A River Cruise Through Russia

Daily Mail     September 2009

The last time I travelled between Moscow and St Petersburg was by rail in 1985, when conditions were so appalling even for foreigners that I was put in mind of the Victorian heiress, Mrs Burdett-Coutts, who died rather than use the lavatories on a continental train.

Since the collapse of Communism, there has been a new, more leisurely and far more congenial way to make the journey, down the River Volga, along the intricate network of Soviet-era canals, across Lakes Ladoga and Onega, the two largest lakes in Europe, and on to the River Neva. What was previously a penance has become a delight.

From the Vikings and the Mongols to the Poles and the Nazis, foreign invaders have always used Russian waterways. Our more benign incursion was one of nearly 600 such boat-trips during the summer. I sailed with Noble Caledonia, the doyen of European river cruises, on the MS Yesenin, named after the great Russian poet who married Isadora Duncan.

Converted from a ship that formerly carried favoured party officials and trade unionists, the Yesenin offers few of the luxuries available on more conventional cruises. My cabin was spacious and comfortable (although I dread to think how it would have housed the family of four for whom it was originally designed) and the public rooms were bright and friendly. The attractions of the voyage, however, lay in what was outside the windows.

We were excellently looked after by an on-board crew who genuinely saw themselves as ambassadors for the new Russia. Our cruise director, Leonid, a man with the lugubrious look and laconic manner of the late Clement Freud, led a team of young guides who were as happy to talk about life in the post-Soviet state as they were to identify a landmark or to reassure one of the more demanding passengers that the water in a restaurant was fit to drink.

The tour agent, Elena, epitomised the resilience of the people. Born into a white Russian family in the 1930s, she had endured both the privations of the Second World War and the injustice of the Soviet system and yet displayed an indomitable and inspirational zest for life. Equally impressive was the on-board lecturer, Ludmilla, who gave a series of talks on Russian history from Catherine the Great to Putin, none more pertinent – or more poignant – than when she recounted the siege of Leningrad as we sailed down the River Svir, which had once been the Nazi frontline.

The thirteen-day trip can be made in either direction. Indeed, Leonid’s parting quip was to invite us to return and ‘see the other riverbank’. Travelling from Moscow to St Petersburg, however, makes sense not only historically, since you move from the 850 year old ‘city of churches’ to the 300 year old ‘city of palaces’, but also geographically for those of us returning west. Moreover, the scenery in the final stages is more striking.

Our two days in Moscow were culture-packed, with visits to the Kremlin, which, to the surprise of some members of the group, is not just the grim fortress familiar from 70s and 80s news bulletins but a vast complex of cathedrals, palaces and towers, crowned by the Armoury, a treasure-trove of icons, jewellery, porcelain, carriages and, of course, Faberge eggs.

Unlike many Russian cities and monuments, Red Square has not been renamed, since ‘Red’ refers not to its politics but to the colour of its brickwork and its beauty. It has, however, been greatly transformed. GUM, the former State Universal Store that occupies much of one side, has become a shopping mall far too pricey for the average Muscovite, who could once find nothing to buy and now finds nothing he can afford.

A far happier transformation can be seen in the rebuilding of the church of Our Lady of Kazan at the northeast of the Square, which Stalin had ordered to be bulldozed to facilitate military parades. This, along with the rebuilding of the enormous Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on the Moscow river, which was blown up in order to construct a Palace of Congresses, is the most tangible evidence of the deep-rooted spiritual revival that has followed the Soviet collapse.

After the excitement of Moscow, we began our gentle six day cruise down nearly 2000 kilometres of waterways to St Petersburg. Our first stop was the small town of Uglich, the setting for one of the country’s most notorious crimes when the Tsarevich Dmitri was murdered, ostensibly on the orders of Boris Godunov (a tale well-known from Mussorgsky’s opera). It boasts a more historic kremlin than Moscow and an exquisitely decorated cathedral dedicated to Dmitri. Nevertheless its sleepy provincialism makes it exactly the sort of town from which Chekhov’s three sisters were so desperate to escape.

Over the next few days we stopped at Yaroslavl, an elegant eighteenth century town filled with magnificent churches, where the guide indicating a statue of Lenin with his arm outstretched, insisted that ‘he is pointing to our past, not to our future’; at Goritsy, a near-mediaeval village without running water or electricity, where women still wash their laundry in the lake, cracking holes in the ice in the winter; at the ancient Kirillo-Belozersky monastery, the largest in Russia; and, most spectacularly, at Kizhi island, a world heritage site with a magnificent 22 domed wooden church built without a single nail in 1714.

Finally, we arrived at St Petersburg, arguably the world’s most beautiful eighteenth century city. Much of both the city itself and the two great summer palaces, Peter the Great’s at Peterhof and Catherine the Great’s at Pushkin, were destroyed by the Nazis, but even in Soviet times vast resources were poured into their restoration, indicative of a deep nostalgia for the world that the Revolution (now officially designated as a ‘coup’) had swept away.

In St Petersburg we toured the city by coach and canal boat (it is built on 42 islands), visiting cathedrals and museums, the Saints Peter and Paul fortress, and, of course, the Hermitage, with its 3,000,000 artworks amassed by the Tsars. As I hurried past innumerable masterpieces in order to reach favourite painters (in this case, Rembrandt, Casper David Friedrich, and Cranach) I took comfort from the fact that the museum’s director himself recently admitted that he has yet to visit all of its 1000 rooms.

St Petersburg was the ideal place to end a tour which had been packed with cultural and architectural delights. But, for all the riches of the two great cities and the fascination of the barely known hinterland, the highlight of the trip for me was simply to sit on deck and gaze through the glorious scenery through which we passed: the forests of spruces, pines, aspens and silver birches, with the occasional glimpse of an onion-domed church through the branches; the network of locks, dams and reservoirs, with the occasional spire or bell-tower breaking through the water, bearing witness to the flooded villages beneath.

There can be no more pleasant or fulfilling way to combine exploring a country, seeing art, and ‘messing about on the river’.