This month, the 21st FIFA World Cup will kick-off in the Russian capital of Moscow. It is sport’s largest competition, in the world’s largest country. The enormity of both is mystifying. Every four years, football — or, soccer, if you like — reminds the planet of its ability to unite and amaze, regardless of where it’s played. Much like “the beautiful game” itself, Russia is historic, unpredictable, and often controversial. Thus, the meeting of these two great institutions will be as unique as they are.
Whether you’re lucky enough to witness the event firsthand, or simply feel inspired by your favorite athletes to visit this vast country in the future, here’s everything you need to know before you go.
Despite its reputation as a monolith, Russia is as ethnically and culturally diverse as any place on Earth. The imperial and Soviet legacies of vertical power and expansion mean that, today, Russian city streets are alive with the sights and sounds of the global West, East, and South all at once. Looking at a map, this should come as no surprise, since the country sprawls across Eurasia, inviting a cross-pollination of ideas and traditions. This endlessness is part of what makes Russia daunting, and there is even a word for it as a psychological concept: пространство (pro-stranst-va), which literally means “space.”
The country’s expanse even puts a strain on the logistics of the football matches. To economize on travel times between games, this year’s World Cup will take place entirely in European Russia. Still, the westernmost host city of Kaliningrad, which was formerly part of Germany, is 1,880 miles (3,000 kilometers) from the easternmost venue in Yekaterinburg, located on the outskirts of Siberia. If, perhaps, you’re a superstitious sports fan, there could be symbolism in this geography, as the reigning champions (Germany) will return to the tournament, reluctant to surrender their trophy. And since Spain and France are also favorites for the title, the World Cup may not leave Europe just yet.
Between its size, chilling weather, visa restrictions, and notoriously difficult language, Russia might seem inhospitable — so why go, then?
First of all, it’s a unique choice of destination. Although it doesn’t often top bucket lists for the reasons listed above, misconceptions abound. For instance, this year’s host cities will see average temperatures of about 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius), which is warmer than much of northern Europe. Also, the Russian language is entirely phonetic and makes extensive use of transliterated words from English and French — meaning that if you can at least pronounce the sounds of the Cyrillic letters, you can get quite far.
Secondly, because of the negative perceptions that some Westerners might harbor about the country, Russians are extremely welcoming to anyone who chooses to visit — and they’re interested in setting the record straight. During my two months in Moscow, every local interaction I experienced based on my foreignness was one of fascination, a search for a common ground. That ground was often found in social and political dialogues, complete with assurances from my new acquaintances that a country’s leaders do not define its people. Moreover, despite my constant attempts to speak Russian, almost everyone insisted on practicing their English with me. Their curiosity about every aspect of my life back home in the States reminded me that despite what people say, the world is still a huge place; that said, it was refreshing to see how easily these cultural divides could be bridged. One only has to take the initiative.
Finally, Russia will make good on the effort you put in to going there by inspiring this same kind of curiosity in you. This country is a wellspring of culture and history, and it has something for everyone. There are imperial museums bursting with the armor, dresses, and carriages of Russia’s monarchs, minutes away from Soviet underground nuclear bunkers that are tucked away in quiet corners of the city. There are some of the foremost collections of classical art in the world at St. Petersburg’s Hermitage and Moscow’s Pushkin museums, while both ancient and contemporary art thrive in various museums and galleries across the country. For example, Yekaterinburg is home to the oldest known wooden sculpture in the world, and Moscow’s Garage Museum showcases modern art from the private collection of Chelsea F.C. owner, Roman Abramovich.
All in all, Russia needs a chance to distance itself from the specters of its past, much like FIFA with its highly publicized corruption scandals. Just as footballers and fans keep the game beautiful, the Russian people and their traditions thrive in any circumstances. So, pack some shorts (though you shouldn’t wear them to visit any of the country’s historic churches — the babushkas won’t let you in!), learn a few new phrases, and book your trip far enough in advance to get a proper visa. As a reward, one of the world’s most vibrant and eclectic societies will welcome you.
Through travel, we learn more about our homelands, and are reminded that the brief glimpses of a place afforded by news reports and social media posts could never compare to its true essence.
Russia reminds you of this the moment you arrive.
Header image by Yulia Vambold