Posted at 10:05 AM ET, 11/22/2005

The Best, the Worst, the Wackiest... and the End

This is it -- the last entry for the Russian Chronicles! By the time this is posted online, David and I will be on a plane somewhere over Europe, winging our way home. It's been quite a journey, these last 2 1/2 months. Some of the more memorable moments:

Biggest panic: Now it can be told: David's laptop broke in Chita. It got knocked off a chair and wouldn't boot up after that. We thought the hard drive was dead -- and Chita is not the kind of place where you can easily replace a fully loaded Apple laptop. But David opened the thing up with a screwdriver, fiddled around inside, and somehow got it working again. Miraculous.



Photo Gallery: Almost twelve weeks after launching the Russian Chronicles, Lisa Dickey and David Hillegas pose in the St. Petersburg snow. (David Hillegas)

Wackiest encounter: Definitely Alexei in Vladivostok, a random sunbather we met who swore he'd also met me by chance back in 1995. He burst into tears, saying, "I can't believe it's you! I can't believe it!" This was on day three of the trip -- quite a way to start off a "ten years later" project.

Best life-threatening meal: "Don't eat the omul!" was a warning we heard repeatedly as we approached Lake Baikal. "People have died!" one Russian man told us. "It's not worth the risk!" Normally, I wouldn't risk my life for a smoked fish -- even if it's a Baikal delicacy. But I did, with the crew of the G. Titov, and we all survived. For the record, it was delicious.

Biggest surprise: Yes, she told me at age 15 that she wanted to marry a Spanish man and leave Russia. But when I learned that 25-year-old Katya had, in fact, married a Spanish man and moved to France, I couldn't believe it. C'mon, did you keep all those promises you made at 15?

Best moment(s): Watching people's faces at the instant they remembered who I was. We just dropped in on about half the people from the 1995 trip, with no advance notice, and there was always a nerve-wracking lull before they recognized me. Fortunately, the moment of recognition was almost always accompanied by a smile. Which brings me to:

Best hospitality. Just as in 1995, people here have been overwhelmingly generous -- feeding us, housing us, and generally taking care of us. We'd blow into town, tie up people's phone lines, take over half their apartments, and then race away again after five or six days. Not your ideal house guests -- yet people really went out of their way to help us in any way they could, for nothing in return.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to all our hosts in Russia, and to all the people who opened up their lives for us to write about. Unlike in 1995, when almost no one here was online, many of them have been following the blog this time around. So, to everyone reading this who helped us out on the trip: Thank you! And please keep in touch!

Thanks also to washingtonpost.com for hosting the site, to our sponsors who made the trip possible, and to the many readers who posted comments -- you added whole new dimensions to the blog. Even though we won't be posting to the site anymore, please feel free to email me at russianchronicles@gmail.com. Also, we're hoping to turn this into a book, so keep an eye out at your local quality bookstore.

Okay, now I've gotta pack. Thanks for tuning in, and be sure to check back in 2015 for The Russian Chronicles - 20 Years Later!

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Posted at 10:20 AM ET, 11/21/2005

Looking Back -- and Ahead

With our journey coming to an end, David and I spent our last weekend in Russia like tourists, wandering around St. Petersburg in search of souvenirs and gifts. It was a pleasant change from our normal weekend routine of being cooped up in a train car, heading for the next destination.

After I complained during last Thursday's live discussion that we hadn't seen a single decent snowfall since we've been here, the flakes started coming down that night -- and they didn't stop until Saturday evening. St. Petersburg is radiant under a coating of fresh snow. The trees look like giant snowflakes themselves, their branches stark white and glittering in the sunlight. Walking down Nevsky Prospect at twilight, I was reminded that as excited as I am to get home, I'll definitely miss Russia.



Photo Gallery: The onion domes of the Church on Spilled Blood are a St. Petersburg landmark. (David Hillegas)

It's been a long, illuminating trip. I really didn't know what to expect when I arrived here in August; though I'd lived in St. Petersburg from 1994 until the end of 1996, I'd only been back to Russia twice in the nine years since, for a week each time. All I knew about what was going on in Russia was what I gleaned from the news. And the news, of course, is mostly focused on politics and catastrophic events, such as the Kursk submarine sinking and terrorist attacks.

