A river and canal cruise on Russia's major waterway provides an oppportunity for cross-cultural exchange and to sample the country’s romantic and modern sides.
The canal, lake and river system that winds its way from Moscow to St Petersburg is one of the world’s great waterways. It is also one of the best ways to experience Russia’s cities and country towns, its landscape and forests — by taking a river cruise between the cities.
The voyage takes about 15 days, though at the start and finish your cruise ship becomes a floating hotel, moored along the river bank in Moscow and St Petersburg.
Moscow is our starting point, and our adventure starts with a transfer from a hotel to the river ship Scenic Tsar.
For the next 15 days, we get to know the ship, its passengers, the sights of Moscow, the country towns along the way and finally St Petersburg, by venturing out in coaches to the historic landmarks of these fabulous places, with their history of pre-revolutionary tsars, communism and the Soviet system, and their more recent emergence as capitalist economies complete with a booming tourism industry.
As one historian recently remarked, many Westerners view Russia with a blend of fascination and fear; the fascination the result of its tsarist history and the romance of its culture, and the fear of communism, the appalling tyranny of the Stalin regime and the uncertainties of its re-emergence as a controlled free-market economy.
A trip on its major waterway is one way to dispel any residual fears of Russian society.
The Russians who run our on-board activities and sightseeing are as friendly and open a bunch of people as you’re likely to meet. At night, as we cruise along the Volga, they organise question-and- answer sessions so we can quiz them about their lives. From their responses, we gather we’re all pretty much living in the same global village, with the same kind of family expectations, problems and financial difficulties.
Our cruise companions are mainly Australians, with a smattering of Americans, Canadians, English and Israelis.
There’s a total of 111 passengers in 56 cabins aboard board the 90m long ship with its three decks. It is not mega luxury but modern, well appointed and extremely comfortable and stable.
Our oldest passenger is 94-year-old Bill, a former judge travelling alone. Bill is unsteady on his feet and has two nasty falls in Moscow, necessitating a trip by ambulance to patch him up. But Bill is back on the boat by nightfall and he never misses a shore excursion. The only fatality is an American who has a heart attack in his cabin three nights before the end of the cruise. We observe a minute’s silence for him in the lounge the night after his death.
Our journey into the heart of Russia takes us firstly down the Moscow Canal, built by Stalin in the 1930s to link the Moscow River to the Volga, the first stage in a waterway between the capital and the Baltic Sea. In the canal we encounter the first of a series of locks that allows us to negotiate the shifting water levels along this famous waterway. In all, we will go up — or down — through 18 automated locks, each taking about 20 minutes to negotiate.
It’s a seamless process and quite an engineering marvel.
Our voyage takes us through these defined, narrow waterways and into the open water of lakes Onega and Lagoda on our way to the Baltic Sea.
On the way are such ancient towns as Uglich, Yaroslavl, Goritsky, Kizhi Island and Mandrogi. We visit their churches, monasteries and monuments, led by a guide from the local town. Most of the time the tourist sites are within walking distance of the cruise ship’s mooring, but sometimes we are bussed to sites such as the nunnery at Goritsky and the ancient sites of Yaroslavl.
These visits are a glimpse of Mother Russia, the time when the Orthodox religion flourished before the revolution, and not the time of Stalin, who banned the practice of religion and allowed the churches and monasteries to decay or turned them into storehouses or even sports stadiums. Orthodoxy is back, if only as a tourist attraction. And Stalinism is never mentioned by the guides.
We figure Russians want it that way: they don’t want to be reminded of past tragedies when inviting tourists to consider future possibilities.