The Novotel Moscow City has a curved façade that gives it a sense of grandeur and distinction in the midst of the more strictly angled buildings around it, and its blue glass construction has yet to feel outdated or unfashionable. Land Rovers with metallic paint jobs, BMWs with blacked out windows and Mercedes-Benz with sparkling hub caps act as the punctuation to the paragraph of the bigger structure.
Inside, however, it’s the kind of hotel that could exist in any commercial center of any major city in the world. The ground-floor lobby is cavernous, attendants are achingly polite and the temporary inhabitants, dressed almost exclusively in suits and things approaching dinner dresses, hail from Japan, the United States, Europe and, of course, Russia.
This being Russia, however, there is airport-style security at the hotel entrance, ice hockey playing on a giant screen at the bar and what looks to be a set of supermodels loitering on couches and sipping without intent from cocktails and wine glasses.
Moscow City is a suburb of sorts to the real city, an enclave of the rich elite, the playing-away businessman and the tourist with no interest and much fear in seeing the real Russia. It’s a metropolitan island of some of the most forceful and impressive skyscrapers I’ve ever seen, surrounded by a sea of comparatively low-rise existence that contains the soul of the country—a country that feels as though it’s stuck in a time warp somewhere between the start of the Reagan era and the rise of the internet as a mass communication device.
The skyscrapers that make up this modern compound are small in number but cluttered so close together that it’s tough to see the sky when you’re walking between them. As such, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking Moscow City is more expansive than it really is. Step outside of the walls of glass, however, and you see its size as it is in reality—an attempt at presenting the idea that Moscow is a thriving, dynamic modern city to rival New York, London, Tokyo or Hong Kong.
It doesn’t have the sheer dominance of the New York skyline, or the random spread of peaks that pepper powerful-but-increasingly-insignificant London. Tokyo beats it for hustle and bustle and a sense of life, whilst Hong Kong Island’s skyline presents you with a sense of awe at the achievement of man when viewed from the Kowloon side. Moscow has that mild charm that comes with seeing confusion on the face of a child: the city not quite knowing where it wants to go and what it wants to be, the cluster of modern buildings creating a metropolitan dissonance as the new world meets the old.
And yet Moscow is the epicenter of the recent success of the Belarusian developer and publisher Wargaming and their hit game, World of Tanks. Tanks has over 110 million players, most of whom are based in Eastern Europe and Russia, with that number triggering the inaugural Wargamming Fest—a one-day gathering that celebrates the company’s output through new announcements, eSports tournaments and a Rocky IV cameo. Also in the mix: awful music acts, casual sexism and extremely strong drinks.
Wargamming Fest, marketed as WGFest or #WGFest, is held in the Moscow Expocenter, a series of hangar-sized halls connected via concourses and stairways. In scale it’s similar to examples seen in Los Angeles and Tokyo, and certainly significantly vaster than anything London has to offer. The exterior has a certain Soviet-era charm in that it has clearly been designed with function over cosmetic appearance in mind, the sheer dedication to creating something so cuboid that it couldn’t ever possibly exist naturally, drawing from me a certain melancholic respect for the architect.
I’m standing and looking at the Expocenter with a peculiar sense of admiration. My mind is still shaking from the previous evening’s intake of the most alcoholically aggressive Old Fashioned ever put into an organic being, the digestion of which promoted the consumption of beers and wine at the Novotel bar which, now supermodel-less, I remember being less enticing than ever. The regimented, easily understood structure of the Expocentre makes for something solid to counter any queasiness.
The press room is an awful place, but at least it has seating options. Unappealing pastries line tables on one side, flanked by welcome bottles of water and some kind of inedible pickled vegetable pasty.
A row of computers with World of Tanks playable on them is adjacent to said pasty, making the game guilty and unplayable by association. On the other side is a small stage on which designers and producers from UK studio Creative Assembly are being interviewed and broadcast over Facebook Live talking about the upcoming Total War: Arena, a game that Wargamming has acquired publishing rights to in a bid for penetration beyond its Eastern European power base.
All bets are off when you see Russian bar staff at work, the juice making up no more than 20 percent of the full tumbler.
All of the men at this celebration of digital war machines fall into one of two aesthetics: the brick shithouse Wladimir Klitschko type, or young Andy Warhol. One group looks as though it’s thinking about how to beat you up, the other how quickly it could beat you at chess. Unsurprisingly, for a game whose female audience has been delivered through luck over design, the majority of the crowd are male.
