MOSCOW — In recent weeks, Russia has been engaged in a concerted effort to tame its habitual xenophobic demons in anticipation of 500,000 foreign soccer fans descending on the country for the World Cup that started Thursday. It has even organized classes on how to smile.
But some lawmakers apparently missed the memo.
One member of Parliament warned Russian women against sleeping with foreign men, especially if they were from a different race. Another cautioned even against hugging visitors from other continents, given that they might be rife with disease.
The ensuing outcry was loud and sharp, with many on social media comparing the remarks to propaganda during the 1980 Olympics, when the Soviet Union warned its citizens against talking to foreigners. (In that era, any talk of sex was strictly taboo.)
Russians, though often big-hearted, can be notoriously dour when dealing with foreigners, particularly large groups who do not speak the language.
Smiling at any stranger is considered dubious, perhaps even the sign of a feeble mind. There is even a proverb about it: “Laughter without reason is a mark of fools.”
To overcome that attitude, various training programs that would have done Miss Manners proud were begun ahead of the World Cup.
The smiling lessons were administered to employees of the Russian railroads who will be staffing the free long-haul trains running between World Cup cities.
The Interior Ministry ordered all 11 host cities to deploy police officers that could speak English, Chinese, French and Spanish. (Moscow already had such officers near major tourist attractions.)
Apparently, some Russian soccer hooligans are being kept at bay. World Cup ticket holders must obtain fan identification cards proving they have been vetted by the security services, and some fans famous for things like racist chanting have been denied them.
Given Russia’s tense foreign relations in recent years linked to a string of showdowns with the West over Crimea, Ukraine, Syria, election meddling and other issues, the World Cup was seen as a chance to present a different image.
“Our people are very hospitable, and I am counting on those who come here leaving with totally good impressions,” Eleonora Mitrofanova, the head of an organization responsible for promoting Russia’s image, said at a news conference last month.
Then came the members of the Russian State Duma, or Parliament. It should be noted that the Duma has no real power, and normally serves as kind of a Greek chorus that echoes and amplifies the mood