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Summer in Russia, winter in America and the opium of football

July 4, 2018

Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Rostov-on-Don, Volgograd. Until this summer these were places that only some of us might have recognised as being in Russia. For others they could just as easily be in Australia.

Were it not for the World Cup, such cities would not be on most people’s list of holiday locations. In fact, thanks to Russia’s image as a country full of grim-faced gangsters, secret policemen and vodka soaks, it’s hard to imagine more than a small fraction of the thousands of football fans who have flocked to Russia setting foot for any other reason in a country whose face to the world is epitomised by the half-smile of Vladimir Putin, an expression that only occasionally breaks through a stern, cold-eyed mask.

And yet the visitors from Japan, Croatia, Spain and yes, even plucky little England, are having a whale of a time. They are discovering that Russia is full of warm and welcoming people who have entered into the spirit of the occasion, their own exuberance fuelled by the unexpected success of the Russian team.

Cynics would say that Russia is putting its best foot forward, just as it did during the 1980 Olympics. Drunks and vagrants cleared from the streets, and not a shadowy FSB goon in sight. If so, clearly it’s working. Football fans will surely be returning to their home countries with stories of the incredible tournament they witnessed, and of the sights they might never have seen but for the World Cup.

Their eyes will have been opened to the possibility that regardless of the regime in power, you can visit most countries in the world, with the possible exception of North Korea and Syria, without encountering the dark sides so vividly presented by the world’s news media, social or otherwise.

And yet image is everything. Think of Russia, and you might think of winter. Of German soldiers freezing outside Stalingrad. Of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, littered with the bodies of men and horses. Of Stalin, Ivan the Terrible, Brezhnev and Putin. Death and despair overshadow Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, the Bolshoi, the Hermitage, Lake Baikal and the Black Sea.

Now think of America, whose birthday it is today. The big country. Open-hearted, generous, welcoming, where everyone wants you to have a nice day. Even today, provided you are considered worthy of entering the US, you can visit any number of places where America is as it always was – tourist heaven, hassle free. Fishing villages in Maine, shopping in New York, Route 66, music in Memphis, Disney in Florida, sequoias in Oregon, lobsters in San Francisco, or perhaps one of those small towns where nothing much ever happens, but where you can encounter sweet, upstanding people straight out of a Norman Rockwell canvas. Places where ugliness exists only if you go looking for it.

But here’s an odd development. Just as the world is discovering that Russia has a summer, that it’s not defined by its grim-faced leaders, by its venal oligarchs and by Novichok nerve gas, the opposite is happening to the United States, whose image has always been sunny without it even having to try.

America is starting to be defined by the glowering face of Donald Trump, by babies in cages and by young men with assault rifles rounding up people at the dead of night. By videos of policemen shooting or tasering black people for no apparent reason. By Trump rallies full of people whose faces are twisted in hatred. By people on both sides of the political divide hurling insults at each other. And by the cynical sneer of Steve Bannon.

I last visited the US in the summer before Trump’s election. The signs were there then. Vicious bumper stickers excoriating Hillary Clinton. Marines with rifles guarding the platform entrances at Penn Station in New York. They were still easy to ignore, and an idyllic train ride to New Hampshire, followed by a weekend fishing for sea bass and hanging out with American friends at an old-style seaside holiday home, more than made up for the acid tinge of public discourse at the time.

Now the toxicity is hard to avoid unless you turn off all news feeds and allow yourself to bathe in a balmy summer of football and barbecues. And if you’re British, you can thereby also escape the equally toxic conversation on all matters Brexit, blissfully unaware of how our country’s image is being transformed by a gurning Prime Minister and her cabinet full of feral backstabbers, not to mention knife-wielding gang members and neo-Nazi thugs.

For those who are consumed by the football, the World Cup is throwing up unlikely underdogs whose national images are sure to be burnished. The gutsy Japanese who only just failed to beat Belgium. Other gallant failures include Iran, Nigeria and Senegal. None of them are tourist hotspots. But all showed courage and decency on the field that did their nations credit.

Much as I’m enjoying the spectacle, I find it hard to switch off from events elsewhere, especially when it comes to America, a nation I’ve always respected despite all its flaws.

Even as Trump’s policies play out and the consequences unfold, I’m watching the second series of The Handmaid’s Tale, set in Gilead, an America taken over by religious extremists, in which state-employed gunmen lurk on every corner, threatening, intimidating, menacing. The series is set in winter, and the action is dark.

The vision is grim yet imaginable, so much so that every so often, when I see on Twitter an example of America’s descent into authoritarianism, I retweet the post with a single word: Gilead.

When the heatwave is over, and the fans have left Russia in tears of joy or despair, will we turn our attention back to the scorched earth of trade wars, to the ambition of third-rate politicians, to irreconcilable Brexit negotiating positions, to Trump’s grand but empty summits and to the slow grind of Robert Mueller’s investigation?

Or will we keep our eyes shut and hope for a best that may never come, only to look back later to a golden summer that ended in catastrophe?

Perhaps, after the football’s done, the two superpowers will return to type. Morning in America will trump American Carnage. And in Russia, exuberance will fade as citizens digest the impact of having to wait longer for their pensions.

The World Cup will come round again. And in eight years’ time it will arrive in Mexico, Canada and the US, assuming that the co-hosts are still speaking to each other. Even if they are, one wonders how Trumpist America will cope with thousands of Muslim fans from countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. Not to mention Mexicans, Colombians and Costa Ricans.

Would it not be a supreme irony if the multitudes who were welcomed into Russia in 2018 ended up having to endure the interrogations of Gilead before being allowed to set foot in the Land of the Free?

Happy Independence Day, my dear American cousins. It’s not too late to turn back the tide.

From → Politics, Sport, UK, USA

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