Russians just want to be liked

7:21 pm on 8 July 2018

By Coen Lammers in St Petersburg

Opinion - Our small country at the bottom of the Pacific shares one peculiar trait with the biggest nation in the world - we are both desperate for praise, writes Coen Lammers.

Russian fans watch the quarter-final football match between Russia and Croatia on a giant screen in Saint Petersburg on July 7, 2018 during the Russia 2018 football World Cup.

Photo: AFP or licensors

It is well documented that New Zealanders have always been intrigued by the opinions of visitors about our country. Without fail, each high-profile guest to our shores will be asked for their impression about Aotearoa, and often in a way that reeks of desperation.

As a young nation which is still finding its way in the world, that insecurity and need for external affirmation is not totally surprising, but it has been astonishing to experience an even higher level of this self-doubt in Russia.

Russia is rich in history, culture and natural resources, and you would not expect this nuclear super power with 144 million citizens to be lacking in confidence. After all, President Vladimir Putin has been very successful in creating the image in his foreign policy of a country that does not care what others think of it.

The reality during the FIFA World Cup, however, has been quite the opposite.

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  • The ordinary Russian is extremely aware that this World Cup has exposed their country to outside scrutiny like never before.

    "Before there was a big wall around us and nobody could look inside our kitchen," said Andrei, a student in Samara and volunteer at the World Cup.

    "But for this World Cup we have opened up our doors, everyone can see who we are and we just hope that you like what you see."

    It is not strange for a person or a nation wanting to be liked, but the obsession in Russia to find out if the visitors are pleased with their country is extraordinary.

    Most interactions with locals, in whatever the city or circumstances, will soon turn to the question if we like Russia and if people have treated us well.

    They want to know if we like the people, their food, their cities, the stadiums and every other aspect of their lives that we may have a view on.

    Once the question is asked, the face of the Russians will be filled with a mixture of hope and painful anxiety in the split second before the answer.

    That expression quickly changes to relief and smiles when they hear that the experiences of most visitors has been overwhelmingly positive.

    Some of the officialdom at customs, hotels and airports is still not very user-friendly, cumbersome and old-fashioned with lots of paperwork and loud banging with multiple stamps but the World Cup organisers and ordinary locals are falling over themselves to make visitors feel at home.

    Thousands of volunteers are omnipresent in all the playing cities and will quickly offer assistance to anyone looking a bit lost. And when they are not around, waiters, taxi-drivers, shop assistants and even local police are happy to help out, even if they don't speak English.

    And of course, they will all check if you like their country.

    For many Russians, and especially in the smaller centres, this may be the first time they have interacted with foreigners on such a large scale. Overseas travel remains reserved for the privileged, and locals have little reference points to compare their own society.

    Westerners are still perceived as rich and possibly more sophisticated than they are, so our opinions are important for the locals to see how their lives stack up.

    Russians are proud of their country, its history, its struggles and the power it portrays around the world, but that pales into insignificance compared to the buzz the entire nation got from the unexpected success of their football team.

    "Finally, we are a good at something that matters," said volunteer Yulia with tears in her eyes after Russia beat Spain. "Finally, we are winners."

    After the drugs scandals and Russia's ban from Olympic Games and other major sporting events, the football team has done wonders for local morale and pride.

    Off the field, Russia has delivered a successful World Cup and received rave reviews from overseas guests, which may just help the locals to feel a little less insecure.

    * Coen Lammers is covering the FIFA World Cup for RNZ online and on air. Russian 2018 is his fifth World Cup.