Navigating Tricky Crosscurrents In Russia's Heartland The contradictions of today's Russia are evident along the banks of the Volga River. In the post-Soviet world, personal freedoms, unshackled capitalism and the paradox of Vladimir Putin's centralized state controls run on a parallel course.
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Navigating Tricky Crosscurrents In Russia's Heartland

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Navigating Tricky Crosscurrents In Russia's Heartland

Navigating Tricky Crosscurrents In Russia's Heartland

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

There's a Russian proverb for just about everything. According to one, you haven't seen Russia until you've seen the Volga. That's the longest river in all of Europe, a rival even to the Mississippi.

NPR's Anne Garrels has been traveling the Volga to see Russia, and to better understand just how much life there has changed in recent years. Yesterday, she began her journey in Moscow and today, she heads south.

(Soundbite of music)

ANNE GARRELS: The takeoff from Moscow is rousing. The newly revamped, four-tier cruise ship is called the�Mikhail Bulgakov, named after a brilliant Soviet writer whose work was banned. It pulls out next to another passenger ship, the Felix Dzerzhinsky. He founded the KGB and was the man who silenced Bulgakov. This bizarre juxtaposition seems to sum up the contradictions and conundrums still so evident in today's Russia.

(Soundbite of river)

GARRELS: Floating down the river, change is in the air. Along the low-forested banks, freshly gilded domes of churches peek out through the trees, glistening as the sun goes down. The appearance of new mansions startles passengers, inciting discussion of corruption and architectural taste.

(Soundbite of music)

GARRELS: At the various stops, performers entertain, cup in hand. The Volga's historic cities, which have become shabby, are being transformed. Nothing like as quickly as Moscow's explosion of wealth, but in 10th century Uglich today out of Moscow, guide Igor Kozlov is proud of what is now on offer.

Mr. IGOR KOZLOV (Guide): (Through translator) Russian towns are remaking themselves so that they are comfortable. There's a lot of restoration.

GARRELS: Further south, the emphasis is on new development. In Samara, where oil is king, guide Nina Borisovna complains about a land grab gone mad at the expense of architectural treasures.

Ms. NINA BORISOVNA (Guide): (Through translator) In my courtyard, for example, there's a building for which there is no permit. It's a phantom. Officially, it doesn't exist. With so much money to be made in new construction, the authorities have destroyed many beautiful buildings. New construction in the city center is intense. No parking - the traffic is terrible.

(Soundbite of bunker)

GARRELS: One thing that's untouched is Joseph Stalin's bunker - seven floors below ground. It was built in Samara so Stalin could flee here had Moscow fallen during World War II. Its existence was only made public in 1991. Should tourists wish, they can be photographed wearing a copy of one of Stalin's uniforms. This gives Nina Borisovna the creeps. She laments the absence of foreign tourists here - a view echoed by Sergei Shpilko, president of the Russian Tourism Union.

Mr. SERGEI SHPILKO (President, Russian Tourism Union): (Speaking Russian)

GARRELS: He says Russia is too expensive; a pain to visit because of the strict visa regime; and too difficult to travel because of poor roads, infrastructure and uneven service.

Given the country's history and stunning national parks, he wishes the government would do more to encourage investment.

Mr. SHPILKO: (Through translator) For such a large country with such potential, a mere 2.1 million foreign tourists a year is embarrassing. The number hasn't grown in over a decade. And 80 percent of those who do come here only go to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

GARRELS: Even for Russians, their homeland is a more expensive vacation destination than - say, Turkey or Egypt. But more and more with means are choosing to travel at home, and the Volga is one of their favorite destinations. But there still aren't many passenger ships plying its waters.

(Soundbite of cruise ship)

GARRELS: Standing on the observation deck of the Mikhail Bulgakov, 31-year-old Captain Pavel Kositsky wants to see more ships.

Captain PAVEL KOSITSKY (Mikhail Bulgakov): (Through translator) The level of tourism is improving, maybe because people have been to Europe and seen what is good, and are now demanding it here.

Ms. KSENYA SVETLOVA: (Speaking Russian)

GARRELS: Thirty-year-old Ksenya Svetlova and her banker husband are on their honeymoon. The trip is three times more than a tour to Spain, but for this special occasion, the couple decided to splurge in order to see this special part of their homeland. She has no regrets.

(Soundbite of music)

GARRELS: It's a full cruise-ship menu - late-night dancing or a more restrained classical concert, classes in Russian folk art and yoga, as well as lectures on the Volga. There are also raucous sessions of a popular parlor game called Mafia. And between all this and some hefty dining and drinking, there's the daily, whirlwind tour of one of the Volga cities.

On the one down afternoon of the nine-day cruise, the ship stops at a wooded island near the city of Saratov. The beach is covered in trash. But locals greet passengers with a selection of Volga delicacies.

Mr. GENNADY ANATOLIEVICH (Fisherman): (Through translator) You can tell the water is getting cleaner because there are now crabs again. In the past, the military plants would dump huge amounts of poison in the river.

GARRELS: Fisherman Gennady Anatolievich�is stunned to see an American among the Russian passengers, and he's delighted to take off on an unofficial tour of the area. His children have made it in the new world, but he's struggling on a monthly pension of a couple of hundred dollars a month. To make extra money, he and his wife sell their catch of perch, pike, bream, carp and crab.

(Soundbite of river)

GARRELS: For six months, when the river isn't frozen, they live in makeshift tents on the Volga shore, smoking their fish over a wood fire. It's a basic but cozy set-up. A well-tended vegetable garden and wild mushrooms add variety to their diet.

Mr. ANATOLIEVICH: (Speaking Russian)

GARRELS: Just back from the shoreline, weekend homes of the new middle class are taking over. Gennady says there's even a private airstrip beyond some trees catering to the Moscow rich.

Trying to figure out just how Gennady has the right to set up camp here gets lots of ums and ahs. It seems he has friends in the right place, so he doesn't worry about being evicted - or legal niceties like fish quotas.

Mr. ANATOLIEVICH: (Speaking Russian)

GARRELS: With a twinkle, he simply says, I have an agreement.

Ah, yes, even here, the inevitable Russian agreement.

(Soundbite of music)

GARRELS: Anne Garrels, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You can find a photo gallery of Anne's voyage down the Volga and of life along the river's banks. That's at our website, npr.org.

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