President of Russia, Vladimir Putin addresses the 68th FIFA Congress
President of Russia, Vladimir Putin addresses the 68th FIFA Congress
Image: Getty Images

The killing fields of Stalingrad are holy sites of Russian nationalism. Nearly two million people died in the battle that arguably won the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call the second world war.

But last Monday the memorial hill around the giant female Mamayev Kurgan statue was overrun by football fans. England were playing Tunisia in Volgograd — the name the city was given in 1961 after Stalin’s crimes became too embarrassing — and middle-aged men in England shirts trooped respectfully around the monuments. By the tomb of Lieutenant Vladimir Petrovich, “Hero of the Soviet Union”, killed here aged 24, Russian and foreign supporters fraternised noisily.

Going around Russia — as I am doing during the World Cup — provides these daily reminders of the gap between ordinary Russians and Vladimir Putin. The president pushes aggressive nationalism. In his telling, innocent Russia is always under threat from the west — Hitler then, Nato now. Yet Putin cannot manipulate most Russians into constant nationalist paranoia. Daily life here is too banal, apolitical and culturally globalist for that, and Russian nationalism is too unruly.

Putin probably conceived of this World Cup as a state-orchestrated Russian nationalist spectacular, much like the Sochi Olympics and the invasion of Crimea in 2014. However, it isn’t shaping up that way so far. Even after Russia’s 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia in the opening game, very few locals were wearing national colours, and I’ve yet to see a single Russian flag hanging from an apartment window, though flag fests are the norm in most host nations. In part it’s because Russians have never invested much of their patriotism in football. But it’s also because few of them live in a nationalist frenzy. The Crimean invasion was popular, but the ensuing western sanctions helped push Russia into recession and, despite the nightly nationalist pap on state-controlled TV, most Russians aren’t responding any more.

Staying in Airbnbs in Soviet-era tower blocks, I’ve been reminded of an obvious truth: most people, especially in a middle-income country, are too overwhelmed by everyday life to exist in a state of political mobilisation. Getting the groceries, fitting a pram into a lift and saving for holidays loom larger than the greatness of the motherland.

Under communism, too, most Russians had better things to think about than politics. The notion of the fanatical totalitarian citizen doesn’t survive archival research into daily life, says Robert Edelman, historian of Soviet sport. For instance, many football fans were much more excited about supporting their favourite club than supporting the party-state.

Today, most Russians probably support Putin, but they have bigger things on their minds. When he was introduced at the opening game, the Muscovite crowd applauded but only for about 10 seconds. With a smirk on his seemingly Botoxed face, he spoke about football spreading love, but the fans’ attention soon wandered, and a hubbub of chatter arose while he droned on. Only 1 or 2 per cent of Russians are politically active, estimates Sergey Bondarenko, from human-rights group Memorial. If people feel they have no agency over government policy, why pay attention?

In particular, aggressive nationalism doesn’t work on Russia’s urban liberals. Bondarenko says: “You can never underestimate our tiredness of all that ‘patriotic’ quasi-fascist rhetoric.” Sick of having the Great Patriotic War rammed down their throats, liberals tend to see Stalingrad as a story of Russian trauma rather than triumph.

Then there are the extreme Russian nationalists who consider Putin wimpy. Many of them prefer Stalin. I visited Volgograd’s fanboy Stalin museum, full of solemn portraits. In the cosy café next door, where waitresses in mock Great Patriotic War uniforms served beer to football fans, Tunisians photographed themselves in Soviet military greatcoats and caps. Beside them a TV was showing the Sweden-South Korea match. Next to that was another portrait of Stalin, and underneath it sat a group of Russian men doing what most Russians do when the World Cup is on TV: not watching.

The Stalinists and other headbangers worry Putin. He wants a monopoly over Russian nationalism. Several rival would-be nationalist leaders have been jailed or live abroad, notes opposition journalist Yevgenia Albats. However, Putin can’t simply quash all dissent the way Stalin did. He relies more on getting Russians’ consent, or at least their indifference, or just confusing them about what’s true or not.

The dispute over Volgograd’s name is a case in point. A large minority of locals want to revert to Stalingrad. Putin isn’t keen but, by way of compromise, the city is now officially known as Stalingrad on six commemorative days a year — including June 22, the anniversary of the German invasion. Putin’s state and the Stalinists are in a “dialogue” about what Russian nationalism should be, explain Finnish scholars Markku Kangaspuro and Jussi Lassila.

In short, the common western view of Putin as a puppeteer manipulating his people’s nationalist emotions gives him too much credit. He must wish Russians were that obedient.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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