With his botox elastic face, Putin got up to the podium. With his smeared-on smile, he looked into the camera. With his sagging lips, he spoke these words, officially declaring the football World Cup … open.
“Wherever we live, no matter our traditions, we all are united as one team by our love for this spectacular, dazzling, uncompromising game … It is in this unity, which bends neither to differences in language, nor in ideology, nor in faith, that the great power of football, of sport in general, the power of its humanistic principles, lies.”
It’s been a great World Cup, with wonderful drama on the pitch and an England team to be proud of however far it gets in the competition, but let’s not forget the essential character of Putin’s Russia, ruled as it is by a cruel and brutal personality, lacking all capacity for remorse. In his opening remarks, by invoking the power of shared ‘humanistic principles’, Putin isn’t really mocking the West for its own pretensions to universalism, he is addressing himself very directly to what little remains of all the journalists and writers and businessmen and spooks and ex-spooks and civilians he has had ‘rubbed out’.
In early 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, who made her name as a daring and reliable reporter during the Chechnya conflict, began making investigations into the Russian army’s handling of the Beslan school siege. Stories had emerged of gross incompetence, even collusion by the state authorities with the terrorists. She was also about to publish an exposé of the violent methods of Chechen warlord Ramzam Kadyrov, now Chechen premier and Putin ally, who posed with Egyptian football star Mo Salah last week for a photo-op.
That October, Politovskaya was shot dead outside her Moscow apartment.
Former FSB agent and defector to the UK Alexander Litvinenko accused Putin of her murder. Three weeks later, he collapsed in terrible pain. He had been poisoned with polonium-210, a poison manufactured only in Russia under tight control by central government authorities. The order had to have come from the very top.
Alexander Litvinenko dictated this letter from his death bed: “You have now proved that you are exactly the ruthless barbarian your harshest critics made you out to be. You have demonstrated that you have no respect for human life, liberty, or other values of civilisation. You have shown that you do not deserve to hold your post, and you do not deserve the trust of civilised people. You may be able to shut one man up, but the noise of protest all over the world will reverberate in your ears, Mr Putin, to the end of your life.”
Litvinenko died two days later.
When Putin spoke of the brotherhood of man at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, and the place erupted, it had a slightly carnivalesque quality. There’s a kind of frank delight in the absurdity of the whole thing.
Putin has always been the ultimate shape-shifter. In the late nineties, this former KGB officer became the favoured candidate of the pro-democracy crowd to replace Yeltsin. When he became President, he seemed to favour free enterprise, hired a load of free marketeer Russian economists and drove through big tax cuts. In the early 2000s, he was the friend of the West in its fight against terrorism. In 2012, he turned to traditionalism in embracing an anti-LGBT rights agenda and an aggressive form of nationalism, reviving the reputation of Stalin.
Russian autocracy has always had this theatrical edge. Russia began with the Muscovite state which emerged from conflict between the Mongols and Slav principalities in the late 15th century. Ivan III defeated the Mongols and claimed their lands for his own and called them Russia. He ruled as an autocrat, ending the independence from the state of the nascent aristocracy.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
One court philosopher, Joseph of Volokolamsk, wrote that Ivan was “in nature like to all men, but in authority … like to the highest God”.
In 1913, Czar Nicholas II made Muscovite ideology central to the tercentenary celebrations of Romanov rule. He made a tour of the lands of ancient Muscovy. He instituted ‘Muscovite’ architecture reforms, embellishing significant buildings in Moscow with Muscovite detail. Still more fascinating, as the historian Orlando Figes notes, “He [Nicholas] talked of Rus’, the old Muscovite term for the core lands of Russia … he even toyed with the idea of making all his courtiers wear long caftans, like those of the ancient Muscovite boyars”.
For Putin’s World Cup, read the Romanov tercentenary. Weird, absurd and terrifying. If we accept that the World Cup plays the same function in preserving the legitimacy of Russian autocracy, we must too accept that our delight in every goal is a tacit expression of support for the Putin system. And that in every wave of glee and joy we feel at the entertainment value of it all, we are in some way forgetting Politkovskaya and Litvinenko and so many countless others and what they did and who they were and why they died.