The women here are thankfully more attractive than the men, but no more delicate. Their beauty comes from a tougher place, their tall, sleek bodies and sharp, powerfully defined faces being of the sort that one imagines preferring aggressive domination over a tender embrace. To look at them is to immediately make you feel as though you should be grovelling at their feet for mercy.
Older women continue to emit this commanding aura, albeit through shot-putter builds and an expression that says they’ve got Kalashnikovs under their winter coats and they’re not averse to cannibalism throughout the colder winter months. How Russia is not a matriarchal society is a mystery.
What connects the men and women is their whiteness. Skin in Moscow is of a uniform tone and colour, diversity being not so much limited as almost obsolete. The few without white skin are of an origin closer to Asian than European and have presumably moved to the city from the Sahka and Buryat regions closer to China, Mongolia and Siberia that are home to Russia’s largest indigenous populations.
The monotone reality is reinforced by the passport control at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, the officers in the booths seemingly under instruction to make entry as difficult as possible for anyone without skin of an acceptably vanilla tone.
Passport control for foreign nationals is located in a separate chamber to that designed for the locals, one that includes a penned off area for those individuals who fail to make it past the checkpoint at the first attempt. Tellingly, every person escorted to the zone was of Arabic descent—bar two white guys with long hair, Californian accents and a vague look of confusion as to their existence and current position in space and time. They did look suspicious.
My own British passport is looked over in the greatest detail it has ever undergone, the stone-faced woman behind the glass checking every page with a some special light and looking over certain items—American passport stamps, a Cambodian visa, my Russian visa, a stamp saying I’d overstayed on my Thai visa—with a set of magnifying glasses. Yes, a set. Not a single.
I’m feeling guilty for crimes I’m yet to commit, the whole process surely constructed to intimidate you into following the rules and fearing the consequences of any sort of protest.
At some point during the process the gloomy-faced border official looks at me and mumbles something that I presume is being spoken in English. “Sorry?” I say, doing my best impression of someone trying to sound like the criminal that they’re not. “Computer’s broken, have to wait,” she says. This is it, then, I’m thinking: the first time I’m going to be turned away from a country, the first time I’m going to see the inside of an interrogation cell. Why does it have to happen in Russia?
Turns out the computer really is just slow. The guard grants my entry as signalled by the red light on the booth turning green, the gate unlocks and I’m in. It’s difficult to believe that a country that equips their border security with computers with the processing power of a pocket calculator is able to hack an election, but that’s the world we live in.
The same feeling of oppressiveness pervades WGFest, the Expocenter doing its best to stunt your ambitions once inside and feeling attentive. The lighting is not light enough, which plays havoc on your eyes after a while and is particularly bad if you’ve systemically ruined your sight by playing too many video games. The floor around the whole venue is uneven and cracked, different colours of paint overlapping each other highlighting the numerous repair jobs it has required. Stalls selling food and drinks have a general aura of remorse about them.
Then there’s the heating. Outside temperature is minus 22 degrees centigrade, a cold that you can feel stabbing into your lungs from within as you inhale and one that, within seconds, causes your trousers to go stiff in a partial freeze. I don’t want to contemplate the effect the cold is having underneath the trousers.
Inside the venue it’s baking hot, huge radiators strapped to the walls pumping out heat on the scale of an iron works. This causes a problem in that the majority of the attendees are wrapped up in winter clothing in order to survive the journey here, the smell of sweat creating a clinging atmosphere of claustrophobia that never subsides. Cloakrooms are available, but that doesn’t overcome the issue of wearing long johns inside a furnace.
As Russia both embraces and resists Western influence, WGFest highlights the tension that this creates as opposing forces attempt to coexist.
The crowd is split roughly evenly between the main stage, upon which musical acts do their best to send everyone into a spiral of despair, and an upper floor housing games to play. Girls dressed in outfits vaguely representing a pornographer’s vision of a tank or warship commander (Wargamming also deploys World of Warships as part of its fleet) stand around waiting for people to have their photo taken with them.
There’s a kid who is tall enough only to reach the waist of the photo girls, the resulting snap being one of his, possibly her, head sandwiched between two crotches clad in skirts that look as though they’re about to snap under the tension. Rumours start swirling, ignited by a member of Wargamming’s Eastern European PR team, that there’s a kid dressed as Adolf Hitler.
Eventually, the desperately music-less live music is too much and I find solace in a press conference held behind closed doors. This second, and much larger, press room contains wine, food and a more delicately balanced temperature. Getting comfortable here makes it difficult to leave. When the press conference starts, however, leaving becomes the priority.
