The way Russian President Vladimir Putin sees it, someone is trying to take the World Cup away from Russia.  

Although most argue that the U.S. Department of Justice is targeting corruption in its investigation of top FIFA officials, and that Russia was hit by accident, Putin and the Russian people have taken the opposite point of view: the U.S. was aiming for Russia, and corruption was merely a convenient justification. This evokes historical conflicts, when communism, the monarchy, or communal farming were the purported targets of the West, but the real prey was Russia.

To the Russian elite, the arrests in Zurich pose two threats. The first is personal: a number of Russians allegedly bribed FIFA officials, who have been arrested in Switzerland to be put on trial in the U.S. This means anyone involved in corruption is fair game at any time and any place; there can be no hiding behind Swiss watches or bank accounts. 

The other threat is social: again, someone is trying to crash Russia’s party. On several occasions, an offended Putin has suggested that certain countries “including the U.S.” waged a concerted campaign to discredit the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The minute Russia tries to create something great, something of international significance— to organize an unparalleled Olympics, an unrivaled Eurovision, an unprecedented World Cup, for example—some American, Brit, Pole, or Czech comes along to bash it.

Since the 2012 presidential inauguration, which took place in a nearly empty Moscow because of the tumultuous protests on Bolotnaya Square the day before, Putin’s decisions have been made according to a principle: “you ruined my party; I’ll ruin your life.” It’s possible that former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster wouldn’t have been so costly for Ukraine had the Maidan protests not coincided with the Olympics, which were designed to showcase Russian greatness. Instead of a Russian celebration in Sochi, the world saw an anti-Russian celebration in Kiev. Some believe that Putin’s humiliation over this did more to embolden him to annex Crimea than any hubris stemming from Russia’s Olympic achievements.

To the outside world, punishing Russia probably seems fair. But if fairness can be sacrificed for the common good, then Russia should be awarded not just the World Cup but another Olympics and a world expo to boot.

This is because the World Cup provides an answer to the question of what will happen in “post-Crimea” Russia. What can satisfy the Russian population’s demand for greatness now that Crimea has been annexed? Nearly half of Russians (47 percent) want their country to be a great power, respected and perhaps feared by others—a 10 percentage point increase over the last decade. Almost 70 percent of Russians—up from 30 percent in 2005—believe Russia is already, or is most likely, a great power.

This nationwide demand for greatness has emerged in the second half of Putin’s lengthy reign, as part of a new and unspoken social contract between the authorities and the people. And it’s better to put this energy to peaceful use. Stripping Russia of the World Cup would be like fueling war in Ukraine.

PEACE STREET

Many observers have noted that the new Cold War differs from the old one in the ease with which Russians talk about a real war. “War-shmar,” the thinking seems to go: “The Yanks have gotten totally out of hand, meddling everywhere, not taking us seriously. We can’t put up with this anymore. Maybe it really would be better to duke it out, to show them their place and to win ours in the sun.” 

In late April, sociologists at the Levada Center released the results of a poll entitled “Rampant Fearlessness, or War as a Sporting Event on TV.” They found that only half of respondents feared that the war in Ukraine might grow into a war between Russia and the West. Among young people, 40 percent were against such a war, while 3 percent were certain Russia would win. Putin’s statement that he was ready to put the country’s nuclear forces on alert during the Crimea crisis failed to frighten 47 percent of those polled.

The Soviet Union may have produced thousands of tanks and deployed SS-20 missiles, but its ruling classes didn’t chatter blithely about war. The Soviet propagandist would never have said, “We can turn the U.S. into a heap of radioactive dust.” He would’ve said: “There are so many nuclear weapons in the world, that mankind can turn the earth into a heap of radioactive dust.”

The first thing Soviet schoolchildren learned in “political information” class was that there are no winners in a nuclear war; the first thing they heard at festive holiday concerts was that “our planet is made of fragile glass.” 

It’s not just that the Soviet leadership had a sense of responsibility and thus exercised caution. The USSR suffered from intense war trauma: the war that had been a subject of idle chatter in the 1930s became a reality when the Soviet Union was attacked from the West by Nazi Germany, which advanced all the way to Moscow and the Volga River; 20 to 30 million classmates, loved ones, and co-workers were killed. Soviet leaders promised their people that this would never happen again. There would be trade-offs: some shortages perhaps and some restrictions, but no one would kill their loved ones and classmates again.

Peace was part of the post-war, late Soviet-era social contract between the authorities and the people: the population was ready to sacrifice prosperity and even freedom for peace. Hence the common adage that all’s well “as long as there’s no war.” In other words, freedom and prosperity were exchanged for peace.

Even the localized Afghan war turned out to be a significant breach of that contract—hence its contribution to the Soviet collapse. The shortage of consumer goods and restrictions on all imaginable freedoms remained, but classmates and neighbors started coming home in coffins. Thus, the regime made hardship and lack of freedom pointless.

SIGN ON THE DOTTED LINE

The unspoken social contract between the Russian people and their leaders has changed a number of times. The goal set immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union—to live like the West—was not realized in the 1990s for a variety of reasons, and ultimately, Russians saw that decade as yet another breach of contract. Perhaps the people were intentionally deceived. They found themselves asking: “we gave up our country and its borders in order to gain a Western standard of living and become part of the West. And where’s that all now?”

