Ты не понимаешь (Ty ne ponimayesh’)”, she said with a huff for probably the 10th time. Then she let out a sigh, hands on her hips. She was right. I didn’t understand. There was something about the “ключи (kluchi)” and she kept saying “я приду (ya pridu)” over and over again. I had just flown into the southern Russian city of Rostov after having spent almost 2 weeks further north in St. Petersburg. After waiting awhile at the airport, I had received a Facebook message from someone I had never met with an address which I showed to a taxi driver waiting nearby. He had whisked me into the city and dropped me at the end of a dark driveway in front of 5 non-descript concrete apartment blocks. A neighbor on the sidewalk had shown me which building I wanted, so I rang the doorbell and waited. A few minutes later and I was in the spotless kitchen of a modern, urbanized version of the famous babushka, complete with the apron, just without the headscarf. Apparently, she was the mom of a friend of the cousin of my friend, the friend who was not arriving until the next day and who had tried to arrange this accommodation at the last minute. It was now almost midnight and from what I could understand, which was very little, this Russian grandma was convinced that this American boy who had just arrived didn’t know how to use the keys to properly lock the door to this apartment. That, and the little kid by her side had tennis lessons at 9 the next morning. At least I knew that much. I was tired, feeling awkward, and wondering if there could not have been a better way to arrange all this. She was probably tired, feeling awkward, and wondering the same thing.
“Ты не понимаешь”, she muttered one more time, shaking her head, before leaving me the keys, taking her grandson by the hand, and stepping out into the staircase. I watched through the peephole as they marched back down the stairs, to another unit in the building, satisfied that this stranger was not a danger to himself or others.
I was here, of course for the 2018 World Cup, my fourth consecutive pilgrimage to the world’s most followed sporting event. The tournament brought me to Germany in 2006, South Africa four years later, followed by Brazil in 2014, and for three weeks this summer, Russia. Of the four experiences, Brazil belongs in a category all its own, but that doesn’t mean that the others, including this most recent edition, weren’t amazing in their own way.
Going in, I had mixed expectations. I knew I would enjoy the soccer and the atmosphere that comes with fans pouring in from all over the world, but as for Russia itself, I wasn’t so sure. I had heard the dire warnings from those living across the border in Finland, where I was staying for the summer. Stories about reckless drivers, lawlessness, and notoriously violent soccer fans. Then there were the legends of doom and gloom from the old Soviet Union, people who never smile, armies of alcoholic men, and brigades of beguiling, gold-digger women. I’ve been in enough countries by now that I should have known better, but by the time my train pulled into St. Petersburg, I half expected to be met by a mix of secret agents, brawling thugs, drug addicts, and perhaps a few James-Bond-girl lookalikes in sparkly mini-dresses. I arrived to find none of the above, and instead hopped onto a very user-friendly subway, and finally checked into one of the nicest hostels that I have ever stayed in.
Over the next 3 weeks, I had the chance to explore both St. Petersburg and Rostov and take in the tournament. Surprisingly, western European fans, with the exception of everybody’s favorite fans from Iceland, were largely absent from the festivities, and those that did make the relatively short trip mostly followed their teams, stuck to themselves and added very little to the festival atmosphere. In contrast, most of the
noise was brought by the North Africans (Egypt and Morocco), and fans from Latin America. Unprecedented numbers of Mexicans, Colombians, and Peruvians made the long journey to Russia, along with the ever-passionate crowds from Brazil and Argentina. Tens of thousands descended on multiple Russian cities, setting up camp often for several weeks, each country competing to sing louder, chant more, and dance harder than the other. It was awesome. Those that didn’t come missed out. St. Petersburg was impressive from top to bottom, every major avenue fit for an emperor’s procession. Its ornate churches and countless canals made scenes fit for postcards, although it would have been even more enjoyable had it not been in the 50s and raining so often.
Rostov, on the northeastern tip of the Black Sea, had none of the old-world grandeur of St. Petersburg, but made up for it with sizzling summer temperatures and a fun in the sun, laid back party atmosphere. My first night there may have been a bit rough, but my remaining 5 days were my favorite part of the trip.
People have asked me if I saw “signs of oppression” while I was there. No, I didn’t, nor was I looking for any. I was far too busy taking in sights and sounds and soccer games, but that is not to make light of the well-documented and widespread official discrimination often faced by minorities of every kind, including Bible preaching churches.
I did get to go to one of those Bible preaching churches, twice, while in St. Petersburg. The large, international church happened to be walking distance from my hostel and it was a blessing to worship with them. Their services were entirely bi-lingual, even down to the worship songs, which alternated verse by verse between Russian and English. My first Sunday there, we were treated to a special greeting from a large group of Egyptian believers, also attending the World Cup. Although they jokingly invited the church to join them in praying for Egypt to win all its games (their next game was against Russia), the prayers of the Russian faithful appear to have won out, as Russia soundly won the match 3-1 later that week.
I never saw my host in Rostov again after that first night. Her daughter and my American friend both arrived the next day and other arrangements were made for the rest of my stay. Our awkward introduction aside, I am thankful for this woman who provided a complete stranger with a clean and comfortable place to stay late at night. I’m thankful also for my friend’s extended Russian family, who helped us explore and enjoy their culture and history on a personal level. I’m thankful for the university students I met through pick up soccer games in the park and for the laughs we shared afterwards, often by passing around phones with Google Translate.
Russia has had its share of struggles, and the people I met were aware of the negative images the world has of their country. Most of them were thrilled that so much of the world would come and find something much better. We should remember our brothers and sisters in the church there, who really do have it harder. We should also remember the rest of the Russian people, most of whom simply want to have a good time, live a good life, and desperately need the Gospel, just like the rest of us. I went to Russia expecting to enjoy the soccer, and left having enjoyed its people even more. Should the opportunity ever arise to return, I’ll be happy to take it.
by Ian Bridgman