One of the defining images of the World Cup has been delirious scenes of South American fans marching, chanting and drinking into the early hours on Russian streets.
For many visitors expecting a police state, the laxity of the police and authorities in the last week has been a revelation. One video of Russian policemen fretting over a pair of passed-out Swedes has gone viral.
Small regional cities such as Saransk have been flooded by armies of Colombians and Peruvians, marching unimpeded down main avenues with banners and flags.
But for those with experience in protest and political opposition here, there is a kind of dark humour in the spectacle: foreigners can spontaneously gather on city streets, while Russians themselves cannot.
“The World Cup is a plus for this country, and many have seen how the country could look: free, open,” said Yevgeny Roizman, a former maverick mayor from the city of Ekaterinburg who was forced out earlier this year. “But when the World Cup ends, the process of cracking down will continue. There are no illusions here.”
Thousands of Peruvians have descended on this city of more than 1.3 million in the Urals mountains and are expected to march through the streets this evening before a do-or-die match with France.
It is a city where Roizman has become an important figure, first gaining prominence for his anti-heroin City Without Drugs initiative that earned controversy over the severe tactics in its rehabilitation centres. He has carved out a niche as a kind of community organiser, receiving petitioners and running a charity called the Roizman Fund, which supports a local hospice.
“They saw I was going to win,” he says, when asked why the city banned direct elections for the mayorship earlier this year.
For Ekaterinburg, Roizman says, the World Cup was undoubtedly a positive event. It produced new infrastructure, brought in tourists, and gave the city “a push forward”.
But he also believes that “the picture that the outside world is being given in these weeks does not fully represent what is happening in Russia.”.
“People don’t have the right to assembly, people don’t have full freedom of speech,” he told the Guardian in an interview at his Nevyansk Icon Museum in downtown Ekaterinburg.
Russia has passed tough laws since 2012 that ban unsanctioned demonstrations of more than two people and punish organizers with fines and jail time. Russian protesters have even been arrested when holding blank pieces of paper or “invisible placards” near the Kremlin, gestures meant to mock the political bias behind the enforcement of the law.
It has made the scenes of Saudi flags unfurled in front of the Kremlin, Iranian women protesting in the stands at World Cup matches, or thousands of Swedish fans storming through Nizhny Novgorod especially surreal.
Roizman compared it to the 6th World Festival of Youth and Students held in the Soviet Union in 1957, which attracted 30,000 students from around the world for games, stadium shows, and bonfires. “It was still the Soviet Union when it was all over,” he said.
Ultimately, he says, he is both happy as a patriot that his country is hosting the World Cup and cognizant that the spectacle brings the Kremlin political benefit.
“I live here. I understand how the World Cup is going to be used,” he said.
That became clear last week when Russia announced it would raise the retirement age on the same day as its opening match against Saudi Arabia.
It was an unpopular, and long-expected, austerity measure that used the political cover of the World Cup to push through painful reforms.
Men can currently retire at 60 and women at 55. Under the new legislation, men will be eligible for pension only at 65, and women at 63.
In the region around Ekaterinburg, Roizman said, 25% of people don’t live to retirement. Under the new law, that number will jump to above 50%.
“People feel like they’ve had years added to their term,” said Roizman, using the Russian word for a prison sentence. “People are going to be angry and they will protest.”
Russian protest leader Alexey Navalny, who was jailed for the month before the World Cup, has called for a nationwide protest on 1 July against the new law, while the World Cup is ongoing. To hold a protest in Russia, you need to request a permit, and it’s unclear whether Navalny will be given one.
Roizman believes that pensioners will only turn out for a sanctioned protest and that the focus on sport would drown everything else out. “Everything you say right now will be lost in the euphoria of the Mundial,” he said.
If there’s a protest, what will the police do?
“They’re in a tough situation,” he said. “They’re used to reacting to every movement. Take flags away. Make arrests. And suddenly across the country there are people walking around at night, not asking permission. But they also know that the World Cup will end and the foreigners will leave. I’ll just repeat what a lot of people have said: ‘This is what a free country should look like.’”