For that reason, I wanted to keep this blog as apolitical as possible, and as focused on the ordinary lives of ordinary people as I could make it. I wanted to know how Russians were really living -- not just how their politicians and oligarchs were faring.

We were lucky enough to find almost all of the people I wrote about back in 1995 -- from the Vladivostok lighthouse keepers all the way to the five-generation St. Petersburg family. Almost without exception, everyone seemed to be living at least as well as they had been in 1995, if not better -- at least, materially speaking.



Photo Gallery: The stately buildings of Liteiny Prospect frame the Preobrazhensky church, home of one of St. Petersburg's best Orthodox choirs. (David Hillegas)

The scientists at Lake Baikal were enjoying increased funding for research, and traveling abroad more often. The Jewish community of Birobidzhan had a brand new synagogue and rabbi. Former sales manager Larisa Fedotova had started her own successful advertising company. Even Buryat farmer Buyanto Tsydypov, whose private farm had suffered a downturn since '95, was still making a living thanks to a contract to supply a nearby orphanage with mutton and wheat.

Overall, the 12 cities we visited also seemed to be materially improved. In most downtown areas, private companies were renovating historic buildings for stores and offices. Some cities, like Khabarovsk, had new streetlights and smooth new sidewalks. Even the villages along Lake Baikal had new hotels and tourist services.

Yet there was still an air of uncertainty among most Russians we met -- a feeling that another shoe is bound to drop at some point. Though the last five years have brought a measure of stability that Russia never achieved in the '90s, people seem to expect more hardship around the bend. Or at least, they feel the need to be prepared for it, whether they truly expect it or not. The Russian character has traditionally been marked by a certain fatalism, and I suspect that's not a habit that will disappear soon -- no matter how much more stability the coming years might bring.

Tomorrow (the last posting!): The best, worst and wackiest of the Russian Chronicles - Ten Years Later.

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Posted at 10:15 AM ET, 11/18/2005

St. Petersburg: The Future of Russia

When I first saw 16-year-old Vanya Vedernikov this week, my first thought was that the impish six-year-old from 1995 had turned into a pretty impressive young man. He's tall and athletic, speaks English well, and is polite enough to gamely field questions from the American journalist who shows up once every 10 years. In response, all he asked for was a decent translation of a White Stripes song title: "What does 'Seven Nation Army' mean?" he asked me. "I can't figure it out."

Here, I thought, is the embodiment of the Russian future. Vanya was only two when the USSR collapsed; his is the first generation with no memory of life under the Soviet Union. He and his classmates at the Gymnasium for Global Education No. 631 have traveled extensively abroad. They're Internet-savvy and fluent in European and American pop culture. They've got the world at their feet, and their whole lives ahead of them.



Photo Gallery: Sixteen-year-old Vanya Vedernikov is part of the first post-Soviet generation of Russians. (David Hillegas)

So, when I met Vanya and three of his classmates to talk about Russia's future, I thought I knew the script in advance. I expected to hear them say that things were good in Russia, and destined to get better. My own experience in the last three months had led me to believe this was the case -- why wouldn't a group of worldly, well-traveled 16-year-olds feel the same way?

But as we sat talking at a Chinese restaurant near their school, the students -- Tonya, Pasha, Misha and Vanya -- sounded much more wary of what the future might hold.

Pasha, a young man with close-cropped hair and an upright, almost military bearing, said, "In the USSR, the government was very attentive to people, and to their interests." For example, he said, "Education was free for everyone. If you passed exams, you could go to any university you wanted. But nowadays, it's difficult to get in."



Photo Gallery: Misha, Vanya, Tonya and Pasha (l-r) are in their last year of high school together in St. Petersburg. (David Hillegas)

Tonya told us that today, as opposed to in Soviet times, people have to rely more on themselves. "The first that has changed," she said, "is the mind of the people. Now people just think about themselves -- there's no united country anymore."

All the students expressed concern about Russia's economic situation. "Practically all the economics in our country are influenced by the course of oil prices," said slender, mustachioed Misha, "And now we're exporting to practically every country. So when fuel oil runs out in our country, it will be a very big problem." I wasn't under the impression that Russia's oil reserves would run out any time this century, but the students were convinced otherwise. "I saw it on the Internet," said Pasha at one point.

