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TRAVELS THROUGH RUSSIA 800-mile journey uncovers the hard, truthful face of a transfigured nation


Though despair, vodka and poverty are ravaging Solovetsky Island, none of that is Father German's concern.

If people need spiritual succor, he says, let them come to God. If misery is driving them from this infamous, wind-swept outpost in the middle of the White Sea, then that is all to the good, because they are unbelievers and Solovetsky is rightfully God's.

"I don't believe this is the place for them to live," he says. "It is as though this place were specially chosen for us -- for the monks."

Father German's eyes are hard and clear, his nose sharp and angular. He is the spiritual leader of the reopened monastery here, a cold, stony redoubt less than 100 miles below the Arctic Circle, a holy spot in Russia since 1436.

He and the other monks of the Russian Orthodox Church came here just three years ago, but already their humility and ascetic ways mix easily with a certain arrogance of belief.

Theirs is a life dedicated not to their fellow man -- especially not to their fellow islanders -- but to God.

Spiritual work among the people around them, among people barely holding on to the ragged edge? The question brings the first faint smile.

"It shouldn't come from us," he says. "It's up to them. We ring the bells every day. Everybody knows there's a service going on. Any person can come. There is no point in our going out to them."

The Russians call this place Solovki for short, and it has a terrible place in their imagination, because when it stopped being God's island in 1920 it became the first true island of the archipelago that is perhaps the Communists' most unimaginable achievement. The archipelago of state labor camps -- the gulag -- took form on Solovki.

It was always a place beyond thinking, a place too far. It was where you could be close to God -- or close to hell.

Even now, the north is not a bad place to come to seek the hard, truthful face of Russia, and Solovki is not a bad ultimate goal. Go by riverboat; it sets a pace, and provides a sweep to the long journey northward, away from the burdened heart of the country.

An 800-mile voyage up from St. Petersburg, through the lakes and rivers of Karelia, along the length of the White Sea Canal and into the stormy salt waters of the White Sea itself, ties together a skein of Russian stories, new and old. They are sharper and clearer here, as though the Arctic light of summer had washed away the shades of gray.

From the Second World War invalids tossed into obscurity on the lake island of Valaam to the Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream partners in Petrozavodsk; from the members of the bewildered fishing collective in Belomorsk to the hard-driven and self-sufficient kelp cutter on Solovetsky, the route north draws the traveler into a complex, layered picture of Russia in its time of great transfiguration. Hope mixes with despair, reversals disrupt the road to success, hard work sometimes pays, and sometimes doesn't.

But Solovki, as it turns out, is not the end of the world. The White Sea stretches farther north, and it reaches a place above the Arctic Circle where an elemental wildness still reigns, where the rhythms of nature play themselves out beyond the reach of either Christians or Communists. Yet even here, in a place called Kandalaksha, the new Russia is making itself felt. Great black-backed gulls and red mergansers screech and caw as always, but change is in the air.

The riverboat is named the Ladoga, after Europe's largest lake. It was built in East Germany 41 years ago, and with wooden decks and brass fittings has a distinctly old-time nautical feel.

Late on a sweltering afternoon it pulls away from the pier in St. Petersburg, a nearly empty and decrepit concrete structure built in the days when Soviet tourists had the time and money to enjoy the variety of their huge country. The water in this stretch of the Neva River is flat and greasy. A streetcar rumbles by on the shore, but otherwise the riverbanks are deserted in the heat.

The Ladoga passes shipyards, oil tankers, a diesel submarine in dry dock. Heading upstream and out of the city, it comes upon villages of old wooden houses tumbling down to the shore, abandoned churches and grazing cattle. On the higher bluffs stand the recently built brick dachas of St. Petersburg's newly rich.

Already, just three years into Russia's post-Communist era, the newer houses display more restrained taste than the gaudy showpieces that were flung up in 1992 and 1993. The grandchildren of the often gangsterish men and women who live in these houses will someday be Russia's respectable old money.

The Neva is not long, and by evening the Ladoga has come abreast of the forbidding fortress once known as Schlusselburg. Dank, dark, dripping, it was the most-feared prison of the czarist regime.

Beyond stretches Lake Ladoga, and the island fortress is an appropriate gatehouse to the north. Here the enemies of autocracy were thrown into cells that might as well have been tombs. Here was where the proud were broken. Here Ivan VI, who was rightfully czar, was held in solitary confinement from the age of 1 until he was 24, when he was bludgeoned to death. The year was 1764.

