The World Cup Is Fun. Except for the Russians Being Tortured.

Posted June 22, 2018 10:31 a.m. EDT


MOSCOW — Have you enjoyed the first week of the 2018 World Cup? Good. Some of the games have certainly been very exciting!

Now read the words of Dmitry Pchelintsev as they appeared in MediaZona, a small independent online publication focused on police brutality and the prison system in Russia: “The man in surgical gloves cranked the DC generator with wires attached to my toes. The calves of my legs started contracting violently, I was paralyzed with pain. They threw me on the floor, pulled my underpants down and tried to attach the wires to my genitals. I clenched my teeth so hard that my mouth was full of blood and shards of broken teeth.”

Pchelintsev, a 26-year-old anti-fascist activist from the industrial town of Penza, told his lawyer about this in February — and then, he has said, he was tortured again to make him disown his statement.

He is part of what his torturers — Russia’s main intelligence agency, the FSB — allege is a conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism during the World Cup to provoke “popular masses for further destabilization of the political climate in the country.” Nine young men have been charged in the case with “creating a terrorist cell.” One managed to flee the country; the others have been arrested, tortured and made to confess to being part of an underground terrorist organization called “the Network.” There’s no evidence that any such organization or plot existed.

Things get even weirder: A seamstress in Kazan, one of the World Cup host cities, says she was framed by a police officer who pretended to be a customer with a very specific request to make a life-size doll of Zabivaka, the 2018 World Cup’s mascot — and then charged her with violating FIFA’s copyright rules.

None of this should come as a surprise. President Vladimir Putin has given the Russian security services free rein in the lead-up to the World Cup. In a speech to senior law enforcement officials in February, he asked them to ensure that the World Cup is hosted “at the highest level and, first and foremost, ensure maximum security for both the athletes and football fans.”

Russia’s national team has been performing well. In the World Cup’s opening match, they annihilated Saudi Arabia 5-0. On June 19, in what came as a surprise to many fans, the Russians beat Egypt 3-1. The mood in Moscow couldn’t be more jubilant. Millions of Russians and guests from abroad are partying in the streets and in front of their TVs. State television has declared the tournament “an event of historic proportions.”

Even the grumpiest Russia watchers agree: The World Cup has been a smashing success so far. It’s Russia’s big moment on the international stage, the moment the country has been craving for so long. Moscow, which has gotten a series of very expensive makeovers in recent years, is an extremely pleasant place to be. Ordinary Russians are going out of their way to accommodate thousands of guests. On social media and in opinion columns, visitors are asking the same question: Who thought Russia could be so fun?

But some Russians are wondering why these foreigners are getting away with things that would land us in jail for “unsanctioned rallying” or with a hefty fine for “public disturbance.” The authorities have used the excuse of the World Cup to further stifle the barely existent freedom of assembly. A special decree signed by President Putin in 2017 restricts “public events not related to sports competitions” for the duration of the tournament. Refusing to have fun is a public offense: On June 14, the opening day of the World Cup, an activist was sentenced to 15 days in jail for protesting against the tournament in downtown Moscow.

It’s unlikely that the crackdown will ease up once the trophy has been awarded: Russia’s state security apparatus is never very eager to give back the liberties it has taken away in the name of security.

And it’s not just the torture. While foreigners are enjoying the hospitality, they shouldn’t be oblivious to the cost the World Cup is inflicting on ordinary Russians, who didn’t have a say in opening their doors to reveling sports fans. Moscow State University’s students and researchers have been protesting against the “FIFA Fan Fest” — a party area for tens of thousands of people, perched on a hill next to their campus. Its construction cost about $40 million from the city’s budget and wreaked irreparable damage on a park. The protesters haven’t achieved much, apart from a smear campaign against them and a few fines and arrests for “illegal picketing.”

Let’s be clear: Aside from being a sporting event of global significance, the World Cup is a major public relations exercise for President Putin and his entourage. And it seems to be working, by legitimizing some of the least savory aspects of Putin’s rule. Ramzan Kadyrov, the thuggish ruler of Chechnya — who, among other things, implausibly claimed that human rights abuses against gay people couldn’t have possibly happened because there were no gays in Chechnya — didn’t miss a chance to snap a selfie with Team Egypt’s wildly popular forward Mo Salah.

The Russian authorities will undoubtedly use this article to again cast themselves as victims of “Russophobic campaigning in the Western press.” To them, I can only say: You can prevent unfavorable coverage by not doing any of the things you are accused of doing. Don’t torture people. Don’t take away their livelihoods. Don’t bulldoze over their lives to make room for your international show. That should be pretty easy. Certainly easier than beating Egypt 3-1.

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