Cruising Russia's Rivers, Part 1

| March 13, 2003

Winston Churchill called Russia "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 60s still recall visions of Mother Russia as a growling bear grasping nuclear warheads in her bared teeth. Of course, our vision of Russia today is vastly different, but the mystery remains.

My Russian river journey aboard Viking River Cruises' MS Pakhamov helped to unwrap that mystery for me. I spent 13 days immersed in the Russian climate and culture, seeing historical sites as well as the daily lives of the Russian people. Viking River Cruises' shipboard staff makes the trip a learning experience, since it includes four English-speaking tour guides and a lecturer with a Ph.D. in history from the Russian State University for Humanities. It added up to one of my most memorable and educational voyages ever.

Moscow Canal-Volga River Choices

Several companies offer cruises along what is known as the Moscow Canal-Volga River route. Viking River stands out with a comprehensive package that includes tours, meals and even airfare for a reasonable price. And English is the ship's sole language for lectures, tours and services.

The cruises operate between Moscow and St. Petersburg, and the ship remains anchored in both cities from two to four days, depending on which itinerary you choose (10, 11 or 12-day). The trip between the two cities takes a standard five days, so the length of the package will determine how long you stay in these major cities (the number of days includes transportation days from the U.S. to Russia). The cruise between Moscow and St. Petersburg is interesting and idyllic, but the city experiences are the highlights of the trip. I recommend taking the 12-day trip, or your time in Moscow and St. Petersburg will be compacted to the point of frustration.

standard cabin
Ships plying the Russian routes are generally older and larger than typical European river cruisers. Our vessel included four decks (with crew quarters) and accommodations ranging from 90 sq. ft. cabins to suites with a separate living room (with fold-out bed) and bathtub.

I heard rumors of remarkable last-minute discounts on the 90 sq. ft. cabins, probably because the ship has an overabundance of them. They are really too small, with barely enough room for two cot-like beds and a bathroom where the shower sprays over the toilet. A better choice is the 200 sq. ft. mini-suite with a double bed and standard shipboard bathroom. Viking River's Russian cruises are pre-sold to various tour operators, and "Viking River Cruises" in the United States is just one of them. Cabins are pre-assigned to these operators, and if Viking River in the U.S. tells you a cruise is sold out, you might still get a cabin through a British company like New Caledonia Tours.

All cabins include a refrigerator, and the wisest folks stock them with snacks and water (drinking shipboard tap water is nyet; large bottles are available onboard for $2.00). The ship does not offer room service or any food at all between meals, except for candy and sandwiches on sale during bar hours. The meals are exceptionally good, prepared by an Austrian chef, although the only choice on the menu is between a meat or fish entrée.

Communication with the outside world is practically non-existent; there are no TVs or telephones in any cabins. If you need to phone the outside world during the river voyage between the major cities, you probably won't get a cellular signal. You are effectively cut off for five days. Russia's infrastructure is remarkably limited outside the major cities.

Our trip began in Moscow and ended in St. Petersburg.

Moscow Our passenger load consisted of four groups: two British, one Canadian and the "independents" -- mostly Americans who booked on their own. Each of us was assigned an English-speaking Russian tour guide who stayed with us the entire voyage, including mealtimes and even on the bus to the airport at departure time (mine left at 4:15 a.m.).

The ship's dock is a 40-minute bus ride northwest of downtown Moscow at the Volga-Moscow River junction. Taxis are available for the independent-minded ($25 from dockside, $15 from the main road), but since our schedule was chock-a-block full of tours from Viking River -- which are included in the trip price -- no one bothered with a cab.

The first tour took us to the Kremlin. On the way is Russia's first McDonalds, in Pushkin Square. Our guide said she waited 3 1/2 hours for her first Big Mac the day it opened. Then the tour passes the Bolshoi Theater and the KGB Building.

The first thing that struck me about Russia is the dilapidation of buildings, both public and private. During the Communist era, housing was free, and the state still owns nearly all the land. There are two styles of Russian apartment buildings -- the "Stalins," and the Kruschevs." The former are sturdily built stone structures with elaborate ornamentation, but there weren't enough of them to house all the people when Kruschev mandated every citizen should have free housing. So in the 1960s, Russia started a large-scale campaign to quickly build more housing. These ramshackle, multi-story boxes were designed to last only 10 years in the bitter Russian climate. Kruschev believed Communism would succeed brilliantly enough that new housing would replace them before they deteriorated, but 40 years later they are still the predominant form of housing.

The Kremlin Armory contains relics of Russia's imperial history. Look for Peter the Great's jackboots (he was 6'6") and the sable coronation gown of Catherine II, who had her lower ribs removed to shrink her waistline. There are gilded coaches, jeweled crowns and Faberge eggs. A porcelain serving set of hundreds of pieces was a gift to the monarchy from Josephine, wife of Napoleon, five years before his army sacked Moscow.

The Kremlin no longer contains the government buildings; they are in nearby Red Square, but it does have three Russian Orthodox churches with magnificent golden onion domes, as well as the world's largest cannon (built in 1586) and the world's largest bell. It cracked before it could be lifted into place and so remains on the ground in two pieces.

After this tour, the schedule calls for a return to the ship for lunch. After lunch, we covered the same route back into the city to visit the Tretyakov Art Gallery. This is a 45-minute trip each direction, taking 2 1/2 hours away from our sightseeing in Moscow. Had I known the gallery was 10 minutes from the Kremlin by cab, I would have opted for free time in downtown Moscow and met the group after lunch.

The Tretyakov Gallery contains an impressive array of Orthodox icons and other notable Russian artwork, but since the Hermitage awaited in St. Petersburg,
Peter Statue
I chose to see more of what interests me personally, Russia's 20th Century history.

A brisk walk from the museum is Statue Park, which is popular with locals, especially young lovers. The Russian people's emergence from a Communist regime to an open society is fascinating, and Statue Park contains some of telling examples of how they feel about the experience.

Among the abstract and experimental modern pieces are monolithic statues of the former Communist leaders created in their heyday. Today they are mutilated and soiled. A statue of Stalin originally meant to capture his stoic determination has had an added element today: hundreds of desperate stone faces trapped behind a wire fence.
Stalin in Ruins
stone faces
To find this park from the bus area, cross over the bridge to the Tretyakov Gallery, turn right and follow the river toward the statue of Peter the Great, which abuts the Red October Chocolate Factory. This 93-meter statue of Peter is worth the walk. It was originally created to represent Columbus, intended as a gift for the United States in the early 1900s, but no American city wanted it, so the face was changed to Peter's and it was erected in Moscow.

Our evening's entertainment was the famous Moscow Circus - one of my most memorable experiences ever. Can a bear drive a car? Can two people catapult a man 40 feet into the air and have him land upright - on 10-foot stilts?

St. Basil

Day Two in Moscow began with a visit to Red Square. The sights here include St. Basil's Church with its famous onion domes; the former GUM department store, now little more than an upscale shopping mall; the offices of Premier Vladimir Putin; and the infamous Lenin's Tomb.

We spent the balance of our day aboard the bus touring more city sites, including Moscow University and some of the newer residential areas. In all, Moscow is a fascinating city full of history. Our guides pointed out the location of several seminal events related to the "Great War" (WWII) and the fall of Communism. Our time in Moscow was too short, and I heartily recommend the cruises that offer three full days there. Read the brochure carefully to determine your itinerary.

To be continued...

Go to Part 2

See more pictures of Statue Park and Red Square here:/gallery/view.php?id=631

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