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Last Updated: Monday, 28 January 2008, 15:59 GMT
Volga road trip: A Soviet icon
The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes is travelling in a Volga car along the Volga river to take a snapshot of life in Vladimir Putin's Russia, as the presidential election looms. This is his first piece, from the city of Nizhny Novgorod.

Rupert Wingfield-Hayes and a Volga car
Rupert plans to drive 2,000km of the Volga's length

I am sitting in a spartan hotel room in a grim industrial suburb of Nizhny Novgorod.

During the Soviet era, this city of two million people on the banks of the Volga river was renamed Gorky, in honour of one of Russia's most famous 20th-Century writers.

Maxim Gorky ended his days as a, perhaps reluctant, apologist for Joseph Stalin's genocidal regime. In return, Stalin named a city after him.

Fifty years later, the city of Gorky once again briefly attained world fame.

Russian Nobel prize winner Andrei Sakharov and his wife were sent into internal exile here, as the old men in the Kremlin fought a losing battle to muzzle the Sakharovs' eloquent condemnation of their corrupt and decaying regime.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and released the Sakharovs. Six years later the Soviet Union was gone. Gorky returned to being Nizhny Novgorod, and slipped quietly back into obscurity.

Soviet status symbol

So what, you may ask, has brought me here?

map

Two things. The Volga, and a Volga. The first is the river. The second, a once-loved icon of Soviet engineering.

It all stems from a rather mad scheme cooked up by one of my colleagues in the BBC Moscow bureau - that we should buy a Volga car and drive it along the Volga river.

The Volga car was, and to some still is, a Soviet icon. It was the car everyone aspired to own, but few would ever get to drive.

Russians never had much love for their Ladas. But the Volga was different. It was the Soviet Mercedes Benz, Rover or Buick. It was the car driven by the KGB men in their black leather coats, or the Kremlin bureaucrats in their grey homburgs.

For 60 years they have been building Volgas in a sprawling factory in this grim suburb of Nizhny Novgorod. That is why I am here, to pick up my Volga, and begin my journey down the river it is named after.

Capitalist makeover

For those who think that this sounds like a good lark, I should explain there is a serious point to all of this.

US President George W Bush (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Putin's 1956 Volga, 8 May 2005
President Bush (right) drove Mr Putin's 1956 Volga in 2005

The Volga is to Russia what the Mississippi is to America, or the Rhine to Western Europe.

Rising near the Baltic, the Volga winds its way some 3,000km (1,864 miles) south-east until it empties into the Caspian Sea amid the salt marshes south of Astrakhan.

Along its banks are dotted cities with names like Kazan and Samara, Ulyanovsk and Saratov.

I am going to drive 2,000km (1,243 miles) of its length, from Nizhny Novgorod to Volgograd, once more famously known as Stalingrad.

The aim is to try and find out what Russia is like in the vast area beyond the Moscow ring road. To take a snapshot of life in Russia after eight years of President Vladimir Putin.

How is Russia really doing economically? What do ordinary provincial Russians think about life after Mr Putin? Is there renewed hostility here to America and Britain? If so, why?

Along the way I plan to visit car factories, military bases, war veterans and the birthplace of another Vladimir - Lenin.

The Volga car-manufacturing factory in Nizhny Novgorod
The city's factory has been building Volgas for some 60 years
One thing is already clear. Life in this provincial city is very far removed from the days when the Sakharovs were exiled here 30 years ago.

This morning I got into my car in Moscow and drove here, no special documents, no permission forms, no KGB men following me (at least I do not think so).

Even in this suburb of endless grey apartments, there is now a brightly-lit shopping mall with coffee shops, pizzerias and the unmistakable signature of capitalism - a drive-in McDonald's.

On my hotel television the cable stations are showing American pulp, MTV and even porn.

On the surface at least Russia has changed enormously. But what about below the surface?



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