Schlusselburg, in the 18th and 19th centuries, was too terrible to contemplate. In the 20th, people's ideas changed. The Soviets constructed a penal system where conditions were so much worse that Schlusselburg looked quaint by comparison.

At the northern reaches of Lake Ladoga, the morning fog swirls low around the island of Valaam, barely above deck level. Hundreds of little pinprick shafts of reflected sunlight glint upward off the cold dark water, as if coming from brilliant spotlights below the surface. Ashore, Valaam is awash with blooming lilacs, white and purple. The meadows are suffused with a radiant island light.

Like Solovki, Valaam was home to a great monastery, and now that communism has fallen the monks are returning. Pilgrims are flocking here, too, attracted by the special church-run excursion boat that comes up from St. Petersburg overnight. No food is served on the boat, so that its passengers might have the opportunity to fast all night in preparation for their religious experience.

The pilgrims and tourists come to see the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, which is undergoing a meticulous restoration, or look at any of the handful of fancifully decorated sketes -- little, wooden hermitages where monks once went for retreats.

Few visitors bother to walk through the wood lot, to the grim, red-brick apartment house where the war invalids were discarded.

No one remembers now whose idea it was, but in the late 1940s the Soviet government decided that it was better to keep crippled soldiers out of sight so as not to remind people of the terrible price the country had paid to defeat Nazi Germany.

"They brought us here to isolate us. They wanted to separate us from society," says Boris Belogin, 70, one of the few remaining veterans here.

Mr. Belogin has lived on Valaam for 45 years. He has no idea what became of the family he left behind.

He was in the battle for Berlin in 1945, and there he was severely stabbed in the arm and received two concussions that left him partially blind and deaf, and subject to fits.

He spent several years in a hospital in Leningrad, and then time in one in Petrozavodsk. When he was discharged he moved in with a nurse he had met. They had two children. In 1950 he suspected her of cheating on him and beat her up. The police forcibly removed him to Valaam.

In those days there were no monks, no tourists, no decent housing. Access to the mainland was irregular and by permit only.

Until the mid-1960s Valaam was a secret. More than 1,700 wounded veterans were moved here -- some with families -- and only their relatives knew about it. Not all who came had run into trouble with the law, as Mr. Belogin had. Yevgenia Markova, 66, remembers only that the government told her husband and her to come here, without telling them why.

"Everybody went, so we went, too," she says.

Life was hard, supplies were few, the isolation was almost total.

Mr. Belogin went to work for the organization that brought food and grain to the island. In the summer they came by boat. In the winter the men drove a horse-drawn sledge across the ice to the nearest mainland village, a trip of 10 hours if the ice and weather permitted.

He bristles at the suggestion that Valaam was little more than a prison camp. That's not how he sees his life. After all, for good behavior you could get a month's pass to the mainland.

"Well, it is an island, and the idea was that people couldn't run away," he concedes. "Of course in the winter some tried. But they all froze or drowned."

In the 1980s the government offered apartments on the mainland to anyone who could still hold down a regular job. Mr. Belogin decided to stay. "After a while I got used to it," he says.

"Besides, it's easier on the nerves out here."

Between the two world wars the Finnish border ran across Lake Ladoga, and Valaam was on the Finnish side. In 1939, when the Soviet Union attacked Finland, the initial campaign was a complete fiasco, and Finnish troops moved deep into Soviet Karelia. When the tide of war changed, the Russian Orthodox monks on Valaam, who had lived peacefully under Finnish rule for 22 years, left the island and fled before the Soviet forces.

They took all the icons from the Cathedral of the Transfiguration with them, and to this day those precious religious paintings are still in Finland.

This part of the world still holds a special place in Finns' affection, and most of the foreign tourists here are from just across the border.

Mikhail Anisimov, "cruise director" on board the Ladoga, says there are two types of Finnish tourists: those who come to Russia to enjoy the cheap vodka, and those who are either veterans of the war or former residents of what is now Russian Karelia, who want to revisit the scenes of their youth.

On this particular voyage, the 45 elderly Finns who have booked passage on the 200-foot-long Ladoga began their first meal with a hymn, and Mr. Anisimov's spirits are not high. Decorum is fine, he says, but drinkers spend more money.

