When John R. Bolton, Donald Trump’s national security adviser, met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow on June 27 to arrange a summit meeting between the two presidents, he carried a short list of talking points.
Bolton did not want to discuss Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election; its seizure of Crimea; its armed intervention in Ukraine; its jailing of dissidents and banning of public assembly and “gay propaganda”; its state-sponsored doping scandal at the 2014 Winter Olympics; its poisoning of a former Russian spy living in Britain; its recent sham election that kept Putin in power and won a congratulatory phone call from Trump; or its continuing aid to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who has killed dozens of his own citizens with chemical weapons.
But Bolton did tell Putin that he’s looking forward to hearing “how you handled the World Cup so successfully.” Later that day in the White House, Trump added that Russia is doing “a fantastic job with the World Cup. It’s exciting. My son loves soccer and he loves watching the World Cup, and they have really done a fantastic job.”
So weeks before the World Cup champion is to be crowned in Moscow on July 15, it was already apparent that Vladimir Putin had successfully stolen a page from the playbook of another dictator who understood the priceless propaganda potential of a global sports spectacle. In 1936, when the Summer Olympics were held in Berlin, Adolf Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, brilliantly used the games to establish the legitimacy for their war-hungry, genocidal regime. “Goebbels understood intuitively the potential propaganda possibilities, both internal and external,” Christopher Hilton wrote in the book Hitler’s Olympics. “And he put it to Hitler something like this: ‘We can make this the greatest advertisement for you and your Germany.’ Goebbels also understood that the Germans had the first organized global press relations triumph within their grasp. He grasped it.”
Putin has grasped it, too. In 2010, after Russia was awarded this year’s World Cup, Putin declared, “A lot of stereotypes from previous times, from the Cold War era, fly all over Europe, and they frighten people. The more contact we have, the more these stereotypes will be destroyed.” In fact, in the eight years since he uttered those words, the negative stereotypes about Russia have become more valid than ever. But thanks in no small part to his handling of the World Cup, Putin has been rewarded with a coveted one-on-one meeting with the president of the United States and, far more important, validation of his thugocracy.
Ranked 70th in the world, the Russian team made the World Cup’s 32-team field only because the host country gets an automatic bid. When the Russians stunned the soccer world by beating mighty Spain to advance to the quarterfinals, the country erupted in celebration, including a boozy scrum in front of Lubyanka, headquarters of the Federal Security Service, successor of the dreaded KGB. Though such gatherings were a brazen flouting of laws that forbid mass assembly, police officers looked on passively. The New York Times reported: “Human rights critics fear the sports event will strengthen the hand of President Vladimir V. Putin, who has made good use of the tournament to smooth over an unpopular pension reform at home and burnish Russia’s image abroad, and bolster his authoritarian, conservative and nationalist approach to governing.”
Dmitry Dubrovsky, a historian at the Center for Independent Social Research in St. Petersburg, wrote on Facebook: “As for ‘sports is outside of politics,’ forget about it. This is a success of the Putin regime, regardless of our attitude toward it. The regime will appropriate it regardless, in one way or another.”
Putin, like Hitler, understood that the purpose of spectacles is to dazzle the eye while clouding the mind. Most of the 3.4 billion watching this year’s World Cup on television and the internet—nearly half of the world’s population—have seen little more than the bright green turf inside the $11 billion worth of shiny new stadiums. While the games go on, few soccer fans think about election tampering, assassinations, jailed dissidents, or chemical weapons. The crowds in Russia this summer have been well-behaved, and the notorious Russian soccer hooligans have failed to show. Logistical glitches have been few. The unlikely success of the national team has given Putin an added boost. “All of this,” the Times wrote, “has played into Putin’s hand at a pivotal time.”
Hitler prepared for the 1936 Olympics with equal cunning. Before the 3 million spectators arrived for the games, Hitler had all anti-Semitic propaganda scrubbed from the streets of German cities. Butter was rationed so there would be an ample supply for foreign visitors. To avert a threatened boycott by England and the United States, Hitler gave up his dream of an all-Aryan event and acquiesced to the International Olympic Committee demand that athletes of all races be allowed to compete. (To Hitler’s enduring chagrin, the African-American track star Jesse Owens, a grandson of slaves, won four gold medals.) Crowds at the 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium were well-behaved. Even as they watched brown-shirted soldiers marching through the streets, few of those 3 million visitors stopped to consider that Hitler was aggressively dismantling democratic institutions and rebuilding the military while herding Jews, gypsies, communists, and other undesirables into a camp at Sachsenhausen, 20 miles from the stadium. Likewise, the 300 million people listening on radio worldwide—television was still in its infancy—heard nothing about the regime’s dark side.
“On the whole,” William Shirer wrote in Berlin Diary, “the Nazis have done a wonderful propaganda job.”
“Visitors went home blissfully unaware that a few miles from the Olympic Stadium a new concentration camp had just opened,” Anton Rippon wrote in his book, also called Hitler’s Olympics. “The nature of international sport would be forever changed after 1936; never again would it be possible to successfully argue that sport and politics can be separated. Hitler’s Olympics saw to that.”
Putin’s World Cup saw to it, too. On July 16, the day after the tournament’s finale, Putin will sit down face-to-face with Donald Trump in Helsinki, Finland, to the dismay of America’s allies. Meanwhile, back in Mother Russia, life will be returning to normal after a few weeks of euphoria. As Pavel Rovinsky, a 25-year-old Moscow police officer put it to the Times: “When the championship is over, everything will return to its place. What was prohibited will be prohibited again.”