The aim of this guide is to give some background and context to Russia and offer practical information and advice on safety. Our focus is on giving an accurate picture of how things are likely to be during the World Cup and increasing understanding of the diversity of Russia as told through its people and its football culture.

As its big sporting moment arrives it is hard to ignore that the international climate is far from favourable towards Russia. Questions over its foreign policy objectives, internal governance, the crackdown on civil society groups, racism in football, the treatment of migrant workers, the situation of the LGBT+ community, and other issues, have created a picture of a country that falls short of the democratic ideal.

Many Russians feel they are not being given a fair hearing by the international media, which has led to further polarisation and isolationism. A mistake one should not make when visiting Russia is equating the government with the people, who certainly represent a more diverse range of opinions and views.

In putting this site together we travelled to all 11 host cities to ask locals, ethnic minorities and LGBT+ activists about the places in their city that are open and welcoming for everyone. We also heard their stories, of acceptance, inclusion, and finding a home in Russia, alongside difficult tales of exclusion and people afraid of being who they are.

The guide has arisen from the need to provide advice for minorities but it will be useful for anyone visiting Russia. Follow the advice we offer and then go to our city guides for information that is not available anywhere else.

There is no question that Russia has many stories to tell – of an inherent diversity, an incredibly rich culture and many open, hospitable people. But these stories sit alongside the darker realities of a nation in which alienation is not far from the surface.

Political climate

To understand what is going on in Russia, not least the environment minorities find themselves in and the situation in football, one needs to acknowledge the impact that political decisions made over the past eight years have had.

When Russia was awarded the World Cup in 2010 its objectives were linked to showcasing Russia as a member of the international community following the Obama-led ‘reset’ in relations. Since then the rise of aggressive forms of nationalism has led to a political drive that has resulted in a different picture.

A number of pieces of government legislation have targeted the work of civil society. Among those worst hit are NGOs working in the field of human rights, especially those receiving funding from outside of Russia. In particular the ‘foreign agent’ law is used in a calculated way to target NGOs with opinions and activities deemed unacceptable to the political elite. In 2017 the list of ‘foreign agents’ included over 150 NGOs.

In 2016 the Russian government introduced a package of anti-terrorism and anti-extremism laws, the so-called ‘Yarovaya’ legislation, reduced basic rights such as freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly and association.

Experts from Human Rights Watch and the EU - Russia Civil Society Forum refer to the ‘shrinking space for civil society’ and therefore debate and openness.

The climate of xenophobia created in the political confrontation with the west and the crackdown on civil society has led many to worry even about talking to foreigners in Russia about human rights, something we experienced during our visits to host cities.