Over the summer, while in St. Petersburg for the FIFA Confederations Cup, I learned that the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup Final Draw would be in Moscow – at the Kremlin – the beginning of December. At that point, my flights to Kyrgyzstan were still booked for mid-August and I thought, “Well, that should be easy to make happen. Flights to Moscow from Bishkek are only around $200.” When I broke my foot two weeks later, I never would have imagined how up in the air my presence in Moscow would become. Weeks of podiatrist appointments here in the US as each of the four broken bones worked to heal meant that the trip to Moscow for the event would be iffy until about three weeks prior. Fortunately, since you are reading this blog, you know I made it in the end. I remember asking my doctor if I could do and he looked at me like it was a dumb question. I just promised to wear my surgical shoe indoors and my supportive Hoka One One sneakers outside in the cold.
I flew out after Thanksgiving dinner with my parents in Seattle. Normally, I would have jumped at my long layover in NYC for a chance to explore but I opted to stay inside JFK to rest my foot for the coming adventure. This was my fourth trip to Russia in three years and thus, I now experience a certain level of comfort and know how for the day-to-day. When I landed at Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport, I knew to head for the Megafon kiosk to get a cheap SIM card and data plan. I knew I could take the Aeroexpress train (beats the nasty traffic) to Belorussiya station and taxi from there to my Airbnb. And my Cyrillic reading skills had gotten better. Naturally, there were some hiccups on my journey to the Airbnb but I eventually found my way and was rewarded with a hot shower and fresh clothes after two nights in the air.
An American friend I met at the Sochi Olympics and I arranged for a delightful, Russian-style Airbnb apartment. By Russian-style (to me), I mean that the door itself is seemingly a fortress to figure out – lots of locks, the bathroom is split up with a commode and shower room right next to each other, there are large boudoirs/hutches in multiple rooms, and it feels very homey! We had our own rooms, a kitchen with a massive fridge, a TV for watching Russian music videos (There’s a popular group named IOWA?!), and closets for all of our winter gear. There was a small supermarket nearby and we were situated only 600m from the Kremlin, though with security procedures for the event, we had to walk quite a bit more to get where we needed to go.
I’d have about 10 days in the capital of Russia, much more than the three I had previously. Day 1 consisted of really just walking around Red Square with my partner in crime, getting my bearing again, perusing GUM Department Store’s Christmas decorations and displays, and doing my best to recover from the long trek over. My friend then took me to get my accreditation which allowed me to go get my volunteer gear at the Russia 2018 tower HQ. After that, as I’d visited all of the major museums and seen the prominent sights, I aimed to check out new places this time around. This meant that my Day 2 would be filled with two new sights: Garage Contemporary Museum of Art and Danislovsky Market in the south of the city.
Garage is an ultra-cool, futuristic-looking museum in the city’s famous Gorky Park, made possible in part by an oligarch by the name of Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea FC. While I’m a big modern art fan in general, the main draw for me was Japanese artist Takashi Murakami’s exhibit, Under the Radiation Falls, his first-ever solo exhibit in Russia. (I later learned that 2017 is the Year of Japan in Russia.) Though I’d see a Murakami exhibit at Tokyo’s More Art Museum a few years ago, I proceeded to fangirl throughout the entire museum. Outside of the Murakami exhibit, Garage is still very much recommended during a trip to Moscow! Following Garage, to save my foot a bit, I Uber-ed to Danislovsky Market, which was housed in a building resembling a domed-UFO. The market was more casual upscale with trendy food kiosks from all over the world, cheese stalls, flower displays, stands full of caviar, and a fish hub in the center. The Vietnamese food kiosk was easily the most popular. Surprisingly, I even saw Dagestani food for the first time here! I was especially impressed by how many stall staff could speak English, offering me free samples and explaining where their products came from.
