16/06/2018 01:27 BST | Updated 16/06/2018 01:53 BST

We Watched The Opening World Cup Match 3,000 Miles Away In Siberia. Here's What We Learned About Russia

Julia and Anatolii are among the 142 million Russians who lead a different life from that which the Kremlin wants to present through the tournament.

Ekaterina Bodyagina
Thousands of miles away in Siberia, Anatolii and Julia watched a 5–0 score for their team against Saudi Arabia.

MEGET, Siberia — Anatolii snorts through his nose impatiently and pokes around in his sushi with chopsticks. On the flat-screen TV, Robbie Williams in a red suit sings “Let Me Entertain You” at the opening ceremony of the World Cup.

Anatolii, 27, wants to see his team finally play. “No one needs this ceremony, start at last!”, he shouts in the direction of the TV in his living room with a brown sofa and floral orange wallpaper.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin talks about a big soccer family and the great power of sport in his speech, his fiancée Julia weighs in. “He’s just reading, that’s not from the heart,” she says.

Then the ball rolls at last.

Ekaterina Bodyagina
Putin delivers his World Cup speech in Moscow.

Meget Is Far Away From The Glitz Of The World Cup

While the world is watching Moscow, Anatolii, Julia and I are watching the opening match on television, 3,000 miles (5,000 kms) away from the Russian capital.

We are in Meget, Siberia, where the couple live on the top floor of a three-story multi-family house made of bare brick, with added-on conservatories that don’t appear to be built to last. In the courtyard it smells of burnt wood. Just now a neighbour is firing up his sauna.

Meget is only connected to the glittering world of the World Cup by satellite dish. State television brings the tournament into the living rooms of the nearly 8,000 inhabitants.

Russia presents itself as a prosperous, technically advanced industrial country. And those who travel to the 13 World Cup cities will find this wealth. But those destinations only show a very small excerpt of reality. The wealth of Moscow, St Petersburg and Kaliningrad is far, far away from Meget.

In this story, Julia and Anatolii represent the part of the 142 million Russians who lead a different life from that which the Kremlin is trying to present through the World Cup. We travelled to meet them in Siberia to find out: How do they look at the World Cup? Are they their games too? What do they think about the government that brought the tournament to Russia?

Ekaterina Bodyagina
Welcome to Meget – the glitter of the big Russian cities could not be further away from here.

No Signs, No Fans, No Flags

Wednesday evening, around 24 hours earlier: The seats at Gate 55 of Domodedovo Airport in the south of Moscow are all occupied. Here it is hard to miss the fact that Russia is hosting the World Cup — flags of the participating countries and the mascot of the games, Zabivaka the Wolf, hang everywhere.   

We are waiting to board with Russians, Chinese, Mongols and Japanese. As the world flies to Moscow, all of the over 200 people here want to go to Sibir, as the region is called in Russian. This is where the Siberian Airlines Airbus A321 will take us. When the plane takes off into the evening sky, Moscow — the glow and glitter — passes before our Plexiglas window. For six hours we fly east, over flat, mostly uninhabited land.

The vast, great emptiness of Russia lies below us. An orange streak escorts us on the horizon, for we are chasing the sunrise. When we land in Irkutsk, we have flown across five time zones and it is 8:50am.

‘Dobroe utro’ [good morning], says the flight attendant through the speakers. The World Cup mood has already disappeared in Irkutsk. The city was founded as a Cossack fort 350 years ago; now, with 560,000 inhabitants, it is the regional capital and is known worldwide for the nearby gigantic Lake Baikal.

There is no sign of the World Cup here. No sign of fans, flags or tourist promotions. Not even the huge billboards on the streets advertising the sporting event. Instead, we pass signs with faces of children looking for a new family. “I am looking for a new home. Sergei, 14,” one says. Four percent of all children in Siberia are orphans, an unusually high figure for an industrial nation.

Ekaterina Bodyagina
The road to Meget, around 3,000 miles (5,000 kms) from Moscow.

We soon discover that the billboards, broken streets, and rows of dilapidated buildings are only one facet of the social and economic problems in this area. A few hours later, after reaching Meget late in the afternoon, we finally meet Julia and Anatolii. 

Anatolii is waiting for us in a parking lot in front of a supermarket. He wears shorts and a red and white short-sleeved shirt. In Siberia at this time of the year it is as warm as on the Spanish Riviera. We meet a polite and outgoing young man who can hardly wait to show us his hometown.

Anatolii leads us to the school which he attended ten years ago. When we ask what he remembers of that time, he says first: “The fights.” These were wild times when Anatolii preferred to play soccer with his friends rather than study. Ten minutes walk from the school he shows us a football pitch. The goal posts are rusted, and around us fat, yellow mosquitoes buzz through the humid air. “They bite if you don’t move.”

Ekaterina Bodyagina
Anatolii on the football pitch of his teenage years.

It could have happened to him the same way it happened for many other children in Siberia. Unemployment, addiction, material hardship and parents with behavioural issue are the basis for a dramatic increase in juvenile delinquency in Siberia, charity Caritas warned in a recent report.

