How this grassroots initiative in St Petersburg is making a World Cup for everyone

Major sporting events speak to people in the language of money, prestige and officialdom. But they can – and must – speak the language of culture, equality and solidarity. RU

Natalia Shkurenok
14 June 2018

Participants of the Cup for People project. Photo courtesy of the author.The Russian state’s massive effort in hosting the 2018 FIFA World Championship has led to an unimaginative decision: to deploy police officers to 11 host cities from all over Russia, while restricting citizens’ freedoms, from freedom of movement to freedom of assembly.

But grassroots initiatives are springing up. And these aim to help visitors not just to enjoy the football, but to find out about the real lives of Russian citizens as well. In St Petersburg, which is hosting four matches, a project called A Cup for People has been launched, and its organisers believe it will help them show people the Petersburg that only they know – vibrant, creative, open to the world and resistant to all setbacks.

No entry here and no entry there   

The most eye-catching and high profile element of the preparations for FIFA-2018 is Petersburg’s new stadium, which the locals refer to as “Arena-Zenit” after the city’s football team Zenit St Petersburg. The stadium has taken 10 years to build, and those years have been marred in corruption scandals. The final bill came to almost 50 billion roubles (about £60 million), making it one of the most expensive in the world.

Other building works have also been taking place – to make life easy not only for the football fans, but for local people in the future as well. The city’s two island districts, Vasileostrovsky and Petrogradsky, have now been connected to one another by a new footbridge; the Nevsko-Vasileostrovsky metro line has two new stations, Novokrestovskaya and Begovaya. All this will allow players and fans to avoid traffic congestion and get them as close as possible to the new stadium.


Players before the football match on the platform of the station “Mezhdunarodnaya”. Photo: Alexander Galperin / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.But all the positive impressions from the new developments dim before the massive restrictions and bans affecting both the locals and the tourists. Nana Gvichiya, deputy chair of Petersburg’s Tourism Committee, reckons that between mid June and mid-July, 400,000 fans, players and team staff and their families will pass through the city. To deal with this, the Petersburg authorities have introduced what is basically a form of martial law from 25 May to 25 July.

During these two months, stricter rules on migration will be in force: people coming from other countries will have to register with the city authorities within 24 hours of their arrival; Russian citizens within 72 hours. Public transport and the movement of locals and visitors will be seriously affected: the whole of Krestovsky Island, where the stadium is located, will be closed to everyone except its residents. Fans will only be allowed on the island with an official “fan card”; everyone else will need a special entry pass. On match days, part of Krestovsky Island and the Griboyedov Canal between Nevsky Prospekt and the Moika River (up to the fan zones on Konyushennaya Square) will be closed off.

“Our aim is to make this summer memorable for our visitors from all over the planet, as a big friendly meeting of various cultures”

In addition, during the Championship, there will be a strict limitation on any kind of mass event unconnected with football. Because of this, Petersburg’s city government, for example, decided, for the first time in 30 years, to ban a commemorative event marking the deaths of prisoners who died in the city’s jails, which has traditionally taken place on the first Saturday of June. Only the intervention of the human rights ombudsperson allowed it to take place after all.

On match days, trips to other towns and walks along rivers and canals will be restricted, and between 1 June and 17 July tourist and excursion buses will be banned from World Cup host cities, apart from those on regular routes within the cities. Haulage firms, meanwhile, will need special permits from Russia’s Interior Ministry, and all buses must have a new navigation system installed.

We’ve paid, so we’ll have a good time!   

“At the beginning of January, I initiated a discussion on social media: What is this championship? What can good can we do with it if we’re paying for it anyway in cash and our freedoms?” activist Olga Polyakova tells me. “There was a really good discussion around my post, and that’s how I came up with the idea for this project – A Cup for People.”

In their manifesto, the people involved in the Cup for People project declare that they don’t want this summer in Petersburg and elsewhere to just consist of a high-profile football matches. “Our aim is to make this summer memorable for our visitors from all over the planet, as a big friendly meeting of various cultures,” say the project members. “One of our ideas is to use the World Championship to organise our own, simple and open festival of sport, diversity and humanity. There will be room for everyone there, whatever their gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnic background or social status.”

If the state doesn’t want to talk to its people and listen to their voices, people who are capable of taking the initiative and responsibilities can do it themselves

Cup for People volunteers were also recruited openly, mostly via social media. And the main thrust of the work emerged very quickly. The project would be split into a number of themes: awareness raising work in Diversity House, Alternative Excursions, a “Responsible Consumption” map and “Bars without Violence”.


Worker at the construction site of the Festival of fans of FIFA in St. Petersburg for the World Cup 2018. Photo: Alexey Danichev / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.“All our initiatives are connected more with life than football,” says Elena Belokurova, a member of the Cup for People group and one of the coordinators of the German-Russian Exchange in Petersburg.

“For us, the World Cup is more to do with creating an interesting project. But we couldn’t have got anywhere if we hadn’t coordinated our efforts with the FARE (Football against Racism in Europe) network. They helped us open our Diversity House, and they’ve been creating this kind of thing, in conjunction with FIFA, for many years, wherever the Championship has been taking place. FARE initially planned to have just one Diversity House, in Moscow, but when they found out about the ideas coming from the people in Petersburg, they decided to have one here as well.”

The Diversity House is open from 12 June on Konyushennaya Square, next to the official FIFA 2018 fan zone. According to Elena Belokurova, the organisers have already planned more than 30 events for the space – discussions, meetings, master classes. Various NGOs will have stalls, and they’re expecting a presentation from a group of activists from Finland and Germany who campaign against homophobia in sport. In early July, the final games and debates held by the city’s Democratic Club will take place. And of course, all the football matches will be streamed in Diversity House – large monitors have been set up in two spaces with 160 seats. The new space will open with a photo exhibition dedicated to diversity in Russian and world football. The exhibition will show footballers who have led all kinds of lives: migrants, refugees, LGBTIQ+ players.

