Western own Goals, as Russia Scores Big League
By Gregory Slysz
The huge success of the World Cup in Russia was certainly not part of the script of those who sought to undermine it. The initial reaction from Western quarters following Russia’s successful bid in 2010 to host the tournament was largely confined to sour grapes, especially from the losing bids, with accusations of corruption being the most pugnacious charges that were levelled against Moscow. Yet over the next few years, amidst worsening Western-Russo relations over the Ukrainian, Syria and the Skripal crises, all of which Russia stood accused of, this relatively benign approach steadily escalated into something much more menacing, that was to see a synchronised anti-Russia campaign between politicians of all hues and the Mainstream Media, for different ideological reasons, not witnessed since the bleakest days of the Cold War.
It was, therefore, imperative for Western governments to discredit the World Cup and even to prevent it from happening at all. Centred around a project fear, it foretold of mass terrorism, state sponsored hooliganism, some of the ‘Nazi female thug’ type, risks of contracting various diseases, Putin organised ‘honey traps’, dirty hotels, and racist and homophobic attacks. One player, England’s Danny Rose, went as far as to advise his family not to travel to Russia for fear of being racially abused.
Such tabloid hyperbole found expression among the highest political levels, demonstrated notably in a Report from the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs,egged on by cheer-leader-in-chief, the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, for whom the World Cup was an obvious reprise of the 1936 Olympic Games. What was particularly extraordinary about the Report was that its advice was harvested largely from hearsay, such as the hyperbolic deposition from leftist journalist Richard Heller, who admitted that he had neither ‘special knowledge of Russia’ nor had he ‘been there for over fifty years’, and that his points had been ‘all derived at second hand, particularly from recently published guide books to Russia.’ Despite this, his key points, however, were noted in bold script. ‘In general’, Heller asserted,‘it would be better to advise England supporters to expect the worst in Putin’s Russia rather than hope for the best’, particularly gays and ethnic minorities. He urged fans not to ‘view Russia as a “normal” European footballing destination’, but as a brutal, alcohol and drug riven place, where fans are controlled by ‘oligarchs and the Putin regime itself.’ Heller swiftly moved from the ridiculous to the absurd by advising ‘against using tap water or eating foods such as salads which may have been washed in it’. With no popular appetite for total boycotts other than in the most deranged media circles where it was claimed that without one, ‘England fans will almost certainly die in Russia’, politicians opted for diplomatic boycotts and issuing warnings, the British government advising any fans travelling to Russia ‘to sign up for our email alerts to be notified of any updates’.
The tournament commenced on time on 14 June, 2018, in Moscow’s historic Luzhniki stadium with a 5-1 Russian victory over Saudi Arabia that would see the unfancied Russian team reach the quarter finals, foiling leftist predictions of an early exit due to its being ‘too Russian’. It was as if the Western political and media campaign to discredit the World Cup had never happened, its impact dissipating with the first ball kicked. It became clear early on that Russia was delivering a spectacular sporting festival. The positive reaction of the fans, the quality of the football and the flawless organisation left the naysayers in a jam. The politicians for their part largely ceased their ludicrous contributions. The media, however, was in an altogether different predicament. In the business of selling advertising space, it somehow needed to undo its hitherto unhinged reporting to preserve audiences and readers. Some, like TheDaily Mail’s Robert Hardman, maintained their bombast, offering few concessions to the spirit of the tournament. Scathing about the opening ceremony, demeaning towards the VIP political guests from what he implied were insignificant states, and dismissive of his native land’s chances, he insisted that the spectacle was ‘The sleaziest sporting event since the Berlin Olympics’.
A similar tale was spun by Arkady Ostrovsky, the Russia and Eastern Europe editor at the long-standing Russia-bashing The Economist. Cloaked in ‘intellectual’ garb, his piece, ‘Bloody Games’ in The Times Literary Supplement was true to form. Be warned, he advised, as all the pleasantries of the World Cup, and the deceitful, dishonest, cheating, lying, aggressive, Orwellian Putin were there to con people. Others, however, thought better of residing with two legs in a parallel universe, opting instead for one. Ostrosky’s Economist colleague Anne McElvoy, for instance, attempted a more nuanced approach, off-setting begrudging gratitude for the splendid football on offer and a reprimand of Boris Johnson for his ‘foolish’ comparison of the tournament with 1936 Berlin Olympics, with an unwavering parroting of the West’s narrative of an authoritarian, aggressive and corrupt Russia.
