Мать Родина Зовёт! Mother Russia Calls!

Мать Родина Зовёт! Mother Russia Calls!

FIFA World Cup – Russia 2018

By Milos Stankovic MBE MCIArb, Principal High Risk Advisor at 1st Option Safety Group.


Mother Russia is calling.  And the clock is ticking. The FIFA Russia 2018 clock on Manezhnaya Square has been steadily counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until Russia meets Saudi Arabia at Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium at 6pm on 14 June. When I was here in September travelling round the venue cities on behalf of Fox Sports the clock showed more than two hundred days.  During the FIFA venue tour in March this year it showed just over a hundred days.  Now, with a week to go it’s down to single digits as Moscow steadily fills up with an army of broadcasters.

Over the past year 1st Option has been supporting Fox Sports, the official North American broadcaster, initially at the Confederations Cup in June 2017 at St. Petersburg, Moscow, Sochi and Kazan, and thereafter during a series of recces of the venue cities for this year’s FIFA World Cup.  I’ve visited most of these three times over, either checking out hotels or the venues.  Although the matches are being held in cities that are exclusively in the western quarter of Russia, the distances are, by European standards, considerable, which poses some serious logistic challenges for organisers, broadcasters and fans alike as they navigate 64 matches, over 32 days in 11 cities across a chunk of real estate that measures nearly 1600 by 1200 miles.

The FIFA Word Cup is played out in 11 cities over a large chunk of real estate

Russia is a true Eurasian country spanning 11 time zones where the sun sets in Vladivostok as it rises in Moscow.  At one sixth of the world’s land mass and the largest country in the world, the official geographical boundary between Asia and Europe is the Urals – a range of hills running north-south about a quarter of the way into Russia from the west.  77% of Russia’s 146m people live in European Russia while 23% is scattered throughout the Asian and Siberian vastness.  75% of Russia’s population lives in cities – a result of the forced mass urbanization programmes of early Soviet years.

Given the distances involved, the best way to get about Russia is by air with Moscow acting as a hub. Having taken scores of flights around Russia in the past year, I’ve been more than impressed with the efficiency of Aeroflot.  Gone is the dodgy fleet of aging Soviet aircraft.  In its place, brand new equipment from Boeing and Airbus.  While the aircraft are new, the service is still old fashioned – good food served by friendly and efficient cabin crew.  But, getting anywhere usually involves two flights via a layover at the Moscow hub, which makes getting around the 11 venue cities in as many days a gruelling schlep.

The FIFA clock is counting down!  Manezhnaya square, Moscow

Traffic congestion in most large Russian cities is fairly appalling and by far the easiest way to get around is by the metro underground system.  The gold standard is Moscow’s network which moves 7 million people to and from work each day.  No destination is ever more than two changes.  Uber works well in Moscow, but the downside is the traffic.  Pedestrians beware!  If you step off the pavement you are fair game.  The only safe way to cross any road is via pedestrian crossings (yellow and white in Russia) or by underpass.  Russia has a death rate on its roads that almost rivals Iran and Venezuela, with some 30,000 people killed annually.  Speed, machismo (even among female drivers), a blatant disregard for the rules of the road, low fines and bribery, not to mention an almost Gallic shoulder-shrugging fatalism, all feed into Russia’s road recklessness.

Security is steadily tightening.  On the 25thof May at midday a presidential decree on World Cup security swung into action.  The three main ministries involved are the Federal Security Service, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry for Emergency Situations.  Russia’s security concerns flow from instability in the North Caucasus region of Southern Russia from which various Islamic terrorist groups have operated – some home-grown independence movements and some transnational terrorist organisations such as so-called Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. Since 1999 terrorist attacks have either seen bombings of transport infrastructure or mass hostage taking, the most infamous of which were the 2002 Dubrovka theatre siege in Moscow and the 2004 Beslan school siege in the Caucasus.  Over 1300 people have been killed and 3,500 injured as a result of terrorist activity since 1999.

Consequently, the Russian state imposes strict layered security at major events.  X-ray machines, metal detectors and searches have become part and parcel of daily life for people working at the various venues in Moscow.  As with the Confederations Cup last year the security personnel strike the right balance between polite firmness and friendliness.  A similarly robust approach will render the ugly scenes of Russian and British hooliganism at the 2016 Euros far less likely.

