For Russia With a Smile

This week, Russia was chosen to host the 2018 Soccer World Cup. Small news in the USA, but massive for the rest of us across the world! As an Englishman it was disappointing that the tournament is not coming to England, as I had hoped.

But if it was not to be for us, then I was glad at least that the Russians won it. Some of my happiest (and hardest) traveling memories go back to the three winter months I spent in the Far East and Siberia. I will never forget my first day in Russia and my first impressions of an old Soviet town. Magadan is a small port town on the Sea of Okhotsk. It is one of the most remote places I have ever found myself in.

Magadan was similar to all the Soviet towns I would see from the Pacific to the Black Sea. Peeling paint blistered on rows of dreary, identical apartment blocks, five or six storeys high. Tears of rust streaked the walls. Metal security doors, their locks broken, slammed and clanged hollow through unlit, unswept passages. Fading murals on the sides of buildings showed sturdy men straining hearty muscles, grafting nobly for the shared benefit of the mighty, indestructible Motherland before it all fell apart. Battered cars, imported cheap from Japan, crashed through puddles, and rubbish lay in piles on street corners. Each block of flats had its own little shop on the ground floor smelling of dust and sausage, the fullest shelf being the one loaded with cheap vodka and strong beer. Parks lined with trees featured a statue of Lenin in his overcoat, holding his cap in his hand and gazing thoughtfully towards his brave new dawn.

Lada cars and little buses swerved round the potholes. Small kiosks sold individual cigarettes and trashy newspapers. Department stores tried to mask their dearth of stock by carefully spacing items across the shelves. In the markets babushkas, old women wrapped in layers of cardigans, sat stoic and quiet, stout legs splayed from calf-length floral skirts, with their meager home-grown produce on the pavement before them. Small piles of vegetables on upturned wooden crates, buckets of berries, jars of jam, a few eggs. For them there was no hope of a relaxing old age.

Yet children played and laughed in Magadan as they do everywhere in the world. And as the days passed I did come across some bright spots of hope, like new blades of green grass growing through the ruins: fragile and tentative, but hopeful. A new Russia. There was a growing middle class in the town, still too poor to leave, though some families did have photos albums reminding of a much-cherished foreign holiday. There were some nice apartments too, hidden inside the grubbiness of the uniform tower blocks and made comfortable with Western electronics and full bookshelves. There were also a few shops in Magadan different from the basic market stalls or the old-style Soviet department stores that sold everything but stocked nothing. There were fishing and hunting shops with pictures of fun summertime fishing trips framed on the walls, and a new Nike and Adidas shop whose bright-lit goods seemed utterly out of place. A huge poster of David Beckham on the wall of one of the shops bore the slogan, in Russian, "Impossible is Nothing".

This week Russia won the right to host the first ever World Cup in Eastern Europe. The times they are a-changing. Impossible is Nothing.

And my English disappointment is easily tempered by thoughts of how happy everyone will be in Magadan. They may be thousands and thousands and thousands of miles away from Moscow, but their country will be hosting the World Cup and there will be smiles on the Sea of Okhotsk this week.

Photos by, on Flickr.