidents in Russian football were a clear concern.

Fifa chairperson Sepp Blatter and Putin during the handover ceremony for the 2018 World Cup. Photo: RIA Novosti/ Reuters

Russian officials, as well as some players and journalists, insist that while the country has a problem with rightwing fans, the situation has been blown out of proportion by the press and is no worse than elsewhere in eastern Europe. The government says it has made advances in anti-racism monitoring at matches; data from independent organisations appears to support that conclusion.But with monkey chants heard at three matches since March, the spotlight will remain on the hooligan culture, largely modelled on English fans, that has grown around post-Soviet football.

A critical moment in that history came just four days after Russia was awarded the World Cup in 2010, when a Spartak Moscow fan named Egor Sviridov was killed by a rubber bullet during a brawl that pitted young, ethnically Russian football fans against youths from the country's North Caucasus. The release of the suspected murderer, Aslan Cherkesov, angered patriots. Within days, thousands of football hooligans and far-right groups were rioting on Manezh square, beside the Kremlin, in nationalist-tinged protests that took nearly everyone by surprise.

Vladimir Putin laid blooms at Sviridov's grave afterwards that month in what was interpreted as a sign of deference to patriots.” It was one of the showcase events where everyone foresee the numbers, the power the fans have, and the prevalence of the far-right ideology amongst the fans ,” said Pavel Klymenko, who helps monitor instances of fan discrimination for the Football Against Racism in Europe( Fare) network.” There was a political importance too. Putin did not condemn them. He dedicated in to some of the xenophobic demands of the fans. His concern was for the fans not to turn against him .”

The following years ensure a number of ugly incidents. Several black players, including Emmanuel Frimpong and Christopher Samba, were punished by the Russian Football Union after reacting to racist slurs hurled by fans. Ultras in St Petersburg in 2012 released a manifesto demanding their team refuse to sign non-white and gay players. And CSKA Moscow were forced to play two games in an empty stadium after hooligan set off flares and unfurled racist banners during a Champions League fixture against Roma in 2014.

The ban was ” the point of no return” for Robert Ustian, a 34 -year-old political analyst and CSKA fan, who founded a group called CSKA Fans Against Racism.

The volunteer organisation seeks to change the club's fan culture through better education and self-policing, and Ustian believes it has helped reduce racist behaviour at matches. He helps to organise monitoring of extremist mottoes and banners, including swastikas, at matches. He has received menaces, he said. Many other volunteers choose to remain anonymous.” Somebody has to stand up and raise his voice against this ,” he said.

Russian football has taken some important steps to combat racism, Klymenko said, including the appointment of the retired Chelsea and Fulham midfielder Alexei Smertin as a dedicated envoy against discrimination in Russian football, and improved monitoring at matches. In contrast, the government in 2013 passed new legislation prohibiting “gay propaganda,” including gay pride parades or support groups for young people, which gave rise to an upsurge in homophobic attacks. The new laws were a source of disagreement before the 2014 Sochi Olympics and Klymenko said that homophobic language has been used at Russian football stadiums this season but little has been done to combat it.” Homosexuality is such a taboo in Russian society that nobody actually dares to address it ,” he said.

Of criticism over race incidents, Igor Rabiner, one of the country's best-known football writers said,” Sometimes it's fair, sometimes it's much magnified. Much run has been done to stop it, but you couldn't eliminate it all. First, it takes time. Second, football only reflects what happens in society in general .”

In a report in 2015, Fare and the anti-extremist Sova centre in Moscow documented 99 racist and far-right showings and 21 racially motivated attacks by fans during the 2012 -1 3 and 2013 -1 4 seasons.

In a report to be released this week, Klymenko said Fare will announce a reduced incidence of racist symbols at matches, continuing current trends over the past several years. He said incidents of recorded racist mottoes, such as monkey chants, have risen, but that is likely due to the increased monitoring at matches.

But incidents have still come at critical moments. In March, France's Ousmane Dembele, N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba were targeted with monkey chants during a friendly in St Petersburg. Fifa this month penalty the Russian Football Union more than PS2 2,000 for the incident.

Klymenko said the audience for that match would likely reflect that for the World Cup.” The problem is that young people “re coming” watch the predominance of the far-right chants, and anyone who tries to challenge has a significant threat of violence ,” he said.” They're soaking in the culture around them .”

At the Russian Cup final in Volgograd this month, officials said violent fan behaviour would not be tolerated. Andrey Bocharov, the region's governor, was of the view that” all measures necessary are being taken” to protect fans, including banning fans known for violent or racist behaviour from the stadiums.

