World News

Russia Wants to Play Nice With Foreigners. Just Not too Nice.

Posted June 14, 2018 5:57 p.m. EDT

MOSCOW — In recent weeks, Russia has been engaged in a concerted effort to tame its habitual xenophobic demons in anticipation of 500,000 foreign soccer fans descending on the country for the World Cup that started Thursday. It has even organized classes on how to smile.

But some lawmakers apparently missed the memo.

One member of parliament warned Russian women against sleeping with foreign men, especially if they were from a different race. Another cautioned even against hugging visitors from other continents, given that they might be rife with disease.

The ensuing outcry was loud and sharp, with many on social media comparing the remarks to propaganda during the 1980 Olympics, when the Soviet Union warned its citizens against talking to foreigners. (In that era, any talk of sex was strictly taboo.)

Russians, though often big-hearted, can be notoriously dour when dealing with foreigners, particularly large groups who do not speak the language.

Smiling at any stranger is considered dubious, perhaps even the sign of a feeble mind. There is even a proverb about it: “Laughter without reason is a mark of fools.”

To overcome that attitude, various training programs that would have done Miss Manners proud were begun before the World Cup.

The smiling lessons were administered to employees of the Russian railroads who will be staffing the free long-haul trains running between World Cup cities.

The Interior Ministry ordered all 11 host cities to deploy police officers that could speak English, Chinese, French and Spanish. (Moscow already had such officers near major tourist attractions.)

Apparently, some Russian soccer hooligans are being kept at bay. World Cup ticket holders must obtain fan identification cards proving they have been vetted by the security services, and some fans famous for things like racist chanting have been denied them.

Given Russia’s tense foreign relations in recent years linked to a string of showdowns with the West over Crimea, Ukraine, Syria, election meddling and other issues, the World Cup was seen as a chance to present a different image.

“Our people are very hospitable, and I am counting on those who come here leaving with totally good impressions,” Eleonora Mitrofanova, head of an organization responsible for promoting Russia’s image, said at a news conference last month.

Then came the members of the Russian State Duma, or parliament. It should be noted that the Duma has no real power, and normally serves as kind of a Greek chorus that echoes and amplifies the mood of the Kremlin.

Given that President Vladimir Putin has made “traditional values” a pillar of his presidency, Duma members try to outdo themselves proposing ideas that they think will please him. Hence laws like one banning gay propaganda and another decriminalizing domestic violence.

It was no great surprise that a few got into the act for the World Cup.

Speaking to a Moscow radio station on the eve of the first match, Tamara Pletnyova, chairwoman of the Committee on Family, Women and Children Affairs in the lower house, came out with the warning about sex with foreign men. If the urge proved too strong, she added, at least choose a man from the same race.

Pletnyova, a member of the Communist Party, framed her advice as a way to protect the family, saying that such liaisons often produce single-parent homes. “These children suffer and have suffered, even since Soviet times,” she said in a summary of the interview posted by the station Govorit Moskva.

Then Aleksandr Sherin, deputy chairman of the Duma’s Defense Committee, said the people arriving from around the world might spread infectious diseases, especially as Europeans came into contact with “people from other continents.”

The country cannot force visitors to take “chlorinated showers,” he said, since they “are coming to Russia, not a German concentration camp.”

He warned all Russians citizens to remain vigilant. He discouraged people from accepting chewing gum or cigarettes, and suggested avoiding the Russian habit of hugging or kissing people in greeting.

“I would warn against this,” Sherin said.

Pletnyova was widely accused of racism.

The outcry was such that even Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, was asked about it. He said Russian women were perfectly capable of deciding for themselves, and decried the fact that the comments had become a central focus of the day.

“I don’t think that this can or should be the main news,” he said, noting that a message on every ID card carried by fans reads, “Say no to racism.”

One lawmaker took the complete opposite tack from his fellow Duma members. Mikhail Degtyarev, chairman of the Duma Committee for Sports, Tourism and Youth, said the more love children born out of liaisons during the World Cup, the better.

“Many years from now, those children will remember that their parents’ love story started here in Russia,” he said. “Let’s hope that the World Cup will give us many love stories, interracial couples and children.” Amid all the talk about sex, soccer and foreigners, the government managed to quietly work in an announcement guaranteed to wipe the newly minted smiles off Russians’ faces: a proposal to raise the retirement age for men to 65 from the current 60 and for women to 60 from 55, and for good measure a rise in the value added tax to 20 percent from 18 percent.

But there was one happy note for anyone who fell afoul of the law in Russia. Alexei Navalny, the main opposition activist, who was released from jail after serving a 30-day sentence for organizing an illegal anti-government demonstration, reported via Instagram that his jail had been given a Potemkin makeover. It sported a fresh coat of paint; flush toilets instead of a hole in the floor; a food menu with items like shish kebab rather than the usual gruel; real soccer balls in the exercise yard; and TV sets in the cells — presumably to watch World Cup matches.