Russia Relaxes, for a Moment, to Let Soccer Fans Rejoice

Russia fans celebrated a goal by Artem Dzyuba while watching a live telecast of a match between Spain and Russia on Sunday.

MOSCOW — Under normal circumstances, a single Muscovite can hold a sign on a sidewalk without a parade permit. But if another person turns up, it becomes an illegal gathering and the police can make arrests.

But after Russia’s win over Spain, a soccer superpower, on Sunday, hundreds of Russians held a raucous, boozy, late-night party not just on any sidewalk, but the sidewalk outside Lubyanka, the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the K.G.B.

One man beat out a rhythm on a drum. Soccer fans danced. “During the championship, everything is allowed,” said Sofia Mirnaya, 26, a Russian literature teacher who snapped pictures of her boyfriend holding a plastic cup of beer.

Defying expectations, geopolitical tensions and a thousand grim years of Russian history, the government has turned the World Cup into an event that is, well, fun.

Human rights critics fear the sports event will strengthen the hand of President Vladimir V. Putin, who has made good use of the tournament to smooth over an unpopular pension reform at home and burnish Russia’s image abroad, and bolster his authoritarian, conservative and nationalist approach to governing.

On Monday, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, compared the celebratory crowds to those seen in “historical footage of May 9, 1945,” the date of Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Soviet Union in World War II.

President Trump, who will meet with Mr. Putin at a summit on July 16, praised the tournament, saying that Russia was “doing a fantastic job with the World Cup right now.”

Expectations were not high for the World Cup, which Russia won the right to host in 2010, long before annexing parts of Ukraine, intervening militarily in Syria, meddling in the United States presidential election and generally becoming a geopolitical pariah.

In fact, holding a World Cup in Russia today seemed like a terrible idea to many. The British royal family, for example, boycotted the event, after the poisoning earlier this year, by nerve agent, of a former Russian double agent in Britain.

Not only had Russia been nailed in a state-sponsored doping scandal at the last major international sports event it hosted, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, its soccer team was widely regarded as a joke, both at home and abroad. As the home team it gained an automatic berth, even though it was ranked 70th in the world, the lowest among participating countries.

But on Sunday night, Russia knocked off Spain in an almost unfathomable upset, and is now among the final eight teams. It was this victory that touched off the gigantic alcohol- and pride-fueled street party throughout central Moscow, including, improbably on the doorstep of Lubyanka.

Pretty much everything has gone right. Stadium crowds have been enthusiastic and reports of violence and logistical incompetence few. Russia’s soccer hooligans, usually a vicious group, are nowhere to be seen. (The F.S.B. reportedly held “prophylactic discussions” with their leaders beforehand, to discourage unrest.)

All of this has played into Mr. Putin’s hand at a pivotal time. With the tournament as a distraction, Russia’s Parliament set to work drafting a law to lift the retirement age, an unpopular measure needed because of economic stagnation brought on by sanctions.

The games have also sanded some hard edges off Russia’s reputation as a troublemaker, even as nothing has changed in Ukraine or Syria. Yet rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have tried to use the spotlight of the World Cup to free political prisoners, so far without luck.

“As for ‘sports is outside of politics,’ forget about it,” Dmitri Dubrovski, an historian at the Center for Independent Social Research in St. Petersburg, wrote on Facebook. “This is a success of the Putin regime, regardless of our attitude toward it. The regime will appropriate it regardless, in one way or another.”

Soccer success has Russians thinking differently about themselves, even if some spectators around the world, watching the party, reconsider their views on Russia. A capital known for its cold, its money and its raw power is uncoiling and, for a few weeks, relaxing.

“We have a repressive government, but not now, because we’re having a party,” explained Aleksandr Yerofeyev, one of those celebrating Sunday evening.

“When it comes to politics, it’s banned,” he said. “When it comes to soccer, it’s allowed.”

At least tens of thousands of people took to the streets Sunday evening. A crowd hoisted a huge stuffed teddy bear in the air. Ballerinas at the Bolshoi huddled backstage to watch the game.

Sofia Shevelyeva, 26, a sales manager, watched the upset over Spain at Beer Mood, a bar overlooking Chisty Prudy park, a leafy spot in the city center whose tranquillity today belies its past: It was a site Ivan the Terrible had set aside for crowds to watch mass executions. Now, soccer was on offer.

Russians, even those not pleased to see their country militarily menacing small neighbors in Eastern Europe, found a reason to be proud of their team toppling Spain. Russians, to be sure, also erupted with national pride after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, “but not me or my friends,” Ms. Shevelyeva said.

She disapproved of the takeover, she said. Pride in the soccer team is different. “They are not men with weapons, but men with skill and luck. And we love them.”

Russia’s soccer heroes wrapped up the match in a 1-1 tie, went through 30 minutes of nerve-destroying extra time and won when the Russian goalkeeper, Igor V. Akinfeev, saved a penalty kick with an acrobatic leap, knocking the ball out with his foot.

In what analysts were calling a miscalculation, Mr. Putin sent his prime minister, Dmitry A. Medvedev, to preside at Luzhniki Stadium over the expected loss to Spain. Mr. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, later clarified that Mr. Putin had watched the entire game on television.

As the evening wore on, a layer of clouds turned pink with the deepening sunset and people spilled out onto the sidewalks.

Amid a crackdown on domestic political dissent under Mr. Putin, and after street protests toppled governments in other former Soviet states, laws strictly prohibit public gatherings, and large get-togethers became rare other than for sanctioned events, like Victory Day parades.

The leniency has been bewildering. A video circulated online of a man holding a beer asking police officers if he will be able to drink on the street when the World Cup ends. (The answer was no.)

Aleksei A. Navalny, an opposition leader who has often been arrested for forming illegal gatherings, posted a celebratory note on Twitter.

“Yessss!” he wrote after the Russian win. “Need to organize a series of protests demanding that Akinfeev be made a Hero of Russia.”

Outside Lubyanka, soccer fans wobbled with drinks in hand. One rowdy group taunted the building, yelling “K.G.B.! K.G.B.!” while a few policemen looked on passively.

Mostly, it was just an apolitical, boozy party taking place under the metal bas-relief of Yuri V. Andropov, a former secret police chief and Communist Party general secretary, which is fixed to the building’s chunky stone façade. Russians fear the building, joking darkly that the nine-story edifice is the highest in Moscow: From the windows inside you can see Siberia. On Sunday, a hundred yards away, around a corner, a man fueled the fun with beer sold from the trunk of an illegally parked sedan.

Pavel Rovinsky, 25, an off-duty police officer who joined the party at Lubyanka, beer in hand, said the soccer thaw would not last. “When the championship is over, everything will return to its place,” he said. “What was prohibited will be prohibited again.”

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