Now it's the second full day of the trip. The Ladoga has left Valaam behind and is wending its way up the Svir River, a curving watercourse that runs between old villages, timber piers and large stretches of undisturbed forest. In the hamlet of Voznesenie, a cow is standing in the doorway of a weather-beaten old church. A half-dozen townsfolk lounge on the dock and whistle derisively, for want of anything better to do, as the Ladoga glides by.

All day, towering white clouds and thundershowers have been chasing the ship, alternating with sunshine and rainbows. Capt. Viktor Prokhorov, a taciturn skipper who in his 16 years as commander of the Ladoga has never let an iota of familiarity enter into any of his dealings with his young crew, is taking a break on the afterdeck. He squints toward a shoreline of pine and birch, broken by congregations of pliant willows.

"Maybe, after so many years, I don't even see the beauty anymore," he says suddenly.

The busiest Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream parlor in the world is in Petrozavodsk, a port city on Lake Onega. At least that's what Sergei Lukin, one of its two co-managers, claims. The cafe averages 2,800 customers a day, and pulls in as many as 6,000 on a really busy day.

Ben and Jerry's, the Vermont company whose theory of ice cream includes pitches for environmental preservation and the nonexploitation of its own workers, opened the affiliate here three years ago. For a long time, says Mr. Lukin's partner, Vassily Makheyev, the place was run like a humanitarian-aid project. That is, he never had the feeling anybody back at headquarters took it very seriously.

There was a lot of cheerful publicity at first, and everyone was friendly. It was 1992, and the new Russia was blooming. Could there possibly be a better symbol than Ben and Jerry's? Then the attention faded and a new city administration began making it difficult for the partners to obtain various permits, and to get access to other outlets where they wanted to sell ice cream.

But Mr. Lukin and Mr. Makheyev soldiered on, selling and packing and learning all the while. Some gangsters came up from St. Petersburg one day and demanded the partners pay protection money, but, as Mr. Makheyev describes it, he had made sure to cultivate friends in the local police, and the gangsters had to go away empty-handed.

They signed a contract with a Moscow company to distribute their ice cream there, and they delivered it there for nearly a year but somehow never got paid.

Now there's been a change in management back in America, and the new emphasis is on running a successful business rather than being successful goodwill ambassadors. Mr. Makheyev and Mr. Lukin are optimistic; this is what they've been wanting all along. Already the parent company is investing in additional refrigerated trucks, which will mean the company can do business in Yaroslavl, Sochi and a handful of other Russian cities. And there are plans to expand to Ukraine and Belarus.

"We've managed to survive," says Mr. Makheyev. "Though I can tell you, these last three years have been tough."

A scoop of ice cream here costs about 44 cents. The partners have developed two particularly Russian flavors: chernika, made from a small, dark berry, and klyukva, made from local cranberries. They're popular, but neither one can match the sales of the all-time favorite in Petrozavodsk.

2& That's Cherries Garcia, of course.

When the 40,000 marble quarriers on the island of Kizhi joined an uprising in 1769, they were put down by czarist troops and thrown into leg irons. You can still see the leg irons today, at a museum on the island.

The brutality was a glimmer of a suggestion of what was to come.

About 60 miles north of Kizhi is the entrance to the White Sea Canal -- built by prison labor at an unimaginable cost in human life.

In 1930 the Soviet government decided to build a canal that would connect the Baltic Sea to the White Sea. Josef Stalin himself decreed that the canal would be built in 20 months. The shortest route, not the easiest one, would be followed. It would cover a total of 162 miles -- some of it through solid rock and much of the rest through dredged swampland and shallow lakes. The secret police arrested scores of engineers, simply to exploit their expertise.

To avoid spending any precious hard currency, the government decided that the canal would be built without mechanical excavators, steel or concrete. That is, it was dug out entirely by hand. The 19 locks were made from timber cribbing.

At any one time, 120,000 prisoners were working on the canal. Their food rations were pegged to the amount of work they did. If they fell behind, they starved.

A steady stream of new prisoners fed the project, because about 700 people died every day while the canal was being built -- maybe more. At least a quarter of a million people in all died during its construction. The author Alexander Solzhenitsyn calculated that the death toll may be more like 850,000.

"The workers were buried right where they died," says Captain Prokhorov. "We know the banks of the canal are lined with people's bones. It's always a strange feeling coming through here."

