Snow fell on the Street of Freedom. Something sat in the middle of the road. We walked through the darkness to see a girl our age, blonde, beautiful, huddled there with her back to the traffic.

'Come to the kerb,' we said, 'you'll be killed.' She shook her head. We persuaded, begged. 'What's the point?' she asked. 'Why should I live? Here is death. My life is an unabated night.' We gave her some biscuits. She promised to go home.

This is Yaroslavl, a provincial hell-hole of 600,000 people that squats like a grey toad on the banks of the Volga.

If St Petersburg is the head of Russia and Moscow the heart, then I dread to think which part of the anatomy Yaroslavl might be. Like all the provinces of the former Soviet Union, it has been bludgeoned beyond all recognition. In 1917 it boasted 63 churches: today, 20. Once a small merchant town, it has been massively industrialised, the population tripling, quadrupling. The workers live in Khrushchevian rabbit hutches overlooked by black-belching factories. Yaroslavl is the most polluted town in the CIS. The murder rate is two per week.

At first we, the British students in our Doc Martens and thermal underwear, imagined a medieval gingerbread beauty. After a week smothered on sweating trolleybuses, we closed our eyes to the Sovietski anarchitecture. After a fortnight we had realised that Hades is cold, not hot, and, like Chekhov's Three Sisters, we wept each night into our pillows, murmuring 'To Moscow] To Moscow]' We stayed four months.

Here, if you want to go out, you cannot. Yaroslavl has a bad theatre, a bad restaurant and a single nightclub where the men are mafia and the women are whores. 'If I go there on foot,' says Vasya, the Nicest Man in Yaroslavl (a title for which there is no stiff competition), 'I have a 99 per cent chance of getting laid. If I take the car, 100 per cent.' I went to this club once. Everyone had a flick-knife, girls and boys. Some man stared at me aggressively and asked, 'Why d'you speak Russian with a Jewish accent?' He left me speechless, then moved in for a snog.

We never knew that life could be this terrible. Here is no war, no famine, no Horsemen of the Apocalypse pounding down the pavement, yet this is unknowable from the faces in the street. The pain in people's eyes suggests souls that are shredded.

A few seem to survive the provincial purgatory: Vasya, the sensitive wide boy; Natalia Igorevna, who has met Iris Murdoch; the Jewish man in the flowery suit; Rem, the paedophile who pretends to run a jazz club. However, they, too, are damaged by Yaroslavl's all-subsuming spiritual malaise.

We British were lucky: we went to Moscow for the weekends, got drunk on hard-currency Guinness bought in the Irish supermarket and eventually, oh happy day, we left for Britain. The Russians, the girl in the middle of the street, had no such choice.

(Photograph omitted)