WORKING as a journalist in Russia, with its eleven time zones, its endless steppe and perpetual taiga, means spending a lot of time in the air. It involves flying in planes so creaky that landing in one piece is a pleasant surprise then disembarking in airports so inhospitable that some visitors may want to take off again immediately.
But, if he has the strength, beyond the whine of the Tupolev engines and the cracked runways, a frequent flyer can find in Russia's airports a useful encapsulation of the country's problems and oddities. In their family resemblances, Russia's airports show how far the Soviet system squeezed the variety from the vast Russian continent; in their idiosyncrasies, they suggest how far it failed to. They illustrate how much of that system, and the mindset it created, live on, 15 years after the old empire nominally collapsed. Russia's awful, grimy, gaudy airports reveal how much hasn't changed in the world's biggest countrybut also, on closer inspection, how much is beginning to.