04 Apr Are you Ready for the Russia 2018 World Cup?
Travel Advice for Russia 2018 World Cup
By Milos Stankovic MBE, Principal High Risk Advisor, 1st Option Safety Group.
Amid the fallout of the Skripal affair and the world’s reaction to it, those planning on travelling to the FIFA World Cup in Russia this summer, either to cover it in some professional capacity or as a fan, might well be asking themselves whether it’s safe to do so.
For the past year, 1st Option Safety Group has been supporting a major broadcaster in Russia both at last year’s Confederations Cup and in the build up to the forthcoming World Cup in June this year.
For broadcasters and fans alike, the World Cup poses some considerable logistical and cultural challenges. Twelve venue stadia are spread across eleven western Russian cities in a box that roughly measures 1550 miles East to West and 1200 miles North to South: the most northerly host city is St. Petersburg; the most southerly – Sochi; the most easterly – Ekaterinburg in the Urals; and the most westerly is in the western enclave of Kaliningrad. Moscow, the de facto air transportation hub, hosts two stadia, while the remaining six are spread around this geographical box: Nizhniy Novgorod, Kazan, Samara, Saransk, Volgograd, and Rostov-on-Don. The only practical way to get around is by air.
Russia Travel Distances
Probably more than any other Western consultancy, 1st Option has acquired particularly unique current experience and insight into these venue cities, their stadia, hotels and preparations for the World Cup. In the past year I have been to Russia four times. I have just returned from the FIFA World Cup 2018 Venue Tour, during which we visited all bar three of the stadia, observing their various states of construction. Moreover, last September I completed a tour of every venue city, conducting security and EHS surveys of suitable hotels. In the past six months I have taken 28 internal flights, two train journeys and one hair-raising road trip, visiting each city at least once, often twice, inspected nearly 50 hotels and toured nine of the twelve stadia.
I have been travelling and working in Russia for over 30 years. In the early 1980s I studied Russian and was a student in Minsk during the Soviet era. After leaving the British Army in 2000 I lived in Moscow working for a Russian security company and over the past 15 years, have mediated between Western and Russian businesses. I have a good circle of Russian friends and professional contacts, and a deep appreciation of the country’s language, history, culture and customs – never more so than now.
Since first studying in the USSR, I have continually been surprised at the speed of modernisation in the country. English has become the de facto second language in Russia – spoken well by nearly six million of its 146m people. Street signs are in both Cyrillic and Latin script. Announcements on the major cities’ Metro undergrounds are in both languages. Did you know that on the Moscow Metro you can tell which direction you’re travelling in from whether the voice is female or male? Most Muscovites are unaware of this practical assistance for visually impaired people. In Saransk I discovered that almost the entire population (of 300,000) was being ‘encouraged’ to learn enough English to help visiting foreigners this summer.
But, rapid progress also comes at a price. The recent tragedy at Kemerovo in Siberia serves to illustrate that standards of health and safety can vary considerably across the country. Ninety-percent of the hotels we inspected were easily up to Western standards. Those that weren’t were well below.
That said, is it safe to go to Russia for the World Cup? Broadly speaking – yes! But, Russia, like any country, has its own unique challenges. Terrorism, as in Britain, is an ever-present threat. When terrorists slip through the net the death tolls are very high. Similarly, health and safety tragedies also tend to have high human costs. If the World Cup is anything like the Confederations Cup, state security is likely to be very tight, but not overbearing. I was impressed last year how the police and Interior Ministry personnel struck the right balance between firmness and politeness – a far cry from the cold attentions of the KGB that I experienced in the 1980s.
Inevitably, the elephant in the room is the Skripal poisoning. To what extent will anti-British sentiment be felt by visiting British fans and media professionals? This is hard to quantify. The Skripal affair was unravelling as we toured the various stadia with no noticeable effect on those of us who are British as the expulsion of Russian diplomats from Britain was happening but before the tit-for-tat expulsion of Western diplomats from Russia. While the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s travel advice suggests that British visitors in Russia may experience anti-British sentiment, the operating word is ‘may’. As things stand at the moment, I would be surprised if ordinary Russians, who are by and large very friendly, were to express anti-British sentiments against ordinary British visitors. The exception to this would be organised football gang violence, as witnessed during the 2016 European Championships. It remains to be seen how effectively the authorities intervene to prevent the running street battles witnessed in France two years ago. How the diplomatic situation unravels over the next few months prior to kick off also remains to be seen.
So, how can 1st Option help assist you in your forthcoming trip to the Russian World Cup? If you’re a media professional we can help you prepare with:
• Threat and Vulnerability Assessments
• Assistance with your Risk Assessments
• Travel Safety training
• Bespoke briefings
• Support to your team in Russia