When I wake on the first morning of my Russian river cruise, I find myself looking at concrete. Our boat is in a lock. Gradually we rise up and golden birches appear through the autumn mist, as does the lock itself – a stately Soviet structure complete with a statue of young Russians and a hammer and sickle. We sail on, past ornately trimmed wooden houses, some in surprising turquoise and pink pastels. A lone fisherman casts his rod in front of a blue, onion-domed church.
I dress quickly and rush to the panoramic café at the front of the boat to get a better view. For years, I’ve nurtured a fantasy of rural Russia that is embarrassingly similar to the images on those black lacquer boxes that are the staple Russian souvenir – images of a country beyond the Kremlin, Red Square and the Hermitage. I want wooden dachas and birch woods shimmering in the sunlight. (I’d also secretly like a sleigh, a snow queen and a couple of firebirds.)
As I sip tea and gaze out of the café window, I see that the Russia of my fantasies has sailed into view during the night. For the first three days, we were moored in Moscow. On the first day of sailing, the capital’s modern outskirts, with their new, prosperous housing developments, looked unsettlingly like North America. Now I’m beginning to find what I was looking for.
Our Waterways of the Tsars cruise is something of a cocoon, taking us to a succession of villages and rural landscapes that would be hard to reach by other means. We eat all of our meals on the boat, and sleep in our cabins every night – never ashore.
The meals, cooked by a German chef, are excellent. Our ship, the Viking Kirov, was completely refurbished two years ago. My standard stateroom has a private bathroom, a big window with fine views of the passing countryside and a flat screen TV. However, I soon find that the cruise provides so much of interest, not just in scenery, but in revelations about Russian culture, history and geography, that CNN pales in comparison. And judging by the attendance at the lectures offered along our route, it would seem that the other passengers (mainly Americans and Brits, with a sprinkling of Canadians and Australians) feel the same way.
“Just which Russian river will you be cruising along?” asked a geographically inclined friend when I mentioned my plan to sail from Moscow to St. Petersburg. “The Volga,” I replied, because it sounded suitably Russian.
And sure enough, the great river the Russians affectionately call “Mother Volga” does make an appearance. But for most of the time, the journey is a bewildering succession of canals, lakes and locks, with a final stretch on the 48-kilometre-long Neva to deliver us into St. Petersburg.
But first there is Moscow. Our ship is moored outside the city on the Moscow Canal. For two days, the cruise company takes us on buses to tour the city. On the first day, we ride the multi-lane Leningrad Highway for a general city tour. On the second, we tour the Kremlin.
Moscow was not my reason for taking this trip, and the traffic jams and high-rise apartment blocks do not at first endear me to a city where, as our vivacious 40-something guide Victoria explains, nobody lives in a house. Then, on that first afternoon, I follow Victoria through Resurrection Arch into the immensity of Red Square. Bells are ringing out from the pink, green and gold Kazan Cathedral. Off in the distance I can see the extravagant swirls and whirls of St. Basil’s Cathedral. To my right are the sombre, colossal walls of the Kremlin and to my left, the elegant 19th-century facade of the GUM luxury shopping mall. In Soviet times, Muscovites lined up across the square in the hope of finding a few basic consumer goods here. I stop to catch my breath. The thrill is akin to what I felt when I gazed into the Grand Canyon at dawn. But here, instead of nature’s grandeur, a panorama of mankind’s ambition, changing beliefs and thirst for power unfurls. And for anyone who remembers those old black-and-white news reports of Soviet leaders watching military parades, it is a shock to see Red Square in vibrant colour.
Lenin remains in suspended non-animation in the depths of his mausoleum on one side of the square. Across from him, “spring onion soup” at a sidewalk restaurant costs US$30. The new Russia is a baffling place.
In the evening, we are invited to a concert of Russian folk music. I’m tired and tempted to shun what I assume is an event laid on for tourists. Victoria appears to read my mind. “You go,” she says. “Russian musicians very fine – not just tourist stuff.” So I ride into Moscow. We park alongside a magically floodlit river and walk to a concert hall where Victoria turns out to be right: the singers would be at home at the Met or Covent Garden.
After spending the second morning gazing at royal sleighs, Ivan the Terrible’s ivory throne, exquisite Fabergé eggs and Vladimir Putin’s office windows – all behind the Kremlin walls – our boat slips away from the quay in the early afternoon.
