Four weeks of football mania, street parties and exceptionally friendly police: Many Russians don't want the World Cup to end. So will any of the changes in the country's host cities stick?
"There is a festival atmosphere here now. After the World Cup at least we will still have the merchandise, which will be much cheaper," a young man draped in a Russian flag jokes cynically. He is one of hundreds out on Red Square, which has been turned into a big football park for the tournament. One young mother is thrilled about the park's pitches and games — and the atmosphere the championship has brought to her city. "Everyone wants to come into town and hang out. I feel like even the metro takes me to the center of Moscow faster now," she laughs, adding "I'd like everything to stay the way it is after the World Cup, including the fans. They are so positive."
In the past few weeks hundreds of thousands of foreign soccer fans have swept through Russia's 11 host cities like a whirlwind. They have brought a near perpetual party atmosphere to Russia's capital. On Nikolskaya Street, with its fairy lights, fans from around the world could be seen dancing, taking selfies, and trying on each others' sombreros. Police turned a blind eye to drinking in public and surprised observers by posing for the occasional photo themselves.
At Red Square, many Russians say they are enjoying the mood while it lasts. "Nothing will stay. They will take everything apart, trample it and destroy it. That's the way people are here," says one woman. Another is more optimistic, pointing out that the stadiums in the host cities will still make people proud and "will all stay for future generations."
Polishing Russia's image
That pride comes at a cost: Russia has invested a total of 683 billion rubles (€9.4 billion; $11 billion) in the World Cup, a majority of which was spent on infrastructure and construction projects. But organizers also expect billions to flow back into Russia's coffers after the fans leave — in part because they are counting on a boost in tourism — and to Russia's image.
The World Cup has indeed been making positive waves – and not just among the fans who have travelled to Russia. Alexander Baunov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, argues that the power of a flurry of positive photos on social media shouldn't be dismissed off-hand. "Russia has gotten a lot of likes," he says.
A long-term 'like'?
But while the World Cup did allow Russia to present a different face to the world, prominent political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky also points out that Russian President Vladimir Putin didn't make any political concessions ahead of the World Cup — in contrast to the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. Currently, film director Oleg Sentsov remains behind bars on hunger strike demanding the release of Ukrainian political prisoners from Russian prisons. Controversial film director Kyrill Serebrennikov is still under house arrest for alleged fraud. Before the Sochi Olympics, on the other hand, two members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot were released from a prison colony and Putin pardoned former oil tycoon and critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
"Putin doesn't want to repeat what he sees as his mistakes from 2014," Belkovsky says. "Those liberalizations didn't bring him any closer to reconciliation with the West."
Belkovsky believes that the positive press around the World Cup can only have a limited effect. "The political world and the football world are separate," he explains. "Russia's international marginalization is not defined by soccer, but by [the annexation of] Crimea, by the war in southeastern Ukraine, by meddling in the US elections […]. And none of that is going anywhere."
Unlike before the Sochi Olympics, Putin hasn't pardoned political prisoners like filmmaker Oleg Sentsov
Concessions for the international fans
Russia's security forces, however, do seem to have loosened their grip somewhat during the World Cup — presumably under orders from the top. True, security was an important priority during the tournament: In World Cup host cities getting political demonstrations authorized was tougher than usual and Russia beefed up police presence and security checks there as well. But climbing on lampposts or even holding up national flags can ordinarily be cause for arrest in Russia, particularly during tense opposition demonstrations. And during the football championship, both behaviors have been tolerated by the police.
"For Russians that will all stop with the end of the World Cup," Stanislav Belkovsky insists. In the past, the country's police have often made headlines at opposition protests for mass arrests and even for their use of force. Carnegie's Alexander Baunov agrees that Russia's restrictions on freedom of assembly won't simply go away after the World Cup. He argues that during the tournament security forces have merely adapted their behavior to the crowds of foreigners unfamiliar with local laws. "If you start trying to control them you end up looking like a police state," he says.
A new trust?
However cynical the authorities' concessions for the World Cup may be, Baunov is also optimistic that the event could have a longer term effect on the behavior of the Russian police. The analyst believes that their experience dealing with "a happy but not very obedient crowd, which, however, isn't violent or threatening" could teach some officers something about crowd control and create some new "trust between crowds of citizens and the police."
"That is an experience that some of the officers will come away with. They aren't robots who can just be reprogrammed — the police are people," says Baunov.
Locals in Moscow are also carefully optimistic that some of the World Cup's atmosphere will stick. Back on Red Square, an older woman with a long ponytail watches a group of young men from different countries kick a football to each other. "Maybe some friendliness will stay," she says. "You can't forget good things so fast. And we will certainly remember this."