Hearing their litany of worries, I was prompted to ask: "Are you all really as pessimistic as you sound?"

"I think we're not pessimistic," answered Misha. "Just realistic."

"There will be pluses and minuses in the future," added Vanya, "perhaps more pluses." As to the question of pessimism, he said, "Some people are pessimistic -- or realistic -- but still they will try their best to keep Russia strong."

This was one point the students all agreed on: No matter what Russia's future held, they expected to be living here, and to be a part of it. Misha and Vanya could see moving abroad if circumstances dictated -- if, for example, they couldn't find decent jobs here in their future professions. But Pasha said he wouldn't leave for any reason. "I want my country to be the best country," he said. "You can find a great job, and have good money in Russia, if you work hard."

Next week: The Russian Chronicles - 10 Years Later comes to an end!

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Posted at 10:15 AM ET, 11/17/2005

St. Petersburg: Five Generations

In 1995, we closed out the original Russian Chronicles by telling the story of the Russian 20th century, as seen through the eyes of one family. We started with 98-year-old Maria Mikhailovna Gurevich, the cognac-sipping, straight-talking matriarch, and went down through five generations to her great-great-grandson Vanya, who was then six.

Listening to Maria Mikhailovna tell stories of life in Tsarist times was a thrill. Her memory was strong, and she told us about the fires of revolution, her husband's departure for the front in World War I, and the bloody Civil War that nearly cost him his life.



Nina, who still works as a physician, says life is more difficult than it was in 1995. (David Hillegas)

She'd seen a lot of pain and sorrow in her ten decades, but she finished our interview by saying, "Out of all the years of my life, I have to say that now is the best time of all." It was -- and still is -- a very rare sentiment to hear from an elderly Russian.

We caught up with Maria Mikhailovna's family this week, to find out how they've all fared over the last ten years. Here's what we learned:

Maria Mikhailovna died three months after our interview, at age 99, in her great-granddaughter Zhenya's arms. Not long before she died, she'd enjoyed a few sips of cognac with a family friend who'd stopped by. When told she really shouldn't be drinking, she said, "As long as I'm alive, I'll do what I want!" She'd hoped to live to see the first day of spring, but missed it by one day.

Lia Mikhailovna, Maria's daughter, had told us in 1995 all about the World War II years in Leningrad -- of seeing people starve to death during the 900-day siege, and working as a radio operator for the war effort. She also described the paranoid years under Stalin, when her father was arrested and sent to prison.



Boris, Vanya, and Boris' mother Nina (l-r), are the surviving members of the five-generation family story from 1995. Vanya's mother Zhenya stands at right.(David Hillegas)

Lia, too, is dead, having succumbed at age 76 to complications from hypertension. She died at home, in her daughter-in-law Nina's arms. "She was very demanding in life," Nina told me, her eyes welling up, "but in death she was the opposite. She just lay in her bed as I took care of her."

Nina Alekseyevna, Lia's daughter-in-law, had told us about life under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. She described the pride she felt as a schoolgirl, hearing of Yuri Gagarin's historic foray into space, and of her gradual disenchantment with the Soviet Communist system.

Today Nina, a physician, still works at the same polyclinic as she did in 1995. But she says that life in the last ten years has "gotten worse. I have so much paperwork now, there's no time to work with the patients. It's become a nightmare." She's traveled abroad often in the last decade, visiting France, Spain, Austria and India among other places. Yet the onetime disenchanted Komsomolka expresses a firm patriotic preference for her own country: "No place is as beautiful as St. Petersburg," she says. "No museum is as beautiful as the Hermitage."

Boris Shalyopa, Nina's son, was a 25-year-old psychology student in 1995, and offered us his views on Gorbachev and perestroika. He'd greeted the end of the Soviet Union with no sadness: "The USSR was an artificially created entity," he'd told us, "Kazakhs, Azeris and other nationalities... should have their own countries."

Today, Boris works as a psychologist, and lives in his grandmother Lia Mikhailovna's old apartment. The walls of his home office are still decorated with old photos of Maria Mikhailovna, Lia Mikhailovna, and other family members -- just as they were in 1995.

