While it was fairly unexpected, in June, I headed back to Russia to be a part of the Russia 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup, the warm-up to the 2018 World Cup. With only eight teams – the winners of their respective regional tournaments, the Confederations Cup is a smaller tournament held in only four cities. This year, matches were played in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Sochi, and Kazan. I was placed on the Spectator Services volunteer team in St. Petersburg, my first choice city. Although I had an inkling of what I might be assigned to do for Spectator Services, it would remain a surprise until right before each match.
After landing in the middle of the night, I hopped an $8 Uber from the St. Petersburg airport and perplexingly gazed up at the rainbow sky, wondering whether I was witnessing sunset or sunrise. I had landed at the peak of the White Nights time of year during which St. Petersburg only experiences about two hours of “darkness” each night. Throughout my time in town, I never really felt like the sun actually went all the way down.
With the first game of the entire Confederations Cup in just two days, I had to hustle over to get my volunteer uniform and gear outside St. Petersburg Stadium. Fortunately, my friend and American-volunteer-in-Russia-partner-in-crime, who had arrived a few days prior, came to meet me and showed me where exactly to go. The security lines to get into the stadium area were long and slow, and I resigned myself to experiencing the “fun and magic” that are Russian security processes – very different from those I experience in the West. This time, my initiation to the tournament’s security involved them needlessly confiscating a small Munich souvenir I had brought for a friend on the other side of security. Sigh.
Once inside security, my friend and I headed over to the volunteer center. The best part of going to the volunteer center was getting to see my friend, the former international volunteer manager turned overall volunteer manager. She has always taken care of me and the other international volunteers even though we are a tiny percentage of the overall volunteer crew. She explained that since most volunteers had already picked up their gear, I had plenty of time and space to try all of my stuff on. I walked away with a snazzy adidas kit, including a backpack and some sneakers, all of which I still wear a lot.
I was very impressed with the volunteer center, especially compared to the volunteer facilities at other big events I’ve been a part of. There were many postings detailing social media and contact information, various processes, the main Confederations Cup managers and coordinators (photos and names), and fun initiatives the core volunteer manager team had been working on. Behind a Russia 2018 World Cup-branded wall was the volunteer lounge. Huge bean bags were scattered about with comfortable couches in the center. There were also a few foosball tables and FIFA video game setups with TVs and more bean bag chairs. I particularly liked the international flags strewn about. Later, I learned that this place was always so crowded because, unlike smaller Russian apartments, this gave younger volunteers a cool place to hang out and socialize together.
Thinking that I likely had to attend some training and a stadium orientation for Spectator Services, I was surprised when my volunteer manager friend gave me and my American friend lunch tickets and told us to have a great day. I’m naturally curious about the volunteer food at these events so I was ready to dig in and of course, snap pictures of the different meals every day. All in all, Russia FCC volunteer meals > Rio Olympics volunteer meals by far. My only complaint would be the lack of cold drinks there. This is an aspect of Russian culture though and instead, we had a decent selection of hot water and tea options. I’m not kidding, hot water for drinking is everywhere in Russia.
After finishing our leisurely lunch, we had a walkabout so that my friend could point out some important characteristics of the stadium. One thing of note: St. Petersburg, or Krestovsky, Stadium is easily the most controversial new stadium in all of Russia. Its construction took approximately 10 years and its rumored cost is over $1-1.5 billion. To put this into perspective, I researched the cost of Seattle’s SafeCo Field and CenturyLink Field and these cost $517 million and $430 million, respectively. I’ll allow you to infer what this means. I immediately noticed a lack of signage around the venue combined with a tremendous amount of steep stairs, which made me wonder how easy access would be for low mobility people. Simultaneously, I did admire the way Russian architecture had been incorporated into the stadium project – an interesting feat considering the stadium looks similar to a spaceship from far away!
Inside the stadium, navigating was more difficult than expected. Though I’d been warned about some “unique aspects”, I didn’t understand until I explored for myself. Why did the map show a 6+ floor? Because this floor appeared hidden, had zero windows, and only had restrooms and food concessions. On the 5th floor, there were only low mobility restrooms which at first caused confusion among operations staff when normal mobility spectators tried to use them. At times, signage was deceiving, indicating that food and drinks were available for sale when it was only Coke and Budweiser (FIFA sponsors). I later heard of the exasperation surrounding the stadium in Russian newspapers and I experienced their frustration firsthand during the first game between Russia and New Zealand. Upon realizing I was an American, a few English-speaking Russians asked me how the stadium compared to stadiums back in the US. When they pressed for my honest opinion, I had to admit that while this stadium was clean and sparkling, US stadiums I’d been to were indeed nicer, more inclusive, innovative, genuinely focusing on the fan experience.
Done with volunteer prep and orienting ourselves, it was finally time to head into the city for more adventuring! The walk from the stadium to the closest metro, while 25 minutes, was an enjoyable one. Cut through lots of trees, the wide path passed colorful homemade birdhouses, beautiful fountains, food and game kiosks, and my favorite, a recently renovated amusement park set back in a relaxing green area centered around a lake. Yes, the amusement park branding did kind of rip off Disneyland but it was endearing. This woodland area served as a great place to take the family out for a day of fun or for a picnic prior to the soccer matches that kicked off at 6pm.
What did I do on game days? Well, as a Spectator Services volunteer, I engaged in a mix of activities. We had to check in at the volunteer center approximately six hours prior to kickoff, which meant I was up around 9am and at the center by noon. At check-in, we would be given a “category card” as part of that day’s theme. On the back, my volunteer team leader, meet-up time, and meet-up location were written in Cyrillic. On one game day, the theme was famous Russian historical figures and my card featured a picture of Alexander Pushkin on the front. Later on, I met the rest of my volunteer teammates carrying that same card and we went to lunch together before getting further instructions from our team leader.