Two of the locks, No. 10 and No. 11, remain today the way they were when the prisoners built them. There's a legend about No. 10: that the project's overseers flooded it the day the canal opened without bothering to alert the 2,000 workers who were still toiling away inside, and they all drowned.

The Ladoga enters No. 10 just after lunch. The gates slam shut and the water drains from the lock. The Ladoga sinks deeper and deeper into the dark, dripping timber pit. Most of the timbers are smashed and cracked. The trees, the landscape, disappear from view. For a moment, it feels like being lowered into a foul isolation cell. Right here -- where 2,000 are said to have died on the last day of work and who knows how many died in the 20 months leading up to the canal's opening -- right here we wait in the miserable gloom for an unseen hand to open the gates ahead of us.

The White Sea Canal was closed to foreigners and guarded by armed soldiers along its length until 1992. Yet for all the people who died here, almost nothing was achieved. The canal is too shallow for most military vessels, and it carries virtually no commercial traffic. It has been plagued since it opened by water shortages.

In the course of a 24-hour trip through the canal, the Ladoga passes one other boat. The White Sea Canal is worthless, and always has been.

The breeze freshens, the Ladoga rides longer over each swell, the spray stings pleasingly. The old boat has reached salt water at last.

Just behind lies the town of Belomorsk, a place where 40 streams tumble out of the Karelian interior to form one of the better harbors on the White Sea. Belomorsk was once a bustling port full of herring trawlers and the home of a major fish processing plant. In the three short years since Russia plunged into market economics, all that has withered away.

The big plant, owned by a new joint-stock company called Karelrybflot, is closed for repairs. It is supposed to reopen in the fall, but the outlook is uncertain at best.

The problem, as described by Vladimir Patrashkov, skipper of a fish transport ship now in dry dock, is that in the old Soviet days the plant dealt with government orders of 60 tons or more at a time, and no one ever worried about marketing or pricing.

But management was unable to adapt to change. Orders don't come from a ministry in Moscow anymore. Now private buyers, representing grocery stores or small shippers, come through town looking to place orders of 2 tons or less. Karelrybflot was simply unable to do business on that scale, so for the time being it has stopped doing business altogether.

"We haven't come to our senses yet," says Captain Patrashkov. "It's very bad."

Who makes a living from the water these days? Tough men like Valery Chityakov, of Solovetsky Island, five hours by sea from Belomorsk.

Mr. Chityakov, 52, knows how to look out for himself. He works as a private contractor cutting and drying kelp, which is used in the production of medicines, perfumes and cattle feed.

Every day in the summer, using a long-handled scythe, he cuts and loads up to 2 tons of seaweed into his small open boat. If he cuts as much as he did last summer, he'll make about $2,600 this year, plus two free plane tickets to the mainland.

"It's primitive, and it's a heavy job," he says. "You've got to be willing to do hard physical work. I can do it, but most people don't want to, or they can't. And they're all drunkards out here, anyway."

The legend of Solovetsky:

In 1429 two monks, German and Savvaty, landed on the island while looking for a place to found a monastery. They came upon a man and a woman who tried to force them off again. An angel appeared and whipped the woman, allowing the two holy men to proceed.

Larisa Petrovskaya came to Solovki 13 years ago from Vilnius, Lithuania. It was a time when interest in Russia's history was particularly high, and she came here as a historical researcher at the monastery museum.

It seemed to be a place with a lot of potential for a young academic.

In the 15th and 16th centuries Solovki grew into a great and powerful monastery. Created by German and Savvaty, who were from the wealthy trading city of Novgorod, Solovki was for a time Russia's largest landowner. The country's first hospital was founded here. The monastery was Russia's biggest supplier of salt, and also shipped river pearls, white stone and mortar to the mainland.

Solovki had a reputation for having the strictest discipline in Russia. But the monks backed the wrong side in a schism that split the church in the 17th century, and after holding out for two years they all were either slaughtered, or tortured and then slaughtered.

The monastery, which also was a fortress, never recovered its former standing, but new monks did move in, and the czars found the site handy as a prison. It remained in use until 1920, when, as the Russian civil war raged, the last monks left. They were replaced by a group of young Communists from Archangel, who set up a commune.

"In three years they succeeded in ruining completely what had taken centuries to build," Ms. Petrovskaya says.