In the afternoon, I found my way back to the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup countdown clock. My volunteer leader had invited members of our media team to meet there for a picture to commemorate the 200 days left til the opening game. About seven of us rocked up and snapped some pics, before our team leader offered to take us into the Kremlin and show off where everything (security entrance, media center, volunteer center, etc.) I really appreciated this as the next day would our first day prepping for the event and I still had loads of questions. I quickly learned that the Kremlin State Palace, the largest concert hall in Russia, feels like a labyrinth! Every day, it was like finding my way through a maze and if I made it some place without turning around a bit, I considered it a success! Still, I managed to figure out that I had to enter at Kutafya Tower, head to the volunteer center in the basement to check in and collect my meal tickets, and then go up to the 6th floor, home of the media center.
I always enjoyed the morning check-in because I got to see some of the volunteer coordinators who were so friendly and helpful. We could get free Coke products from the fridge, share our Instagram handles on the whiteboard, and relax in the armchairs if we had time to spare. The first day of work in the media center was filled with a lot of set-up, prep, and learning about various procedures and tasks we’d be required to do. The media center wouldn’t be opening until the following day so we were simply getting everything in order. It was also nice to see some familiar faces of people I’d met at the Preliminary Draw two years ago and the Confederations Cup in the summer. I had a shorter 11-4 shift which allowed me to go meet my partner in crime and his marketing team. One of his marketing team colleagues would be taking us on a walking tour of the new Zaryadye Park, Moscow’s first major city park in 50 years.
Zaryadye Park is huge and located next to the Kremlin. It has an outdoor amphitheater with heaters (which weren’t working yet), a winding greenhouse tower, a concert hall, art installations, fantastic views of the city, and a “flying bridge” over the Moscow River. Our fellow volunteer turned Russian guide knew the best spots and told us all about the development of the park over the years. Later, another Russian volunteer shared that when the park first opened, people were stealing various plants and trees to put at their dacha (summer houses). Apparently, this would occur overnight. My American friend and I chuckled at the thought of someone riding the metro carrying a birch tree from the park! We were told that it was new and novel to have so much intentional greenery like that. Following our tour around the park, our gracious guide took us to a famous chocolate/candy store nearby.
By then, we weren’t that hungry but our guide had recommended Farsh Burger next down the street and I needed to rest my foot. Of course, we noticed it was positioned along a big square that featured the FSB (ex-KGB) building, which features the Stalin door. You can read more about the Lubyanka Building here. Farsh was casually hip with house draft beer and gourmet burgers. Immediately, the Trump burger caught our attention and we had a bit of fun with that.
My second day at the media center was much busier as the media center finally open the press began to arrive. I helped man the Information Desk which was situated at the top of the stairs as media reps entered the media center. Behind me were the broadcast area, tribune desks, and a press conference area and stage. At the Information Desk, we handed out free Zabivaka mascot stuffed animals to press, distributed locker keys, answered general questions, and provided schedule updates on things like shuttle buses to hotels. Other work for our media team included passing around microphones during press conferences, assisting with the unveiling of the official FIFA World Cup poster and branded metro car, and making media center announcements. I teamed up with a Kaliningrad host city media coordinator who would make announcements in Russian that followed my own English announcements.
Since it was a relatively short day again, my Airbnb roommate and I went roaming around afterwards. We hunted for an ATM inside the underground Red Square Mall and came across tons of entertaining Putin cell phone covers. (Clearly, the cult of personality continues to expand.) We then grabbed Georgian food near our place because we looooove our khatchapuri and sweet Georgian red wine. Finally, we hit up the local supermarket for breakfast items, cheap beer, and random Russian sweets. The next three days would prove to be jam-packed!
Perhaps my greatest success on the middle days of volunteering was finding a bus to ride for part of my walk to the Kremlin. Under normal circumstances, walking would have been fine, but I was experiencing a lot of foot pain and wanted to conserve my energy. I continued to bond with my fellow media team members. Working with the same people every day enabled us to form relationships, contrary to when I was part of Spectator Services and worked with different people every day during the Confederations Cup. Even those of us working the earlier shift were able to befriend those in the evening shift during the overlapping period. I met people from several World Cup host cities – Rostov-on-Don, Niznhy Novgorod, Samara, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Volgograd. It was very interesting hearing about how World Cup prep was going back in their home cities.