“We are open to everyone, but leave ourselves the right to exclude people who might pose a threat to us – who are too drunk, too aggressive, too exuberant,” Alfred Miniakhmetov, coordinator of the Diversity House project tells me. “We have our own security people, and interpreters from several European languages will be on hand. Beer? We’ll let people in with beer, but won’t sell it.”

Eating in St Petersburg

According to the TurStat agency, at the end of last year St Petersburg joined the top three of Russia’s “best food” cities, beaten only by Moscow. Members of the Cup for People group suggested compiling a gastronomic map of the city, but only showing places that comply with their social responsibility principles.

“We use specific criteria to select establishments that comply with social, ethnic and environmental standards,” says Svetlana Kozhukhanova, one of the project group. “This means people who are trying to lessen their environmental footprint, use responsible suppliers, are concerned about recycling, provide spaces for socially important events and organise them, and take part in charitable initiatives.”

The Map for People group looked at dozens of Petersburg eateries and found that café and bar owners were interested in the idea: they were keen to be in contact and shared their concerns about separate rubbish and recycling collections, use of leftover food and an avoidance of disposable plates and glasses. The Map for People group are working out how to help them: getting establishments working together, getting the city authorities involved in things that matter to everyone. There will soon be a new map on the Map for People site, showing where to find vegan restaurants, what bars and cafes cater for people with various food allergies and what eating places are art spaces as well.


Boris Konakov – press officer at the crisis centre and the coordinator of trainings on safety in bars. Photo courtesy of the author.Another important aspect of the project is safety in bars and restaurants. As part of the Map for People project, the staff at St Petersburg’s Women’s Crisis Centre offered to lead violence-avoidance workshops for bar owners and staff. “I work at the Crisis Centre helpline, and we receive an awful lot of complaints from women, telling us that they are subjected to aggression in bars or near them, and from both men they know and people they’ve just met casually who have been drinking,” says Anna Reshetnikova, the Crisis Centre’s manager. “And we decided that we had to do something. Football inflames passions, and we are seriously concerned that violence will be on the increase during the Championship.”

“The aim of the workshop sessions is to talk to bar owners and staff about violence, and in particular gender based aggression, different kinds of aggression and how women can counter it,” says Boris Konakov, press officer at the crisis centre. “We’re not suggesting that bar staff take on any security role, but we are appealing to their sense of responsibility, helping them recognise real danger and asking them not to ignore any requests of help from women.”

The citizen and the state: 100 years of solitude

Another aspect of the Cup for People project is, of course, guided tours around St Petersburg. The organisers of the Tours for People programme are offering visitors and residents tours of a kind that no one else is doing.

Arkady Konnov, a town planning specialist and professional guide, is running two tours of the city. The first tour is a kind of photo-quest where people can take unusual pictures. And the second goes by the name of “Made in St Petersburg”. “I want the visitors to meet creative business people,” says Konnov, “people who invent and create original stuff, from craft beers to individual designer clothes, footwear and jewellery. I’ve already set up an association with a community workshop company and a company who make jewellery and all kinds of original works in porcelain. And the visitors don’t just get to look at other people’s work – they can also make some small piece of their own.”

Dmitry Vorobyev, on the other hand, takes visitors on tours of Petersburg’s suburbs and industrial outskirts – areas where there are no palaces or other historic buildings, but where most ordinary Petersburgers live.

“For us, the World Cup is an opportunity to establish contact with members of global civil society and begin a dialogue with them about issues affecting every country”

One of the most important tours offered by Cup for People will take tourists on walks around human rights hotspots. “We want to show how relations between people and the state have changed over the last century, to talk about human rights,” says Olga Polyakova, one of the creators of the programme. “We shall be telling people about the most striking human rights protest actions, from the Soviet years up to the present day. We have almost finished making an online map of where they happened, with 50 places marked as the points that speak most powerfully of instances of solidarity and human dignity.”  

Daily free human rights tours will take visitors round the Peter and Paul Fortress, where they will learn about the first Soviet political art demonstration in 1976. They’ll also find out about the Last Address project, which marks the homes of people who died in Soviet repressions. Then, at the Russian Prison Service’s special detention centre, people can hear about solidarity with people who are being arrested at protest actions today.


The Last Address project installs memorial plaques at the homes of citizens who died in Soviet repressions. Source: Natalia Shkurenok. “We will be offering a number of tours: they are all being put together now,” says human rights activist Pyotr Voskresensky. “We don’t just talk about the Gulag, but also the Second World War and the 900 day siege of Leningrad. Outside the Dutch Church we’ll talk about the ethnic diversity and religious tolerance when the city was the capital of the Russian Empire and what happened under Soviet rule, when small Baptist communities, Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of other faiths were persecuted.”

“These tours are mainly aimed at Russians,” Voskresensky tells me. “We want them to think of St Petersburg not as a collection of facades, but a city where people want to outlaw discrimination against minorities and the infringement of basic rights and freedoms.”

Major sporting events can speak to people not just in the language of big sport and big money, national prestige and officialdom. They can – and must – also speak to people in the language of culture, equality and solidarity. And if the state doesn’t want to talk to its people and listen to their voices, people who are capable of taking initiatives and responsibilities can do it themselves.

“For us, the World Cup is an opportunity to establish contact with members of global civil society and begin a dialogue with them about issues affecting every country: culture and local identity, civil society, discrimination, the right to the city and the influence of megaprojects on city life,” write the authors of the Cup for People project on their website. “We want to see and hear one another, and make all the visitors to our project feel at home in Petersburg and take fond memories of the city away with them.”   


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