As the tournament progressed, however, the politically driven media looked increasingly out of step with international audiences, both the thousands of fans who travelled to Russia and those watching on television, who had nothing but praise for the hosts, forcing many hitherto stern Russophobe sources into hasty volte faces. ‘Russia continues to surprise as street parties and rich history combine for an intoxicating fan experience’, wrote TheDaily Telegraph’s sports writer, Oliver Brown‘; “Much nicer than expected”: World Cup fans size up modern Moscow’, reported Shaun Walker of The Guardian. ‘A festival of hospitality instead of balaclavas and fists’ wrote Sebastian Staszewski of Gazeta.pl, Poland’s leading Russophobe outlet. ‘A lot of people will depart … with great memories and a changed view of the country’, concluded The Guardian in another gushing report while The Telegraph’s Paul Hayward enthused over ‘A great World Cup (so far)’ and the successes of Russia’s unfashionable team, although he reminded people of the ever present ‘darker realities’ of Russian society, which for now have ‘been nicely packed away’.
How ironic that a media which had sought, either through ignorance or deception, to turn the public against Russia should now feign surprise to save face among the people who merely a few days earlier it sought to traumatize. The anti-Russia political and media offensive spectacularly failed to capture popular imaginations, especially among fans outside of Europe, who descended on Russia in their thousands. The diplomatic boycott by a few nations did not feature on any fans’ radar and inconvenienced only the usual freeloaders and hangers-on who frequent such events at taxpayers’ expense, while the group of fans to have missed-out most on the experience were supporters from England, who travelled to a World Cup in fewest numbers for thirty years, having been so traumatized by the unremitting Russia-bashing of the British media.
The failure of the anti-Russian campaign to have its intended impact will have major repercussions long after the World Cup is over. And the victims here will be its authors. The narrative that reduces Russian politics to simplistic, often crass, unsubstantiated allegations to tarnish the country’s reputation in the court of public opinion, is increasingly regarded as hollow. The tactic becomes especially farcical when caricatures of Russia as a country of oafish drunken louts that is on the brink of economic ruin attempt to sit alongside a Russia of technological sophistication that violates the peace of the world. Could the long-standing Cold War warrior, US Senator John McCain, have expressed his prejudices any more foolishly when he likened Russia to ‘a gas station masquerading as a country’? Such stereotyping may have worked in an age when state and corporate media held a monopoly over the dissemination of information, but now cuts little ice when alternative media is ever ready to cast doubt over its credibility. Consequently, for Western governments to base a geopolitical strategy on flimsy claims of Russian wrong-doing, disseminated through uncritical journalist echo chambers, is becoming increasingly redundant, particularly when their own intrigue is exposed, be it in Iraq, Ukraine, or more recently in the Skripal case.
When Fifa announced Russia’s successful bid in 2010, Vladimir Putin was a mere Prime Minister and Russia had not yet become the great ogre for the West. Still recovering from its Soviet past, it remained a passive observer in foreign affairs, largely ‘contained’ by Western powers and in no position to defend its legitimate geopolitical interests. Many of these doubtless differ from those of Western states, but to treat their defence as the misbehaviour of an errant child deserving of punishment smacks of colonial haughtiness. Culturally, too, Russia differs from the West, in view of the growing extremism of Political Correctness which has now become the ‘intellectual’ source of much of Western social legislation. There are no Christian bakers in Russia pursued by gay activists for refusing to bake them a wedding cake.
The success of the World Cup has certainly rattled the anti-Russia international lobby. The treatment of Russia goes beyond the endemic aversion among Western liberal elites towards quirky, conservative Eastern Europe which they consider unworthy to be part of the civilised world. Remember how Poland and Ukraine were treated by the same people in the run-up to the 2012 European football championships. The BBC’s Panorama offered Stadiums of Hate, screened a few days before the tournament was to start and provoked a frenzy of condemnation among politicians and celebrities of the awarding of the tournament to these two backward, racist upstarts. But this of course is much bigger because Russia is a threat to the interests of Western elites in a way that Poland and Ukraine are not.The anti-Russia narrative will of course continue as there is too much at stake for those who promote it.
With none of their predictions materialising in Russia, Western hacks are licking their wounds. Their humiliation, however, is not stopping their pens from twitching again with the usual absurd hyperbole, unsubstantiated accusations, historical inaccuracies and Stalin-Putin analogies. But fewer people are evidently listening. The thousands of visitors to the World Cup will make up their own minds about Russia which they will share with their country-folk on their return home. Stalin shot or imprisoned Soviet returnees from the Second World War, who had been exposed to Western influences, to prevent them from contaminating with truths a society fed on a diet of lies and propaganda. What options will Western governments have to deal with returnees from Russia who have seen through their lies and propaganda?
Dr Gregory Slysz writes on History and Current affairs, specialising in Eastern Europe, Russia and Early Modern England. He is a graduate of Oxford and London Universities, where he read History and Politics