Though we were cooped up in the Kremlin State Palace all day, we were given lunch and sometimes dinner vouchers. Volunteers were permitted to eat meals from 2-4pm in the small, but nice, building cafeteria, alongside FIFA and contractor staff. Again, meals here were better than those in Rio and this time, came complete with coffee and a dessert cookie at the end. I also happy to see the menu translated into English! Signs indicated we were allowed to cut the routine long line (to make it back to our posts quickly) but because these signs were not well-placed, we often had to deal with disgruntled people. Later, dinner at Lepim i Varim, a well-known handmade pelmeni (dumpling) cafe was much more relaxed….and delicious!
Amidst the hustle and bustle of the media center, highlights were the photo shoot with the official World Cup trophy (smaller in person), a talk show about the Fan Fest areas in host cities (kinda boring, to be honest), a press conference with former World Cup players and FIFA President Infantino, and mixed zone interviews with draw assistants, such as legends Diego Forlan, Cafu, and Fabio Cannavaro. I was ticked to exchange some evening greetings in Italian with Cannavaro as he walked by. I thought the Russian volunteer next to me was going to faint! 🙂
We also had an appearance by Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s current Deputy Prime Minister, Head of the Russia 2018 Local Organizing Committee, and former Minister of Sport during the Sochi Games. Before he walked by, we were all told that our international volunteer team was evidence of all the languages we could speak. He must have been told this because as he approached, he said in Italian, “Oh, can they even speak Italian.” I exclaimed back, “Un po! (A little). Interestingly, the day I landed back in the US, it was announced that Russia as a country has been banned from the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics and Mutko himself has been banned from the Olympics for life.
Over the course of my week at the Kremlin State Palace, I noticed a huge improvement in the amount of learning and knowledge that the Russian Local Organizing Committee (LOC)demonstrated, particularly when compared to my experience at the Preliminary Draw two and a half years ago. It was clear how much they had worked to develop and refine best practices for getting things done. Reliable and consistent Russian and international volunteers were chosen to project the best face possible for the event and rightfully so. I was very impressed with the LOC media team managers, their willingness to answer questions for me as a non-Russian speaking volunteer, and their work ethic all while getting minimal sleep. I must admit, that I’ll be disappointed not to see many of them again this summer as we’ll likely be based in different cities.
My last day of volunteer work was the big day! From 6 to 7pm local time, the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup Final Draw would air live in over 150 countries around the world. Instead of taking the bus for part of my walk, I chose to walk all the way there and soak in my final day as an American working in the Kremlin for a week. It was surreal for me to walk through the gates of the Kremlin, thinking how years ago, this would have been unfathomable. I know it felt strange for my parents, who grew up during the Cold War, to send me off this last time but I viewed my experience as evidence of how far US-Russia relations had come and how I was part of this at a grassroots level. However today I went I believed it couldn’t be as chaotic as handing out SAD cards to grant media reps access to the media tribune inside the draw hall!
I signed up to work a double shift because I didn’t want to miss any of the action throughout the day, and heck, this is what I was there for. The day was filled with last minute prep for the big show and assigning people to different roles during and after the event. The actual draw show would be an hour long followed by coach interviews in the broadcast and mixed zone. Late in the afternoon, I was busy laminating team signs for the mixed zone and I was lucky to finish in time! During the draw, I was positioned in the media tribune, looking out for those who might stand up blocking others view, passing out paper announcements, essentially ready to help address any issues that might pop up. We thought we had a journalist creating a forbidden hotspot and I was able to use my Japanese language skills to figure out that his wifi router was dead. In between, I got a kick out of host Gary Lineker’s wisecracks and loved seeing Russia’s best (only) late night comedian, Ivan Urgant, on stage. When he was in Russia filming a week of shows this summer, Stephen Colbert actually appeared on Evening Urgant. Watch the clip here.
After the draw, I headed to the mixed zone to help the volunteer team there. We passed out the official match schedules in English and Russian to journalists and then ensured that they were not violating FIFA photo and filming rules. It was hectic but I ended up spotting Joachim Low, German national team coach, and Gareth Southgate, manager of England. I was disappointed – along with countless Japanese members of the press I met – that the Japanese manager did not attend. A ton of Spanish-speaking coaches were there but this often proved problematic because there were few interpreters. More Spanish-speaking team members and volunteers will definitely be needed for the World Cup.