Vanya Vedernikov, the six-year-old great-great-grandson of Maria Mikhailovna who posed happily with her in 1995, is now finishing his last year in high school. Back then, he was just about to enter a special school for intensive English language study. Today, he speaks English with ease.

I always loved the photos of little Vanya with his great-great-grandmother -- pictures that captured the past and future of Russia at once. As it turns out, Vanya doesn't really remember Maria Mikhailovna, so the photos serve as one link to the family past he inherited from her.

Vanya is a young Russian standing on the brink of new century -- much as his great-great-grandmother was, a hundred years ago. He was born just two years before the fall of the USSR, so his generation is the first since the Revolution to have no memory of what life was like under Soviet rule

Tomorrow: Vanya and his friends, the first post-Soviet generation, talk about the future of Russia. Also, at noon today, please join me for a Live Online discussion about the Russian Chronicles.

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Posted at 10:15 AM ET, 11/16/2005

St. Petersburg: From Gum Warrior to Entrepreneur

The most fun part of this trip has been dropping back in on people after 10 years, having no idea how they might have changed. Some people look absolutely the same, while others have changed so much I hardly recognized them -- you just never know. Yesterday, I was reminded of that once again when we saw Larisa Fedotova.



Larisa Fedotova, former Wrigley's gum sales manager, has transformed herself into an entrepreneur and business executive.(David Hillegas)

Way back in early September, we'd spent a frustrating few days in Khabarovsk trying to track Larisa down. I'd been searching for a few months already, as I suspected she'd probably left Khabarovsk for a bigger city. Larisa was an ambitious young sales manager for Wrigley's gum back in 1995, and seemed destined for bigger things.

On our last day in Khabarovsk, we finally made contact! Larisa emailed to say she'd moved to St. Petersburg and was running her own advertising company. We made plans to see her when we arrived here, and yesterday we met outside a metro station near her apartment. I expected your basic 10-years-later version of Khabarovsk Larisa, a no-nonsense, khaki-raincoat-wearing businessperson. Okay, so I was mistaken.

Larisa, now 35, arrived clad in a neon pink jacket with lush fur collar, stylish jeans and bright red shoes. Her hair, then the epitome of the sensible short cut, now cascaded down her back. She looked fantastic. "Wow," I exclaimed, "check out the pink jacket!"

"Hey," she parried with a smile, "I'm in the advertising business!"

As we went back to her apartment and talked, it became clear that more than just her clothes and hair have changed. Over the last decade, Larisa has transformed herself into an entrepreneur and business executive, building her private company, Primedia, into a serious player in indoor advertising. It seemed clear back in '95 that Larisa would do well in business, but I have to admit, I hadn't expected her to launch her own company, grow it so quickly, and do it with such... verve.



Larisa watches as her daughter Diana, 8, practices on the piano.(David Hillegas)

As we talked in the apartment she shares with her husband Viktor and 8-year-old daughter Diana, Larisa radiated energy and ideas even as she bustled about, preparing dinner and pouring wine. I asked her how the business world had changed over the past 10 years.

"It has become more civilized," she said. "There's more concentrated capital. In theory, it's not that hard to start your own business." That said, she acknowledged that in the first two years after she founded her company, she spent untold hours, including evenings and weekends, working to build it up.

I was happy to hear of Larisa's success, partly because ever since we met ten years ago in Khabarovsk, I just plain liked her and wanted her to do well. But more generally, it's nice to see a young woman succeed on her own terms in the Russian business world. And on reflection, I realized it's not that Larisa has changed so much since 1995; she's just given freer rein to the more entrepreneurial, daring parts of her personality. I have to say, I envy her that -- and I can't wait to see where it will take her in the next ten years.

Tomorrow: Join me for a Live Online discussion at noon, for answers to all those personal questions you've been too shy to post in the comments section!

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Posted at 10:15 AM ET, 11/15/2005

St. Petersburg: The Grand Dame Has a Facelift

St. Petersburg is a wedding cake of a town. Everywhere you look, there are ornate palaces, richly painted mansions and whimsical architectural details. Unlike Washington, where rows of historic townhouses were torn down to make room for giant federal buildings, St. Petersburg's city center is architecturally intact.

