Is it safe to go to the World Cup in Russia?

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Photo credit: Joe Barnes

Is it safe to go to the World Cup in Russia? It’s a question that has constantly been asked in the build up to the tournament – and for good reason. The respected Jamestown Foundation, a US think tank, recently described the security challenges presented by the World Cup as “Sisyphean”.

That said, Russia has managed large sporting events well in the recent past. Dire warnings were also made about security before the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, with commentators wondering aloud whether the Olympic “Ring of Steel” would hold. Those games went ahead relatively smoothly, as did the Confederations Cup last year. Moscow also successfully hosted the Champions League Final in 2008.

None of those events were quite on the scale of the 2018 World Cup, however. It is in this light that this Jericho guide looks at various threats that could be posed to fans during the tournament, establishing whether or not they are credible.

Transport

A country the size of Russia evidently presents unique challenges for travellers, getting around such a sprawling landscape is often far from simple. It is also, regrettably, comparatively dangerous. Bombings on the St Petersburg metro (2017), at Volgograd train station (2013), and Moscow’s Domodedovo airport (2011) have all taken place within the last eight years. Driving on the country’s arterial network of roads and highways can be wild and lawless, and the Russian aviation industry has a decidedly poor record.

Road safety depends on perspective. Russian roads can set the pulse racing, but you are statistically less likely to die on the roads here than you are in Brazil or South Africa, the previous two World Cup hosts. However, the roads are three times as dangerous as in France or Australia, and more than six times as dangerous as in the UK.

Security at train stations will be high, and armed guards often patrol trains. Crime on trains, including sleeper trains, is very low. Train travel is the safest, though slowest, way of getting around.

Internal flights within Russia have a bad reputation. Indeed, Russia was named the world’s deadliest place to fly in 2011 by the Aviation Safety Network, and has seen a raft of tragic incidents since then. Much of this has historically been down to ageing planes, although lax standards have also played their part.

Most infamous of these is the “Kid in the Cockpit” incident in 1994 in which the pilot allowed his sixteen-year-old son to help him pilot Aeroflot flight 593 from Moscow to Hong Kong. The boy proceeded to turn off the autopilot, pitching the plane into a steep dive straight into the Kuznetsk Altau mountain range.

An Airbus 319-111, part of Aeroflot’s ultra-new fleet. Photo credit: Alex Beltyukov

Much has changed in the interim. Aeroflot, which was so unsafe during the 1990s that “Aeroflot accidents and incidents in the 1990s” even has its own Wikipedia page, has invested massively over the past decade and now has one of the newest, and safest, fleets in the world.

Plane crashes remain statistically insignificant and flying cuts vast swathes off travel time. For extra peace of mind, stick to airlines using Boeing or Airbus aircraft.

Terrorism

The Syrian civil war has not only presented geopolitical opportunities for Russia; it has also seen large numbers of would-be insurgents from the North Caucasus (historically the country’s largest source of terrorism) leave the country to go and fight for Islamic State.

chechnya mosque russia world cup 2018 safe
The Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque in Grozny, Chechnya. Ramzan Kadyrov has been successful in stabilising the republic, though his methods have been criticised. Photo credit: Joe Barnes/Jericho

Indeed, opposition-leaning newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported in 2015 that the FSB (Russia’s internal security force and successor to the KGB) had been actively encouraging suspected Jihadists to travel to Syria to fight in the hope of exporting their violence abroad.

The tactic, along with brutal repression in Chechnya, has succeeded in vastly reducing the number of insurgent related deaths in the Caucasus.

Even so, terrorism at airports, stadiums and stations does remain a concern, especially from Islamic State, who have promised to seek vengeance for Russia’s role in the Syrian Civil War. The opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia, where Vladimir Putin himself will be present, falls on the last day of Ramadan, a month which often sees a spike in the number of terrorist attacks worldwide.

Much has been made by the Russian authorities about the success of the “Ring of Steel” around Sochi for the 2014 Olympics – however this will not be possible over 11 cities and across all the transport routes between them. Police and security officials are particularly worried about the possibility of ‘lone wolf’ terror attacks.

The US State Department even sees the terrorist threat as grounds to “reconsider” travelling to the World Cup.

But again, while it would be naïve to play down the risks, similar concerns were aired before Euro 2016 in France, during a period where France had suffered heavily at the hands of jihadis. The tournament nevertheless went ahead without incident.