Once things settled down again, we were encouraged to attend the final volunteer party down in the sponsor exhibition area. All of the top LOC reps thanked us and each functional team was given a shout-out. We received our sparkly volunteer certificates before chowing down on a tapas buffet and free Coke products at the bar. Word on the street was that there were 455 volunteers, including 19 of us international volunteers. I think everyone appreciated the recognition and the opportunity to take more pictures together on the final night, celebrating the end of the event week. I went back up to the media center to join in more group photos and to help with any remaining work needing to be done. Feeling like the week had just flown by, I finally walked out of the Kremlin in the snow around 12:30am. I was ready for bed after working 28 hours over the last two days!
I slept in and took it easy the next day. We made it out of our Airbnb around 1pm, wandered down to Teremok, a Russian fast food chain, for some warm blini, or “Russian crepes.” After that, since our Final Draw volunteer transport card was still valid, we hopped on the metro for Izmailovsky Market and its mini-Kremlin. A former amusement park in its better days, the Izmailovsky complex now houses a vast market, artisan kiosks, and a selection of random museums about bread and vodka. Fairy tale-esque architecture encapsulates the area and we somehow came across a Russian equivalent of the Little White Chapel in Vegas. We had fun buying souvenirs for people at home and I was shocked to find a Seahawks-themed matroschka doll, featuring Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin, Paul Richardson, Michael Bennett, and Tyler Lockett. Later that night, we went out with some other Final Draw teammates and experienced my first Russian club. I learned that at many places, including bars, you have to pay just to sit at a table.
For my penultimate day in Moscow, we had some friends coming in from St. Petersburg. Once I moved my things from the Airbnb to my new place on the old school Arbat Street, the four of us went to lunch at Mu-Mu, a cafeteria-style Russian eatery. It’s fairly cheap, they have the famed – but inedible for me – beef jelly, and you get these melt-in-your-mouth caramels with your food purchase. As soon as our SPB pals found out I hadn’t been to the FAO Schwartz of Moscow, we set out to see their Christmas displays. While I was slightly disappointed to see that the store had been bought by Hamley’s (of the UK), I loved the holiday decorations. We headed to the free rooftop observatory there to get the best views in Moscow! Lucky for us, we got to see an actual sunset over the city. Simply stunning.
My favorite part of the day was towards the end. We made the journey back to Red Square to go walk around the GUM Department Store with its famous 50 (85 cents~) Ruble ice cream cones. In Russia, it’s popular to eat ice cream in the winter and the lines for these GUM kiosks were relatively long. After I found a seat to rest my foot, I was happy as a clam with my strawberry ice cream! We escaped the crowds inside to wander around the Christmas market outside, which they’d been putting together all week. The bright lights, vibrant colors, rides, mulled wine, and hot food set against the backdrop of the Kremlin, Red Square, and St. Basil’s Cathedral created a truly magical scene.
Being on my feet so much and touring around left me drained and needing the 14-hour lie in I subsequently took. It seemed fitting that my final day had me meeting up with a childhood friend from Virginia Beach who had recently moved to Moscow. We hadn’t seen each other in 20+ years but it was like no time had passed. I was fascinated by her stories of previously living on the outskirts of Moscow and learning about everyday life for an expat there. We spent hours catching up at a popular Georgian cafe, appropriately named Khatchapuri, and then trekked to see the skyscraper cluster of the Moscow City district. The two of us ended the day at a small craft beer pub, plotting our next rendezvous.
Hours later, I was wheels up over Moscow, returning to New York. Now back in the US, it still seems wild to have finished up a fourth adventure to Russia. Many thanks to my Russian hosts, my American partner in crime, my fellow media team members, our visiting friends from SPB, the Russia 2018 Local Organizing committee, and all of the new people in my world. I sincerely appreciate you watching out for me and my bum foot – even if I was never able to walk very fast! Hope to see you all soon.