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For Nostalgic Russians, Cuba a Tropical Time Machine

A girl runs along a square in Old Havana, May 4, 2010. AP Photo

GlobalPost's Nick Miroff examines how Cuba offers Russian tourists a taste of the old Soviet Union.

HAVANA, Cuba - She'd only been in Cuba a few days, but for Maria Malysheva, the memories came flooding back at the sight of Cuban schoolchildren, all dressed in the neat uniforms that identify them as "pioneros" - communist pioneers.

"I was a pioneer leader when I was a little girl growing up in the Soviet Union," said Malysheva, now the general manager of a Russian travel website, sounding wistful. "The children were playing and laughing. They seemed so happy."

Malysheva had come to Havana to help promote the Soviets' old tropical ally as a hot tourism destination for the new Russia. Her country was the guest of honor at this year's international tourism trade fair, and with expanding direct-flight service to Havana from Moscow and St. Petersburg, the number of Russian tourists is projected to climb from 30,000 to 45,000 in 2010.

That's a small share of the roughly 2.5 million tourists Cuba receives each year - the majority from Europe and Canada - and the 12-hour flight from Moscow is likely to remain an obstacle to mass tourism. But Russians visitors in town last week said Cuba offers more than sun and sand to their sentimental countrymen. It's a place to experience a part of their own history - one that they're still grappling with.

Just as U.S. visitors are stirred by the sight of Cuba's old American automobiles and Eisenhower-era hotels, Russians find elements of their own past in Cuba's present, even if the memories aren't all good ones.

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