So, one of the great pleasures of walking around here is the sensation that you're stepping back in time. In 2005, that sensation has slightly faded -- but only slightly. St. Petersburg has retained its 19th-century feel, though the effect is now muted by a glut of new storefront signs and advertising.



The sun lights up St. Petersburg's Palace Square.(David Hillegas)

There was also always a mystical air to this city, a deliciously weird undercurrent of aristocratic debauchery. People often referred to Petersburg, with her crumbling facades and slightly run-down mansions, as an aging, eccentric grand dame. But for the 300-year anniversary of the city in 2003, the grand dame underwent a facelift.

After intensive renovation work, the area around Nevsky Prospect, the city's main avenue, is cleaner and brighter than it's been in years. Yet it's beautiful in the same way a supermodel is beautiful: perfect and slightly surreal, without the odd, endearing flaws that give character. The gleaming windows of a new Nike store on Nevsky Prospect may signal a welcome upturn in the city's economic fortunes, but I'm not sure anyone would argue that it improves the street.

Anyway, I sound like a grump. The fact is, Petersburg is still one of the most fascinating, alluring cities I've ever been in. And despite whatever cosmetic changes have taken place, it's still got that unique, indefinable aura that has drawn people here for centuries.

So, what else has changed here since 1995? A few random observations:



After years of restoration, the interior of the Church on Spilled Blood has opened as a museum.(David Hillegas)

Sushi bars. These are everywhere, and I don't remember a single one being here in 1995. We did see some sushi bars in other Russian cities, but nothing like the flood of "Vasabi," "Tokyo" and "Evroasia" eateries here.

Church on Spilled Blood
. Built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was mortally wounded by an assassin's bomb, this onion-domed church was closed for decades, partly because the interior was damaged by a shell in World War II. After years of renovation, it has reopened as a museum -- and it's astonishingly beautiful. The entire interior is covered with fantastically ornate mosaics depicting Bible scenes, gorgeously restored.

Sennaya Ploshchad. A seedy marketplace immortalized in Dostoevsky's novels, Sennaya Ploshchad used to be a riot of colors, sights and smells, not all of them pleasant. It's been totally cleaned up, with "official" stores taking the place of the ramshackle stalls and tables that used to blanket the square.

Retro. The USSR is hot again. Petersburg's bar scene is packed with clubs like "Propaganda" and "CCCP," and at least one place offers waitresses dressed as Young Pioneers, red scarves and all.

Nikolai II. In the most retro move of all, the remains of Nikolai II, Russia's last Tsar, were interred in the Peter and Paul fortress after years of limbo.

Tomorrow: Catching up with Larisa Fedotova, the former lieutenant in the chewing gum wars.

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Posted at 10:16 AM ET, 11/14/2005

Wild dogs and Cappuccino Culture

After 75 days, 6000-plus miles, and 11 cities, we're finally back in St. Petersburg! We launched the trip from here on Sept. 1st -- a day that now feels like a distant dream.

This week, we'll describe how the city has changed since 1995, and we'll track down our final Road Story subjects from 1995: Larisa Fedotova, the young businesswoman from Khabarovsk, and the surviving members of the five-generation family of Maria Gurevich.

But first, here's a random assortment of observations on what's changed in Russia over the past ten years:



Photo Gallery: Young boys gather at an Internet cafe in Birobidzhan to play video games. (David Hillegas)

Cheap, easy Internet access. In 1995, Gary and I uploaded our photos and text by connecting, through prior agreement, to Sprint telecom nodes across Russia. Our average total upload was only about 400 kilobytes -- miniscule by today's standards -- but it sometimes took up to eight hours over the rickety Russian phone lines. There was no Internet dial-up service in most cities, and the vast majority of people we met had never heard the term "web site."

Now, reliable Internet access is available across Russia -- through ubiquitous Internet cafes, pre-paid Internet usage cards, and national services like Russia Online (which had local dial-up numbers in all but two of our cities). DSL and cable internet are still hard to come by outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, though we did have a surprisingly fast connection at the Birobidzhan Internet café.