Most attention appears focused on preventing fan violence or a terrorist attack: during the match, streets and public transport were blocked off for kilometres around Volgograd's stadium.

Hanging out at the game were players from Germany's under-1 8 squad.” They've all wanted to take pictures with us ,” German defender Yann-Aurel Bisseck, who is black, said, adding that many Russians around town even recognised him. That had followed an emotional game against the Russian under-1 8 squad held around the anniversary of the Nazi surrender in 1945.” Our coaching staff told us' you're not only here for football .' We were very happy to represent Germany .”

Meanwhile, fans of the clubs Avangard and Tosno streamed into the stadium. A Tosno fan named Andrey Rylkov told the Observer that fears over monkey chants were overblown:” It's just some of the guys having a bit of fun ,” he said.” I know people where you are from tend to take everything severely, it's a different culture … but we don't believe in political correctness like that here .” Andrew Roth
Andrew Roth is the Guardian/ Observer Russia correspondent

2. Stadiums
‘ The fabulous expenditure of this event has gone to some place other than good architecture'

Clockwise from top left: Central Stadium in Ekaterinburg; Samara Arena; Spartak Stadium in Moscow; Mordovia Arena in Saransk. Photo: Getty Images

We should be used to the revolving biennial sight of the stadium-building binges that accompany global sport events- Olympics, World Cup, Olympics, World Cup, with the Winter Olympics throw in for added drama. With them come recurring tales: geometrically increasing budgets, the suspenseful fear that they won't be finished on time, picturesque malfunctions, the endless promise of “legacy”. This time, we are promised, the event won't bequeath rattling, crowd-starved behemoths. Almost always, it does. Russia, where several of the grounds will go on to serve lower-league clubs in small-ish cities, doesn't seem likely to buck the trend.

There tends in these sporting extravaganzas to be a odor of corruption ranging from the swooning whiff of remote flatulence to the rank, ripe reek of sharing a Dutch oven with a bean-eating petomane. Russia, to no one's surprise, is at the latter objective of the scale: according to Transparency International the cost overruns of this year's World Cup- twice the cost per spectator of Brazil in 2014 – are at a scale that can only be explained by corruption. To which sorry tales can be added the dark tales that Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 have brought to prominence, of the use of near-slaves( from North Korea in Russia's suit) to construct the stadiums.

All of which might attain the mere looking of these structures seem secondary. But, given the money, energy, materials and labor that have gone into them, the facts of the case that they will be landmarks in their cities for decades and that billions will see them on Tv, it is not insignificant.

There is a limited range of known ways of designing stadia, as their basic shapes tend to be pushed towards uniformity by consistent and demanding parameters. There is the swooping roof, often hung on wires and masts, as in Frei Otto's tent-like stadium for the 1972 Munich Olympics. There is the backlit cushion of the Allianz Arena, also in the Bavarian capital, home of Bayern Munich and TSV 1860 Munich and a venue for the 2006 World Cup. There is the stadium-that-looks-like-a-portable-object, of which Beijing's 2008″ Bird's Nest “ is the best known.

Russia 2018 is trying most of these approaches. The Saint petersburg stadium, designed by the late Japanese designer Kisho Kurokawa some time before Russia won its World Cup bid but which merely opened last year after epic delays and cost overruns, goes for the mast-hung roof seem. So in somewhat shrivelled kind do the stadiums in Kaliningrad and Rostov. Kazan's roof swoops but without wires. The Spartak Stadium in Moscow, completed in 2014, and the barely finished Mordovia Arena in Saransk are homages to the Allianz Arena, big cushions with variegated colours.

The Fisht Stadium in Sochi, built for the 2014 Winter Olympics and repurposed for football, goes for the portable-object vanity: its architects Populous, the multi-national sports experts who also designed the stadia in Kazan, Rostov and Saransk, said it was inspired by a Faberge egg. Volgograd, overlooked by the 85 -metre high statue that celebrates the combat of Stalingrad, has a woven basket-like look with clues of the Bird's Nest.

Russia has its own contribution to the styling of stadia, in the Soviet tradition of house tributes to the space age, flightless saucers at once cosmonautic and massive. The Cosmos Arena for the pleasant southern city of Samara bets heavily on this seem- appropriately, arguably, as the city was once a centre of the Soviet space programme. At the same hour, mixed metaphors being permissible in the world of iconic architecture, it is said to look like a flower.

