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Peeking Around Corners in the World Cup’s Provincial Cities

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — Olga B. Kalinina and Albina Marunova are living within the so-called socialist the city, a number of low-rise Soviet cottages that take a seat alongside the freeway that hyperlinks the airport with the middle in their town, one among 11 in Russia that hosted suits at this summer season’s Global Cup.

Mrs. Marunova’s development faces the freeway, and so it used to be completely repaired simplest weeks prior to the match arrived in Nizhny Novgorod. Guests, hurrying to their lodges or to the brand new stadium at the financial institution of the Volga River, would see a tidy the city surrounded by means of seas of inexperienced grass and timber.

Mrs. Kalinina lives only some steps additional into the block. However visiting foreigners can not see her area, a development that has no longer observed upkeep for many years, and so the painters and the repairmen handed it by means of. Its yellow colour is simply visual after lots of the scaffolding fell down, revealing patches of grey concrete.

“That is the way it works in Russia,” stated Mrs. Kalinina, 68 and retired from her activity operating in a close-by automotive portions manufacturing unit. “We’re able to do the entirety to provoke visitors and not anything to make our personal lives higher.”

Her neighbor, against this, used to be radiant. “The town is growing,” Mrs. Marunova stated. “Foreigners have arrived, the freeway used to be repaired.”

The Global Cup, which closes with suits in St. Petersburg and Moscow this weekend, used to be the primary main global tournament hosted by means of a number of Russian towns on the similar time. A couple of had earlier revel in with surprising influxes of global visitors: Moscow and Sochi had hosted the Olympics; St. Petersburg was the venue for the G20 Summit in 2013; and Kazan organized the World University Games the same year and hosted the world swimming championships in 2015.

For other Russian cities, though, the World Cup was a transformative experience. Throngs of visitors landed in city centers, some of which had been off-limits to foreigners only three decades earlier, during the Soviet era.

“The World Cup meant much more for Samara than it did for Moscow and St. Petersburg,” said Andrei V. Kochetkov, an urban activist. “For the first time, people could see that foreigners don’t bite and that streets can turn pedestrian.”

But building stadiums and fan zones and transforming entire cities are very different projects, and visits to a half-dozen of the more provincial Russian cities on the World Cup map — Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Saransk, Rostov-on-Don, Volgograd and Yekaterinburg — revealed both substantive improvements and a host of Potemkin villages, a term that originated in Russia to describe an effort to conceal grim reality from a short-term visitor.

Russia’s federal government, for example, sent about $550 million to Nizhny Novgorod, an industrial hub on the confluence of Volga and Oka rivers, to help finance a new airport as well as a metro station near the stadium, which opened this year. One stretch of the embankment along the river likely to draw visitors, which had been surrounded by a blue fence for years, was finally refurbished.

To spend the money most effectively, the local government designated several so-called “guest routes” — essentially streets and sights that World Cup fans were most likely to see. The city administration pledged to repair all decrepit buildings on these avenues, but paperwork delayed the fixes until three months before the tournament.

In the end, migrant workers simply splashed paint on buildings, many of them architectural monuments, to obscure their battered state, said Anna A. Davydova, a local urban preservation activist. Only three buildings were properly restored, she said.

“What was done was a mere minimum, so that we would not be completely ashamed of what is happening in our city,” Mrs. Davydova said.

The stadium, which locals joke resembles an air filter from an old Lada car, is surrounded by water from two sides. That makes it difficult to reach, Mrs. Davydova said. The initial plan was to cover the arena with glass, but the project was later simplified, and now the stadium stands open to winds coming from the wide expanses of the river.

Samara, another big industrial city on the Volga, faced similar problems. A booming bread-trading hub before the Russian Revolution, it inherited dozens of first-class art nouveau buildings. A few of the buildings in the city center, which had fallen into despair in recent decades, were repaired for the World Cup, and the city’s long, lush beachfront got the care it deserved as Samara’s crown jewel.

But not all of Samara’s buildings and neighborhoods were as fortunate.

To disguise those, the local government bought and installed 6.8 miles of fence, said Yulia V. Torgashova, a local financial analyst. The comedian Ivan Urgant, the Russian equivalent to Stephen Colbert, joked about the plan on his late-night show, saying that the next step should be for the government to cover the faces of residents who were deemed not attractive enough for foreign eyes.

Rostov-on-Don got an almost identical aid package as Nizhny Novgorod to spend on infrastructure improvements: new airport terminals and roads, as well as a new stadium that opened in May. But not every project begun for the World Cup was completed.

A giant glass building, resembling a moored cruise ship, stands in front of the Rostov-on-Don railway terminal. The logo on top says Sheraton, but the hotel was not finished in time for the World Cup and will never be opened, said Maksim N. Khmel, the head of a local real estate company.

In every World Cup city, there were signs that the local government had made an effort to tidy up. In Volgograd, a more extreme step was taken: workers at Krasny Oktyabr, one of the biggest steel mills in the region, were sent on vacation during the World Cup so that the factory would stop belching the reddish noxious gases it produces over the stadium.

“I am looking at what happens in Moscow, how things get better there, and I realize that we are just so far behind,” said Anton Astakhov, the head of an IT company in Volgograd, a city known more for an abundance of outsourced call centers.

The city’s dependency on the central government in Moscow was a recurrent theme in conversations with residents. Some see the absence of a real autonomy from the Kremlin as the biggest problem; others were grateful that the central government chose their city at all, and sent some money for improvements.

“It was all poured onto us from the outside,” said Denis V. Shilikhin, a local entrepreneur. “The World Cup, the financial resources — all of it.”

Yekaterinburg, a sprawling city in the middle of the Urals region, was an exception, but of another kind. With a strong industrial base divided among several local oligarchs and vibrant theater, rock music and street art scenes, it saw a surge in the kind of patriotism not seen in other Russian cities.

“Yekaterinburg is far enough from Moscow for it not to suck too many people out of here,” said Dmitri Kolezev, the editor of, a local news website with a national reach.

As a result, Yekaterinburg has the reputation as a city aloof about what others think of it. Still, to please visitors, the local authorities removed barbed wire from a pretrial detention center that stands about a block from the city’s World Cup stadium, and increased the number of guards.

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