The next day, we sail into Uglich, our first stop. The Viking Kirov approaches the town in late afternoon and our arrival is magical. Red, blue and gold onion domes are mirrored in the Volga. Victoria is keen to emphasize that Uglich, a town of 34,000, was never “spoiled” by the Tartars, the French army or even the Nazis. Nobody reached here to demolish its quiet charm. Not even Stalin or Brezhnev bothered to construct a soul-destroying apartment block on the outskirts.
And, of course, there are churches. (I will rapidly become “iconed out” by a long procession of morose saint and angel portraits.) But Uglich also has singers. In a concert hall, a choir of just four young men that sounds like 40 sings for tourists. They’ve hardly uttered two notes when our group sits up, startled but thrilled by the black-tar richness of the bass singer’s voice.
Outside, the streetlights have come on. The watch store under the porticoes fills up with passengers from the Kirov, as does the vodka shop next door. Uglich is a good place to buy textiles and watches (it was once home to Chaika, the famous Soviet watch manufacturer). But it’s the singing, the sound of bells and the smell of wood smoke at dusk that I will take away from this lovely old town, where I quite expect to meet Chekhov out for an evening stroll.
The next morning, we arrive in Yaroslavl, a city of 591,000 that is home to the first theatre in the country. The highlight here is the Church of Elijah the Prophet, with its frescoed interior, but I prefer the covered food market, with its vendors offering samples of saffron and local honey. Yaroslavl is also a centre for those magical black lacquer boxes.
Mother Volga then makes her appearance – both the river and a statue of a woman in flowing robes, on a bank near the delta. Later, a huge head pops up above a birch forest – a statue of Lenin, glowering at us over the trees. We go through another lock and sunbathe on the deck, now taking for granted the procession of pretty Russian villages.
But Russia doesn’t allow anyone to luxuriate in sun and beauty for long, and in the afternoon there’s a history lecture. Our Russian guides are funny and highly opinionated. That ethereally beautiful belfry sticking out of the water in the middle of the river? It is a testament, says Dmitri, today’s lecturer, to the “blood and bones” upon which a particular reservoir was built, and the village that was flooded to do it. In earlier times, he explains, the Volga would dry to a shallow stream in summer, until Stalin introduced the “Big Volga Plan” of 1932. Seven hundred villages were flooded. Families were forced to pack up and leave. As with the Moscow Canal, gulag prisoners were “employed” on the project.
Other lectures cover the Hermitage, the Romanovs, the career of president Vladimir Putin and a gripping account of Mikhail Gorbachev’s presidency. In the evenings, the mood is lightened by the singing of a sultry mezzo-soprano and the playing of a virtuoso balalaika and accordion player – accordions in Russia being taken as seriously as any classical instrument.
After Yaroslavl comes Goritsky, with its 14th-century monastery and throng of vendors selling fur coats and hats. Then on to the tiny, six-km-long island of Kizhi, home to two much-photographed, nail-less 18th century wooden churches with swirled domes. The Russian government has declared Kizhi an open-air museum and moved more than 80 historic wooden buildings to the long grasses of this peaceful island. UNESCO made the museum a heritage site in 1990. The banks of the river remind me of densely wooded parts of Canada – Ontario or Quebec. The Americans onboard keep muttering “Wisconsin.”
Kizhi is situated on vast Lake Onega, the second biggest lake in Europe. A mist drifts across the lake after dinner. I order a glass of port and settle in to watch a video of Anna Karenina in the ship’s library.
Gorgeous St. Petersburg is the culmination of our journey. This city arose as a result of Peter the Great’s vision for an elegant, sophisticated European city at the edge of the Baltic Sea. Peter, a true giant of Russia’s past (he stood almost seven feet tall) delivered on his vision by recruiting hapless serfs and prisoners, thousands of whom would die during construction.
With its canals and elegant late baroque architecture, St. Petersburg is often called the Venice of the North, but it was a Florentine, Francesco Rastrelli, who designed two of its most glorious buildings. His grandiose Winter Palace on the Neva houses the Hermitage Art Museum. Flamboyant, bright blue Catherine Palace, 25 km southeast of the city, is home to the recently restored Amber Room, an elaborate chamber whose walls are entirely covered with amber, gold leaf and mirrors.
I decide to devote my last day in Russia to the Hermitage, but soon realize that it is vast and complex, like Russia itself. After wandering happily among 19th-century French and Russian paintings, I give up and head off down Nevsky Prospect, the city’s main street, aware that I can never do the museum justice in one visit – like Russia itself.