Sometime in the late 1960s, Irina Filatova was on the Moscow metro with a Senegalese classmate and his daughter.
The two had met in a Swahili class at the Institute for Asian and African Countries at Moscow State University, where Filatova was studying history.
On the way home, she noticed a young Russian man staring at them. She tried to ignore him, but when they arrived at her station, the man jumped from his seat and yelled for everyone to hear: “Girl, have you no shame?”
“That was the attitude at the time,” Filatova sighed, recalling the event. “My cousin told me that if she ever saw me with a black person she would never speak to me again. My father warned me that friendships with people of color were one thing, but relationships were entirely another.”
Five decades on, just as the World Cup was kicking off, comments made by a State Duma deputy during an interview with the Govorit Moskva radio station reminded her of that incident.
“We must give birth to our own,” Tamara Pletnyova, the head of the Committee on Children, Women and Family, said on air, warning Russian women against getting too friendly with foreign fans. “It’s OK if they are of the same race. But if they are of another race, then that’s something entirely different.”
Pletnyova said she had personally met some of the “suffering” single mothers left behind after the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow and argued that a repeat would be bad for the country. She was not alone in that belief.
As the tournament got underway, it became clear that many in Russia shared the lawmaker’s concerns. While foreign football fans flooded Russian streets and cities, commenters on social media shamed local women for fraternizing with Moroccans, Nigerians and Mexicans. They warned of the crisis that would materialize nine months down the line.
This sense of anxiety is not new. In fact, mixed-race children born to Russian mothers after international events in Russia have their own term: deti festivalya, or “festival children.”
The term dates back to the 1957 World Festival of Youth and Students, when thousands of students from around the world flocked to Moscow for the two-week cultural fair. For most young Muscovites, it was the first time they had met anyone from Africa, Latin America or East Asia.
Just four years after the death of Stalin, the event was a departure from the Soviet Union’s previous isolation.