The highlight: sitting a few rows behind Iceland’s goal, through which Ahmed Musa, a hero for Nigeria at the 2014 World Cup, sent two well-taken shots.
We, the small Nigerian contingent sitting in between hordes of Icelanders doing their thunderclap celebration, sang his name from across the stadium in Volgograd – alongside Russians who see Musa as a fan favourite from his days at CSKA Moscow, the country’s most popular football team.
Sadly, I was also seated in a similar position four days later in Saint Petersburg as a Lionel Messi shot beat goalkeeper Francis Uzoho, giving Argentina the hope and mental fortitude to score another goal and eliminate Nigeria in the first round.
A notch beneath that patriotic joy was a delightful tour lasting an hour and a half, of a former classified Soviet-era bunker in the Taganka suburb of Moscow showcasing Russia’s own nationalist tendencies.
As our guide was happy to point out, most of the equipment in the bunker which is at a depth of 65m below the ground – that’s 17 flights of stairs – still works despite being opened in 1956. That’s three years after the death of Joseph Stalin who had commissioned its construction in 1951.
After a certain point, we were given strict instructions not to take any more photos or videos. While within one of the underground tunnels, he suddenly turned on the alarm signals that the KGB had put on during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 to warn of impending nuclear attacks. It was a nice prank that scared many of us tourists.
The tour was a miniature of the general warmth, humour and willingness of the former Soviet Union to engage with the outsiders who had come to witness football’s greatest spectacle. For the twelve days I was there, it felt like watching Russia put its best foot forward as it hosted the world for the second time in two years, the first being the Confederations Cup a year ago.
Nigerians who paid their way to the Confederations Cup, disappeared and now live in the villages to evade the police. They come out at night to Moscow, visit hangout spots where Nigerians legally residing in the country frequent, then return to the countryside after to continue living in fear.
Years of stereotypical tropes by Hollywood have depicted Moscow – and the Russian accent – as a haven of criminals and racism but it did seem like Putin and his people were temporarily shedding these vices. Or perhaps they never had them. Still, it was hard to tell. This was the same perception I got in the three cities I visited.
If it was an earnestly orchestrated stretch of propaganda, then Vladmir Putin and his compatriots executed it almost flawlessly, with only a few bugs getting in the way.
There was a welcoming band with saxophones and clarinets at the Volgograd airport as we landed for the Nigeria-Iceland match, the same city where a friend mistakenly stumbled into a local who then proceeded to furiously rub his arm and shirt for the next two minutes like hot oil had been splashed on him.
Everyone had a Google Translate app from the taxi drivers to Airbnb housekeepers and random passers-by. People seemed genuinely happy to be around us minorities – blacks and other people of colour except at the airport. A stern-faced lady at the immigration desk gave me and my passport a thousand stares and triple-checked my credentials for over 10 minutes – the same time it took for three white people at the next counter to be attended to. It was the same on my way out of the country.
Beneath the surface however and away from those belligerents who were obviously racially profiling me, you get a strong feeling that Russians are genuinely nice people who are themselves victims of a closeted culture that keeps them away from the rest of the world. Every few blocks down the street, people would come over to take photos with us and happily hug us in their sober or drunk states.
A friend mentioned that a two-year old walked up to her and in a cute gesture, handed her a doll. Later that day, someone offered to buy her
and her crew drinks. The weather seemed to also be cooperating – it was not too cold and not too hot. Gypsies in the streets smiled as they targeted Latinas and black people to beg for money.
On yet another day, as I slipped into a Yandex – the local peer-to-peer taxi service giving Uber a run for its money – my driver, an Uzbek who had naturalized as a Russian happily mentioned that he and his wife had grooved to Dr. Alban in the 90s.
For the uninitiated, Dr Alban was a Stockholm-based Nigerian dentist moonlighting as a DJ in the 90s, ruling the European airwaves. Many Europeans and Eurasians born before the millennial generation still remember him as the most popular African musician of their time.
Wizkid street parties
It was therefore a thing of joy for me to watch the instant attraction to contemporary Nigerian superstar Wizkid a few days later. A random Nigerian had given his phone to the owner of a large car sub-woofer who had rigged his entire trunk space with extra speakers that were soon offering Soco to the world. Russians and other foreigners joined Nigerians in dancing – the way they knew best – at a random street corner. I felt proud and fulfilled.
