The 2018 World Cup started on my wife’s birthday, and, I must admit to feeling less than whelmed by the whole endeavor this time.
The lack of qualification by Canada for Russia 2018 spares me from former UK Tory Minister Norman Tebbit’s infamous cricket test: the test of loyalty for your new country’s sports teams over your old, which is supposed to signify some kind of advanced integration. And, though I would relish a different result, I can’t see England’s young and inexperienced team going beyond the Quarter Final where they will most likely face either Brazil or Germany (though based on the quality of today’s matches that is definitely TBD). Beat whichever of those two behemoths in the quarters and they’ll likely see the other one in the semis… Of course, if they make it out of their side of the draw, they’ll truly deserve to win the whole enchilada! A dream, I know. It’s coming home! It’s coming home!
It’s not the prospect of England’s performance that is my main beef with the world cup this year. It is where it is taking place and how that bid was won: through bribery and corruption. The fact that Vladimir Putin extended a branch to Sepp Blatter the disgraced FIFA head to attend the eventis just the cherry on a rather distasteful cake.
That bribery is a but a miniscule step in one of the most intense, and successful, campaigns of covert political destabilization in recent history. From plane crashes and assassinations, maybe including a Polish head of State. Through the rise of new authoritarian regimes in the former Eastern Bloc, now causing existential crises in the EU. To the big guns of Brexitand Trump.
I have visited Russia only once. A week long business trip to Moscow in 1999. I was amazed at the scale of the Kremlin. The Cathedral of St Basil in Red Square took my breath away. I was lucky to see Prokofiev’s opera The Love of Three Oranges, a production designed by Sir Peter Ustinov, at the Bolshoi. One of the more interesting observances was the bank notes. I got a “before” and “after” in my change one day. There was the addition of an extra three or four zeros, added to the denomination to cope with currency devaluation. It was a salutary lesson in the primal economics the Russian people were being exposed to.
The other lesson was geopolitical. The head of IT for the company I was with was ex Russian military. I drove with him back to the airport through miles of dense forest (I had not yet lived in Canada so verdant isolation on such a grand scale was new to me). On the way we passed two memorials. One, he told me, was to commemorate the invasion of Russia by Hitler. The second to commemorate the invasion by Napoleon. After we passed the second he turned, fixed in me in a gaze that met the very definition of steel and said: “All of our enemies, they come from the West.”
The first England World Cup game will be played in Volgograd, the new, old, name for Stalingrad. Over the city stands the Mamayev Kurgan, the memorial to Mother Russia and her victory in the most decisive battle (with all due respect to the Battle of Midway) in World War II. It is a salient reminder that without that victory, without the Eastern Front, the combined forces of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and the other brave nations would never have made it off the beaches in Normandy on D-Day. A reminder that in France we were fighting the weaker third of the German Army. Our Frenemies to the East had the much tougher job.
The authoritarianism of Stalin had its foundation on that built by Lenin (and his smuggling into St. Petersburg in a sealed train, to destabilize Russia from within, an act facilitated by Germany in 1917) and further back in the absolutism of the Tsar. The inequalities of pre-revolutionary Russian society were laid bare in the masterpieces of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, just as that of the Gulag would be by Solzhenitsyn three-quarters of a century later.
One of the things I find most annoying about the programs my children watch is the lack of ambiguity when it comes to villains. Mission Force One, a spin-off from the more benign Miles From Tomorrowlandis a prime example: the sole “mission” of the antagonists is to destroy for destructions sake. I get that these shows are designed for kids, but I would prefer a little nuance.
Where is the motivation?
“All of our enemies they come from the West.” I’ve thought a lot about that sentence, that world picture, since it was told to me all those years ago. The truth of it. The invasions. The destabilizations we have done. The provocations. The way, from a different perspective, that democracy and capitalism could be seen, even after the fall of communism, as weapons.
To counter it, Russia seeks influence, and wields its power and authoritarianism around the world: a political system that sees democracy and the west as a problem not a solution. They have been very successful.
Watching the World Cup feels a little like supporting that particular political strategy, or at the least, celebrating its outcome. It, like so many elections and plebiscites and policies, just feels bought. A celebration of Russia’s authoritarian expression and influence.
The biggest supporter of Russia right now is the 45th US President. His actions are in almost perfect alignment with the geopolitical ambitions of the Kremlin. I wait with baited breath to see what he will do at the NATO summit on 11th/12thJuly. If it is anything like the G7 we will scratch our heads in wonder and try and understand.
But deep down, if we are honest, we all know. Question is, what can we do about it?