In the 1980s the idea was to restore the great stone kremlin that housed the monastery. Researchers and craftsmen were brought in from all over the Soviet Union. Crowds of Soviet tourists came by ship from Archangel to admire their work in progress.

But that was before Russia's great economic upheaval. Today ** Moscow has cut the level of financing to about 8 percent of what it was. The tourists no longer come. The Cathedral of the Transfiguration is stuck somewhere between ruin and restoration.

Today the monastery's museum shares the kremlin with the monks who are reopening the monastery. But many of the talented people, and most of the excitement, have drained away. For Ms. Petrovskaya, single and living alone on an island with no plumbing and eight-month-long winters, there is, frankly, no end in sight, no possibility of ever getting the job done.

Late one cool summer evening, sitting in the golden Arctic light by the 20-foot-thick stone wall of the kremlin, she lets out a long sigh.

"It can be so discouraging," she says. "There's so much to do. It's better not to think about it."

There are about 700 families living on Solovki, where money is as scarce as sunlight, unemployment is about 20 percent, and opportunity is scant. Despair and vodka fill the void. The monks, newcomers as they are, go quietly about their own work in pursuit of holiness. Theirs is not a pastoral mission. They came to Solovki to get away from human frailty.

Sekirnaya Hill is the highest point on Solovki. From Vosnesenskaya Church -- the only church in Russia that doubles as a lighthouse -- you can see the sweep of pine forest, many of the island's 500 lakes, the sea beyond. In back of the hill lies the kremlin, the snug harbor, the picturesque dories of the kelp cutters.

This was where the punishment cells were, when the Solovetsky Camp of Special Purpose was opened in 1923.

Most of the people sent here -- religious sectarians, foreign socialists, those who refused to work -- died of disease or starvation. Thousands froze. Plenty were beaten to death. Maybe 40,000 were shot. Some were tied naked to trees and left to the mosquitoes for 24 hours. Others were tied to logs, which were then thrown down the 305 wooden steps that led up to the church from the road below.

And this was only the punishment area. The Camp of Special Purpose was scattered at sites over the whole island. Most of Ukraine's intelligentsia died on Solovki. Georgian nationalists were gathered here, and killed. The entire leadership of the Orthodox Church died here.

The camp's motto was this: "With an iron hand we will force mankind toward happiness."

And most of this happened before the terrible regime of Stalin went to work in earnest. The techniques that Stalin's men used in the infamous Siberian camps in the late 1930s were worked out on Solovki in the mid-1920s.

They involved an unfathomable level of brutality and sadism, day in and day out, over years. The guards at Solovki just went at it, devoted their lives to it. Uncomfortable questions linger: Where did the new Soviet government find such people? How could so many have been turned into monsters in such a short time?

Oleg is a "poslushnik," or a monk in training. He lives alone on another part of Solovki, in what used to be a solitary-confinement cell. He walks nine miles to the monastery every few days for confession and to pick up those supplies he can't grow himself.

Oleg is 30 and grew up in Moscow. He studied Arabic languages at Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, and then became a businessman trading principally with North Korea.

He says he was about to leave on a business trip to America when he got word from God to go to Solovki instead. He gave up everything and came here 10 months ago.

"I'll live here alone as long as I want, maybe till I die," he says.

The brick house where he lives stands next to the ruins of an old dormitory. Nearby is a house where the prison guards lived. Now everything is quiet but the murmuring of a nearby stream and the gabbling of ducks on a pond. Oleg wants to be close to God out here; but here too he's also close to the mortal remains of thousands now unknown.

"It's not that I feel their presence or see their souls, but sometimes I'm scared in a way," he says. "Mainly I feel the presence of those who were very great believers in God and died here for their faith.

D8 "The fact is, the whole land is covered with blood."

To leave the past behind, to find a simpler Russia, take the overnight train from Belomorsk on its way due north along the White Sea coast, across the Arctic Circle, to the head of Kandalaksha Bay.

Here lies one of Russia's oldest nature preserves (called zapovedniks). It's scattered across a series of idyllic islands where the tide runs to 8 feet and sea birds come to nest from all over Europe and beyond.

A Russian zapovednik is not a park; the public is distinctly unwelcome. The animals thrive. A few lucky researchers and rangers have the place to themselves.

There are, of course, terrible problems with financing these days. The staff has been halved and salaries top out at $50 a month. The motorboats are wearing out and the workers can't get new ones because the factory that used to make them has gone out of business.

