National Geographic : 1994 Jun
the city's first American restaurant is selling everything from fried chicken to T-shirts. "The people here are super nice, super naive, and very hospitable," chirps owner Mary Khoury, a Texan commodity broker who, with her husband, Viktor, has shipped in everything except the building. Posters of New Orleans and Tina Turner parade across the walls. For their part the people of Nizhniy Novgo rod are making no headlong dash to privatiza tion: Less than half the shops so far offered at auction have found a buyer. Throughout the spring, inflation was running at more than 800 percent, and by July most banks are hoarding cash for wage payments and major withdraw als. Few will exchange even small amounts for foreign currency. For interest I try the state bank in Nizhniy Novgorod, but a policeman stops me at an inner door. "I'm sorry," he said, "it's impos sible for you to obtain rubles here now." He glances around and then leans forward. "How much do you want to change?" I suggest a hundred dollars. "Come back in ten minutes." Five minutes later, in full uniform and full view, he is waiting on the steps of the bank. Vitaly gives me a resigned smile. "Corrupt policemen are a very small example of the can cer in our country. There probably isn't a min istry or department or factory in Russia where someone doesn't expect money for his agree ment or for turning his back. There has always been corruption in Russia, but never like now. I'm afraid it will ruin our country." AUGUST 10 FROM HERE ON I sense something increasingly unnatural about the Volga, now swollen to more than a mile wide. Along the northern shore the water has crept deep into the forests where the bleached bodies of the largest trees are sometimes all that remain above a thicken ing soup of decaying vegetation. Sixty years ago a raindrop entering the riv er's source would reach the Caspian Sea in 50 days. The Volga was able to flush and renew herself. Now the same journey through six giant reservoirs takes nearly 18 months. Though the river may look clean-in more than a thousand miles, I have seen hardly any rubbish-it is not. "You might not be able to see the pollu tion," says Asahat Kayumov, a young ecolo gist in Nizhniy Novgorod. "But every day the toxics and heavy metals accumulate on the floor of the inland seas." Later we hear on Moscow radio that fight ing has broken out in the Black Sea resort of Sokhumi in northwestern Georgia, where Vitaly's wife, Larisa, and their daughter, Yana, have gone for a holiday. The streets are said to be echoing with small-arms fire between government troops and Abkhazians, an ancient people bent on secession. Vitaly takes it in stride. Because of the Rus sian telephone system, he must call Nikolai in Moscow for word about his family. But even Leaving a wake of troubled waters, Wild Goose slices through the algae-clotted Volga south of Saratov. Feasting on agricultural pollution, algal blooms deplete the river's oxygen. "Itmay take decades to clean up," says Nikolai Litau (in yellow, above), one of the author's Russian co-captains.