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 endures 196 fares- war veterans fix 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 mail 49 comfort-class riverboats to their 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 demonstrate their times, reeking of musk and occasionally varnish, with chipped, frosted glass on the hut openings. When the nighttimes are cold, fares wrap in woollen coverings walk in curves from bow to stern to submit again, as barges with salt and lumber pass in the dark.

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