Football, the Product of Culture – A Californian’s Observations About Russia

Issues of corruption, violence, and racism hang like ominous storm clouds in the lead up to the Russia 2018, but beauty persists. Joel Slagle writes about Russian football and its place in wider culture.
Football, the Product of Culture - A Californian's Observations About Russia
Art by Rahul Kashyap.

One of the most defining moments in Russian history came about because of holy ground. As the story goes, the ancient Russian king, Vladimir wanted to unite his diverse kingdom with a single religion. So, he received emissaries from the faiths neighboring his kingdom. He rejected Islam outright because of its prohibition of alcohol, and he took the Jewish Diaspora as proof of the inefficacy of Judaism. The messengers from Orthodox Christianity, however, told him of the splendor of the Hagia Sophia and not knowing whether they were in heaven or on earth. The majesty of the great cathedral of Constantinople appealed to Vladimir’s sense of grandeur, and he and his kingdom were baptized into the faith.

To walk into an Orthodox church is to enter a different, heavenly realm. I experienced this at the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Veliky Novgorod. St. Sophia is the oldest continuously functioning building in Russia. Upon entering, a thousand years of history were conjured up in the candlelit interior; the atmosphere was thick with the memories of worshipers, soldiers, princes, and archbishops throughout the centuries.

Football’s poet laureate, Eduardo Galeano describes the stadium as an almost sacred space: “Have you ever entered an empty stadium? Try it. Stand in the middle of the field and listen. There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. There is nothing less mute than stands bereft of spectators.” The ghosts of the past linger on the terraces. It is holy ground. The tension, collective expectation, and the greatness of the occasion sanctify the concrete.

And there are no occasions grander in football than the World Cup. I lived and worked in Russia for a number of years, and I am thrilled to see the country I love host the greatest spectacle in the game I adore.

I was first drawn to Russia at university. I had started reading Dostoyevsky to impress a girl, and it was the start of a long, passionate love affair (with Russia, that is). My first visit to the country was in the summer of 2007 to teach English in a small town near St. Petersburg. The town had an amateur football club, and I was one of the few who bothered to turn up and watch. I was struck by how different the style was to my own football culture. Having grown up in California, I was accustomed to a bit of flair and Latin showmanship. On the patchy turf in the backwaters of Vepsland, there was none of that. It was silent, workmanlike, and disciplined.

If it sounds boring, it is because it was. However, it was the product of culture. The team was the embodiment of the Russian proverb that the tallest blade of grass is the first for the scythe. Just a few miles away from the pitch is a monastery Stalin converted into one of the largest forced labour camps in the gulag system – a powerful reminder of the dangers of standing out.

Before returning to the United States, I had an opportunity to explore St. Petersburg. I spent a few long summer days strolling around the city with its graceful bridges, historic architecture, priceless collections of art, museums of literary giants, and romantic canals. On a sunny day, it is the most beautiful city in the world.

I loved every bit of it, but what attracted me most was the spirit the city had. Nowhere was this spirit more evident than in the pride for St. Petersburg’s football team, Zenit. Every car had a mini replica jersey hanging from the rearview mirror; cafes featured posters of Andrei Arshavin pouting at you from the wall; billboards featured Zenit players touting everything from SIM cards to supermarkets. Other signs featured the slogan, “Ya boleyu za Zenit!” – I am sick for Zenit! That is what it means to be a fan in Russian: to be sick for one’s team.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this city and the power this team held over it. I had returned to the US with a mini Zenit jersey for my rearview mirror, and every day it was a reminder that I had unfinished business there. So, when an opportunity arose to take a teaching job at an international school there, I took it.

I arrived at an amazing time in Russian football. The ruble was strong and money poured into the game. CSKA Moscow and Zenit had both recently won the UEFA Cup. The national team made it to the semifinals of Euro 2008 before being knocked out by eventual champions Spain. When Zenit beat Manchester United in the 2008 UEFA Super Cup, the city erupted. Cars cruised slowly up and down the famous Nevsky Prospect, honking. Soon, people everywhere started spilling out of all the buildings cheering, shouting, singing, and waving their Zenit scarves and flags. More and more cars showed up to join the cacophony of auto horns with people crammed into every inch and even riding on hoods, trunks, and roofs. My roommate and I started to head for home when our Russian friend warned us to not speak English too loudly on the way back. People might mistake us for Manchester United fans he said, and, well, just don’t speak English too loudly.

The autumn passed, followed by the coldest winter I had ever experienced, but then spring arrived. Spring in St. Petersburg is a far cry from the glorious summer I had previously experienced. The whole city had been under ice for the last 5 months and suddenly every cigarette butt, every discarded beer bottle, every dog dropping, every human dropping, and the occasional dead cat emerged from the melting slush. This heralded the beginning of Zenit’s season, and a coworker and I went to get tickets to Zenit’s home opener against Amkar Perm. This was their second home game; the first one was played behind closed doors after Zenit was punished for their fans displaying a “tasteless and offensive” banner the previous season; their cause certainly wasn’t helped by the crowd trouble during their away opener against Spartak Moscow. When my friend and I arrived to the ticket kiosks, a scalper told us that everything was sold out except for Sector 6 which was half away fans, half home fans. Perhaps we would like a more peaceful sector, he said. We declined, purchased our tickets in Sector 6, and prepared for the worst.