Hooliganism

After the scenes in Marseille in 2016, England fans especially are well aware of the threat of organised football hooliganism in Russia.

The Russian official reaction wasn’t exactly contrite. Vladimir Markin, one of Russia’s top security officials, laid the blame at the door of the French police. “Seeing normal, real men shocks them … They’re more used to seeing their ‘men’ at gay pride parades.”

His words do have an element of truth to them. The French police were wholly unprepared for the levels of mob drunkenness on the part of English fans and thuggery by Russian hooligans in Marseille two years ago. The Russian security forces are unlikely to be so complacent: going to a Russian football game can feel like entering into the middle of a military operation. On top of the police, over 16,500 stewards and 14,500 security guards will be employed for the World Cup.

A trouble-free World Cup is also of huge personal importance to Vladimir Putin, and hooligans have been warned to stay in line during the tournament. Many of the leaders of the ultra firms were kept under house arrest during last year’s Confederations Cup.

It’s therefore unlikely that events of Marseille 2016 will reoccur, but due to the scale of the tournament localised acts of brutality are possible and maybe even probable. England fans especially would be best advised to wear their team’s colours only when in view of the police.

Those looking for hope will note that Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United fans have all travelled to Moscow this season and experienced little trouble.

Petty crime and bar brawls

Bar brawls are distinctive from hooliganism in they are often not premeditated. Here basic common sense should prevail – England fans would be especially advised not to make any provocative statements about the Second World War when travelling to Volgograd, where almost two million people lost their lives in the battle for the city.

Russians are generally keen to meet foreigners, even Westerners, but do not expect to win them round to your point of view on political matters. Arguments about issues such as democracy, gay rights, the war in Ukraine, and the Sergei Skripal poisoning are likely to fall on deaf ears. Be prepared to hear constant references to the 1999 Kosovo War, NATO expansion, lying Western media and US interventionism as part of any Russian’s stock response.

When conversing with locals, above all else avoid insulting Russia’s record in the Second World War or desecrating the Russian flag. This will not end well.

Homophobia

There’s no nice way to say this, but compared to Western Europe Russia is a deeply homophobic country. A 2013 Pew Research poll found that 74% of Russians believe that society should not accept homosexuality.

A law from that same year bans showing homosexuality in a positive light to minors. This extremely vague piece of legislation can leave homosexuals in an uncomfortable position with regards to the law, and has been cited as emboldening vigilante groups, some of which have used Grindr as a lure.

That said, there is still a thriving, if underground, gay scene in Moscow – Mono Bar, Central Station Moscow and Boy-Z are all well frequented gay clubs. Sunday evenings in Propaganda are notorious gay nights.

Russian authorities have assured FIFA that it will be possible to take a rainbow flag to stadiums. Nevertheless be prepared for a potentially hostile reaction from those around you if you do so.

Outside stadiums and more importantly away from cameras, basic common sense applies: don’t hold hands in public and generally don’t draw attention to yourself. Oh, and don’t go to Chechnya.

Honey traps

St Petersburg is a particular hotspot in this regard. Pairs of attractive girls will often approach foreigners in tourist areas, telling you that they know a “special bar” that you might want to accompany them to. If you find yourself thinking that this is too good to be true, it probably is.

Cash payment

Be aware that the Russian Ruble has fallen in value precipitously over the last few years and many people will do whatever they can to deal only in cash. You will find that a remarkably large number of bars and restaurants will have card machines that are mysteriously not working.

Taxi drivers, even when hailed via Yandex or Uber, will often ask you to cancel your order once inside the taxi and agree on the same price, but in cash – that way the ride hailing app gets a smaller commission. There is also a tendency to pretend not to have the correct amount of change in order that you might say “keep the change” rather than go to an ATM to withdraw more cash.

Neither of these phenomena present a danger, but do make sure you are carrying plenty of cash for the sake of convenience. Pickpocketing, it must be said, is relatively rare.

The verdict

From a security perspective, this may appear to be a rather sobering set of obstacles to overcome, but it remains the case that the most likely cause of harm that could befall any fan this World Cup is a road accident. And in that sense it’s just like coming to Russia at any other time of year!

Should you have any specific concerns about travel to Russia please tweet us @jerichoonline or message us on Facebook. Our two Russia correspondents, @joelucbarnes and @alexmarrow57, are also happy to help and give advice.

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