Our Friend in Moscow: Reporting from Russia on the World Cup, Ashley John-Baptiste finds that the vibe is surprisingly inclusive
It was late March when BBC Newsgathering offered me a lifetime opportunity – to report from Russia during the World Cup. My response? Heck, yes! It was a no-brainer.
Only hours after the initial buzz faded and I had spoken with mates did concerns arise.
Would I experience racial abuse in Russia? Would I be able to hack the cultural and language barriers while consistently providing quality reports? I knew without a doubt that this would be a step up from the domestic reporting that I was used to.
The more I thought about it, the more I fixated on the potential pitfalls of being in Russia as a mixed-race, British journalist. Nevertheless, my curiosity and sense of adventure prevailed. Here I am, writing from Moscow, watching Uruguay butcher Portugal.
So, how’s it going? Cool, I think.
That said, I am aware that anything I experience of Russia during the World Cup isn’t the most accurate reflection of normal life here.
Thousands of fans from across the globe are colouring the streets of Moscow and the other host cities; every corner turned presents a new, glittering display of fandom. It’s clear that the Russian police and authorities are doing their utmost to show an inclusive, cosmopolitan veneer.
As a deployable reporter in Russia for BBC News, I’ve been given the brilliant job of finding stories that are a bit more offbeat than the sports headlines and Fifa updates.
— Ashley John-Baptiste (@AshleyJBaptiste) July 5, 2018
My first few days in Russia saw me follow a group of Nigerian fans who’d flown in from Lagos. I reported on their experiences of Russian culture and how they felt perceived by white Russians. To my surprise, they were remarkably positive.
I even attended a fan party they invited me to. There, I met some black Russians and found myself listening to Afrobeat and hip-hop while eating jollof rice… all in Moscow. That night definitely felt like a night out in Brixton.
Other stories I’ve covered include the Iranian women who came to Russia to watch the footy in stadiums (something that they have been banned from doing back home), the experiences of disabled fans, and an interracial couple in St Petersburg who are using the World Cup as an opportunity to introduce Russians to reggae music. With them, I got to witness how many young, white Russians are embracing reggae music and Jamaican culture with enthusiasm. This was something I didn’t expect. I also spoke to former England captain Rio Ferdinand about the team's chances - and about how we both grew up in Peckham, south London.
In the lead-up to the World Cup, of course, Brits received continual updates on the Skripal poisoning and the accompanying tensions in British-Russian diplomatic relations. And then there was Danny Rose’s warning to his family: avoid visiting Russia because of concerns over racism.
I admit that these headlines seasoned my already sceptical view of race relations in Russia and how Russians see British people.
It’s against this backdrop that you can see why I was bowled over and delighted by the Nigerians’ experience, and that of the reggae duo.
Of course, in my bid for impartiality I reflected that, for many people in Russia, racism and discrimination are still very present.
Despite all of these great cultural encounters, something happened to me on a train last week. A drunk Russian called me a nigger as I was queuing for the train stop.
When I told staff on the train, they simply said to me, via my translator, that it was not their duty to solve conflict. I felt violated, but I am choosing to see it as an insignificant blip in what has been an incredible trip so far.
The incident won’t override the many positive cultural encounters I have had. If any of the World Cup dust can leave its mark on Russia, the future looks promising here.
Ashley John-Baptiste is a reporter for BBC News