ATMs. A rarity in 1995, these are now all over the place. If you're in a town with more than 100,000 people, you can pretty much count on finding one there. Any standard ATM card from a major bank should work, and there are no big hidden fees.



Photo Gallery: "Marshrutki," or private vans, now provide a convenient alternative to public buses, trams and trolleys in most cities. (David Hillegas)

Cheap telephone calls abroad. Anyone who remembers the Soviet system of placing international calls (standing in endless lines at the Telephone-Telegraph office) will appreciate this development: Kiosks and telecom stores now sell cheap international phone cards. We bought one card in Moscow with a rate of 98 kopeks a minute to the U.S. That's 3.5 cents, making it cheaper for me to call my mom in Florida from Moscow than from my home in Washington.

Packs of wild dogs. Don't worry; they're gentle. But has anyone else noticed the huge numbers of stray dogs wandering around Russian cities? They jaunt along in little packs, hanging out in courtyards and occasionally popping into stores.

Marshrutki, marshrutki, marshrutki. In 1995, the only public transportation options in most cities were the creaky municipal buses, trams and trolleybuses. You could stand on a corner for 20 minutes waiting for your bus, and three would wheeze in at once. Now, the "marshrutka" has taken over. Privately-run van services, the marshrutki run routes all over the city. They charge a couple more rubles per ticket, but they're fast, numerous and convenient.

Espresso yourself. The land of the samovar has begun to embrace cappuccino culture. In all the bigger cities, coffee bars now serve up frothy concoctions, though in the smaller cities, watery instant brew still rules the day.

Tomorrow: St. Petersburg!

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Posted at 9:30 AM ET, 11/11/2005

Murmansk: Hunting for WWII Artifacts With An Expert

The sun was already starting to set as Max, our "war archaeologist" tour guide, drove us to a digging site northwest of Murmansk. We'd stopped to visit a couple of World War II memorials on the way, and now as we sped along in his silver Mercedes, Max told me for the second time, "You'll find something today, for sure."



Photo Gallery: Max, a self-described "war archaeologist," has spent his weekends searching for artifacts for the last 23 years. (David Hillegas)

We were carrying a state-of-the-art metal detector in the trunk, but I was skeptical as to how Max knew I'd find any war artifacts with it. Two of his fellow searchers were already at the site, and I found myself wondering whether he'd asked them to bury something for me to "find." It didn't seem like the kind of thing he'd do -- but then, how could he be so certain?

When we followed Max into the woods, just a few dozen yards from the highway, I got my answer. There were piles of artifacts lying around, newly dug up by the searchers. Bottles, sardine cans, mess kits, ceramic cups, even a packet of cigarettes -- this area, apparently a German campground, was an absolute treasure trove of historical objects. I meandered around one pile, picking up bottles and marveling at the idea that for 60 years, they'd lain undisturbed just beneath the dirt.

Max handed me the metal detector, gave me a quick lesson in how to swoop it left to right, and waved me off. No matter which direction I took, I literally couldn't go more than a foot or two at a time without the telltale warble indicating the presence of metal below. Each time I got a strong signal, one of the searchers hurried over to start digging. And within about 15 minutes, we'd uncovered a pickaxe head, an aluminum hook, and an airplane wing. I was agog.



Photo Gallery: Lisa stands with the metal detector while a member of the search team prepares to dig for WWII artifacts. (David Hillegas)

This was definitely fun, though undercut by the seriousness and sorrow of what happened on this land. Max takes his hobby seriously, studying accounts of the battles fought in the area and even traveling abroad to hear the firsthand recollections of German army veterans. He's also studying German, Finnish and Norwegian, to broaden his research options.

When the sun finally disappeared for good, we shivered our way over to the campfire and sat as close as we dared. One of the men roasted chunks of sausage over the flame, while Max passed around a bottle of cognac. Rounded off with a few slices of brown bread and some hot tea, it was one of the finer meals I've had in Russia.

Looking at the lean, smudged faces of the men around the fire, it was almost possible to imagine we were all soldiers from a faraway time. That is, until Max suddenly started blasting heavy-metal music out of his car speakers to accompany our meal. Alas, imagination only goes so far.

