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Peeking Around Corners in the World Cup’s Provincial Cities

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — Olga B. Kalinina and Albina Marunova live in the so-called socialist town, a collection of low-rise Soviet cottages that sit along the highway that links the airport with the center of their city, one of 11 in Russia that hosted matches at this summer’s World Cup.

Mrs. Marunova’s building faces the highway, and so it was thoroughly repaired only weeks before the tournament arrived in Nizhny Novgorod. Visitors, hurrying to their hotels or to the new stadium on the bank of the Volga River, would see a tidy town surrounded by seas of green grass and trees.

Mrs. Kalinina lives only a few steps further into the block. But visiting foreigners cannot see her house, a building that has not seen repairs for decades, and so the painters and the repairmen passed it by. Its yellow color is barely visible after most of the scaffolding fell down, revealing patches of gray concrete.

“This is how it works in Russia,” said Mrs. Kalinina, 68 and retired from her job working in a nearby car parts factory. “We are ready to do everything to impress guests and nothing to make our own lives better.”

Her neighbor, in contrast, was radiant. “The city is developing,” Mrs. Marunova said. “Foreigners have arrived, the highway was repaired.”

The World Cup, which closes with matches in St. Petersburg and Moscow this weekend, was the first major international event hosted by several Russian cities at the same time. A few had previous experience with sudden influxes of international guests: Moscow and Sochi had hosted the Olympics; St. Petersburg was the venue for the G20 Summit in 2013; and Kazan organized the World University Games the same year and hosted the world swimming championships in 2015.

For other Russian cities, though, the World Cup was a transformative experience. Throngs of visitors landed in city centers, some of which had been off-limits to foreigners only three decades earlier, during the Soviet era.

“The World Cup meant much more for Samara than it did for Moscow and St. Petersburg,” said Andrei V. Kochetkov, an urban activist. “For the first time, people could see that foreigners don’t bite and that streets can turn pedestrian.”

But building stadiums and fan zones and transforming entire cities are very different projects, and visits to a half-dozen of the more provincial Russian cities on the World Cup map — Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Saransk, Rostov-on-Don, Volgograd and Yekaterinburg — revealed both substantive improvements and a host of Potemkin villages, a term that originated in Russia to describe an effort to conceal grim reality from a short-term visitor.

Russia’s federal government, for example, sent about $550 million to Nizhny Novgorod, an industrial hub on the confluence of Volga and Oka rivers, to help finance a new airport as well as a metro station near the stadium, which opened this year. One stretch of the embankment along the river likely to draw visitors, which had been surrounded by a blue fence for years, was finally refurbished.

To spend the money most effectively, the local government designated several so-called “guest routes” — essentially streets and sights that World Cup fans were most likely to see. The city administration pledged to repair all decrepit buildings on these avenues, but paperwork delayed the fixes until three months before the tournament.

In the end, migrant workers simply splashed paint on buildings, many of them architectural monuments, to obscure their battered state, said Anna A. Davydova, a local urban preservation activist. Only three buildings were properly restored, she said.

“What was done was a mere minimum, so that we would not be completely ashamed of what is happening in our city,” Mrs. Davydova said.

The stadium, which locals joke resembles an air filter from an old Lada car, is surrounded by water from two sides. That makes it difficult to reach, Mrs. Davydova said. The initial plan was to cover the arena with glass, but the project was later simplified, and now the stadium stands open to winds coming from the wide expanses of the river.

Samara, another big industrial city on the Volga, faced similar problems. A booming bread-trading hub before the Russian Revolution, it inherited dozens of first-class art nouveau buildings. A few of the buildings in the city center, which had fallen into despair in recent decades, were repaired for the World Cup, and the city’s long, lush beachfront got the care it deserved as Samara’s crown jewel.

But not all of Samara’s buildings and neighborhoods were as fortunate.

To disguise those, the local government bought and installed 6.8 miles of fence, said Yulia V. Torgashova, a local financial analyst. The comedian Ivan Urgant, the Russian equivalent to Stephen Colbert, joked about the plan on his late-night show, saying that the next step should be for the government to cover the faces of residents who were deemed not attractive enough for foreign eyes.

Rostov-on-Don got an almost identical aid package as Nizhny Novgorod to spend on infrastructure improvements: new airport terminals and roads, as well as a new stadium that opened in May. But not every project begun for the World Cup was completed.

A giant glass building, resembling a moored cruise ship, stands in front of the Rostov-on-Don railway terminal. The logo on top says Sheraton, but the hotel was not finished in time for the World Cup and will never be opened, said Maksim N. Khmel, the head of a local real estate company.

In every World Cup city, there were signs that the local government had made an effort to tidy up. In Volgograd, a more extreme step was taken: workers at Krasny Oktyabr, one of the biggest steel mills in the region, were sent on vacation during the World Cup so that the factory would stop belching the reddish noxious gases it produces over the stadium.

“I am looking at what happens in Moscow, how things get better there, and I realize that we are just so far behind,” said Anton Astakhov, the head of an IT company in Volgograd, a city known more for an abundance of outsourced call centers.

The city’s dependency on the central government in Moscow was a recurrent theme in conversations with residents. Some see the absence of a real autonomy from the Kremlin as the biggest problem; others were grateful that the central government chose their city at all, and sent some money for improvements.

“It was all poured onto us from the outside,” said Denis V. Shilikhin, a local entrepreneur. “The World Cup, the financial resources — all of it.”

Yekaterinburg, a sprawling city in the middle of the Urals region, was an exception, but of another kind. With a strong industrial base divided among several local oligarchs and vibrant theater, rock music and street art scenes, it saw a surge in the kind of patriotism not seen in other Russian cities.

“Yekaterinburg is far enough from Moscow for it not to suck too many people out of here,” said Dmitri Kolezev, the editor of Znak.com, a local news website with a national reach.

As a result, Yekaterinburg has the reputation as a city aloof about what others think of it. Still, to please visitors, the local authorities removed barbed wire from a pretrial detention center that stands about a block from the city’s World Cup stadium, and increased the number of guards.


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