Questions for the Russian government

While a few die-hards may be staying on for Saturday’s somewhat meaningless 3rd-4th place game against Belgium, the mass of England fans in Russia are probably heading home right now after their team’s defeat at the hands of the Croats. Despite their disappointment at failing to reach the World Cup final, the evidence suggests that the great majority of English fans have had a thoroughĺy enjoyable time in Russia. The same goes for the fans of all the other participating teams. There is almost universal agreement that World Cup 2018 has been a great success: the football’s been good; there’s been no trouble that anyone has noticed; and the general atmosphere has been fun and friendly. Tens of thousands of foreign football fans are going home and telling all and sundry what a great time they had and that all the scare stories about Russia are a load of nonsense. From Russia’s point of view, it’s a soft power triumph.

The lesson is that when foreigners visit Russia, they tend to like what they see. So here’s a question for the Russian government. Given that Russia benefits when people come and see it, why do you make it so damned difficult for them to do so?

For citizens of most Western countries, getting a visa to travel to Russia is a veritable ordeal – complicated, time consuming, and expensive, and subject to the vagaries of consular officials who might always reject your visa application for some bizarre reason which they will never reveal to you. It’s not surprising that a lot of people decide that it’s not worth the effort.

For the World Cup, the Russians abandoned all the normal visa nonsense. Instead, anyone with a game ticket could get a FAN-ID, which doubled as a multiple entry/exit visa. Getting the FAN-ID was super simple. All you had to do was fill in a very short online form, giving your name, nationality and passport number, and within a couple of days you got a message saying that your application was approved and your ID would be mailed to you free of charge forthwith.

The fact that the huge numbers of FAN-ID holders have not caused any significant trouble for the Russian authorities shows that whatever security checks were done before issuing the IDs was quite sufficient. The plethora of intrusive and sometimes impossible to answer questions on the seemingly ever longer visa application form aren’t necessary at all. Nor is the complicated application process. Russia has shown that a much simpler system works perfectly well.

So, here’s another question for the Russian government? Why not draw the obvious conclusion and abandon the current visa system and just move to something closer to that used for the FAN-ID?

As it happens, I know the answer to this one as I’ve been told it by an official source. The reason getting a Russian visa is so troublesome for us is that it’s troublesome for Russians to get a visa to visit our countries. The Russian authorities don’t actually need all the rubbish they demand from foreigners. They demand it just because we demand it of them.

I understand the logic, but I don’t see what Russia gains from it. After all, Western states aren’t exactly lining up to liberalize their visa regimes just because Russia is playing tit-for-tat. All the policy achieves is that it deters people from visiting Russia. In this way, the Russians are shooting themselves in the foot.

As I said earlier, the World Cup shows that Russia benefits when people come and see it. Russia should make it easier for them to do so.








England v. Russia

O-o-o, England’s going to Russia!

O-o-o, Drinking all your vodka!

O-o-o, England’s going all the way!

When I was watching Belgium B play England B in Kaliningrad last week, the English fans were happily singing about drinking Russian vodka, but there was also a particularly loud Russian guy in front of me who was cheering the Belgians along, while occasionally throwing in chants of ‘Rossiya’ and ‘Baltika’ (the local team). Every now and again, as part of his abuse of the English, he would add in a reference to the ‘Skripals’, that is to say Sergei and Yulia Skripal, who were notoriously poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury. Quite what the Skripals had to do with football was beyond me, but it was clear that the Russian guy thought that their story was proof of ‘perfidious Albion’ and thus reason enough to support Belgium. In short, he obviously wasn’t buying the story that the Skripals were poisoned by the Russian secret services.

I doubt that he’s any more likely to think that way following the revelation of a new Novichok poisoning, this time in Amesbury, not far from Salisbury. The affected couple have no connection to Russia, and the speculation is that they came into contact with some residue of the nerve agent left behind after the original attack. This, of course, is not impossible, but given that even persistent chemical agents are affected by the elements (sun, rain, etc), sceptics will no doubt consider it a little odd and somewhat implausible.

