The prominent role given to the Russian president reflects how he is perceived in society, says Alexei Levinson, a senior researcher at the independent Levada Center. “Russians both completely trust and distrust the authorities,” he told The Moscow Times. “Nothing can be believed, and yet on the other hand, everything must have an explanation.”

The Soviet education system fostered a world view that encouraged conspiratorial thinking, Levinson added. “The idea was that we see one thing, but in reality there are forces and interests at play that are really influencing events that we cannot see with our eyes.”

Consequently, alternate theories surrounding the death of Tsar Nicholas II, the Soviet collapse or worries over “foreign agents” doing the West’s bidding in Russian society are rife. A poll conducted by the state-funded VTsIOM pollster in 2014, for example, showed that 45 percent of Russians believe the world is controlled by a global government.

Ironically, the conspiracy theories explaining Russia’s success have now themselves become the object of suspicion among Russians worried about foreign interference.

“I don’t know why people are surprised that the Russian team got this far, because at the end of the day we were playing very easy teams,” Andrei Kanchelskis, a former Manchester United player and now a coach, told The Moscow Times.

“I think for some countries it is convenient to spread these rumors about Russia for people to question the legitimacy of the World Cup.”

Includes reporting by Anton Muratov.