Cruisemates Ports of Call 4

| Wednesday, 05 Mar. 2003

There are some cruises you take to forget your daily life, and others you take to enrich your life and learn. I have been on several cruises that explore regions of historical significance, but few that offer the ability to see history unfolding.

The river trip between the major urban centers is where passengers begin to get a true feel for the Russian culture and people. And Viking River's onboard enrichment series one of the best I have ever experienced on a cruise. Besides the four English-speaking tour guides, our cruise featured an onboard lecturer, Maria Gordeeva, who holds a Ph.D. in History from the Russian State University for Humanities. She presented five lectures on board, covering Russian history, the economy, and three rulers -- Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin.

Russian Staff
Maria's fully attended lectures were quite candid about politics and the nature of the Russian people, especially her stories about Russia's Communist years and the transition to a free economy. During Maria's lectures, the Russian enigma unravels, and one begins to understand the nation's psyche and how it led to the events that changed history. One story sums up the dichotomy between how we perceived Russia during the Cold War and the reality of what was happening there. Catherine the Great had trysts with several men whom she rewarded with well-paid appointments. Her favorite, Potamkin, was assigned to bring European culture to the feudal areas south of Moscow. When Catherine checked his progress in a surprise visit, Potamkin erected false facades of villages for the queen's viewing, tore them down when she left, and re-erected them in a new location to meet her coach the next day. The ruse is known as "Potamkin's Village," and it is a perfect metaphor for the American perception of 20th Century Russia.

Sailing north out of Moscow, the first stop on the cruise is Uglich, site of the Church of St. Dimitry of the Blood, built on the site where the nine-year-old son of Ivan the Terrible was found slain. The town itself is unremarkable, but visitors can find good prices on souvenirs. There is also an Internet cafe.

The next day features Yaroslavl, the largest Russian city between Moscow and Archangel. St. Yaroslavl, who killed the sacred bear worshipped by the local pagans, founded it in 1010. The local theater was the first (1985) to produce "Jesus Christ, Superstar," which was considered extraordinary during the Communist era. Inside is a puppetry museum and our first chance to buy good quality souvenirs. It is important to watch out for cheap imitations and shoddy workmanship in Russian crafts. Highly popular are hand-painted lacquered boxes, but there are many clever fakes with decorations printed on the box. The only solution is to buy from a reputable place and look for detail and sharpness of color.

Elijah the Prophet
The interior of the Church of Elijah the Prophet is decorated (see photos) with some of the oldest frescoes in Russia. The church's history is a telling tale about religion before, during and after the Communist era. During Stalin's rule, the church was slated for destruction, to be replaced with a "People's Cultural Center." Local officials managed to stop the destruction, but the church was re-designated as a warehouse for Russian felt boots until 1991. During the August 1991 Communist attempt to re-take the government, the only thing the citizens of Yaroslavl knew was that state-run TV showed nothing but the Bolshoi Ballet for 48 hours. But city officials who telephoned Moscow acquaintances learned Yeltsin had gone to the "White House" and persuaded the tanks to stand down. Then they went directly to the church and handed the keys back over to the clergy.

Our tour of Yaroslavl included a folkloric show and a visit to the local market. Here one realizes how poor the Russian people really are. Produce is scarce and comes from private gardens. Electronic goods are not available. Clothing is cheaply made and styles are years out of date. One thing is plentiful, however: liquor stores offering Russian vodka.

Meat Market
The next scheduled stop along the way is Kizhi, an island refuge in the middle of Lake Onega, which features extraordinary examples of Russian wooden architecture. Unfortunately, we missed Kizhi since our September itinerary was late in the season at this latitude (equal to Alaska), and fog prevented all river traffic from moving at night, so we had to make up lost time during the day.

See more pictures of Yaroslavl here: /gallery/view.php?id=632

St. Petersburg

Viking River's three full days in St. Petersburg offers passengers an opportunity to really get to know the city. If you have never been there, you will want to take all of the tours offered; and if you have visited before on a Baltic cruise, you will relish the opportunity to explore the city on your own.

Day one includes a visit to the Peter and Paul Fortress, with the graves of the murdered Romanovs, Peter the Great, Catherine II and the balance of Russian nobility. A visit to the Hermitage Museum follows. The guided tour (highly recommended) lasts about three hours and covers everything, though somewhat briefly. Avoid the temptation to leave the group, or risk getting lost in the labyrinth and missing some of the most important pieces.

An optional tour to Catherine the Great's Pushkin Palace is offered on day two. This is worth a visit if you haven't seen it before, but a day exploring on your own is also an option. I chose to take the subway across the Neva River to the university district. My first stop was the Museum of Russian Political History, which is in the former home of Prima Ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya, a lover of Czar Nicholas II. The building became Lenin's Bolshevik headquarters after the dancer fled to America, and his office is intact. His desk faces the balcony from which he rallied the Russian revolutionary troops. One room, dedicated to U.S.-Soviet relations, contains historical documents signed by Stalin, Roosevelt, Kruschev, Gorbachev and Bush. One exhibit is dedicated to pro-Soviet sentiment in the U.S. during the height of Cold War.

Lenin's Office
The apartment of Kirov, the first Soviet mayor of St. Petersburg and the first victim of Stalin's political purges, is a beautifully maintained example of Stalin-era architecture and furnishing. The 12-room luxury apartment is in nearly the same condition as the day he was shot. Kirov's jacket and hat, complete with bullet hole, are on display. Admission is fifteen cents.

Both of these museums were so uncrowded that the staff literally turned on the lights for me. Also nearby are the first log cabin of Peter the Great, with original furniture; the battleship cruiser Aurora, whose cannon signaled the Bolshevik revolutionaries to storm the Winter Palace; and the Russian Military Museum, where one can sit on Soviet artillery once used against the advancing German army.

The third day begins with a trip to Peterhof, the palace occupied by Nicholas II before the entire Romanov family was exiled and eventually murdered. The stunning gardens and beautifully renovated palace were dangerously close the German front during the Great War and were only saved by carrying them away piece by piece and then rebuilding them in the last few decades.
Swan Lake

The evening's entertainment was a visit to the Mussorgsky Opera and Ballet Theater for Swan Lake. This beautiful and intimate venue was only outdone by the skill of the 40-plus dancers accompanied by a live orchestra. This is flawless ballet at its finest, performed by the most dedicated dancers in the world.

See more pictures of St. Petersburg here: /gallery/view.php?id=636

Returning Home

The onboard tour guides who had been with us the entire trip were even on the buses that took us to the St. Petersburg airport, even though they departed at 4:30 a.m.

All in all, a Russian river cruise is a one of the most fulfilling experiences I can imagine. One could skip the small river ports and spend more time in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where shipboard accommodations are a good deal. In both cities, hotels and transportation are unreliable and expensive (a cocktail at the Grand European Hotel in St. Petersburg is $12). The quality of food in restaurants is questionable, the water is undrinkable, and there is very little signage in English. The benefits of using a river boat as your floating home away from home are obvious.

See pictures of the Viking River vessel here: /gallery/view.php?id=635

Return to Part 1

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