My man in Kaliningrad was a bit of a loudmouth, but I suspect that his views on the Skripal affair are not unrepresentative of Russian public opinion – i.e. most Russians don’t think that their country is guilty, and if anything consider themselves the wronged party, while also regarding the British government as thoroughly nefarious. The latest news is likely to reinforce that point of view, and not just among rowdy football fans. For instance, the online newspaper Vzgliad declared today that the news from Amesbury ‘points to London’s direct participation in the “Skripal affair”.’ ‘How can Russia exploit the situation to finally put an end to suspicions in this regard?’ the newspaper asked.

But if the Amesbury incident is likely to confirm Russians’ belief in their innocence, it will probably also strengthen the British government’s anti-Russian position. For in British eyes, the incident underlines the irresponsible nature of the attack on the Skripals, involving the use of a weapon which not only struck its initial targets but also possibly contaminated a wide area, turning tens of thousands of innocent English citizens into potential victims. British Home Secretary Sajid Javid thus accused the Russian government today of being ‘reckless and callous’, and commented that the use of chemical agents was ‘barbaric and inhumane’. ‘It is completely unacceptable for our people to either be deliberate or accidental targets, or for our streets, our parks, our towns to be dumping grounds for poison,’ said Javid.

Given how strange this entire story is, I await the results of further investigation before coming to any judgement about what has actually happened. In the meantime, the latest twist in the tale will probably serve to reinforce existing positions – those who blame the Russians will be even more convinced of the evil nature of the Russian government, while sceptics (including most Russians) will become even more sceptical. In the days to come, expect positions to harden, and if we end up with a Russia-England World Cup semi-final, look forward to some chants about Novichok in Moscow on 11 July.

World cup blog post 4

Last stop on our World Cup tour was Kaliningrad. On the way from the airport, our taxi driver told us that the city had drafted in 12,000 extra police from the rest of Russia for the tournament, and that additional OMON troops were coming in specially for the England game. In the end, perhaps because of all the security or perhaps of the general pleasant, fun mood of all the fans, I didn’t notice any signs of trouble. As one Russian told me in the bus back from the England-Blegium game, there was a lot of inaccurate scaremongering in the Western press.

My Soviet-era hotel definitely lacked the view I had in Nizhny Novgorod. The balcony from which I took this picture is not for the faint hearted, as it slopes dangerously downwards.


As the game wasn’t until 8pm, we began the day with some tourism. Here I am on a Soviet submarine.


After that, we visited the bunker where the German commanders sheltered during the final battle for Konigsberg in April 1945. I was struck by how quickly the Soviets took the city. Three entire armies took part in the assault, and captures Konigsberg in just three days. Hitler apparently sentenced the German commander, General Lasch, to death for his failure to resist longer, but his forces were quite clearly overwhelmed.

Next, we went to the old cathedral, in which there is a museum dedicated to the city’s most famous inhabitant, Immanuel Kant. For the philosophers among you, here’s a picture of his tomb, on the northeastern wall of the Cathedral.


Finally, we went to the game. It was a bit of a disappointment, as both England and Belgium played their B teams, and all the best players were rested. It wasn’t desperately exciting, but had its moments and was a thriller compared with the dreadful Denmark v France. Sadly, England lost, but the pundits say that’s not a bad thing as it puts England on an easier path to the final than a victory would have done.

England v Belgium, Kaliningrad

The Russian sitting next to me at the match kept telling me that Belgium would win the cup. One of my sons has also been telling me this sincebefore the tournament started. We shall see.

World cup blog post 3

Today was a busy day in Moscow for us. Our first stop was Red Square, where we tried to get into Lenin’s mausoleum. However, the queue was huge and moving very slowly, so after a short while we gave up. Nearby Manezh Square looked like it had been invaded by Danes.


The highlight of the day was to be the evening football match, so to fill time in the absence of Lenin, we went to the Cosmonautics museum at VDNKh, which I found mildly interesting. Then lunch, after which we returned to our hotel to get the match tickets. I didn’t know that Russia had a Hockey Hall of Fame, but it turns out that it does, and as it was right next to our hotel, we popped into it for a few minutes. Here’s a picture of the hockey jersey of a certain ‘Putin, V.V.’.


