ULYANOVSK: Ksenia and Alexandra, both 19, met each other in psychology class at university and started an acoustic duo five months ago. They play cover songs by groups like Cold Play and Armstrong in pubs and bars in Ulyanovsk. They call their duo 'Sunday.' ''We thought for a long time about what to call ourselves, but we couldn't find something that fit,'' said Alexandra, whose parents and brother play instruments. Then one day, they auditioned at a pub. The pub's art director commented positively about their music, using a Russian word that can be translated as cheerful or sunny. ''Therefore, they recommended we call ourselves Sunday, because our music is bright and warm like a sunny day.''
ULYANOVSK: Emilia, a psychology student, was leaving her university that lies directly across a square from the Lenin Museum. She was dressed in all black, except for her light-colored sunglasses.
Emilia said she got into hard rock and gothic music such as Marilyn Manson at the age of 15, something that has influenced her fashion style.
Raised by her grandparents, Emilia said she has about 6 tattoos on her body. She also has two small ones – a heart and bow – on her neck, which she says are meant to symbolize a friendship of 12 years. Her friend has the same two tattoos.
Igor, 28, was walking in the center of Ulyanovsk wearing a winter hat with the portrait of Nestor Makhno, a Ukrainian anarchist who fought the Red and White armies during the Russian Civil War.
A journalist for a local pro-government newspaper, Igor said he also owns a shirt with the portrait of Stepan Razin, a Cossack rebel that fought the Tsarist government.
Polina was sporting dyed red hair, a green jacket, green necklace and green nail polish as she headed home along the Rostov streets with her friends - and a cat - to have tea. Polina said she and her friends have been spending a lot of time at her apartment lately listening to music, talking and drinking tea. A first-year architecture student who works part-time in a cafe, Polina said she is passionate about her studies. ''I love it, it is my favorite activity. I have an unusual teacher and we draw some crazy things.''
He was wearing a NYC winter hat as he walked around Rostov's center with a friend. He asked not to have his face photographed....certain people could see the photo, he said, without going into detail. He called himself a 'Rostov-Don Crocodile' and offered me some bubble gum that he was holding between the fingers of his broken arm. They were both likely high on drugs.
Katya, 14, was sitting with her friend in a McDonald's in the center of Rostov wearing a 'Bronx' winter hat. The 8th grader said she loves psychology, photography and dogs, of which she has two. Katya said she hasn't traveled yet outside of Russia, but ''I hope when I grow up, I will be able to travel and enjoy life.''
He was walking in the center of Rostov with a shirt that read ''Fucking Sports.'' ''It's my style - a mix of classic, street style and hiphop.'' He said he wants to open a small bar someday.
ROSTOV: Roman, 18 (center), was heading home after a day of skateboarding with two friends in Rostov. All three boys recently moved to Rostov from nearby Ukraine to study. Roman said his university plans changed after Russia annexed Crimea. A Russian by nationality, Roman grew up in Kerch, Crimea and initially planned to attend university in Kharkov, Ukraine. However, he became a Russian citizen in March 2014, opening the door to universities on the Russian mainland.He chose to attend university in Rostov, about 10 hours by bus from Kerch, where his parents still live. Roman, who would like to work as a programmer ''for a major company,'' said he thought the change in university plans was for the best. ''If I could study anywhere in the former Soviet Union, I would still choose Russia because the education and job opportunities are better.'' Roman said the skateboarding is better in Rostov than in Crimea. ''The streets are more level and there is more asphalt."
Svetlana, 20, was sitting near the second floor window of the only Starbucks in Rostov-on-Don on a late Saturday morning. There was only one other person on the entire second floor. A public relations and media student, Svetlana said in very good English that she was waiting for a friend to arrive to practice conversational English. I asked if she had studied English abroad. She said no, but that she watches US TV serials, such as 'Friends' and '2 and 1/2 Men.' Svetlana said that is why she prefers US English to British English. She said its hard to improve her English in Rostov. ''I would love to travel a lot and use my English. You don't have any opportunity to use it here.''
KHABAROVSK: He was working the bar at the Pool Club in Khabarovsk. He introduced himself as "Vladimir...like our President." A colorful character, Vladimir spoke a mile a minute, joking constantly, and all I could understand after 5 minutes was that things were "f@cking awful" following the 1998 Russian default and ruble collapse. Once he slowed down, I learned he started working in bars in the late 1990s, while pursuing a degree in bio-chemistry. Like many Russian science/engineering students of that era, he didn't bother starting a career in science. But it wasn't just for financial reasons. "I understood that this [bartending] was my thing. I wanted to work with people and this was the best club." Vladimir has been serving up drinks at Pool Club for 15 years and knows the city's movers and shakers. "All the privledged youth used to come here. Now they own businesses, restaurants...they have become important people." Vladimir joked that he knows their secrets as well.