Travelogue: A Passage To Russia

Russian Modern Motorway

Okediran With a Russian Soldier outside the Red Square

By Wale Okediran

It’s almost midnight in Saint Petersburg and the sun is yet to set. From my vantage point at the window of the bedroom of my rented apartment on Muchnoy Pereulok 1, Tsentralny district, the city appeared angelic and very beautiful in the brilliant late night sunshine. Outside on the streets, lively, friendly, romantic and bustling Russians were out to mark the day when the sky stayed reddish-gold all night. Hours after my dinner of Lamb Soup, Rice and Vegetables with Chicken Roast, I was surprised when rays of sun that peeked through the window curtains kept disturbing my sleep. Unknown to me, I had arrived Russia on the Summer Solstice (also known as White Night) ‘The Longest Day of the Year’ with about 19 hours of sunshine.

As I hung by the bedroom window waiting for the sun to set, an advert in the St Petersburg metro map caught my eye ; ‘’Celebrate the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, with drumming, dance and ritual. Integral Church will join St. Petersburg’s Body Electric to honour the seasons and the spiritualistic “changing of the guard” that comes with the solstice. Dancers and drummers of all skill levels welcome, but this event is only open to people ages 12 and older.’’ Seduced by the enticing thoughts of an all night drumming and dancing, I briefly flirted with the idea of throwing off my pyjamas and joining the revellers for the celebration but I thought otherwise and went to bed. When I went back to the window around 1am, the sun had disappeared only to reappear 3 hours later for the beginning of another long day.

Welcome to Russia, the land of ‘’endless wonders and achievements’’, the land of great writers, musicians and inventors. For example, it was the brilliant Russian engineer, Mikhail Kalashnikov who invented the AK-47, one of the most popular small arms weapon in the world. Till date, the powerful gun, the favourite of many guerrillas and militaries in the world remains one of the most controversial masterpieces from Russia. At 17,125,200 square kilometres (6,612,100 sq mi),  Russia is the largest country in the world by area, covering more than one-eighth of the Earth’s inhabited land area,  and the ninth most populous, with over 144 million people as of December 2017,excluding Crimea.

Wale Okediran with some Russian footballers

I had come to Russia to watch the 2018 edition of the World Cup, my first ever. My decision to make the trip had been inspired by Alex Iwobi’s 73rd minute goal at the Nigeria/Zambia match which I watched live at the ‘Nest Of Champions Stadium’ in Uyo on October 7 2017. It was Iwobi’s goal that made Nigeria the first African country to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The feat gave the country her sixth World Cup finals appearance having first qualified for the international football showpiece in 1994. My decision to travel to Russia was further reinforced by my US based secondary school mate, Tayo Popoola who was attending his 7th World Cup. It was Tayo who further motivated me with pieces of advice and logistics for the trip.

Another reason for my Russian trip was Literature. As an ardent lover of Russian Literature, who has devoured the works of several Russian Literary icons such as Leo Tolstoy, Boris Pasternack, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov among others, I was looking forward to a visit to the land of the ‘Literary masters’.

Anna Karenina, my favourite novel by Leo Tolstoy was first published in book form in 1878 and widely considered one of the greatest works of fiction ever written. And while Chekhov the medical doctor/writer and my professional forebear was one of my literary inspirations, Pasternack’s Doctor Zhivago, a moving historical book about the Russian Revolution is one of the few books that I have read and watched its film adaptation. Surprisingly, (just like the yet to be released film adaptation of my book Tenants of the House) I found the film adaptation of Doctor Zhivago better than the book. I also recalled that it was Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, a haunting psychological fiction that inspired my own psychological, tragicomedy book, Dreams Die at Twilight which was adjudged in a 2009 National Literary competition as one of the best 50 books in Nigeria in the last 50 years. The accounts of my literary and cultural experience in the land of the red hair (an allusion to Russia’s ancestors who came from the middle east and believed that red hair was a sign of nobility) will be captured in another article.
Since spectators themselves sometimes watch football matches with occasional tragic pensiveness, I decided to go for a medical check up before boarding the plane to Russia. More so, I didn’t want Messi the Argentine soccer maestro to mess up my Blood Pressure during the potentially hypertensive match between Nigeria and Argentina on June 26. Luckily, my doctor found my Blood Pressure and heart good enough to withstand the expected ‘nail biting’ and ‘leg kicking’ tension of the games.

