Mexico soccer fans join in with a Russian jazz band ahead of the group F match between Germany and Mexico at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Picture: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Mexico soccer fans join in with a Russian jazz band ahead of the group F match between Germany and Mexico at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Picture: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
A woman screams holding a small dog as fans celebrate after Russia scored the third goal during the opening match of the 2018 soccer World Cup, between Russia and Saudi Arabia, in the fan zone in Yekaterinburg. Picture: Vadim Ghirda/AP
A woman screams holding a small dog as fans celebrate after Russia scored the third goal during the opening match of the 2018 soccer World Cup, between Russia and Saudi Arabia, in the fan zone in Yekaterinburg. Picture: Vadim Ghirda/AP
Argentine fans pose for a photo next to the stature of Russian player Fedor Cherenkov ahead of the group D match between Argentina and Iceland at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Spartak Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, June 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Argentine fans pose for a photo next to the stature of Russian player Fedor Cherenkov ahead of the group D match between Argentina and Iceland at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Spartak Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, June 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
A fan walks past a sign in Russian saying "Welcome to Russia" ahead of the group D match between Argentina and Iceland at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow. Picture: Rebecca Blackwell/AP
A fan walks past a sign in Russian saying "Welcome to Russia" ahead of the group D match between Argentina and Iceland at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow. Picture: Rebecca Blackwell/AP
A soccer fan walks past two Russian police officers as they control an entrance ahead of the group F match between Germany and Mexico at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Picture: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
A soccer fan walks past two Russian police officers as they control an entrance ahead of the group F match between Germany and Mexico at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Picture: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
A couple embraces as they ride the escalator up to exit from the subway, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Moscow, Russia. Picture: Rebecca Blackwell/AP
A couple embraces as they ride the escalator up to exit from the subway, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Moscow, Russia. Picture: Rebecca Blackwell/AP
A woman in Russian colours stands on an escalator in the Metro after Russia won the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Picture: Rebecca Blackwell/AP
A woman in Russian colours stands on an escalator in the Metro after Russia won the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Picture: Rebecca Blackwell/AP
A vendor sells balloons decorated with lights as a woman takes a photo, on a bridge in central Moscow during the 2018 soccer World Cup. Picture: Rebecca Blackwell/AP
A vendor sells balloons decorated with lights as a woman takes a photo, on a bridge in central Moscow during the 2018 soccer World Cup. Picture: Rebecca Blackwell/AP
A man carrying balloons walks on a bridge during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Moscow, Russia. Picture: Felipe Dana/AP
A man carrying balloons walks on a bridge during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Moscow, Russia. Picture: Felipe Dana/AP
T-shirts depicting the former Soviet leader Josef Stalin are seen for sale at a tourist kiosk during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Volgograd. The T-shirt on the left reads in Russian ''Thank you for the Victory'' and the right bottom ''I am a fan of Russia.'' Picture: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP
T-shirts depicting the former Soviet leader Josef Stalin are seen for sale at a tourist kiosk during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Volgograd. The T-shirt on the left reads in Russian ''Thank you for the Victory'' and the right bottom ''I am a fan of Russia.'' Picture: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP
Russian soccer fans share a tender moment celebrating the national team victory after the group A match between Russia and Egypt in Moscow. Picture: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russian soccer fans share a tender moment celebrating the national team victory after the group A match between Russia and Egypt in Moscow. Picture: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
In this Sunday, June 17, 2018 photo people watch the sunset over the river Wolga during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
In this Sunday, June 17, 2018 photo people watch the sunset over the river Wolga during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
In this June 17, 2018 photo tourists visit the Motherland Calls monument as the portrait of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin is seen on the wall in front during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Volgograd, Russia. The monument commemorates the victims of the Battle of Stalingrad, in which the Red Army turned back Nazi Germany's army in Volgograd. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
In this June 17, 2018 photo tourists visit the Motherland Calls monument as the portrait of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin is seen on the wall in front during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Volgograd, Russia. The monument commemorates the victims of the Battle of Stalingrad, in which the Red Army turned back Nazi Germany's army in Volgograd. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
In this June 15, 2018 photo a boy plays in a ball near the Qolsharif Mosque, a day before the group C match between France and Australia at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Kazan Arena in Kazan, Russia. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
In this June 15, 2018 photo a boy plays in a ball near the Qolsharif Mosque, a day before the group C match between France and Australia at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Kazan Arena in Kazan, Russia. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Soccer fans and tourists stroll around in Red Square with the Historical Museum, left, and the State Shop, GUM, right, in the background during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Moscow, Russia, Monday, June 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Soccer fans and tourists stroll around in Red Square with the Historical Museum, left, and the State Shop, GUM, right, in the background during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Moscow, Russia, Monday, June 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
In this June 16, 2018 photo people sit at a cafe in the Moscow GUM State Department store decorated with giant soccer's balls during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
In this June 16, 2018 photo people sit at a cafe in the Moscow GUM State Department store decorated with giant soccer's balls during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Marat Gurjan, a 15-year-old lifeguard, poses for a picture showing his phone with a note in Russian and English on Google Translate in Samara, Russia, Tuesday June 19, 2018. Google Translate has been key to leap over the language barrier at the World Cup in Russia. Fans have also used the mobile app to order food, change money and meet new people, especially in cities like Samara, where few people speak anything but Russian. (AP photo/ Luis Andres Henao)
Marat Gurjan, a 15-year-old lifeguard, poses for a picture showing his phone with a note in Russian and English on Google Translate in Samara, Russia, Tuesday June 19, 2018. Google Translate has been key to leap over the language barrier at the World Cup in Russia. Fans have also used the mobile app to order food, change money and meet new people, especially in cities like Samara, where few people speak anything but Russian. (AP photo/ Luis Andres Henao)
Russian soccer fans celebrate the national team victory after the group A match between Russia and Egypt during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Moscow, Russia, early Wednesday, June 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian soccer fans celebrate the national team victory after the group A match between Russia and Egypt during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Moscow, Russia, early Wednesday, June 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Moscow - Chilly, gray, threatening. To many outsiders, that's the image Russia conveys to the world. But that's not the Russia World Cup fans are discovering.