Headsets are provided for those without the gift of Russian, a voice translating speech into English in real time. Various people take to the small stage a few rows in front of me to repeat the number of players World of Tanks enjoys worldwide, outline plans for future expansion (including a new game in the form of free-to-play shooter Caliber) and toss in the fact that Wargaming has its own company plane and now its own commercially available car.
A new trailer shows off some admittedly impressive graphical improvements as allowed by enhancements to the core game engine. Then a woman, the sole representative of her gender speaking at the press conference, comes onstage to deliver her minutes. This is unremarkable in itself, except for the leering, sexualized manner her departure from the stage is handled by the event’s host.
He describes how attractive she looks when talking and how it will be quite impossible for every man (and there are a lot of men here) in the audience to resist asking for her phone number later in the day at the bar. The fact that this is being spoken to me by a quiet, delicate female voice in my ear makes the moment more bizarre.
After a Wargamming bigwig, accompanied by two girls wearing sailor outfits and plastic smiles, delivers further congratulations to himself, Dolph Lundgren arrives onstage. Yes, that Dolph Lundgren. This is the man who said that Nicolas Cage is a great actor, so why he’s allowed on stage with a microphone is anyone’s guess.
He is talking about a Swedish tanks update coming to World of Tanks, making questionable links between that and his time in the Swedish military, emotionlessly explaining that he’s proud to represent the game and then says that he has no interest in games. Before last week, when he supposedly sat down to play World of Tanks, he’d never played one.
Bizarre, then, that one of the first questions from local journalists during the open Q&A session is, “Have you played The Sims 3?” A serious silence falls as the audience waits for Dolph to reply, his predictable answer being that he has no idea what The Sims 3 is and reiterates that he prefers real life to games. After I’ve unscrambled my brain at the oddity of the question there is nothing else to do but laugh, then head for the table with the wine in an attempt to blunt my senses to whatever is coming next.
Other questions are far less interesting, including “What’s your favourite tank?” and “Can you perform a line from Rocky IV?” He does the line and visibly dies a little inside. Selfies and forced smiles follow.
Thereafter eSports becomes the main attraction of WGFest, chants from the crowd giving some semblance of meaning to the two teams that I’ve never heard of competing in the World of Tanks final. Comical drama comes welcomingly as the best-of-13 match is interrupted at 5-5 by a power cut that brings the entire show down, Putin presumably channelling more juice to the nerve centre of his politically savvy international hacking network.
The outage lasts long enough to mean the only option is, with fellow journalists as comrades, to head back to the press room to take advantage of the newly constructed cocktail bar. Having learned my lesson with the previous night’s Old Fashioned, rum and apple juice seems like a safer bet today. All bets are off when you see Russian bar staff at work, though, the juice making up no more than 20 percent of the full tumbler.
A team eventually wins the eSports tournament, but by the time the electricity is back many of the crowd has evacuated the building and headed back into the arctic conditions outside. Journalists, now that news of the free bar has spread, are more interested in drinks than eSports.
As I sip on my apple juice shot and rum mixer, I like to think that Kid Hitler is out there amongst the crowds funnelling back out in the cold. My failure to photograph him is my greatest recent regret of the day.
Regret notwithstanding, WGFest is an experience that I’m glad of. It serves as an apt metaphor of the sensation that Russia as a whole drapes across you just by being there. On the one hand it feels entirely Westernized and recognizable as modern through English eyes, but on the other there’s an omnipresent gloom and strict control that pervades the entire enterprise and makes you feel as though you’re contained within a feature-limited version of your normal life.
The modern gaming convention and the very idea of celebrating a product is every bit as consumer-driven as life in the West, but the dilapidating venue, the uneasy moments of sexism and the overwhelming security presence hints at an altogether different, more structured and increasingly archaic time. As Russia both embraces and resists Western influence, WGFest highlights the tension that this creates as opposing forces attempt to coexist.
Even the Little Hitler, if he exists, is emblematic of this. The outfit is both a sign of harsh authoritarianism as well as one lacking any sense of conformity. It’s a crass, and probably accidental, way to make a point, but point made. Russia feels as though it is simultaneously trying to embrace control and freedom, the result a confused message.
As such, WGFest is probably the most important event of its kind I’ve been to. Similar examples held in Europe and North America feel as though they have less societal value and exist for little reason other than to create more awareness as to how a fanbase might want to unload their cash. WGFest, by comparison, gives some insight into the psyche of an entire nation of people—at least how that psyche exists when viewed through foreign eyes.
It’s a mad, dysfunctional show, but I want to go again if only out of curiosity as to what might happen. At the very least I want a photo of the Hitler kid.