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 accepts 196 fares- war veterans fix for the city formerly known as Stalingrad side by side with boozy weekenders- down the Volga river like a floating Soviet sanatorium.

It was built in Eastern germany in 1957 by the shipbuilders of Wismar, who transmitted 49 comfort-class riverboats to their brand-new friends across the Soviet bloc.

Not much on board has changed since.

Crooners belt out Soviet ballads and pensioners sun themselves on flimsy deckchairs. The cheaper cabins below deck establish their times, reek of musk and occasionally varnish, with chipped, frosted glass on the hut entrances. When the nights are cold, passengers wrapped in woollen blankets walk in circles from bow to stern to submit again, as barges with salt and timber pass in the dark.

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