It is beyond the scope of this article to tour all 12 venues for the 2018 World Cup, so I may be missing something, but from a distance it doesn't look like being a classic, architecturally speaking. There are no gamechangers, designs that future stadium builders can plunder for inspiration, such as the two Munich venues or Renzo Piano's splendid Bari stadium for Italia 90( which, it has to be said, never attained a capacity mob until 2014 ).

Rather we are offered weary lash-ups in which well-known topics are mixed with a further, oddly widespread, approach to stadium design- the cladding vehicle crash, in which for no apparent reason disparate bits of surface, shape and truss are hurled together. Sochi is one of several venues with this collisional esthetic. If you truly think it looks like a Faberge egg then you have failed to notice something fundamental- exquisite craftsmanship, perhaps- about the original.

The stadiums are largely lumpy, their soaring ambitions grounded, some bearing too obviously the scars of budget cuts, the fabulous expenditure of the 2018 World Cup having gone to some other place than good architecture. The mottled surfaces of the Spartak and Mordovia grounds are more psoriatic than anything else. Nizhny Novgorod has a classic simplicity that puts it a cut above some other, but spoils it with a sort of giant whirlpool-patterned blue-and-white shower drapery behind its outer colonnade. This is” closely inspired ,” it is alleged,” by parts from the Volga countryside “. Please.

Samara, by the German practice GMP Architeken, is in its appearance the pick of the bunch. It is one of the most troubled in terms of delivery, but it has a mad kitschy oomph, which will inspire affection over day. The Ekaterinburg Arena provokes mixed impressions. Its plain bowl shape is handsome enough, but it deals extraordinarily clumsily( as did the Aquatic Centre at London 2012) with two temporary banks of seating, to be removed after the World Cup is over. It also struggles with the retained fragment of an older building incorporated into the new. The impact is weird but endearing.

Almost always, after last-minute anxieties, the venues for these sporting extravaganzas are just about finished on time. Almost always they are both over budget and flawed in their legacy. Sometimes they throw up an architectural wonder to treasure in times to come. With the possible exceptio n of Samara the billions of the 2018 World Cup are not going to buy Russia's cities such gems. Rowan Moore
Architecture critic, the Observer

3. Protest
Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina:' The state controls all the big media but they cannot cut off the eyes of the people'

Maria Alyokhina, centre, and members of Pussy Riot are set upon by police in Sochi, 2014. Photograph: Morry Gash/ AP

Maria Alyokhina, 29, is a Moscow-based artist, political activist and are part of punk provocateurs Pussy Riot. In 2012, she and two other members of Pussy Riot were arrested after a performance in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and sentenced to two years in prison on a charge of” hooliganism motivated by religion hatred “. Since her release she has continued to agitate against the Putin administration, while the reputation of Pussy Riot dedicated her a platform to perform around the world. A record of her experiences can be found in her volume Riot Days ( Allen Lane ).

Do you think the government sees the World Cup as an opportunity to present a better image of itself to the world ?
We were released two months before the end of our prison term because of the Sochi Olympics. Of course we went to Sochi, where the cossacks stimulated their first appearance with lashes, so I have no illusions about saving face or making a good impression for the west. You were arrested last month for protesting outside the Moscow headquarters of the FSB, the internal security services. What happened ?
The FSB blocked the messaging app Telegram in the Russian territory, because Telegram refused to give the keys for reading messages to the security services. We went with paper planes, which is the symbol of Telegram, and started throwing them at the building. We got arrested and spent 48 hours in the enclosure. For me that was quite frightening, because when you hear that it's illegal to throw paper airplanes in your city it's quite … strange. There have been more protests in the past few weeks …
There was a huge demonstration on 30 April , with 12,000 people supporting Telegram. That was just several days before the inauguration, and before the big protest on 5 May, in which I participated as well. This protest was really hard because of the police violence- they tortured people, some activists and journalists were beaten and are still in hospital. As well as police there were fascist groups supported by the administration who violently assaulted people and are still not apprehended- they were hand in hand with police. This is just the first days of this fourth presidential term but it's[ already] the face of it.

Has it become more difficult to protest in Russia since you started ?
After the annexation of Crimea the language of the state changed a lot. They started to use ultra-Soviet vocabulary, calling us” enemies of the state” and” foes of the person or persons”- but I believe that they are adversaries of the people because they hire one group of citizens to beat another use[ money from] taxes. They are putting people in jail for protesting more than before. We have political assassinations such as the assassination of[ physicist and liberal politician] Boris Nemtsov[ in 2015 ]. Even the face of information systems became more brutal. But for me, I've observed ways to protest even inside penal colony, inside prison. Also I'm really happy that when I come to the demoes, I find adolescents, I ensure students. When we were arrested for hurling newspaper airliners, 10 out of 12 were arrested for the first time. They spent their first night at the police station but they were not scared. And this is what I believe in. Because yes, this country controls all the big media, they offer really terrible propaganda, but they cannot cut off the eyes of people, they cannot cut off the ears of people. People see what is going on and they wholly disagree with it.