Next week: St. Petersburg, our final destination! We'll catch up with Larisa Fedotova from 1995's chewing gum wars and the surviving members of the five-generation family of Maria Mikhailovna Gurevich.

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Posted at 10:20 AM ET, 11/10/2005

Murmansk: A Passion for WWII Artifacts

David and I first met Maxim at the offices of his fish export company, Ice Fish (official motto, written in English: "In Cod We Trust"). A burly, bearded bear of a man, Max waved to us to sit down, a huge ring with an edelweiss glinting on one beefy finger. We talked fish for a little while, then he invited us into another room, to chat about his weekend hobby.

When we walked in, my mouth fell open. Lining the walls were rows of artifacts from World War II -- dogtags, rings, helmets, goggles, gas masks, grenades. There were small vases that soldiers had fashioned from spent artillery shells, a candle holder with a swastika base, bullets, keys and even pairs of glasses. It was an amazing collection.



This artifact from a Nazi uniform was dug up in Karelia, northwest of Murmansk. (David Hillegas)

"We've found heavy machinery, too" Max told us. "There's a wing from an American plane in the next room. We're going to suspend it from the ceiling here."

Every weekend, Max drives out to Karelia, in the countryside northwest of Murmansk, to search for World War II artifacts -- and for the remains of soldiers. He works with a team of eight men, one of about 11 such groups active in the Murmansk area.

There's plenty to find, as fighting between German and Soviet troops in this area was fierce during the war. "Every hill has a German name," Max told us. "There are battlefields all over this land."

Yesterday morning, Max picked us up in his silver Mercedes, Uriah Heep blaring from the stereo, to drive us up to a digging site. He pulled out of our little courtyard at warp speed, and as we got on the road, I glanced at the key ring dangling from the ignition: it was a perfectly preserved Gestapo ID tag. One might even call it beautiful, if not for the malevolent power of the eagle and swastika gleaming on one side.



This past October, remains of Soviet soldiers who died in World War II were reburied at this memorial site. (David Hillegas)

After a few pit stops for gas, food and the like, we finally tore down the road leading out of Murmansk. We had a metal detector in the trunk, and Max told me confidently, "You're going to find something today."

Before we made it to the digging site, we stopped to see a few World War II memorials along the way. The countryside is dotted with dozens of them, but the most moving, by far, is also one of the newest. It's a burial ground for remains that the searchers have found over time.

The greatest find for a Russian "war archaeologist," as Max calls himself, is a "medalyon," a small waterproof capsule containing the identifying papers of a fallen soldier. When a team finds such a capsule, their next step is to track down the soldier's relatives -- many of whom endured years of agonizing uncertainty as to their relative's fate.

This past October, an official burial was held here. The remains of several dozen soldiers were interred, with several relatives having come from miles away -- even as far as Siberia -- to attend. Now, a month later, the most moving sight is of one slightly tattered artificial bouquet. Its ribbon reads, "To dear Papa, from your son."

Tomorrow: Digging for artifacts with the search team.

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Posted at 9:30 AM ET, 11/ 9/2005

Murmansk: The Truth Behind the Rumors

A month ago, when David and I chose Murmansk as our extra city, we asked readers for contacts here. Lucky for us, a reader named James delivered big: his new wife Olga grew up in Murmansk, and her parents Anna and Nikolai still live in the city. At James's request, Anna and Nikolai agreed to put us up for the week.



The giant World War II memorial "Alyosha" towers over the city. (David Hillegas)


When we arrived on Monday afternoon, we were met at the train by Anna, smiling and resplendent in an ankle-length fur coat and fur hat. It was 1:30 in the afternoon, and as there were only a couple hours of sunlight left, we hurried off to see Murmansk's main attraction -- a giant World War II memorial the locals call "Alyosha."

An immense granite soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder, Alyosha towers high over the city on a bare hill, peering toward downtown and the port area. The memorial's simple lines and sheer bulk add to its power, making it as impressive from a distance as it is close up. An eternal flame burns at Alyosha's feet, a tiny spark against the looming statue.

From Alyosha's hilltop, we had a perfect view of the city. Despite the dusting of snow and the overcast Artic gray, Murmansk reminded me of Vladivostok with its rolling hills, gentle coves and huge cranes in the port. In summer, Anna told us, the city is alive with greenery, and the sun never sets. Yet even in the winter gloom, its trees bare, Murmansk has a certain stark beauty.