Rightfully, the volunteer managers rotated all Spectator Services volunteers to different locations around the stadium for each game to ensure that things were fair and that some volunteers weren’t stuck outside the stadium every game. I was stationed on the fifth floor and helped spectators find their seats during the first game. As I don’t speak Russian, the volunteer leader assigned an English-speaking Russian volunteer nearby if I needed help. We did receive handy volunteer handbooks with useful English for the Russians and I did my best to complement this with key Russian phrases I could use with the Russian spectators. My fellow Russian volunteers were great at teaching me new Russian words and how to pronounce them – the hardest part! (99% of spectators were Russian.) I’d also say we had less than 5% international volunteers based on those I met and saw around the stadium so if I spoke English, I generally had about 10 people whip their heads around to look at me.
During the second match, I was stationed outside by security checkpoints and helped manage the security line of spectators. Even though I couldn’t see any of the game, this was my best experience because of my fellow team members, how much Russian I learned, and the conversations I had with (surprise!) English-speaking security staff who were very intrigued by this random American volunteer in Russia. My duties surrounding the third match were a combination of helping spectators find their seats on the 7th floor and guiding VIPs to their designated exit after the game. It was extremely interesting taking on different jobs during the matches but this made it harder to form connections with fellow volunteers throughout the tournament – something I really valued as a volunteer at EXPO Milan and the Rio Olympics.
As I was slated only to work on game days for Spectator Services and only a few matches would be played in St. Petersburg, I had several days to deep dive into my favorite Russian city. I took recommendations from a handful of Russian friends and combined them with the own results of my Googling. I wandered around an amazingly colorful new art installation on the revitalized New Holland Island. I hit up a plethora of restaurants, bars, and cafes – see my previous blog! I also engaged in one of my favorite pastimes in Russia: browsing souvenir shops. These places are treasure troves of Putin trinkets that make me laugh every time. Think Putin coffee mugs, t-shirts of him riding a bear shirtless, magnets depicting him hunting, fishing, shooting a rifle. This time, I stumbled upon a matroschka doll set of the entire Trump family! I shouldn’t forget all of the matroschkas with Putin and Trump either.
I consider “cultural exploration activities” like this a crucial part of the volunteering experience. I see no point in venturing to volunteer in another country if you’re not going to interact with local people and places outside of the event. What else did I get up to outside of the matches? A new Australian friend/fellow volunteer and I visited the Fabrege Museum and saw priceless bejewelled Fabrege eggs. I had Georgia food for the first time, went to see the beautiful St. Petersburg Mosque, and saw countless rainbow sunsets from my friend’s apartment where I stayed. I finally made it to the Russian Museum of Political History, visited the Hermitage Museum for a third time, and walked all along Nevsky Prospekt. We had a grand time going to the FIFA Fan Zone to watch a few matches taking place in other cities. A highlight of this for me was getting to experience portable toilets on a stationary bus!
Perhaps the most breathtaking thing I did in SPB was a night cruise along the river. And when I say night cruise, I mean that it started at 1am and ended at 3am. This is due to the fact that at 1:30ish every night, all of the draw bridges around the city close to allow ships to pass through for about two hours. Then, they open for 20-30 minutes and close again for another two hours. Needless to say, as a result, transport can be a challenge at night. While I’d taken an inner city canal cruise during the daytime there before, I knew the night cruise, especially during the White Nights, was the way to go. A Russian friend helped me book a ticket in advance (because they often sell out) and after a hot drink, I boarded the boat and took in the magnificent the sights and sounds of the river, the night lights, and the boat party that traveled with us to each bridge to see it open. It was truly a magical way to experience both the city and the White Nights.
In a wonderfully weird coincidence, a friend from my college days at William & Mary happened to be passing through SPB on the way to a conference in Moscow. We linked up for lunch at one of my favorite cafes and then, after getting a bit lost, managed to have loads of fun at the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games. Housed in a gorgeously renovated old building, the museum included a cafe and multiple interactive exhibit areas. Our tickets came with 15 old Soviet ruble coins which we used to play a lot of arcade games around the museum. Most involved sports, submarines, and shooting with our favorite being this air basketball game. It was fascinating to see and experience games so common during that era!
Without a doubt, once again staying with a Russian friend I originally met while volunteering at EXPO Milan 2015 made my experience. I finally was able to meet her mother and brother as well as a Swiss-Hungarian student staying with them while she attended Russian language school. On my last night, my friend’s mother cooked a big dinner, inviting another Tatarian Russian friend and a German colleague from her Russian-German international school. There was a ton of food and her Tatarian friend brought a platter to celebrate the end of Ramadan. It was quite the international affair with my friend’s mother showing us photo albums and books documenting her days as an interpreter and caterer on Russian cruise ships. I still can’t believe she was on a ship that actually sunk! We ended the evening with walking down to the nearby port and cruise ship area to watch the sunset at around 1am. Although I remember freezing in the wind, it was a fitting end to my time in the “Venice of the North.”
I am so thankful to have been able to reunite with so many Russian friends, make new Russian and international friends, and to see a wonderful American friend again. *They* are why I keep coming back and why I yearn to keep learning about and exploring Russia – whether that’s on my own or as part of a World Cup-related event. And I would have never learned the real way to drink vodka (with pickles and brown bread, three shots at a time!) without them 🙂 My trip was yet another example of the fact that people do not equal their countries’ politics and governments. While acknowledging this can be a challenge sometimes, I consider it vital to living and thriving in today’s interconnected, interdependent world.