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

It was built in East Germany in 1957 by the shipbuilders of Wismar, who sent 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 rooms below deck display their years, smelling of musk and occasionally varnish, with chipped, frosted glass on the compartment openings. When the nighttimes are cold, fares wrapped in woollen coverings walk in cliques from bow to stern to bow again, as barges with salt and timber pass in the dark.

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