When the Soviets opposed the U.S. at the height of the Cold War and, later, when they were making peace with the Americans during perestroika, Soviet citizens felt like equals of the greatest power on earth, despite some hardships. In the 1990s, the economic hardships remained, while the sense of equality and significance disappeared.

The contract of the late Yeltsin and early Putin years went something like this: “please, someone give us back our first-world country—decent, clean, and not one to be ashamed of.” In other words, people were willing to give up freedom in exchange for prosperity. As this contract began to be fulfilled, the subject of greatness unexpectedly came to the fore; over the past decade, Russians have come to crave their former greatness.

 The current unspoken social contract promises Russians greatness in exchange for freedom and prosperity. But greatness supposes the possibility of war. War, after all, can be a means of manifesting greatness. Thusly, people have adopted a more militaristic posture; there is much less of a sense that war should be avoided or feared than there was even during the real Cold War of the Brezhnev-Andropov era.

It’s hard to say where exactly this demand for greatness comes from and why it is growing now. Maybe it is because the previous social contract was never completely fulfilled: Russians came closer to Western standards of living, but not close enough (economic growth has slowed considerably, after all). Or maybe, once their essential material needs had been more or less satisfied, people began to long for a higher purpose, a mission. Russians in the Soviet Union were accustomed to having one: for 70 years they had a sense of purpose, leading the vanguard of humanity, and suddenly—poof!—it was gone. Life got boring.

Maybe we were mistaken in exchanging freedom for prosperity, and this mistake is gnawing at us. Hence the desire to portray the West as being held prisoner to tolerance, political correctness, homosexuals, and corporations. We gave up our freedom in exchange for prosperity once; now we must try to make up for what we lack by attacking others.

Our standard of living has gone up, the thinking goes, but we agreed to pay for it with our rights, while you (in the West) are living just as well and paying nothing for it. So why don’t you pay with your peace. As my colleague and political commentator Ivan Davydov put it, the authorities are squeezing us at home, so we’ve decided to join forces with the government to do the same to those abroad.

GAGARIN ALSO SUFFERED

Greatness is a very easy thing for backward governments to sell—especially if it’s expressed in negative terms, rejecting the accomplishments of others rather than stressing one’s own. Where you end up doesn’t matter; what matters is that someone else gets lost. What does Russia’s greatness consist of? Of being different from the West. It doesn’t matter how imperfect we are; what matters is that we’re not like them.

Afghans living under the Taliban wear tattered clothes, heat their homes with dried manure, live in mud huts, and get their water from a spring that they also use to bathe. To quote the poet Joseph Brodsky, they “have no home address, much less an envelope, protected from the wind by nothing but their backs.” Those living under the Islamic State don’t dare to turn on any music, to step outside more often than necessary, to wear the wrong clothes, or look at someone the wrong way; the world is rightly horrified by this. But ISIS and the Taliban’s followers revel in their own greatness.

In terms of costs, this new social contract is quite a winning business model. According to the Levada Center poll, 40 percent of respondents consider their city or region to be in bad shape economically, and only 10 percent think it’s in good shape. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Russians are certain that the country is heading in the right direction.

There is every reason to believe the Russian government will be able to make Western sanctions work in their favor. After all, privation can be taken as a sign of greatness in Russia. Over the past 70 to 80 years—the most anyone can be expected to remember—Russia has only achieved greatness in times of hardship. We won the war, rebuilt the country, explored space, and built giant plants and collective farms with millions of workers—all this was done when life wasn’t exactly easy. But when we merely consume, import, and shop, does that mean we’re not doing anything important? In the collective consciousness, the link between greatness and privation endures.

DELUSIONS OF GREATNESS

The danger of greatness lies not only in militarism but also in the difficulty of determining whether the greatness in question is genuine. It is, of course, easy to be deceived. This happens all the time in the modern world (the Taliban and ISIS, for example). Russia is no exception: not only did it spend 70 years preaching the dusty theories of a bearded German scholar, it actually bent over backwards trying to live by them.

Indeed, popular demand for greatness holds its own dangers. It is thus better for Russia to have the World Cup, the Olympics, or the world expo than for it to undertake another military conquest. And it would be even better to find a new formula for greatness: a new conquest of space or an infrastructural revolution. It is impossible to build true global greatness on domestic fictions, like those the Russian government now perpetuates: crusades against homosexuality and Ukrainian fascism, and attempts to build a unique civilization out of myths. 

Under the Soviet-era social contract, which offered “privation for peace,” both privation and peace were easily verifiable realities: there was the Cold War, but no big hot one. In the first post-Soviet contract—“old greatness for freedom” and “freedom for prosperity—caveats notwithstanding, certain realities could also be empirically confirmed: the 1990s were definitely freer than the 1970s, and the 2000s were definitely more prosperous than the 1990s. But the second half of the current formula — “prosperity and freedom in exchange for greatness”—is very difficult to verify. And it’s likely that the costs will be real but the gains imaginary.