Maria' Masha' Alekhina:' People see what is going on and they altogether disagree with it' Photograph: Joel Saget/ AFP/ Getty Images
You have spent two years in prison and have suffered hardship. Has it affected your desire to protest at all ?
No. You mentioned that you were able to protest inside prison. Could you explain that ?
The Russian prison system is actually post-gulag, the feel of these prisons is the same. We have labour camps, all the prisoners are made to work and they are paid almost nothing, about$ 5 per month. There's almost no medicine there, and conditions are really terrible. I went to court against the prison service. It started a revolution, because they started to put up salaries, some prison guards were fired, and so on. For this world, it's a big change. I believe that every gesture makes a change, a big change to the whole system.

So protesting in Russia does have an effect, you think?
Of course it does. For some people, it's a question of their lives.

What protest methods have you learned are effective ?
To not lose your sense of humour. In Russia, without it, something bad will happen. Actually how do you not make fun of a system that is afraid of paper planes? Is the Putin administration genuinely afraid of protesters like you ?
Well, if they repress people, put people in jail, start to call them enemies of the state, beat them, sometimes kill them- what does it mean? It means they're afraid to lose their position, to lose their options to steal fund till for ever.

Are you optimistic about the future of Russia ?
The future is now. And now I'm not crying, so maybe it's good.
Interview by Killian Fox

4. Media and censorship
‘It's only going to get worse !'

Mediazona's Sergey Smirnov speaks at an opposition rally for republic, Moscow. Photograph: Alamy

” It's only going to get worse !” is the hashtag and rallying cry- snappy and monosyllabic in Russian- of Mediazona, an independent, crowdfunded news outlet in Moscow. Journalists in Russia are facing increasing violence, open and unpunished, and there are few legal safeguards for reporters. State censorship and intimidation, both physical and digital, is intensifying, while western IT giants are doing little to deter the bot and troll infestations targeting independent media outlets.

Mediazona is a tiny outfit with a handful of reporters, which focuses on just one topic: Russia's political trials and the manifold abuses inside its justice system.” There's no public politics left in Russia, it's just these criminal cases ,” says its editor-in-chief Sergey Smirnov. Most of Mediazona's content is just straight-up courtroom stenography: minutes of sessions where anti-fascists who have been tortured by security services to extract false confessions are denied bail; or an independent media outlet is fined by the state regulator for embedding on its website a YouTube clip containing a single profane expression.

In March 2016 a Mediazona reporter, with a squad of other journalists, including two foreign ones, was attacked on the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia, two republics in the south of Russia with a long history of bloody insurgencies, counter-terrorism operations and oppression. Their bus was torched and the latter are beaten by unknown assailants. Some were badly injured. The investigation is stalling – there have been no apprehends or even suspects in the case.

Censorship and intimidation comes in many forms, such as denying access to areas of conflict. It's next to impossible, for example, for an independent journalist to report from Syria unless he or she is accredited with the ministry of defence, sequestered on the Russian military base in Hmeymim and writing glowing reports about the heroism of Russian servicemen or puffed pieces about buckwheat porridge in the mess hall.

Smirnov says western IT giants also play a role in censorship. Many independent outlets rely on YouTube as a platform for their video content, which gets swarmed immediately after posting with thousands of dislikes( disliked videos then sink down in ratings) and trolls in the comments. Activists and reporters have complained about this to Google, to little effect.

” And it's only going to get worse ,” Smirnov concludes.
Alexey Kovalev
Alexey Kovalev is managing editor of, a non-profit news outlet

5. Nostalgia
Whether Soviet simplicity or the strength of the tsars, the best of times are in the past

‘ Thanks to dear Stalin for a happy childhood !' reads this 1936 Soviet poster. Photograph: Heritage Images/ Getty Images

There's a club in Moscow called Petrovich, which was hugely popular when it opened in 1997, back when Russians were only too glad the Soviet Union was gone. According to the club's website, it was inspired by” the ironic nostalgic impression for the very best old Soviet periods” and, appropriately enough, it is Five minutes' stroll from the Lubyanka, the prison build where the KGB conducted mass interrogations and a post-Soviet festivity of all things USSR, from cartoons( illustrated on the restaurant's plates) and music( Buratino, the theme song from a 1976 children's cinema) to food( dumplings) and drink( bad vodka ), its nostalgia was close to sarcastic.