It was a bit of an anticlimax. There were probably about 50 away supporters (1,000 miles separating two teams will do that), and they didn’t get up to too much trouble. And aside from a few smoke bombs, quickly dispersed by an icy wind, neither did the Zenit supporters. The game itself never really got going as Zenit was still learning how to play without Arshavin who had recently moved to Arsenal, and it finished 0-0. The Petrovsky itself, while boasting an impressive location on an island at the mouth of the Neva River, was literally crumbling underneath my feet.

The one thing that wasn’t anticlimactic was the noise generated by the 20,000 Petersburgers. They would roar in unison, “Forward, Zenit! Forward for St. Petersburg!” Their love for their city and their team thundered around the stadium and over the river to the rest of the city. The other highlight of the day was Zenit’s entrance to the field accompanied by Tina Turner’s “Simply The Best.”

I went to a few more games during my time in Russia. To be honest, a lot of the things that stick out aren’t positive: getting caught in a crush brought about by heavy-handed policing, Zenit fans hanging opposition players in effigy and unfurling a banner declaring “dreams can come true,” visiting supporters from Moscow marching to the match and kicking side mirrors off of parked cars, fans from “The Virazh” tearing up chairs and throwing them at police, and fist fights between my neighbors over seats.

There were good moments too: Anatoliy Tymoshchuk saying an emotional farewell to the fans before heading off to Bayern Munich, purchasing my “Zenit – Champion” scarf after seeing them win the league, basking in the sun at the Petrovsky with friends after another long winter, learning naughty words in Russian, chuckling at the fan adapting the “Forward for St. Petersburg” chant to “Forward for beer,” the young student that gifted me his favorite Zenit poster, and the constant rumor that Zenit’s left fullback Kim Dong-Jin was going to come and hang out at my school’s Saturday pickup games. Every expat in Russia is constantly reminded of one’s foreignness; for 90 minutes, though, I could be a Petersburger.

Sadly, however, that feeling of belonging is not an experience available to all. Zenit is often in the news for reasons other than their on-field performances, such as the infamous “Selection Manifesto 12” from a prominent fan group. In it, the ultras demanded the club cease “forcing” players from other cultures (i.e., non-white cultures) on them. I have come across the argument that it is no different than Athletic Bilbao and its cantera policy and that the Western press has willfully misunderstood the statement; this is, in so many words, bullshit. When a statement focuses on inherent qualities in the blood of certain ethnic groups, it is pretty difficult to assert it is not racist.

Racism quickly became a salient topic when it was announced Russia would host the 2018 World Cup. The nation has a great deal of history as a multiethnic state, much of it complicated to say the least. While most of us in the West are not aware of much of that history, we hear a quite a bit about the abuse players of colour receive. I personally witnessed and experienced a fair amount of xenophobia during my residence in Russia’s second city. As the tournament creeps closer, however, I have seen a number of apologists state that the issue is blown out of proportion and is largely a product of a hysterical English press. There is a kernel of truth in the argument of a Western media bias against Russia, but that does not mean it is undeserved.

These contrarian takes, however, are rooted in the desire that visitors for the World Cup and audiences around the world will see the beauty of Russia and its people. There’s a profound quote from Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot: “Beauty will save the world.” This usually gets reduced to a glib phrase on a coffee mug or Pinterest board labeled “Inspiration.” In the context of the novel, though, this quote exists in the shadow of sexual abuse, violence, despair, death, and lost faith. This isn’t some artist’s indulgence or self-aggrandisement, this is a confrontation with darkness. Russian history is full of violence and upheaval, but through it all the people survived by embracing beauty in the midst of suffering.

There may be plenty of negative headlines to come out of this summer, but there will be many more stories that will go unreported of beauty: fans welcomed, connections made, and friendships formed. My hope is that the World Cup is the beginning of a new chapter in the country. There is a New Russia, and its young people have grown up connected to the wider world; it is a generation unwilling to simply accept that this is the way things are and will always be.

As part of the preparations for this summer’s tournament, a new stadium was built in St. Petersburg to replace the small, crumbling Petrovsky. Zenit Arena was finally finished eight years late and hundreds of millions over budget. It has become a symbol of corrupt bureaucracy – the same corrupt bureaucracy that allegedly ensured the nation would host the World Cup. Despite these rude beginnings, I fervently believe the grandness of the occasion can consecrate the pitch leading fans to wonder whether they have entered heaven. May this lead to another national conversion.

Issues of corruption, violence, and racism hang like ominous storm clouds in the lead up to the Russia 2018. But, like the great Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova, I pray “the dark storm over Russia become a cloud of glorious rays”.