Waterways of the Tsars

Russia — Cruising the Waterways of the Tsars
Story by Andrea Gross; photos by Irv Green

“Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” said Winston Churchill in a 1939 radio broadcast.Things haven’t changed much in the last eighty years. The world’s largest country is still a land of gilded domes and golden spires as well as grand art, great music and blue waterways.

St. Petersburg is filled with magnificent domed cathedrals.

But it’s also a land that’s been ruled by those who win revolutions as well as by those who win elections, is sometimes officially Communistic and other times casually capitalistic, and whose relationship with the United States has ranged from somewhat cooperative to outright confrontational. An enigma indeed — which is, of course, exactly why my husband and I want to go there


The first thing we learn is that Russia isn’t a particularly easy place for American tourists. Most find the language unintelligible, the alphabet indecipherable and the regulations innumerable. For example, individual travelers need an “invitation” from an authorized Russian travel agency verifying exactly where they’ll be staying each night during their visit. Spontaneity is not allowed.

Gilded domes and golden spires sit among the trees.

Thus we opt for a riverboat cruise, which will let us travel in comfort and security. We call Viking River Cruises, the oldest and largest company that has Russian cruises specifically designed for English-speaking passengers. They run twelve trips a month, and they’re almost fully booked for the next three months. We grab the last available room.

Our first stop is St Petersburg, the cultural gem of Russia. It’s here that I see my first onion-domed cathedral, proudly presiding over a watery maze that splinters the city into 100 islands connected by nearly 400 canals and bridges.

Swan Lake is a must-see in St. Petersburg.

We spend three days amongst spectacular palaces, world-renowned museums and magnificent gardens. We thrill to the performance of Swan Lake, which was first performed for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg in 1895, tap our feet in rhythm to the rollicking music of the Cossacks, and are overwhelmed by the art of the Hermitage Museum, which has prehistoric artifacts as well as Greek sculptures and Impressionist paintings. Experts say that if a person were to spend one minute per exhibit it would take him eleven years to see it all.

The Cossacks perform lively folk dances.

Finally we visit a communal home owned by a group of unrelated families. Each family has its own small room for living and dining, but they all share a common bathroom and small cooking area, which, in this case, consists of two stoves a mini-refrigerator and a few overloaded shelves. Necessary during the housing crisis of the Soviet era, kommunalkas are still favored by some folks who like the style of living and their central location. On the other hand, in a bow to current capitalism, many are being turned into bed-and-breakfasts.

The islands of St. Petersburg are connected by 400 bridges and canals.

I don’t want to leave St. Petersburg. It has an air of restrained elegance — historically important, regally proud and visually stunning. But it’s time for the Viking Akun, our 200-passenger ship, to head south to Moscow.

For the next five days we cruise down the Svir and Volga rivers, stopping at a variety of small to mid-size towns.  A Viking guide introduces us to a woman who’s making matryoshkadolls, those small sets of figures that decrease in size so that each fits inside the other. Traditionally these dolls were painted in intricate designs; today many have more contemporary, and sometimes controversial, motifs.

Matryoshka dolls are a popular Russian folk craft.

One set for example depicts the largest doll as Putin and the smaller ones as former leaders of the Soviet Union from Lenin to Yeltsin. Other sets are in the reverse, with Lenin outsizing Putin. We opt for one that features the Disney characters Anna and Elsa. All things considered, it seems a safer choice than the one that portrays Putin and Trump.

We go to an elementary school, have a meal in a typical middle-class home, stroll through a market that sells (unrefrigerated) meat in one area, samovars and chocolate in another.

Craftspeople have shops in many small towns.

Before we leave I decide to be purified in a banya(Russian style sauna), which involves a steam bath and birch broom massage. Then the guide tells me I must follow this with a plunge into the cold river. She says it’s bracing. I say it’s insane and respectfully decline.

After our village outings, we return to the ship where we sit in the Panorama Bar and enjoy the river views as we listen to presentations on all-things Russian, from the Volga to the vodka. Finally, sated with knowledge and food, our ship docks at Moscow.

Moscow’s upscale department store is just a few blocks from Red Square.

Like St. Petersburg, Moscow is gilded with domes, but while St. Petersburg is magical, Moscow is muscular. The cars are flashier, the streets more crowded, the malls larger. And there’s a toy store that covers more than a block.

We tour the Kremlin where we hear stories of Romanov tsars and Communist leaders, enjoy the festive ambience of Red Square, and lunch at the enormous GUM Department store where any outdated impressions of Russia as a country with barren shelves are quickly dispelled.

Later we go to Moscow’s Space Museum, where we see excellent exhibits on the mid-century Space Race, as seen, of course, from the Russian perspective.

Moscow’s Space Museum showcases the early days of space exploration.

Here, in the center of Moscow, the atmosphere is electric, the people self-confident and Russia’s future looks bright, But of course, Moscow isn’t Russia. Nearly 80 percent of Russia’s people live west of the Ural Mountains, where traditions may be stronger but life may be harder.  “In Moscow there are more billionaires than babushkas,” says our guide.

On the last night of our cruise a group of us reflect on our trip while we enjoy a Russian inspired meal. “Churchill was right,” says one man. “Russia is most definitely an enigma.”




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