Volgograd, the approach to Mamayev Kurgan

Visitors should be aware of cultural sensitivities in such places as Volgograd where the Second World War memorial on the Mamayev Kurgan high ground near the stadium is actually sacred ground – a mass grave containing tens of thousands of Soviet troops.  Volgograd’s new stadium is built in the shadow of this giant war memorial (Mother Russia Calls) and on ground fiercely fought over during the battle of Stalingrad (1942/43).  The remains of two Soviet soldiers and several unexploded munitions were removed before building could commence.  Russian culture is infused with awed respect and gratitude for those that died during the Second World War defending Mother Russia (Мать Родина). Several weeks ago I and Fox’s Russian security professional – Sergey Grabovets – had dinner with Volgograd’s deputy mayor, Sergey Razumniy, a thoughtful, bright and engaging politician, who is responsible for the city’s World Cup infrastructure – a new airport and highway leading to the city and the stadium build. He assured me that the city was looking forward to giving foreign fans a warm welcome and added that inappropriate behaviour and drunkenness would be firmly dealt with.  As an aside, if you are planning a quiet drink or meal at dusk on the banks of the Volga be sure to apply plenty of mosquito repellent.  They are relentless. We tried and failed. Abandoning our coffees, we fled to the safety of our vehicle’s AC.

The Volgograd stadium

Russia is a civilized country with a very well-educated and friendly population.  The most noticeable feature that virtually every newcomer to Russia comments on is its cleanliness – no litter, no trash, no graffiti, no plastic shopping bags caught up in trees that have become the familiar eyesore up and down Britain.  This is a disciplined and well-ordered society built on core values of Country, Church and Family – a psychologically tough country in which the only snowflakes are winter ones.  The cleanliness one sees is not just a Moscow phenomenon but country wide.  I have seen the same standards of care for one’s own backyard throughout the regions.  When I first started working in Russia in 2000 the streets were grotty and gritty.   The chaos of the 1990s has given way to order and stability.  That said, visitors to Russia need to be aware that some standards of safety may fall below western standards.  Travellers should always check that the emergency fire doors in their hotels are unlocked and operable.  Similarly, water from any tap is not fit for drinking.  Russians only drink bottled water.  In most decent hotels water purification devices have been fitted to bars serving drinks with water or ice.  It’s always worth asking if that’s the case.

From a professional point of view, work here with Fox Sports is very rewarding and busy.  I deployed slightly earlier on 13 May for another slingshot around some of the venue cities.  Broadcasters are divided between the International Broadcast Centre (IBC) in the north-western suburb of Myakinino – a vast national exhibition centre called Crocus City – or the production studios and sets behind Red Square with St. Basil’s Cathedral in the foreground.  The former is a pre-existing structure within which a small FIFA village of broadcasters has been established in prefabricated offices – buildings within buildings within a vast compound.

FIFA Master Control Room at the Crocus City International Broadcast Centre

The Red Square location also provided by FIFA’s Host Broadcasting Service, by contrast, is like Fort Apache, The Bronx – a congested jumble of portacabins, generators and other utilities servicing the St. Basil’s-facing studios.  We share the footprint with the BBC, ITV, Telemundo and other broadcasters.  It reminds me of remote military Forward Operating Bases in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.  The tempo of operations and duty time are similar.  The only differences are that the paraphernalia of broadcasting has replaced that of war and that the location is stunningly beautiful and a short, pleasant 30-minute walk from the hotel and across Red Square. It’s the ultimate commute.

Fort Apache, The Bronx – The Red Square studio compound

We’re still in the build phase, which is in its last week.  Executives, producers and talent have started to arrive and the pressure to complete work is building as match day approaches.  1st Option has primarily been involved in working up and producing the Risk Assessments for the IBC, Red Square location and all the stadia in the venue cities. These have been masterfully compiled by Vittorio Vanloo, who also created very user-friendly reporting formats.  Our team is further augmented by Tatiana Atanasova a native Russian who works as a Health & Safety Enforcement Officer with Westminster Council.  Her fluency in Russian and attention to detail make her an invaluable addition to the 1st Option and Fox Sports EHS safety team.  It has been a pleasure work alongside and for Fox Sports EHS professionals like Ron Partilla and now Chad Ross.

Ron Partilla, Fox Sports EHS, briefing new Fox Sports arrivals during their orientation

“Whenever two or more are gathered together…”   Of course, no blog is complete without mention of other British Airborne brothers out here in Moscow.  A ‘blood clot’ has formed at the Red Square location – myself (ex 3 PARA and 1 PARA), Tim Moffat (BBC High Risk Team and ex 3 PARA) and Dom Chester (Drum Cussac/ITV and ex 2 PARA).  We’ll be sure to find a way of celebrating Airborne Forces Day in July.  Utrinque Paratus!

So, the clock is ticking. Mother Russia calls.  This time she is not calling to Russians to defend the Motherland but calling them instead to invite the world come and compete in the FIFA World Cup and to fans to come and enjoy Russia’s summer sporting hospitality. To those of us in Fort Apache, The Bronx and the IBC, it feels like an approaching avalanche, which we await with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

Stay tuned!

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