Photographer John Lehmann and I spent two weeks criss-crossing Russia in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, looking at how President Vladimir Putin – after 15 years in power – is leaving his mark on this vast country.
We started in the central city of Yekaterinburg, near the Ural Mountains that divide Russia into its European and Asian halves, before flying west to St. Petersburg, where Mr. Putin was born and where he first rose up through the political power structure.
After that, we took high-speed rail south to Moscow, a capital that can frustrate and beguile anyone who visits it, before boarding the aging Yak-42 plane that provides the daily link to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which has been rebuilt after more than a decade of war. Finally, we drove west – in a mud-splattered taxi – across the North Caucasus, towards Sochi and the Olympic Games that are set to begin on Feb. 7.
Here are a few of the highlights and lowlights of what we saw along the way:
Most inspiring moment:
Meeting Diana Murtazova, a young woman who was just starting Grade 9 when a band of Chechen gunmen and suicide bombers took over Middle School No. 1 in the town of Beslan in 2004. Ms. Murtazova was grievously wounded in the shootout that followed – a piece of shrapnel cut into the vertebrae in her neck. After a decade of rehabilitation, Ms. Murtazova, now 23, can use her arms again (although her fingers remain unresponsive) and can move on her own with a walker. She is also an incredibly cheerful and optimistic young woman with a diploma in economics and an impressive command of English.
Most depressing moment:
Visiting Nochlezhka, the lone homeless shelter in St. Petersburg, where 70,000 people sleep on the streets every night and 1,000 die each year from the cold. As the homeless crisis mounts, Nochlezhka finds itself with fewer and fewer resources. It had to sell one of its two mobile soup kitchens for parts a few years ago.
Best meal we had:
In the Murtazov family home. After we met Diana, her father, Murat, insisted we stay for cognac and homemade cheese pie, a local Ossetian delicacy. As we ate, he told us what it was like for him, as a father and husband, pacing the streets for the 52 hours that his wife and three daughters were hostages in the Beslan school in 2004. Almost miraculously, the whole family survived.
Best restaurant meal:
It is no surprise to anyone who has been to the Russian capital, but Moscow's Café Pushkin does the Russian standards – borscht, pelmeni, beef stroganoff – exquisitely. Warning: The price is exquisite, too.
It is perhaps unfair to put airplane food up against the Murtazov family's home cooking and the Café Pushkin's menu, but John worries the buns served on Grozny Avia are hard enough to be used as weapons.
Most stereotypically Russian moment:
Standing on the frozen City Pond in Yekaterinburg, speaking to an ice fisherman. Asked to describe what he believes foreigners think about Russia, his one-word answer was "bears."
Most surprising moment:
Calling Yevgeny Roizman, the newly elected mayor of Yekaterinburg, and asking for an interview. When he told us to drop by his office at our convenience, I was bowled over. I realized later that I was traumatized by my previous experience: A dozen years of sending faxed requests to interview Russian officials. Yes, faxes.
Best hotel we stayed in:
The Golden Apple Hotel in Moscow was a surprisingly affordable oasis of functionality during our trip. Just off the capital's central Pushkin Square, its management seems unaware of what other, far worse, hotels are charging for a stay in the Russian capital.
If there was a prize for the best lobby, it might well go to the Imperial Hotel in the southern city of Vladikavkaz. The vast, red-carpeted reception area, framed by tall mirrors and glittering chandeliers, makes it seem like the Ritz-Carlton of the North Caucasus. Beyond the lobby, however, the tiny rooms and grim breakfasts served as a reminder that the hotel was and is owned by Intourist, which was the official travel company of the Soviet Union.
The good news:
Visiting Grozny. In my mind's eye, the Chechen capital remained as I first saw it in 2002 – shattered by bombs and heavy weapons fire. It was uninhabitable. But today's Grozny has a skyline resembling that of Dubai, with a 32-storey hotel surrounded by five skyscrapers. Unfortunately, few people (besides foreign journalists) stay in the Hotel Grozny City, and the skyscrapers are empty of tenants and businesses.
The bad news:
Half an hour east of Grozny, the military checkpoints remind you all is not well in Russia's North Caucasus, a region in which more than 600 people were killed by violence last year alone. The checkpoints have supposedly been tightened ahead of the Sochi Olympics, but we cruised through five of them – sitting in the back seat of a car with tinted windows –without ever showing our passports or opening our luggage.
The big picture:
When John and I took a train through China last January, you could feel a country pushing ahead, changing as fast as its government would allow. On our trip through Russia, – where I lived from 2002 to 2005 – I was struck by how little had changed (aside from the construction in Sochi and other such megaprojects) since my first visit here. Mr. Putin and his allies like to call that stabilnost, stability, which they see as an achievement in itself after the chaos the country endured in the 1990s. Others might use the word "stagnation."