Fuel is scarce and poaching by an increasingly destitute population is an ever-growing headache.

Air pollution from huge nickel and aluminum plants farther to the north rains down on the bay. Moreover, an oil terminal adjacent to the zapovednik is expanding, and there are plans for a major pipeline that would cut down across the Kola Peninsula and come right through.

But spending a few days with Vitaly Bianki helps to put all this into perspective. Dr. Bianki is the senior ornithologist at Kandalaksha, and he can be found every summer on Ryashkov Island -- surrounded, usually, by a few colleagues and several dozen eager students.

Dr. Bianki started coming here in 1951 as a student, and moved to Kandalaksha permanently in 1955. He's the son of a well-known writer, and the grandson of czarist Russia's most illustrious ornithologist. An ancestor was a German- Swiss opera singer who was invited to move to St. Petersburg; he took Bianchi as a fittingly Italian stage name, and it stuck.

Dr. Bianki is as courtly and old school as they come. Out on Ryashkov Island, where life among the fragrant cedars is simple and the mosquitoes are ferocious, everyone sticks to the respectful Russian form of given name and patronymic.

Thus, even though Dr. Bianki has worked side by side with his colleague Nadezhda Bioko for 30 years, he addresses her -- in classic Russian style -- as Nadezhda Stepanovna, using her first name and a derivative of her father's first name. She, in turn, calls him Vitaly Vitalyevich.

Simply put, Dr. Bianki is a holdover. Most old-fashioned Russian intellectuals either emigrated or ended up in places like Solovki. He found a life with the birds on Ryashkov.

His specialty is the common eider, but the oystercatcher, herring gull, black guillemot, white-tailed sea eagle, peregrine falcon and red-breasted merganser all fall within his purview. He has watched bird populations rise and fall over the past 40 years, and he is still charting the fluctuations and trying to find the underlying reasons.

Dr. Bianki loves his life out here, where there's no one to tell him what to do. At 62, he has no plans to retire. "I never stop enjoying the beauty," he says. "I'd enjoy it to the end of time."

He's not, by the way, the oldest employee of the zapovednik. Living alone over on Lomnishny Island is Fyodor Kirilov, 68. He used to be manager of a fish-processing plant but chucked it all to become a ranger. Now his job is to look out for poachers and keep out of the way of brown bears.

A different sort of longevity prevails on Anisimov Island, where Vassily Voshchikov, 28, lives with his mother in the same ranger's house that his grandfather occupied for 50 years. It's a family monopoly. Mr. Voshchikov keeps several goats, chickens and a sea eagle with a broken wing. He catches cod for dinner in waters where no one else is allowed to fish, because they're part of the zapovednik.

Behind the goat shed he has two banyas, or wood-fired saunas: a "white" one, with a chimney, and a "black" one, where the smoke stays inside. In the winter, when the sun never quite rises and it's barely gray for three hours before night sets in, life would be nearly impossible without the banya.

On Ryashkov and the surrounding islands early summer is when chicks hatch. This is the time for banding, and Dr. Bianki and his volunteer helpers are busy all day long. They've already charted all the nests on several islands, counted the eggs, even hunted down and shot a family of foxes that hiked across the ice last winter and have been devouring eiders' eggs. (No letting nature take her way at Kandalaksha -- this is a bird sanctuary, first and foremost.)

The bird noise here is ferocious, in every direction. It seems to fill the air. Away to the north, the mountains of the Kola Peninsula are still topped with snow. From the south, from the White Sea, the startling rush of the tide barrels across the mud flats.

You can't escape the past in Russia, but Kandalaksha reminds you that you can't escape renewal, either. The eiders that were here when Solovki was a great monastery, and then when it was a place of unspeakable horror, are still here -- and they'll be here long after the wrenching transfiguration of Russia in our own era has been forgotten.

And in all likelihood people like Vitaly Bianki and Fyodor Kirilov will be here, too.

But, of course, life is lived in the present, and long thoughts don't solve immediate problems. Our little boat sputters up to the stone pier on the mainland. The sun is shining brightly but it's nearly 9 p.m. How to get in to town?

"You can take the bus, if it's running," the watchman on the pier shouts out with a laugh. "But in Russia everything is usually just the other way around."

WILL ENGLUND has just completed four years as a correspondent in The Sun's Moscow bureau.

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