SOCHI, Russia — Two slender young women in colorful short summer dresses were posing for a picture in front of the Swissotel Resort, one of the most expensive hotels in this Russian city by the Black Sea. One of the women pointed at a group of FIFA World Cup 2018 reporters standing on the hotel’s porch: “Look, Brazilians!” she whisperd to her friend, and both women giggled playfully. National flags flew, magnolias bloomed, excitement grew in the salty sea air. The Brazilian team was due to arrive in a few hours — and while the hotel staff was ready to make them feel at home, some people were planning an even warmer welcome.
Many Russian women of all ages hope to make friends with foreign visitors — football players, fans, or journalists coming to cover the month-long football festival that opens in Russia on Thursday. And locals will have plenty of opportunities to do that: 11 Russian cities will receive up to one million football fans, arriving this week from all over the world to support 32 national football teams.
On the streets and beaches Russia is having a non-stop party, but that obscures only partially a much darker reality. “Many Russians we see look grim, miserable — which makes me wonder what is wrong with them,” says Lucas, a fan from Argentina.
Authorities cannot hide social instability, poverty, and political persecutions behind fancy decorations. People mingle, people speak about their issues over a bottle of beer, over a glass of wine. World Cup participants will learn first hand what is actually happening in Putin’s Russia.
A seamstress from Sochi, Larisa Gorbachuk, told The Daily Beast that her plan to find a foreign husband during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics had failed because she could not communicate in any foreign language. “Life is a constant struggle; our designer shop barely puts ends together to pay us our salaries,” said the 43-year-old Gorbachuk. “Ideally, I would like to meet a guy from Poland. Their team stays in the Hyatt downtown. My friend Natasha dreams of an Italian husband.”
According to Russian official statistics, more than one million Russian women have left the country in the last 15 years, so state authorities are trying to prevent an even bigger exodus by using the usual method: a threat.
On Wednesday the head of the State Duma’s Family, Women and Children Committee, Tamara Pletneva, warned local women about the dangers of having sex with World Cup guests. The MP predicted that the babies spawned by participants would never be happy. “These children will suffer later, they have been suffering since Soviet times,” Pletneva said in an interview on the Moscow Speaks (Govorit Moskva) radio station.
The lawmaker was referring to the so-called “Olympic babies,” a Soviet myth about black infants born to Russian women after the Summer Olympic Games in 1980. So many years later, Pletneva could not admit that several generations of Soviet women had babies with students from Africa and Latin America who were brought to the USSR to study. Many of those multi-ethnic families are happy ones, in fact, although some black Russians have been suffering from violent racism. Soviet leaders, like those of today, preferred to ignore the full picture and remember only a part of truth.
To emphasize her statement, 70-year-old Pletneva, who formerly served on the State Duma’s committee responsible for nationality affairs, said, “It is okay if couples are of the same race, but if it is a different race, that’s it. We should be giving birth to our children. I am not a nationalist; but still… ”
Instead of trying to hear women’s voices, authorities prefer to have women shut up.
During the 2014 Winter Olympics an “anti-extremism” unit chased members of Pussy Riot around Sochi. The women activists got detained three times during one week of the games. Officials twisted the activists’ arms, pummeled and pepper sprayed Pussy Riot’s colorful balaclavas to stop the women from singing their opposition songs.
This week officials beat up five anti-Putin activists at an “Open Russia” conference in Vladivostok. “Arrests of the opposition continue all over the country, as authorities struggle to minimize all dissident activity,” Moscow municipal deputy and opposition leader Ilya Yashin told The Daily Beast. “That is what I do not like about FIFA: Putin is using the World Cup to strengthen his power, to justify corruption of his mafia friends.”
“I am very worried about Denis Mikhailov, a 22-year-old activist of Aleksei Navalny’s anti-corruption movement,” said Yashin. “Denis is under arrest in St. Petersburg for the third time in three months.”
Moscow’s downtown is flooded with fans exchanging the national flags of Argentina, Iran, Peru, Columbia and many other countries. In the evenings international football fans walk with beer bottles in their hands along Moscow’s central Tverskaya Avenue, passing Red Square to chill by the Moscow River in peaceful Zaryadye Park and talk about life with their new Russian friends.
The editor-in-chief of Moscow Speaks, Sergei Dorenko believes that no official can stop the passionate desire of Russian women to find a husband and improve their lives. “Today we see an archaic movement of people who hate everything foreign, strange, liberal and they are blaming the world for disrespecting Russia. A huge number of these people do not speak any foreign language, they feel helpless, they hide in their hate from the rest of the world,” Dorenko told The Daily Beast. “But nothing can stop Russian women during this month of extraordinary, free World Cup conditions — unlike their grandmothers, modern women are eager to have adventures, to find husbands. This is a game that has no rules.”