Updated: Jul 17, 2018
The Word Cup 2018 just ended. France won in an exciting final against Croatia. The event was well organized and a real boost to Russia's reputation.
Moscow plays a special place in my life. I spent seven years there with my wife, Zora, and kept a business for another seven years that led me to visit regularly. Our two kids were born while we lived in Russia. We have some of our fondest memories of their first years in the parks of the city. We met some of our dearest friends in Moscow. I lived through my harshest professional time there (1998 financial crisis), and also enjoyed my greatest entrepreneurial success to-date (CISlink Ltd).
I am back now after six years following a wonderful and unexpected gift: my son Markian surprised me with a trip and two tickets to the World Cup Final between France and Croatia.
The events unfolded quickly. We were in Spain when France won its qualification vs Belgium on a Tuesday. The next day, Markian had secured the tickets. By Thursday, we had arranged lodging after placing a request for help through social media. Our old friends, Maria and Nicolas, very kindly offered their apartment in the center of Moscow. On Saturday, we were on our way... The trip was made possible because of a special visa regime implemented during the World Cup. A simple online registration replaced what is usually a cumbersome procedure which had kept me away all this time.
We were lucky to enjoy two days of wonderful sunshine. The city was colorful, gracefully embracing the soccer fever despite Russia's elimination. Moscow remained familiar, most of my favorite places are still there, yet Moscow has a fresher look. Everything seems the same but a lot has changed in the past six years:
The streets are cleaner, the roads resurfaced and the lines freshly painted.
Moscow's legendary metro was given a facelift.
Cash is not a thing anymore. I had a hard time finding a currency exchange kiosk. In fact, I spent the whole trip with R300 ($5) in my pocket. All payments can be made with Visa, even for the smallest amounts. We are far from the time when everybody used to carry a large amount of cash just in case...
There are few 'gipsy cabs' (private individuals using their car as unofficial taxis). Official taxis are now inexpensive and easy to find through a user-friendly mobile application.
More people seem to speak english. With my T-shirt supporting France, I was greeted everywhere in English despite my fluent Russian. This would not have been the case in the past.
Lines and security at the airport on entry and departure were remarkably swift and efficient despite the large number of travelers. The registration process to formalize the visa (in the country) through the Fan ID was amazingly efficient, automated and handled by smiling volunteers.
By any standard, Russia put on a fantastic show for this World Cup. About one million tourists visited the country, most for the first time. They were well received, enjoyed a marvelous event, discovered Russian hospitality and will probably leave with a better opinion of the country than when they came.
As a tourist, you always tend to see a reality that is quite superficial and idyllic. The one they want to show you [Note: Do not perceive this as a criticism of Russia, it really goes for all countries!]. You usually do not understand the daily nuances and struggles of the local life. Your background knowledge of the culture, history, political life is limited. Time and language barriers prevent a more comprehensive appreciation of the situation.
For this reason, as a digital nomad, I prefer to remain in a place for one to two months. It gives me more time to penetrate the local social fabric, meet amazing people and establish some mutual trust. Even if my perception of reality is somewhat blinded by unavoidable biases, I tend to leave richer from that new experience, with a strengthened conviction that we are all the same, driven by the same human desires, fears and hope.
This visit to Moscow was not one of these longer stays. It was an opportunistic trip for a special event in a region I knew well. It gave me the opportunity to talk to old friends and gauge the weight of the political sanctions imposed on Russia. Businesses are suffering. There is much less money to go around as before. This is not the Eldorado it once was. Still, the country put on a brave face and organized a glitzy party. Let's hope that the dust will not settle too hard for the population after all the guests are gone.
Please share with us any experience you had about this World Cup, in Russia or otherwise.