We started in Moscow and ended in St Petersburg. The Viking River Cruise is called Waterways of the Tsars so the in-between section included the Volga, and the whole trip was made memorable because of the grandeur and beauty of the country, and its history and people.
We met and talked to ordinary Russians – our guides, staff on the ship and locals , particularly the young because they are taught English early on and seemed to want to tell all about their country. We also visited a school where we were guided by a confident 12-year-old girl and marveled at classrooms which would give any British teacher an attack of the vapors; ranks of desks facing a blackboard with scant books and resources, and the pupil stating that she would be a doctor.
The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg.
But that was when we were sailing the back country. As we traveled to Moscow in coaches through terrible city traffic, we passed the towering apartment blocks which made the skyline, but then there we were in Red Square, St Basil’s Cathedral at the top, GUM department store to the left and the red walls of the Kremlin to the right.
GUM, which in the Soviet era was known for its pathetically empty shelves, is now full of designer outlets in what must be one of the prettiest retail malls in existence. It’s a huge building with an interior of wrought iron balconies, fountains and walkways lined with fragrant flower beds.
The Kremlin was not the contrast that I expected, for the word simply means “fortress” and once inside the walls, despite the number of tourists, it is a surprisingly tranquil space. Vladimir Putin’s office overlooks a garden square, there are three cathedrals where tsars have been crowned and entombed and, as a quick reminder that all was/is not peaceful, the world’s largest cannon.
On the tour we saw the glittering domes of churches and cathedrals, alongside the headquarters of the KGB, the offices of the Communist Party and elegant parks and squares. There was also a visit to the Metro stations, built with no expense spared and with sculptures which the West may class as brutalist but here in their right setting were entirely fitting.
Then we set sail down the Moscow canal, largely dug out by hand, for in the days of terror being banished to the Gulags meant it was not just Siberia that beckoned, but back-breaking work wherever it was decreed. So for us came canals, locks and a visit to the historic town of Uglich, where we abandoned the plush Viking coaches for a local bus down dirt roads to a rural home, where we were treated to great hospitality and homemade vodka.
In Yaroslavl we saw the perfect example of a Russian church, that of St Elijah the Prophet; tall and narrow, because services are standing room only. We visited the market hall where the local produce was abundant and of good quality, though there were few Russian customers. We were told that the sanctions against the country had resulted in a great emphasis on farming and this produce was the result. It was also pointed out that the teenagers sweeping the streets were doing their compulsory two weeks of holiday work.
This part of the voyage was the most tranquil and the most beautiful. We glided through the forests that line the banks of the rivers, calling at Kizhi and Mandrogy – one a heritage island, and one a recreation of life in the northern backwaters. Everywhere the embrace of capitalism was apparent, with stalls set up to sell the typical souvenirs, plus fox, wolf and mink hats, jackets and coats.Then at last we came to St Petersburg.
As with Red Square, nothing prepares you for the glories of this city. Looking out on to the water, there are palaces, cathedrals and museums and so much else to see. The Winter Palace is now the Hermitage museum with collections of Western art, and the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, is a sensory overload of glowing murals. Then, outside the city is the Summer, or Catherine, Palace, opulent in blue, white and gold, and in the grounds, an English garden, and the Cameron Gallery, built by a Scot.
In this city, with its “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” style, it is easier to understand the move to revolution 100 years ago. That was signaled by the guns of the battleship Aurora, which is now a museum, although we saw little sign of celebrations to mark the anniversary. But there is still much emphasis on the military and, at the St Peter and Paul fortress, we happened upon a passing out parade of army medical cadets, before visiting the small, plain side chapel where the last tsar’s family is interred.
We were well prepared by Viking everywhere we went, for on board there were lectures on Russian history and insights into the places we were to visit. We lived well and in great comfort on the ship, and had treats like a vodka evening, a tasting stall set up in the Yaroslav market, a ballet performance in St Petersburg, a folk music concert in Moscow and many choral performances.
Everywhere we saw facets of the old and new Russia – it’s revealing that the queues for Lenin’s tomb were about an hour long, while you had to wait up to 12 hours in a queue to see the relics of fourth century St Nicholas. But perhaps most revealing were the insights of the Russians we spoke to, and I quote: “The best apartment blocks were built in the Stalin era, they’re the ones everyone wants”; “We still have such reverence, deference, for the Tsars, it is ingrained”; “The name Vladimir means ruler of the world”; “We are free now, some would say too free, and it doesn’t do to ask too many questions”; “I am a child of the Soviet; it gave us good homes, education and healthcare” ; and “Ah, the KGB; Kind Good Beautiful people!”