Svetlana, one of the lovely staffmembers onboard Viking River Cruises' Russian riverboat.
Real Russia River Cruising
It is too bad that every time a tour boat of any kind sinks it is referred to as a cruise ship. Even the Bulgaria, a tiny 56-year old Russian cargo boat repurposed as a tour boat in 1980 was referred to as a cruise ship in headlines last week. The boat sold five-day cruises to locals in a region of Russia rarely seen by foreigners for about $100 per berth.
This was not a cruise ship, it was a boat made to accommodate about 100 passengers but carrying as many as 205 the day it sank. The owner, a Russian citizen who lives in Canada, had chartered it to a non-travel company who did not know how to operate it safely.
The boat had lost one of two engines during the cruise, causing it to list to one side. In a 10 mile wide stretch of the Volga a windstorm whipped up waves that were tall enough to breach the low leaning side making the list even worse. Within three minutes the boat flipped to the side, quickly filled with water and sank to the bottom of the river, about 60 feet below.
People in the tiny, lower deck economy cabins and a large group of children in a special playroom on a lower deck were trapped. Sadly, an estimated 126 people drowned. The captain went down with the boat.
Not What I Would Call a Cruise Ship, or a Riverboat
It is important to draw the distinction between a boat like the Bulgaria and the professional U.S. and European-based river cruise operators like Viking River Cruises, Uniworld and AMA Waterways. These companies have been in business for decades with exemplary safety records. They also offer river cruises on the Rhine, Rhone, Danube, Seine and other major European waterways with fleets of beautiful, state-of-the art river boats.
I sailed with Viking River Cruises from Moscow to St. Petersburg a few years ago - one of the most rewarding and memorable travel experiences ever. Because of this trip I understand the culture that allowed such the Bulgaria tragedy to happen. The Russian lecturer aboard my 10-day Viking River Russian cruise was a professor of economics at a Moscow university. We learned how the Soviet system failed and why Russia continues to struggle.
The Russians are a fascinating, intelligent and fiercely independent people who have never had a capable government. They went directly from imperial Tsarism to Communism. The collapse of the Soviet empire also obliterated their entire economy. The world's largest bureaucracy was replaced by what is called a democracy, but it is really an oligarchy of opportunists who now run the former government industries merely because they claimed ownership and there was no one to deny them.
Today's Russian government teeters precariously on the rubble of the Soviet system. Many former government bureaucrats are now in business for themselves, mostly working as middlemen who get government certifications rubber stamped for small companies like the operators of the Bulgaria for the right price.
Russia is not a modern nation with glass skyscrapers and super highways. The rural areas beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg are stuck in the 1960s. Most people still live in one-room homes in tiny villages with gardens and livestock to feed their families. City dwellers populate precarious cracker-box buildings called "Khrushchevs" that are 10 to 20 stories tall and made of wood covered in stucco, patched with plywood and aluminum siding. Built in the 1960s as temporary housing they are still the predominate domicile.
The two largest cities, Moscow and St Petersburg, do not even have a connecting highway - only back roads - and the system of navigable waterways. This six-day route is the real Russian river cruise for visitors. It sails north from Moscow through the Moscow Canal to the upper Volga (far from where the Bulgaria accident occurred). The route quickly switches over to the Stalin Canal, one of the deepest and widest manmade canals in the world and ends in St. Petersburg. You also get two or three days in both major cities at each end of the cruise.
Most of the mighty Volga, south of Moscow, is in the Russia that few outsiders see. Even as the largest river in Europe, it spawned 11 of the 20 largest cities in Russia, I doubt that you have heard of Uglich, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Nizhny Novgorod, Cheboksary, Kazan (where the Bulgaria was headed when it sank), Samara, Saratov or Astrakhan. You may have heard of Volgograd under its former name, Stalingrad.
Typical of Russian luck, even with the largest river in Europe the Russian heartland still remains virtually landlocked. The Volga dead-ends into the isolated Caspian Sea, sometimes called the largest lake in the world. The only good thing about the Volga delta region is the caviar.
Please do not let this one incident deter you from a Russian river cruise operated by the companies I mentioned. For baby boomers like me who grew up in awe of the Soviet empire a Russian river cruise is one of the most intriguing cruises imaginable.
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