Construction of the World Cup fan zone outside Moscow’s top university is fuelling a rare protest in Russia as students worry thousands of partying football fans will destroy one of the capital’s few green spaces.
The row pits students at Moscow State University against a recently re-elected President Vladimir Putin whose administration does not easily brook dissent and has gone all out to ensure the month-long football extravaganza goes off without a hitch.
The area will have concerts and entertainment for up to 25,000 fans as well a giant interactive screen for those without tickets to watch matches.
It is being built in the park below the main building of Moscow State University — one of the city’s seven Stalinist skyscrapers — which overlooks the Luzhniki stadium where the opening match will be played on June 14 as well as the final on July 15.
Many of the university’s over 6,000 students and employees are not thrilled about their campus hosting the fan zone because of the disruption and damage it will cause.
“We started the protest when they told us last year our semester would be cut short because of the fan zone,” said Maria Shekoshkhina, a 26 year-old PhD student.
Security services, she said, maintain that the university labs have to close for the World Cup period because of their work with radioactive materials.
“There was also a risk that students will be moved out of their dorms to make way for the National Guard, like in other World Cup cities,” she added.
Cleaning up dissent
The protesting students won what appeared to be a partial victory earlier this year when Moscow authorities assured them this will not happen and moved the fan zone 300 metres (1,000 feet) further from the university.
But Shekoshkhina said the university and city authorities have not fulfilled their promises and gone to “absurd” lengths to stop the student protests.
When over 200 students protested on May 22, the university “spontaneously deployed” dozens of cleaners to disrupt the event.
“There were also lots of FSB (the successor agency of the KGB) there,” Shekoshkhina added. “We’ve started to recognise them,” she laughed.
Two students were arrested that day, though they were released shortly afterwards.
When a sign directing visitors was recently defaced with a graffiti tag reading “No Fan Zone”, the police opened a criminal investigation instead of a usual administrative case.
They said the damage came to over 65,000 rubles ($1,050, 900 euros).
Three students were arrested, with social media saying one was taken by officers during an exam, but they were subsequently released.
The university has taken to social media urging students not to take part in protests.
A protected area
Students are also worried that the fan zone will damage the university’s protected historic park in an area known as Vorobyovy Gory, or Sparrow Hills.
“We’re not saying all football fans are wild animals, we just think putting 25,000 people in an area with protected nature is not a good idea,” said Ekaterina Palmina, a 19 year-old student wearing a “Stop the Fan Zone” badge.
She pointed to areas where trees have been cut down and historic granite-lined walkways destroyed.
Local green activists and ordinary Muscovites have supported the protest, with a petition addressed to Putin requesting the fan zone be moved reaching 14,000 signatures.
The university’s biology department has been organising walks for Muscovites to see the damage already inflicted on the park.
“Vorobyovy Gory to Muscovites is like the Bois de Boulogne for Parisians,” said Moscow urban activist Pavel Gnilorybov.
“The work on the fan zone was rushed, even though Moscow has several other places that are better suited for this,” he added.
A month ahead of the opening of the games, two of Moscow’s local municipal councils called for the urgent relocation of the fan zone.
Yelena Rusakova, an opposition deputy, said the fan zone is “completely illegal” as it lies within two protected areas: the university park and a city forest.
“Authorities are ignoring its protected status,” Rusakova said.
“FIFA says the World Cup should not damage the nature of the country that is hosting it,” she said.
“That is exactly what is happening here.”