And then there was the game: Denmark v. France. What a disappointment. The large number of Danish fans provided a colourful atmosphere in the Luzhniki stadium, but before long they weren’t making a lot of noise – not because their team was losing, but simply because the game was decidedly dull. The longer it went on, the clearer it became that both teams, but particularly Denmark, were very happy with 0-0. In the last 30 minutes or so, whenever the Danes got the ball and looked set to attack, they stopped, paused, and then passed the ball sidewards or backwards. It was one of the most negative displays of football I’ve seen. It ended 0-0, satisfying the players, but leaving those watching rather dissatisfied.

Danish fans try to find something to cheer about

Tomorrow we head off to Kaliningrad. I’ll provide an update after the England-Belgium game on the 28th.



World cup blog post 2

A great but exhausting day in Nizhny Novgorod. The city seems to have two halves – an old one on one side of the river, and a newer Soviet one on the other side. Our hotel is on the top of a hill overlooking the newer part of town and the football stadium. The view from my room is superb. The downside is that it’s over 30 degrees Celsius, my room doesn’t have air conditioning, and there was loud music blaring from somewhere outside till about 3 am, so I didn’t get a lot of sleep.

View of Nizhny Novgorod

In the morning, we visited the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin, and then went to the Beeline store to sort out the mobile phone problem. The girl in the store said that this wasn’t the first time this had happened to people. The only solution was to buy a new SIM card. Frankly, this was a ripoff, but what to do? Things are at least now working. I hope they stay that way.

And then there was the game – and what a game!! 6-1 victory to England. Here’s Harry Kane preparing for one of his penalties:


I thought that the stadium was excellent. We were well shaded and there was an occasional breeze, so despite the extreme heat we were actually very comfortable. Everything was very well organized, with free buses taking us there back and good control of the crowds. I think that getting away from the stadium was probably the quickest I’ve ever experienced at a football game, even though there was a crowd of 43,000. In general, I think those responsible managed things very smoothly. In addition, there was a very positive atmosphere in the stadium with supporters of both sides and many neutrals all mixed in together but getting along well. In short,a successful event.

Tomorrow we head back to Moscow where on Tuesday we’ll be seeing France v Denmark. In the meantime, let’s hope for a cooler, quieter night tonight!




World cup blog post 1

I’ve just arrived in Nizhny Novgorod after a couple of days in Moscow. So, here is the good and bad of my initial impressions of World Cup 2018

On the plus side, there’s a really positive atmosphere here. The touristy bits of downtown Moscow were the most crowded I’ve ever seen. There’s a lot of security, but it doesn’t get too much in the way. People from all the continents of the world are intermingling, and apparently getting along together pretty well. Despite all the pre-tournament talk of violence, I haven’t felt the threatened. A drunken Russian guy caused me some mild concern at the Fan Fest when watching Croatia v. Argentina, but once we started talking, he was all best buddies.

Fans having fun near Red Square

A Panama supporter I chatted with tonight told me that he had had a great time in Sochi, where he had been to watch Panama’s first game. He then got out his camera and showed me his pictures. He seemed pretty happy. An England fan told me that this was his seventh World Cup. The one in Japan had been his favourite, but this was ‘right up there’. He said that the Russians had shown ‘great hospitality and were really friendly. He was having a ‘great time.’

All in all, apart from one crying Argentinian fan I saw at the Fan Fest, everybody seems very much to be enjoying themselves. So far, I’d say, the tournament is proving a success.

Fan Fest outside Moscow State University

The one negative aspect of our trip has been the service of the Beeline mobile phone operator, from whom my sons and I got SIM cards. Suffice to say that we haven’t got what was promised, and have had to pay extra to not get what we should have gotten from the sart. It may just be a weird misunderstanding, but it feels a bit like we’ve been scammed. We have already had to make a couple of trips to stores to sort stuff out, and are going to have to do so again tomorrow. I wouldn’t recommend Beeline to anyone else.

Tomorrow, we see our first game – England v Panama. Should be a lot of fun.

World Cup

Apologies for the lack of posts of late. I’ve been either glued to the TV watching the World Cup (I type this while watching Russia v. Egypt – currently 2-0 – no, now it’s 3-0!!) or typing a book chapter which I had promised someone I would complete by mid-June
(finished it 5 minutes ago). Tomorrow I fly off to Moscow with my two boys to watch some of the World Cup in person. We’ll be going to Nizhny Novgorod, Moscow, and Kaliningrad. I will try to do a bit of World Cup blogging while there.

Stay tuned!

Russia, the West, and the world

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