On the evening of July 1, Russia’s World Cup soccer team beat Spain in a penalty shootout and advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time in history. After the final whistle, the city of Moscow transformed into a giant carnival. Meduza special correspondent Ilya Zhegulev watched the game in the “fan zone” at Sparrow Hills and spent several hours among the post-game partiers in the Nikolskaya Street area, trying to get a fix on the general euphoria.
Two hours before the start of the match with Spain, the bus stop for express to the Sparrow Hills fan zone was packed, but people were silent. Nobody sang and nobody shouted. “We should still go,” said a young man named Andrey, pawing a Zolotaya Bochka (Golden Barrel) beer. “It’s like we owe it to them. Today will probably be a sad day, but there’s no way we can’t show up.”
By that time, the fan zone was already full of people, but they looked more like vacationers than rabid soccer fans. Many were splayed out on the ground, like at the beach, watching the stage and listening to the hosts, the musicians, and FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samoura, who was handing out prizes to celebrate the fact that five million people had now visited Russia’s official fan zones during this summer’s soccer tournament.
The performers weren’t exactly bursting with optimism, either. “When there’s a lump in your throat and you can no longer speak, then remember the simple days when it wasn’t so bleak,” sang the band Marsel. “We just need to hang in there for the first 30 minutes. If we can last a half hour, we’ve at least got a chance. If not, we’re goners,” a man in a gigantic Russian tricolor hat said with conviction.
And that was the mood when the game got underway. When the Spaniards scored first, nobody made a sound: the omens were coming true. But everything changed, just before halftime. After Artem Dzyuba’s penalty goal, the crowd came alive and collectively exhaled, every time the Russians kicked the ball out of the penalty area. “I can’t watch anymore. I don’t have the nerves for this,” said a young woman in a light blue dress, closing her hands over her eyes. Normal time ended, extra time began, and with it came a powerful downpour, but nobody went for the exits. After the penalty kicks, the screaming from the audience was so great that you couldn’t hear a sound from the loudspeakers. Some rapper tried to do a song, but almost nobody noticed: total strangers were throwing each other into the air. Five men in Team Morocco jerseys rushed a group of big, half-naked Russians, screaming, “We thank you for kicking out the Spaniards!” The Russians didn’t understand, but everyone embraced like old friends.
A lot of people went straight from Luzhniki Stadium to Nikolskaya Street, which has transformed over the past two weeks into the main gathering point for soccer fans. Tonight, it was packed with people from all over the city, and the first several blocks were totally closed off. Now people were streaming toward Ilinka Street. For a night, Nikolskaya was Moscow’s very epicenter.
The fervor was also palpable at Red Square. A musician with pink hair and a painted guitar improvised in English, while a crowd of people jumped around him. Some men, wrapped in the Russian flag, danced the lezginka. Spanish fans, dressed in their team’s jerseys, were taking photographs with anybody who wanted them. They passed out Spanish flags to Russian girls. “We’re really disappointed. You can’t even imagine,” one of them admitted, smiling. “But what else can we do? Lock ourselves in our hotel rooms and get wasted? We’re here. We’re in Moscow. So let’s get out and have some fun. It looks like we lost and you won.”
There on the square, somebody noticed Guus Hiddink giving an interview to one of the Western TV stations (there are several based in Red Square right now). “Gu-u-us! Hiddink! Hiddink! Fuckin’-A, man!” a fan howled at him. Soon some others joined in, roaring inharmoniously at the man who managed Team Russia to the Euro 2008 semi-finals. When it was time for a commercial break, Hiddink unclipped the microphone pinned to his coat, stood up, and waved.
The Nikolskaya Street fever had also spread to Okhotny Ryad, outside Red Square, where commotion around the subway exits recalled a protest five years ago, when Muscovites protested against the Kirov City Court’s decision to sentence Alexey Navalny to five years in prison (a verdict that was later revoked). Both then and now, there were rows of riot police standing by, just in case. Police even dragged away some of the rowdiest fans, but those were the rare exceptions, and officers were mostly invisible. Generally speaking, they simply kept people from jumping in front of oncoming traffic, crossing the street on a red light, or blocking the road.
It was Nikolskaya Street at Kuznetsky Most, too, where musicians — as if they’d planned it — were all playing the same song: Kino’s “I Want Changes!” (Khochu peremen!). The carnival was on Myasnitskaya Street, as well, where a man driving a rare Soviet model car blasted the patriotic tune “Katyusha.” A crowd gathered around him and refused to leave the road.
The revelry was greatest, of course, at Nikolskaya Street itself, where fans partied past midnight, hanging from street lamps and windows. The atmosphere was like the Nashestvie Music Festival, and the evening’s anthem unexpectedly turned out to be the song “Battery” (Batareika). Embarrassed and smiling, the Rossiya TV correspondent couldn’t film his segment because fans kept barging in front of the camera, shouting the station’s name. The journalist and cultural commentator Yuri Saprykin congratulated a young woman on the day’s victory. “My boys are headed home,” she said, referring to Team Spain. But she wouldn’t accept any condolences: “I’m the one who gives her sympathies to you. You’re the ones who have to stay here.”
In recent days, Nikolskaya Street had been a festival of peoples from all over the world, but tonight there was only one people. The happy Mexicans had disappeared. The noisy Brazilians were gone. There were no more colorful Peruvians. “What’s your name?” asked a guy in heavily accented Russian. He had our tricolor painted on his cheeks, and he was wearing a Benetton jersey. When I told him, he embraced me and his friend and started jumping up and down, yelling, “Ro-si-ya! Ro-si-ya!” It was only a few minutes later that I found out that he and his friends are from Argentina.
Alexander Polivanov contributed to this report