This joint dance of the nations was to be the lingering trademark of the many street parties that began long before the sun set circa 9pm and continued long after sunrise around 3am in both the capital and St. Petersburg. As I hear, this too was the case in Sochi and Kazan where the locals welcomed World Cup visitors and summer with palms outstretched to hedonistic heaven.
The football was good too. Giantkillers Russia dispatched Spain back to the Iberian Peninsula where problems of immigration and secession
continue to put a wedge between the people and the government. They too went out in the quarterfinals like Brazil. All five footballing sides from Africa sadly crashed out in the first round.
Moscow also wooed me with its glorious Theatre Operetta where Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, one of the most tragic love stories of the 19th century, came alive for me through quality choreographing, colourful costuming and all-round excellent acting.
St. Petersburg, the cultural capital of Russia seduced me with its more youthful outlook to life, more English speakers and more historical sites than the actual capital. From the colonnade at St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the Hermitage Museum, Winter Garden palace, monuments to Nicholas I and Catherine the Great, there was so much to see and to learn about. And after a tiring day of being a tourist, what better way to calm one’s nerves than have a meal at any of the bevy of restaurants on Rubinstheyna street in the city centre. Greek, Cuban, Uzbek, Italian, Israeli – all waiting for you to take your
There were also good gestures a-plenty from Peruvians, Brazilians, Colombians and even Mexicans who would walk up to us Nigerians, politely ask that we beat the Argentine team and then offer us a drink, handshake or make small talk. Therefore, in that moment when Marcus Rojo’s late goal knocked the Super Eagles out of the competition, they did not just disappoint Nigeria but also let Latin America down.
All round were a band of merry Argentine fans, some of whom allegedly bought tickets from officials of the Nigerian Football Federation. We were outnumbered by more than 1200 to 1 so the feeling of being like being chickens in the den of the lions crept in. If Nigeria had won, some of us may have been victims of the near-certain violence that would have erupted.
After the game however, as I sat sunken in my seat, a semi-sober Argentine fan walked up to me to exchange jerseys. Call me a traitor but the excitement of getting my first World Cup memento boosted my spirits. I smiled and soon found my way to the stadium gates.
That familiar disappointment returned two nights after. By stroke of oddly poetic coincidence as I got on a 10-hour sleeper train taking me back to Moscow, I saw a viral video of cars and people in them going up in flames, on my Twitter timeline. A truck had triggered the inferno after hitting a fuel tanker in Nigeria; at least nine deaths had been confirmed and 54 vehicles had been razed in the tragedy. My stomach turned.
No thanks to Nigeria’s outdated rail infrastructure and terrible road network, many of these accidents happen regularly. Apart from the
human casualties, cargo which should be transported faster by trains, never reaches its destination in the exact state it left.
And there I was, about to sleep peacefully like a baby, with no fear of a tanker bursting in flames or of armed robbers raiding us in the unlikely probability of the trains breaking down. What a world of difference one informed decision can make!
In Moscow, the photo requests and curious stares continued even as the niceties continued. Two weeks is too short a time to fully observe and
conclude on Russia, its social cohesion and hostility towards minorities like me.
My friends and I might have had a rosy experience but what if we were outliers who had managed to meet the nicest of the Russians? Has the
West exaggerated in its portrait of Russia as a prejudiced society prone to discrimination or did Putin manage to mastermind a nationwide
pretension campaign? The answer, as always, is nestled somewhere in the middle.
That is not to discount the abundance of secrets that the country holds. On my bunker tour, a Russian lady while lapping up compliments
about her country from me, lamented that even locals were not allowed to see other ‘fun locations’. “There are too many classified locations
in this city”, she told me in perfect English.
The guide also had a Freudian slip at the end of the tour when I asked about the ’42’ in the name. The ‘4’ meant that on a scale of 1-5, bunker 42 was one of the (currently) least protected nuclear shelters. “This means that any beginning with ‘1’ is very protected”, he explained. “If It exists”, he added quickly.
That piqued my interest and now one ought to find out more on another visit to Russia; but with the stadiums possibly ending up as white
elephants and the World Cup charm offensive having worn off then, will Putin let me, a black journalist in?
Last word: unless you’re a football team or a delegation of government officials going to earn estacode for doing nothing, never travel as part of a squad or group of more than four people. Four, because that’s the maximum number to get in a taxi; because it is easier to make decisions faster, be spontaneous, see more sights, save more and if you choose, sin more.
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