These past weeks I had the distinct pleasure of visiting the Russian Federation and attending the 2018 World Cup. As one might expect, upon my return I have been bombarded with questions regarding the trip, ranging from the political situation, the quality of the tournament, the state of the nation, and my personal interactions with the locals. It seems the best way to answer these would be to recount my experiences here at the Burkean Journal. Next thing you know we’ll have a travel section.

For those who do not desire to read a lengthy analysis of Russia and its world cup I shall break character and be kind, summing it up for you, dear reader, in short; by saying that it was by far the best trip abroad I’ve been on. By virtue of both the incredible country that is Russia and its remarkable inhabitants.

The most important thing I can do with this article is to dispel the stereotypes around the country that are so prevalent in the West. After having travelled the vast capital of Moscow, the unending rural wilderness and some far flung regional towns and cities, all while enjoying the company of the Russian people, I think it is fair to say I have developed a considerably wider perspective on the nation.

The first surprise that any Westerner will be greeted with in Russia is the people. Long has our media portrayed them as dour unsmiling individuals that would never offer a friendly face, let alone assistance to a foreigner. In reality they may well be some of the most pleasant and welcoming people on Earth.

Upon landing at the magnificent Domodedovo airport on the outskirts of Moscow, myself and company were immediately surprised by the welcoming nature and openness of staffers who assisted us in getting our match tickets. This proved to be the rule and not the exception throughout the country – any interaction with locals had a solid chance of developing into friendly conversation and banter, despite the considerable language barrier.

So welcoming were the people we encountered that on multiple occasions we had our drinks bought for us, simply due to us being visitors. Most people were consistently happy or even eager to engage in conversation, on any topic, an amusing example being getting into a brief discussion about the demographics of the Mordovia region in a small rural bar.

Our hired driver was the human incarnation of entertainment, making over twenty combined hours of driving through the wilds of Russia an amusing and tolerable affair, at least as much as possible for what it was. Throughout the trip the kindness and warmth of the locals only surpassed previous examples, culminating in being offered a place to stay by people we barely knew after missing our flight home to Dublin (more on this later).

Rural Russia was like nothing I had ever experienced, one could drive for fifty miles and not see a building let alone a town. The sheer vastness and beauty is truly something to behold. The charmingly decorated country houses are also worth a look. Wondrous churches and monasteries, now repaired and rebuilt after decades of communist oppression graced every town, no matter how small, with their presence. I have only one warning to give anyone in regards travel to this side of Russia: don’t stop in the swamps.

The regional city of Saransk in which we attended one of the matches was also an impressive location. Despite having a population of only a quarter million and being a relative backwater by Russian standards, it was evident that a huge amount of effort had gone into improving the city over the years and making the fans feel welcome. Not only was the newly built Mordovia Arena a spectacular stadium, but the helpful staffers and extensive security ensured that every one of the 40,000 in attendance were completely safe and had a wonderful time there.

After the sleepless trip through regional Russia, I made my way back to Moscow, a city without equal among the many I have visited. It is certainly true that a large portion of people still live in soviet style apartment blocks, especially in the poorer regions of the city where our budget hostel was located. However the massive reconstruction efforts are easily visible, with new spacious apartments being built to replace them and new public parks and greenery planted on every street. Even the paths had been repaved and seem to be cleaned daily.

No matter where we went in Moscow there was no litter, hardly even a discarded chewing gum stuck to the pavement in fact. It is a testament to the care they take of their city. I have seen more homeless on one street in Dublin than I saw in the entirety of my travels around Moscow, a city of nearly twenty million people. It forces one to ask hard questions about our society and governance here at home.

The outskirts of the city were impressive enough, but the inner city was truly something to behold. The architecture and beauty of Moscow rivalled Paris or Vienna, and was a cleaner and safer city than both, not to mention having more character. The Kremlin and Red Square are things one must see in person to comprehend fully, pictures and videos simply do not do them justice. The same can be said for all the landmarks; the newly rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Stalin’s gothic Seven Sisters skyscrapers, the Bolshoi Theatre and ever so much more.

An entire article could be dedicated to the Moscow Metro, an entire book even, but I’ll make do with a paragraph as I’m already writing one book, another might kill me. If you’ve ever wondered what a palace fused with a train station and then placed underground would look like – take a trip on the Moscow Metro. Not only are the vaulted marble halls and decorative artworks absolutely awe-inspiring, but the metro also functions as a bomb shelter in case of nuclear war. So be sure to try and spot the blast doors if you’re ever lucky enough to visit.

The World War Two Victory Museum, which houses the Hall of Memory and Sorrow, a tribute to the near 30 million Russian and Soviet dead is also a must-see, especially if you wish to understand the impact it continues to have on Russian society.

From the peaks of Stalinist skyscrapers to the depths of the metro and the conversations with the wonderful people, Moscow never ceases to amaze. Forget anything and everything you’ve heard before and take a trip to this incredible city. It’s not something you’ll regret.

In regards prices and the economy, the costs in Russia, even in ‘pricey’ Moscow are unbelievably low. We paid the equivalent of €4 for a three day pass on all public transport for unlimited journeys. I pay more than this in one day at home on Dublin Bus alone. Food and drink are also spectacularly cheap, with restaurants in one of Moscow’s trendiest food districts being cheaper than fast food here in Ireland.

I theorise that this may be part of why everyone has new cars, even in the poorer areas, not exactly the stereotype of everyone driving 1980s Soviet leftovers. When property prices and rent are not unconscionably high and goods are such great value, then naturally the lower average wages when compared to Western Europe mean much less than you might expect. When one isn’t burdened with a lifetime of debt in the form of a comically large mortgage, then naturally there is more money available for the finer things in life. If we ever get our country in order perhaps we can learn from this.

Unfortunately I did not get to speak to many people on the political situation in the country, but from the few snippets that I did catch, people seem to deride the Western impression of Russia and our media, while being happy with the situation in their own country. When one sees the level of improvement taking place there and how efficiently the country functions (compared to Ireland anyway), it is not surprising that they have few complaints.

The World Cup itself is being impeccably hosted, there was not a single dissatisfied fan among those we spoke to. The match hosting itself is a fairly simple affair, solid security and easy to navigate for attending fans thanks to the legions of English-speaking volunteers drafted in to help. It would be very difficult to try and fault the hosts on the magnificent tournament they put together, perhaps the ID and ticketing process could be clearer, but little more than that.

The atmosphere at the fan festival and at every bar or restaurant where the matches are being shown is electric. There is a great camaraderie between fans of all nations and no ill-feeling from what we saw. Certainly BBC reports concerning roving gangs of hooligans were proven utterly false. The worst hooliganism we witnessed on the entire trip was the blaring of air horns by overly enthused Latin American fans.  

The one stereotype that did prove at least somewhat true however, was the bureaucracy. While the locals do their best to help you wade through it, it is difficult nonetheless. Especially in airports, as myself and a friend learnt to our dismay as we missed a flight after two hours of queuing simply because the airline didn’t accept electronic boarding passes. Nonetheless this was merely a blip on an otherwise superb visit to Russia, and thankfully I made it home on another flight, despite being tempted to stay forever. Perhaps also due to the company I was lucky enough to have there.

Overall I simply could not have been left with a better impression of the 2018 World Cup and the incredible nation that is Russia. Whether you know nothing about it or are an avid Russia-watcher such as myself, you will be blown away and consistently surprised by the fabulous realities of the country and its people. It will surprise you, leave you tired and destroyed, make you want to stay – and might even change your entire perspective.