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 stands 196 passengers- war veterans oblige for the city formerly known as Stalingrad side by side with boozy weekenders- down the Volga river like a swim Soviet sanatorium.

It was built in East Germany in 1957 by the shipbuilders of Wismar, who send 49 comfort-class riverboats to their brand-new brothers 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 rooms below deck picture their times, smelling of musk and sometimes varnish, with chipped, frosted glass on the hut doorways. When the nights are cold, passengers wrapped in woollen coverings walk in cliques from bow to stern to submit again, as barges with salt and lumber pass in the dark.

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