When he was a child, Anatolii dreamed of a career in football, he says. Who knows, maybe he would have become one of the eleven who started for Russia in Moscow today. “But then I understood that this is very far away from me,” he says. “Other, down-to-earth values became more important to me.”

From Vladivostok To Meget

But instead of getting onto the wrong path, Anatolii studied economics in a nearby town and worked his way through various jobs, including as a supermarket manager and truck driver. He is currently working as a salesman for the Russian telecommunications company Tele 2, where he earns enough money to make ends meet, he says.

He earns 50,000 rubles a month, about £600 (€700/$800 US), which is just above the average monthly income for Russians. At one of his jobs he also got to know Julia, who is currently working as a cook in Irkutsk, about a 30-minute drive away. She joins our walk. She, too, is polite and outgoing. Her life reflects the gigantic distances of Russia. At the age of four, she and her parents moved from near Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast to Meget.

Her old home is another 2,400 miles (4,000 kms) further east than Meget. Only Skype connects her with the members of her family who stayed there. “Perhaps some day I will want to move away and go where it’s warmer,” she says. The hard Siberian winters are an ordeal for them, when the temperature falls to almost -40 degrees Celsius. In the summer, children play on the streets and residents get together to play cards. In winter, not only does nature freeze, but also life in Meget.

Besides, there are better opportunities elsewhere for a job and to see the world, says Julia.

Ekaterina Bodyagina
The residents of Meget get together to play cards.

It’s Not Only The World Cup That’s Far Away...

Anatoli, on the other hand, dreams of building a house, perhaps five years from now. Hovering over all that are worries about low pensions and high interest rates. While politics is to blame, perhaps even Putin - the two would rather not talk about it. They wave it off.

While the west of Russia actually only knows Putin, the Russian head of state here in Siberia is as far away from the people as the World Cup. The uncertain economic situation in the country affects Anatolii and Julia, but who is sitting in the Kremlin seems to have hardly any effect on their everyday life. Their plans for the future are a snapshot of the yearnings of people in present-day Russia, as well as their confidence that everything will be alright. Normalno, as Russians say.

It’s time to go home to get in front of the TV. Behind us lies a complete contrast to the glittering world of newly built hotels, stadiums and streets in the World Cup cities, none of which are in Siberia. According to the financial newspaper “RBK”, Russia invested more than £10.5bn (€12bn/$14bn US), more than any other country before in the World Cup. Julia cannot imagine that even one pound of this budget of billions has reached Meget. “Just look around,” she says.

Ekaterina Bodyagina
An apartment block in Meget.

While Anatolii at least still has a sporting interest in the games, Julia does not care about the World Cup. For sure, she sees the tournament as a “great opportunity” for the parts of the country that get something from it. But the World Cup appears out of sight and out of mind for many Russians so far away from the tournament.

We are now sitting in the couple’s living room in an approximately 430-square foot (40-square meter) apartment with a third resident, Patrick, a cat. Russian hospitality awaits us and the TV is already running. On a brown wooden table there is sushi, meat and cheese slices, and homemade fish pie. Over the course of the evening, there is alcohol-free beer, tea, and coffee.

Kickoff In Siberia

At 10:58pm local time, just before the first whistle, we bet. Julia says diplomatically 1–1, whereas Anatolii hopes for 1–0 for Russia.

Ekaterina Bodyagina
Anatolii and Julia in front of the TV watching the game.

The match finally kicks off at 11pm but it’s not long before Anatolii claps his hands and cheers as the first goal goes in after just 12 minutes. It takes another 31 minutes for Russia to get to their second goal. “I was wrong,” he says.

And how wrong he is. At the 87th minute, the commentators are already summarising the game with the score line 3–0 for Russia. “It was a good start and a good sign for the future,” says the pundit. And Anatolii? He’s more cautious. “Either Saudi Arabia wasn’t very good or we were simply...” He cannot finish his sentence because Russia slams the ball into the Saudi net for the fourth time.

Now Julia also takes stock: “Well done, boys. But it was still boring.” Anatolii then tries to add: “Yes, we are proud of our cou...” That’s 5–0. “How wonderful,” cheers Anatolii as he jumps up from the sofa. At that moment Putin appears on the TV screen. He leans back in his seat in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium and raises both hands as if shocked. Julia tries to describes the gesture and Anatolii playfully imitates her.

The two have seemingly warmed to their president after all, even though he is thousands of miles away. The couple and many million more Russians are cheering for their country. For a moment they may have forgotten their everyday worries. Perhaps these are the moments for which the Kremlin freed up its billions.

While the press are interviewing the players, Anatolii looks at his mobile phone. The messages from his colleagues are rattling through. One writes: “I’m not feeling well, I’m not going to work tomorrow.” It is now one o’clock in the morning but Anatolii and Julia will be up at 6:40am, as they are every workday. He will drop her off at work and continue on to his job. At the end of the day at 5, it will be the same game, only in reverse, and Anatolii will wonder how much longer he has to work to afford a house, even then when these games have long become history.