Anna, our host in Murmansk, poses on a hill overlooking downtown and the port. (David Hillegas)

We'd heard lots of wild things about Murmansk before coming here, from Russians in other cities and from stuff I'd found online. For the record, here are our findings on five rumors about Murmansk:

1. You can see the Northern Lights. True. We're desperately hoping to see this phenomenon ourselves, but according to Nikolai the weather has to undergo a sharp change, and that hasn't happened yet.

2. Murmansk is buried in snow for seven months of the year: False. Murmansk gets its fair share of snow, but as of early November this year, there's been only one significant snowfall.

3. The sun never rises in winter. True-ish. From mid-December to early January, the sun never peeks above the horizon, though the rest of the winter there's sun. But not much.

4. No trees grow in Murmansk because it's too far north. False. There are trees here -- they're just not very big.

5. The port never freezes. Amazing but true. Thanks to the warmer currents coming into the Kola Gulf, the port is functional year-round.

So, we're not freezing, but it sure is dark. We'd be depressed, except Anna and Nikolai are taking great care of us, with homemade meals and -- whaddaya know -- BBC World on their cable TV.

Tomorrow: Maxim, a fish exporter with a fascinating hobby.

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Posted at 10:15 AM ET, 11/ 8/2005

Murmansk: Casino Lights and the Arctic Circle

In the spirit of Russian capitalism, we've launched our "12 cities for the price of 11" Russian Chronicles deal! Because we rushed through the first five cities to join our Lake Baikal expedition by October 1st, we ended up with an extra week in the trip's second half. So on Sept. 23, we invited readers to "tell us where to go!" And despite the plethora of suggestions for warmer, sunnier, and more scenic locales, we picked... Murmansk!

After 36 hours on trains, we've finally made it up here, high above the Arctic Circle. If this latitude (for the record: 69 degrees N) translated into seats in a basketball arena, we'd be dying of nosebleeds. We're so high up, the sun can barely haul itself over the horizon before falling exhaustedly back down below.



Since 1995, neon-lit casinos like this one in Moscow have popped up all across Russia. (David Hillegas)

Meanwhile, nights here are -- like in every city we've been to -- lit up by the flashing lights of casinos. This is one of the biggest changes I've noticed since 1995. Back then, there were a few casinos and gaming tables in the fancy-pants hotels. Now, there are casinos absolutely everywhere, ranging from gaudy, crushed-velvet rooms like the Corona in Moscow, to hole-in-the-wall slot-machine joints on every other street corner.

I don't know the figures on who's playing or what effect it's having on society. Anecdotally, we had a waitress in Birobidzhan who makes $100 a month tell us that her co-worker lost $600 to the slots in a single night. We've also been told that a TV ad showing an old woman happily gambling her pension money was taken off the air after a public outcry. The only certain thing is that someone must be making serious money off these casinos, because they're sprouting like spring mushrooms.

---

Speaking of gambling, this trip's biggest roll of the dice came back in late June when David Hillegas agreed, on 10 minutes notice, to come along as the photographer. Gary Matoso couldn't come, then a second photographer suddenly dropped out, and time was running out. So I called David -- who I'd never met, though we'd exchanged emails -- and basically said, "Yes or no! It's now or never!" To my relief, he said yes almost immediately.



Photographer David Hillegas enjoys a warmer day back on Lake Baikal. (David Hillegas)

Some have asked us how two people who don't know each other can get along for 11 weeks of constant travel, while crashing in people's homes and working like loons. The shocking answer: they can't! Or at least, not without having their fair share of sharp words and tense moments. This project is tailor-made for maximum stress, especially considering the Russian language barrier.

Yet with exactly two weeks to go, and the light now peeking at us from the end of the tunnel, we're chugging along contentedly. It's been a long haul, and each of us could probably write a dissertation about the other's psychological quirks. But as cornball as it sounds, I feel just as lucky now as I did in June that David agreed to come. If we ever speak to each other again after this, I'll tell him so.

(Ha! Kidding.) (Really.)

Tomorrow: Report from Murmansk.

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