It was obvious that Russia was ready to impress the world during the World Cup event as I arrived Saint Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport on a rainy afternoon into the waiting hands of a welcome team made up of volunteer Russian Students. After posing for photographs with the team, the friendly Russian youngsters explained to me in halting English how I would find my way in their city. I would later discover that only very few Russians speak English and that communication would be a big challenge during my stay in Russia. Also waiting to receive me was my friend Tayo, who had also come all the way from the US with his long term colleague, Dion. Together, the trio boarded a rental car driven by Tayo for the drive to our rented apartment on Muchnoy Pereulok 1. My first impression of St Petersburg was that of a city with long blocks of tall buildings interconnected with canals thus giving the City the nickname of the ‘Venice of the North’.

Saint Petersburg is Russia’s second-largest city after Moscow, with 5 million inhabitants according to the 2012 census. Situated on the Neva River, at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea, it was founded by Tsar Peter the Great on May 27 1703. Variously known as Petrograd and Leningrad, Saint Petersburg was the capital of Imperial Russia between 1732 and 1918. In 1918, the capital moved to Moscow, which is about 625 kilometres (388 mi) to the south-east. Saint Petersburg is one of the modern cities of Russia, as well as its cultural capital.  The Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Saint Petersburg is home to the Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world. The city was built by conscripted peasants from all over Russia; a number of Swedish prisoners of war were also involved in some years under the supervision of Alexander Menshikov. Tens of thousands of serfs died building the city. 

Russia’s Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, the masterpiece of Russian Architecture(1)

My first match in Russia was the Argentina /Croatia match on June 21 2018. Since I didn’t have a ticket for the encounter, I watched the match a few hours after my arrival in Russia at the FIFA Fan Centre in St Petersburg. The experience showed how the experience of watching football opens several dimensions in time and space. The FIFA Fan Centre where large viewing screens had been mounted for spectators was a bee hive of activities. Apart from the large area for viewing the matches, there was also a sports shop for souvenirs and mementoes as well as tents for drinks and snacks. Outside the arena, happy and joyous spectators decked out in the colours of several countries, exchanged banters, posed for photographs and generally interacted. The whole place was a microcosm of humanity with the young and old from all corners of the world enjoying the beautiful game and its magic. And despite differences in colour, tongue and habit, nobody got in anybody’s way because the World Cup is not only about Football but also about so many other things. It is about friendship, networking, history, tourism, national and international identity as well as, humanity. The event also offers a universal theatre, turning national identities into signs of longing for the wider world.

In order to make my next match which is the Belgium/Tunisia match on June 23 at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow, Tayo, Dion and I had to depart Saint Petersburg for Moscow on a High Speed Train which arrived the Russian capital city after a pleasant four hour journey. I was welcomed into Moscow by a blaze of sunshine, skyscrapers, beautiful streets and wide boulevards. With a population of 13.2 million, Moscow the Russian capital is the country’s most populous city.

The following day after a breakfast of eggs, sausage, bread and coffee, I departed to the Spartak Stadium via the Moscow Metro, a massive multilayered underground mammoth of trains and masonry for the Belgium/Tunisia match. Although slated for 3pm with the stadium’s gates to be opened at 12noon, my friends and I decided to depart our apartment by 10 am to avoid the crush of the teeming football fans. Since transport to the stadium on match day was free for fans with match tickets, the metro was crowded with football fans from several countries. Spartak stadium, owned by one of Russia’s most popular football teams, Spartak Moscow is a matter of great pride to Russians. Its façade takes the form of chain mail consisting of hundreds of little diamonds representing the Spartak logo. There was a great fanfare outside the stadium on our arrival with football fans in their multitudes singing and dancing with some of them already tipsy from the beer sold by Budweiser in FIFA labelled plastic mugs. Also on sale in nearby tarpaulin tents were Coca Cola, Potato chips and peanuts. Security checks at the stadium entrance were very strict as football fans were made to pass through metal detectors. Even, foodstuffs were disallowed so much so that a small orange which I planned to take during the match was seized at the gate!

As we filed into the stadium which had been filled to its maximum capacity of 44,190, we all made our way to our seats which had been inscribed on our tickets. After a series of official ceremonies, the football pitch was sprinkled with cold water obviously to make it conducive for a good match. Meanwhile, the stadium was like a carnival as the fans from both teams decked in the bright colours of their country’s football teams drummed, sang and danced. Suddenly, amidst all the noise and pageantry, the stadium soon erupted into an uproar as the two teams entered the field. After the National Anthems of the two countries, the match commenced at the end of which, the score line stood at Belgium 5/ Tunisia1. And as we finally trooped out of the stadium moments later, the heavens opened up with a heavy rain. Crowds of people especially the delirious Belgian fans made their way to the train station, Taxi stops and the metro for the journey to their hotels, bars and apartments.

