Russia 2018: Historical Reflections

Tosh Warwick, University of Huddersfield

Duncan Stone, Independent Scholar


A month-long spectacle of football and a tournament that showcased Russia at its best, the 2018 FIFA World Cup has already been hailed as a (perhaps unexpected) success both on and off the pitch. The anticipated “World Cup of Shame” failed to manifest. But what can historians learn from it?

Build up to Russia 2018

The weeks and months leading up to the start of the tournament were beset with panic amidst a range of souring international relations following poisonings in Salisbury, the threat of fighting fans and apathy towards the prospect of excursions to provincial Russia.  Then Foreign Secretary Boris ‘irresponsible’ Johnson even touched upon comparisons between this year’s event and Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics and talked of an English boycott which ultimately manifested in the absence of British ministers and the royal family from the stands – how they were missed.

Although the characters and nature of the anxieties had changed, these themes were nothing new.  Even the romanticized 1966 World Cup in England faced similar problems.  There was moral panic at the rise of hooliganism, expressions of supporter apathy, concern at the limited offerings of provincial host cities and diplomatic issues at North Korea’s participation before they graced Middlesbrough’s famous Ayresome Park turf and delivered one of the biggest World Cup shocks of all time.

A number of historians used the latest tournament to explore themes ranging from international diplomacy and national identity to historic WAGs in the History Workshop Online World Cup series.

Historians in Russia

Photograph of Tosh Warwick and Duncan Stone outside a football stadium in RussiaWe were both in Russia during the tournament. Although there as football fans eager to partake in the festivities and socialize with others from around the world, it was impossible, as historians, to not consider and discuss the historical context in which the tournament was taking place.

As with previous ‘mega events’, there was angst between the global tournament and its potential impact on those left to experience the ‘benefits’ and ‘legacies’ after the final ball had been kicked. The World Cup is big business – made clear by Budweiser’s dominance of the concourse bars and the often extortionate ticket prices – and inextricably linked to wider economic and political issues. These anxieties were evident in conversations with locals to the Final protests by Pussy Riot during which the BBC commentator’s declared ‘it’s time to focus on something else’.

Statue of Lenin

But being in Russia also provided opportunities for exploring the heritage that watching at home does not allow.  There was something quite surreal about visiting famed historic landmarks such as the capital’s Red Square and St Petersburg’s Hermitage (often clad in Middlesbrough Football Club regalia – at least for one of us) and encountering first-hand cultural treasures such as famed Faberge eggs (much to Warwick’s initial dismay).

The time between the matches allowed us to learn about the ways in which heritage is profiled elsewhere – alongside the eggs there was also an impressive exhibition of Faberge’s contribution to the First World War effort when the impact of imperialism displaced “Imperial” eggs in its priorities.

Much to our surprise both Moscow and St Petersburg are ‘walking cities’ (we did over seventy miles in ten days) and during frequently ‘aimless’ wandering between matches we would stumble upon remnants of Russia’s Communist past. We encountered the statues of Marx and memorials to Lenin.

Concrete building in Russia

For the urban historian and Brutalist enthusiast there was also an opportunity to see the built environment where modern Russia is conspicuous by its absence, more notably in the brilliant old TASS (Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union) building in Moscow.  For the travel enthusiast the subway doubles up as art exhibits on the move with a splendid array of facades and mosaics.

How will history remember the tournament?

It is difficult at this stage to delve too deeply into the historic legacies of Russia 2018.  Of course, the success of global events such as the World Cup goes beyond the success in tempering hooliganism or the array of giant-killings that saw footballs big hitters tumble one after another in the former Soviet Union.  The perceived personal risk that saw many English supporters stay away evaporated as the tournament wore on and the national team had rare, unexpected success and inevitable failure.

The tournament has done little harm to Putin’s global image despite the protests at the final with an overall sense that Russia (nation and team) delivered with the other concern of terrorism managed and the closest fulfilling of these fears coming in the form of an apparent stray taxi mounting the curb and striking a number of Mexican fans.

Yet, just weeks after the tournament there are signs that the anti-racism campaigns promoted by FIFA and broadcast to millions across the globe have yet to erode deep-rooted prejudice in Russian Football.  In the very capital that hosted this coming together of players and supporters from all backgrounds from around the world, Torpedo Moscow fans protested the signing of Erving Botaka-Yobama – who is of Russian and Congolese descent – and his contract has since been terminated despite insistence that ‘colour is never a criterion when selecting a player’.

There is also the question of the legacies of those (over budget) multimillion pound arenas built for the World Cup and the wider impact of the tournament in future years. Only a couple of weeks after the end of Russia 2018, the BBC reported that more than £130m has been generated by National Lottery and taxpayer-funded London 2012 events, in a move seemingly to justify legacies of this burden on the tax payer. It will be interesting to watch on to determine the longer term impact in the provinces and across all levels of society that Russia 2018 leaves behind.

And, here, there may be a warning from history as past tournaments have left a legacy of abandoned ghost venues. One of Italy’s historic teams, Bari, are in fact facing extinction after inheriting a white elephant stadium as a legacy of Italia 90. Fans of Russian clubs moving into the new stadia – like the second-tier FC Mordovia Saransk, which will inherit a 40,000-seater arena – will be desperate for history not to repeat itself.



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