The World Cup Is Russia’s Latest Makeover Attempt

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Police officers guard in front of a board depicting Zabivaka, the official mascot for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, in St. Petersburg, Russia June 14, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov - RC1AAEA89800

But there are limits to how much soccer can burnish its image.

That’s a strategy dating back to the Soviet era when sporting dominance—albeit built on the back of a state-run doping program—went hand-in-hand with great-power status. The dark days of the Yeltsin years saw Russia lose both. Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, was keen, however, to showcase modern Russia, both through his foreign policy and through sports. His quest got a boost in 2007 when Russia won the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Those games would be the first Olympics to be held in a former Soviet state since the 1980 Moscow games, which much of the Western world boycotted because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Just as the Cold War era seems a world away, so too was it different in 2007, when Russia won its Olympic bid. The global financial crisis was still a year away; the euro crisis, Brexit, and a prospect of a weakened trans-Atlantic alliance unthinkable; and Putin’s Russia was vaunted as a good place to do business. The Games were supposed to be a way to wipe away the image of the weak, lawless Russia of the Yeltsin years, to show the world that Russia was back—and was a reliable partner to the West. And for the most part, they did.

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