Russia; Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, the masterpiece of Russian Architecture(1)

However, despite the late hour, many of the football fans remained on the street of the famous Russian city with endless festivities of drumming, dancing and drinking. Not to be outdone, the Russians themselves abandoned their usual social restraint to approach foreign fans with broad smiles, with offers of help and local gastronomic tips. In this respect, I found the elderly Russian women more sympathetic to foreigners who usually found the language barrier a big challenge to cope with. And although the Russian police seemed to turn a blind eye on some misdemeanours like public drinking and traffic obstructions by joyous fans, it still took its job very seriously. On one occasion, Tayo, Dion and I were surprised that even after donning the well known Nigerian jersey with our ID card visibly hanging on our necks, a passing police pulled up beside us as we walked down a major street in downtown Moscow in broad daylight and demanded for our International Passports.

According to newspaper reports, the Russian federal government spent $12 billion preparing for the World Cup, most of it going to improved stadiums, airports and roads in host cities. In addition, the country 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. And as the report indicated; ‘’The country even organized classes on how to smile’’ Unfortunately, not all Russians assimilated this new found lessons. According to reports, one member of the Russian 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.)

Since the long awaited Nigeria/Argentina match was to take place in Saint Petersburg on June 26 by 5pm, it was inevitable that we should make our way back to the city. So it was that, we found our way back to St Petersburg from Moscow via the fast train arriving at the Moskovsky Train Station in the city in the evening of June 25 with the outside temperature now a sweltering 22oc. We spent the early part of the following day sightseeing in Saint Petersburg. One of the important places visited was the beautifully decorated Kazansky Cathedral where many Argentina fans who are Catholics were lighting candles and praying at the feet of saints obviously for success in their forthcoming encounter with Nigeria. Earlier in the day, Tayo had told me of his premonition that Nigeria was going to lose the match based on the previous encounters between the two countries where Argentina had always won. It was his belief that the psychological feeling of inferiority on behalf of the Nigerian team anytime it met Argentina in football matches will always be a big challenge for the team. I disagreed with him and predicted a Nigerian victory.

Moments later, on our way to the stadium, we passed the central part of the town where a Television crew asked for my opinion on the forthcoming Nigeria/Argentina duel. Again, I predicted a Nigerian victory. As we later moved towards the stadium, we chanced upon a crowd of football fans donning both the Nigerian and Argentina jerseys. Among the Argentina fans was a young man who spoke Hausa to me. He told me that he grew up in Katsina state where his father was a missionary doctor for many years. Although he said he was wearing an Argentina jersey, his heart was for Nigeria whom he prayed would win the match. As usual, a lot of excitement in the form of drumming, singing and dancing by both the Nigerian and Argentina fans was already on when we reached the stadium. In one corner were two Nigerian ladies with big sacks of the very popular Nigerian jersey which they sold for fifty dollars each.

In another corner were a knot of football fans without tickets who were haggling with some agents who were now selling tickets at the black market rate of $400-$500 from the official rate of $120-$200. As we were taking in the convivial scene and taking photographs with fans from both sides, an agitated Nigerian fan suddenly ran towards a truck full of Russian policemen as he frantically shouted that his ticket had been stolen on the train on his way to the stadium. He was sweating and very angry as he demanded to talk to a police man who could speak English. As Tayo predicted, Nigeria lost the match to Argentina. I was depressed all night and while Tayo and Dion later went out for dinner, I remained in our apartment brooding as I struggled through a ‘mournful’ dinner of bread and chicken stew.

Although the World Cup was just beginning with the commencement of the knock out stage, for me, Nigeria’s ouster pulled the wind out of the sail of the competition. I therefore watched the remaining matches with half hearted devotion. To Russia’s credit, the tournament which only 10% of people around the world had viewed positively a year earlier went very well. Prior to the competition, there were threats of boycott by some countries because of some political dissentions. In addition, there were fears of dangerous levels of hooliganism while some people did not believe that the country’s transportation infrastructure could handle such a massive influx of people into the country. But to the surprise of everyone who expected these issues to boil over at some point, nothing of the sort happened. As a first time visitor to Russia, the World Cup nullified the Russian stereotypes of a cold and hostile country. In its place, I encountered first-world infrastructure, impeccable planning and mostly friendly people, except for the glum looking members of the security forces.

The Russians put their success story to years of planning for a government eager to improve Russia’s dire international image. Perhaps, a final testimony of the success of the tournament could be seen in the statement credited to the U.S. national security adviser John Bolton who on a recent visit to President

Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin said; “I look forward to learning how you handled the World Cup so successfully,” as the US top official referred to the fact that the U.S. will host the 2026 World Cup along with Mexico and Canada.