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Last Updated: Friday, 8 February 2008, 14:12 GMT
Volga road trip: Silver Bears
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 fifth piece, from the city of Saratov.

BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes and his Volga car
The long journey to Saratov has its wintry charms
If you've never been to Russia in deepest winter then your impression may be of a land of endless cold and darkness. And indeed it can sometimes feel like that. But not today.

Today was wintertime Russia at its very best. I woke to crystal-clear skies and dazzling sunshine. On days like this Russia can look spectacularly beautiful. With the mercury down around minus 12C the countryside is transformed into a fairyland of ice and snow.

The freeze-dried birch trees stand out against the flawless sky like giant candyfloss.

The green pine trees look for all the world like they've been covered with large dollops of icing sugar. The snow under foot is deliciously hard and crunchy.

The city of Saratov is another unexpected surprise. Russian cities are, as a rule, unrelentingly horrible. The few historic neighbourhoods that weren't erased by Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev are now being bulldozed by property developers.

Map of Volga trip

But so far Saratov has escaped the ravages of communism and capitalism. Charming streets of Tsarist-era buildings line the west bank of Volga.

Down on the waterfront I found an excellent German restaurant with real German beer and sausage!

The Volga here is almost five kilometres (three miles) wide, and at this time of year covered in a metre of ice. The locals even take their cars out for a spin on it!

Silver Bears

But my real object in coming to Saratov is not to enjoy the winter weather, it is to track down a group of Russian Bears. Not the four-legged, furry type. The big silver type, with propellers and wings. Just across the Volga from Saratov is Engels, home to Russia's strategic nuclear bomber force.

For more than 15 years, since the end of the Cold War, Russia's fleet of strategic bombers (known in the West by their Nato codename "Bear") have been in hibernation.

But in the last six months the Tupolev Tu-95 Bears have been back on the prowl. The huge silver bombers have been repeatedly intercepted approaching the coasts of Scotland, Norway and Alaska. It's led some to talk of a new Cold War.

Tu-95 Bear bomber

My first problem was locating the base. The old Cold War may be long over, but Engels airbase still doesn't appear on my Russian road map, or my satnav. When I finally did, the experience was distinctly unscary.

I've been on a couple of American airbases, and the overwhelming impression there is of money and muscle. They have the best of everything, and loads of it. Engels looks like it hasn't had a penny spent on it in 20 years.

The big silver Bears sit out on the edge of the runway exposed to the biting wind. Amid the decaying base they, at least, look in excellent condition. But there's no getting away from the fact that the Bears are now fairly vintage aircraft. They first started flying in the 1950s!

Sadly I wasn't allowed to fly in one of the silver beasts. "Foreigners are not allowed", I was told by my delightful defence ministry minder. "You might find out some Russian military secrets!" she told me with a wry smile.

Instead I was invited to dinner at the home of a squadron leader. Over vodka and caviar he described to me what the coast of Britain looks like from 10,500 metres (35,000ft), at two o'clock in the morning.

"The whole place is lit up like a Christmas tree," he said. "You people must have far too much money if you can afford to waste it like that".

We toasted the eternal friendship of the British and Russian peoples. I was awarded an honorary flying pin, and I stumbled back to my hotel feeling warm and fuzzy.

It certainly didn't feel like a new Cold War.


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