The World Cup will be the first time most westerners will be exposed to the great cities of the Volga and their tense tug-of-war over identity

The Alexander Nevsky is a dingy time machine that births 196 passengers- war veterans oblige for the city formerly known as Stalingrad side by side with boozy weekenders- down the Volga river like a drifting Soviet sanatorium.

It was built in East Germany in 1957 by the shipbuilders of Wismar, who transmit 49 comfort-class riverboats to their new friends across the Soviet bloc.

Not much on board has changed since.

Crooners belt out Soviet ballads and pensioners sunbathe themselves on flimsy deckchairs. The cheaper cabins below deck picture their years, smelling of musk and sometimes varnish, with chipped, frosted glass on the compartment doorways. When the nighttimes are cold, passengers wrap in woollen blankets walk in haloes from bow to stern to bow again, as barges with salt and lumber pass in the dark.

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