THE only thing more improbable than the Russian national team’s performance on the pitch has been the buoyant atmosphere around this year’s World Cup. Fans from around the world have poured into the country despite political tensions—though the poisoning of two more people with the nerve agent Novichok in Britain cast a pall over the next round (see Britain section). At home, Russian security services have turned a blind eye toward minor infractions, allowing city centres to become non-stop parties. When Russia defeated Spain on July 1st cars blocked Moscow streets and started impromptu street discos. Thousands of dancing revellers snaked past the Bolshoi Theatre, where ballerinas had also been watching the match backstage, and up to the doorsteps of Lubyanka, the headquarters of the FSB, the successor to the KGB.
Such permissiveness has made for a more convivial tournament than many expected. “Marches that don’t need to be approved a month in advance, open-air celebrations that don’t lead to prosecutions, backslapping with police officers—the World Cup in Russia has turned into a festival of freedom,” observed Maxim Trudolyubov, a columnist. Foreign visitors have found warm hosts in Russian fans, who have in turn discovered an outside world less hostile than state television would have them believe. Copious amounts of beer and sun helped.
The festival of freedom will almost surely end with a return to the prior rules, rather than a permanent thaw. But the fact that the Russian authorities can tighten and loosen the screws at will is not new. What is more notable is that ordinary Russians have turned their team’s fairy-tale run into a grassroots national holiday that has unified people across the political spectrum. Even the opposition leader Alexei Navalny could not contain his glee: “How wonderful this is,” he tweeted after the victory over Spain. President Vladimir Putin, whose ratings have been sliding, had stayed away, presumably fearing a loss. The Kremlin would like to own the victory, of course, but it is not property that the state can simply seize. As an editorial in Vedomosti, a business daily, drily noted, “Not a single camera captured the chanting turning from ‘Rossiya! Rossiya!’ or ‘Akinfeev!’ [the name of the heroic Russian goalkeeper] into ‘Putin! Putin!’”
Some fear the Kremlin will exploit the sport for political purposes, as it did with the Sochi Olympics in 2014. (After cheating its way to the top of the medal count, Russia annexed Crimea.) But this time the sporting euphoria feels like a sigh of relief, after the constant confrontation of recent years. Witness the American and Russian fans hugging in the Moscow metro and repeating to each other, “There will be change.” The chants of “Ros-si-ya”, which became synonymous with aggressive Russian nationalism during the annexation of Crimea, sound benignly patriotic. To be sure, happy vibes will not transform Russia’s politics, much less its foreign policy; they will not put an end to Mr Putin’s aggression abroad, nor free the political prisoners withering in his jails. But hosting a global carnival may make it a little harder for the Kremlin to turn Russia back into a besieged fortress again.