World Cup preparations have Russians getting ready to smile and speak English
Russians hope Western tourists will look past politics for tournament
In light of Russia's near-pariah status in much of the Western world, many Russians are treating the 2018 World Cup soccer tournament as a chance to put a more welcoming face on their country.
So in a classroom next to noisy train tracks in southern Moscow, language teacher Evgenia Zaborskaya is grilling about 20 Moscow transit staff on how to be polite and helpful — in English.
"We want to attract more foreign tourists; it's good for our economy," Zaborskaya says as she leads the class through a discussion on how give out directions to popular sites such as Red Square.
Until recently, there were few non-Cyrillic signs in Moscow and a lack of English speakers to help. But in the lead-up to the tournament the transit system has provided intensive training to hundreds of staff who will be on duty during the competition. Russia expects to host as many as one million foreign visitors during the month-long event, which kicks off June 14.
"We just want to show the beauty of Moscow and the Moscow underground," said Zaborskaya.
When Russia was awarded the world's most-watched sporting event back in 2010, few could have anticipated the extent to which its relationship with the West would deteriorate.
The list of crisis points has been lengthy: Russia's takeover of Crimea; the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 by a Russian missile; the Olympic doping scandal; allegations of meddling in the 2016 U.S. election; and accusations over the poisoning of a former Russian spy in England have led to successive rounds of political and economic sanctions.
Earlier this week, family members of those killed in the destruction of MH-17 published an open letter saying a "shadow" hangs over the tournament because Russia's leaders continue to deny the findings of the official investigation, which concluded that the plane was shot down by a Russian missile.
Britain has actively encouraged its football fans to avoid Russia. Its foreign minister, Boris Johnson, has even suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin hosting FIFA 2018 is akin to Hitler hosting the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Putin has put himself at the centre of the event preparations and is expected to attend the opening match against Saudi Arabia.
His main political nemesis, opposition figure Alexey Navalny, won't be afforded the same opportunity. Navalny was arrested for staging nationwide demonstrations against Putin last month and will spend much of the tournament in jail.
Still, while some official delegations — notably Britain and Iceland — have chosen not to take part, Russian organizers claim 90 per cent of the almost 2.4 million tickets that were available have sold out, with more than half going to foreign football fans.
Many Russians seem intent on making the most of the opportunity, hoping that hospitality will trump politics and that visitors will leave with at least a few stereotypes dispelled.
"I think foreigners will understand that Russia is not a hostile state," said Juliya Golubeva, who was posing for photos with her partner, Alexei Khovostov, next to the FIFA countdown clock in downtown Moscow.
"They will see that we are friends and are open to everyone."
She said she was most looking forward to mingling with the expected huge crowds.
'More important' than Olympics
"This is even more important to them than the Olympics, " said Doug Steele, a Canadian who has lived in Moscow for more than 24 years.
"They want the world to come here. They need and they want a positive image."
Steele, who owns Papa's Bar and Restaurant just off the Nikolskaya pedestrian mall, says it's understandable that some people are concerned about celebrating a sporting event hosted by Putin, but he says Russia is more than just one man.
"Don't get caught up on the idea of who runs it. You can come and enjoy the people. There's a lot to see and do, and there's a very wealthy culture."
The people behind Moscow's Metro subway system — a tourist attraction in its own right, with many beautiful, classically designed stations — have been especially proactive at trying to make a positive impression.
At the Kitay Gorod station, Metro information staffer Ivan Smetanin told CBC News that he believes the World Cup's expensive $11 billion US price tag will have been worth it if visitors have a good time.
"We are interested in attracting more tourists here," he said. "This is the trend in all the cities in the world — cities compete with each other to impress their visitors."
He added that many tourists are surprised to find just how far Russia has come since the Soviet era.
"[Some people] expect old stereotypes that we are not so client-oriented, not so friendly. But we try to contradict."
More than 26 million foreigners visited Russia in 2016, but most came from former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan. Tourism growth beyond those areas has been stagnant since the various political crises began in 2014.
This year, football fans will flood into the country to see World Cup events at 11 different venues across Russia. Cities such as Volgograd, Kazan and Saransk, which tend to see relatively fewer Western visitors, are expecting sizable crowds.
Cities like Yekaterinburg and Rostov will benefit from the construction of new airports and roads. Nine new stadiums were built from scratch, including the facility in St. Petersburg that ended up costing over $800 million US — seven times the initial budget — because of engineering challenges and problems with the grass turf.
But Steele, the Canadian expat, says he believes the tournament will give an economic boost to Russian regions that rarely see much government spending, and most people will see it as money well spent.
"All these other cities which have never seen this quality are going to experience a world-class event," he says.
"People are going to leave with a very positive impression."