A Moscow subway security guard gives a visitor a thumbs-up sign. A waitress in Saransk bubbles over in wonder at meeting her first-ever American. Buoyant Russian fans sing, party and share face paint with foreigners.

And forget about the language barrier

From the Black Sea to Baltic, from the Ural Mountains to Moscow's Gorky Park, Russians largely see this World Cup as an opportunity. And they appear surprisingly eager to set aside political tensions, welcome visitors and share their rich culture and history.

"We thought Russians would be, well maybe not rude, but cold," said Jose Oscar Rodriguez, who came with his father from Peru's capital Lima to follow his national team. "But everyone is nice. The taxi drivers, the host in our building, the people in the streets. ... Everyone."

That doesn't come naturally.

For many Russians, the default stance toward foreigners is caution and suspicion. It's partly left over from Soviet-era worries about both Western espionage and the KGB's watchful eye. And it's partly a renewed wariness cultivated by President Vladimir Putin, whose rule and popularity ride on the belief, propagated in state media, that Russia is under siege from outsiders who want to undermine its political stability.

At the moment, Russia is under siege from outsiders who just want to have fun. Mexican fans wearing sombreros, Peruvians wearing headdresses, Belgians wearing French-fry hats, all happy to be part of Russia's first-ever World Cup, all hoping for their team to win.

The 11 host cities, many still grungy not long ago, are resplendent.

Giant inflatable soccer balls and flags of the world dangle from the gleaming glass ceiling of 19th century GUM shopping mall abutting Red Square. Children kick balls on the pristine plaza beneath the Kul Sharif mosque in Kazan.

"Russia is wonderful," said Ignacio Dufort, 40, from Uruguay.

"We arrived to Yekaterinburg at midnight, without a ruble, couldn't communicate with anybody and couldn't find our apartment, but we met this woman who was our saviour. She helped us to find the place and the next day she spent four hours with us helping our landlord register us with authorities."

"She was an angel," said his girlfriend Claudia Mena, 35, from El Salvador.

Things don't always work that way in Russia, where the first answer to questions posed by foreigners is often "no." Earning a "yes" takes work. Eliciting a smile often takes even more.

Yet despite their aloof image and hostile-seeming foreign policy, many Russians want to look good to the rest of the world — especially now.

Viktoria Latishova, a 19-year-old waitress in Saransk on the edge of the steppe, rejoiced at meeting an American for the first time, spilling with curiosity despite her limited English. The city had little tourism industry before hosting the World Cup, and is showing a certain giddy graciousness about the chance to be a part of it all. Residents ask about foreigners' fears and apprehensions. Some offer assurances that geopolitical tensions have nothing to do with their personal feelings about foreigners.

English is more widespread in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, Russia's western-most city. But the menu at a takeaway restaurant selling skewers of meat was only in Russian. Seeing a puzzled customer, a smiling woman came over and read it all in English, and helped order lamb kebab.

Russia's World Cup isn't all smiles. Security and the threat of extremist attacks remain high, and discrimination against minorities is a real concern.

And the event won't transform Russia's relations with the world overnight. Since the tournament opened Thursday, the EU extended its sanctions and U.S. investigators stepped up their probe into alleged Russian election meddling.

But the atmosphere feels markedly different from even just a few months ago, when Russian and U.S. forces nearly went to war in Syria, and Moscow taxi drivers were wary of talking politics with a foreigner.

And even the weather for Russia's World Cup has been a pleasant surprise.

In the host city of Sochi, fans join Russian vacationers in diving into the Black Sea. And in Moscow's Gorky Park, Peruvian fan Rodriguez sought relief from a piercing sun Monday.

Reclining on a shaded bench, he said, "I didn't realize Russia could be so warm."

AP