When I went back this year it was exactly the same and yet altogether transformed. Because there was no longer any irony. Now the nostalgia is real: people want the very best old Soviet days back. Human in nylon suits and women with gigantic hair were partying joyously like it actually was 1983.

A complicated sort of nostalgia is now the driving force of the high Putin era- an attempt to reclaim best available bits of imperial Russia( strength, power and unity) and the Soviet Union( predictability and simplicity and the cheap, sweet shampanskoye that fuelled the post-Stalin epoch ). The Battle for Berlin knock-off Lego decides are on sale in the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Russia Today, the Kremlin-backed English language television network, is operating a #Romanovs100 series (” 4,000 photos, 4 social networks, 1 household “) to mark the centenary of the death of the Russian royal family. The popular standup comedian Igor Meerson bases his latest defined around what it was like to learn English during the Soviet era, when you knew your educator had never met a real foreigner and you would never be required to speak it. Fashion decorators and influencers such as Ulyana Sergeenko( 417 k followers on Instagram) and Miroslava Duma( 1.6 m followers) are both knows we looks that fuse Soviet retro and imperial luxury. Moscow's restaurant du jour, White Rabbit, serves traditional dishes including baked beetroot, porridge and cabbage soup( on a situate tasting menu for 9,500 roubles or PS110 ).

This was almost what the historian Svetlana Boympredicted in her 2001 book, The Future of Nostalgia :” reflective nostalgia”( contemplative and wistful, maybe cathartic) is replaced by” restorative nostalgia”( where the rest are blamed for having destroyed the homeland ). What Russia is living through is somewhere between the two.

One of the biggest obstacles Vladimir Putin( and any putative successor) faces is what to do with Russia's feelings for her past. The presence of nostalgia- real, manufactured and a curious mix of both- is key to understanding contemporary Russian culture.

Nostalgia for the Romanovs, Russia's last royal family, photographed here in 1916 -7, is at its highes since the revolution. Photo: Universal History Archive/ Getty Images

The 100 th anniversary of the Russian Revolution passed largely without remark last year.( As Russian friends joked to me, Russia hardly needed to mark it because Radio 4 did such an obsessively comprehensive chore .) This is understandable: what do you say about a revolution, supposedly overruled but whose heirs are still in power? To examine the legacy of 1917 is necessary but torturous for Russia. People murmur about legacy, what happened in Germany and South Africa, about commissions for truth and reconciliation. But these things are not taken seriously in Russia.The criminal case into the royal family's death, reopened in 2015 at the request of the church, is ongoing. Now officially known as” the royal martyr”, the family were canonised in 2000. The British royal family has been invited to July's processions in Ekaterinburg, to honour the memory of the tsar and his family.( Strangely, they don't seem to have replied .) The” All-Russian pilgrimage road “ to the Church on Blood in Ekaterinburg, built over the site of the house where the family was killed, has been reopened.

You couldn't make this up, especially as Putin is a lifelong KGB man and one-time card-carrying socialist. But never mind all that. It is expedient for him to co-opt any impressions of longing towards empire. And it's extremely useful to harness the 19 th-century position of the tsar's rule: God-given, unquestionable, unbreakable. 1917 is an inconvenient contradiction so we don't talk about that. Instead we talk about how sad it was that the tsar's family were indicated no mercy in 1918. The funny thing is , not only is this project working well at home but it has become a cultural exportation. Angelina Jolie has bought the movie rights to Simon Sebag Montefiore's book about Catherine the Great( full name: Catherine Alexeievna Romanova ). The team behind Mad Men is working on a lavish series on the Romanovs for Amazon, starring Christina Hendricks and John Slattery.

Meanwhile Putin appears to be cultivating a kind of nostalgia for his own regulation even while he is ruling. Last week he once again nominated Dmitry Medvedev as his “ministers “, the continuation of a power relationship that has lasted almost 20 years. Medvedev is well known for his love of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, which are hugely evocative for Russians who were young in the 1960 s and 1970 s. But why change the soundtrack when it's working so well for you? Viv Groskop
Viv Groskop's The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature is out in paperback next month( Fig Tree, PS9. 99 )

7. The mafia
‘The crooks want the World Cup to go well. They've already built money and will attain more'