CRUISES: Into the Heart of Russia on the Volga of the Vikings
The Vikings sailed the waters between the Baltic and the ancient city of Bagdad 1000 years ago. This trade area became north east Europe’s most advanced economic and cultural center and the small towns and churches running across Russia’s northern principalities prospered so much they were called “The Golden Ring.”
Like the ancient walled towns on Bavaria’s Romantic Road and the fortified medieval towns stretching across Transylvania, the Golden Ring towns all have their differing personalities. For visitors there are several problems, the greatest being they are relatively inaccessible except by river. And Russia is the largest country in the world. It stretches across nine time zones from St. Petersburg in the West to Kamchatka in the far east just above Japan -- eleven zones if you include Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic. Russia is so wide a train journey across its expanse would take eight days and nights of continued travel.
The answer might be to focus on a smaller area and do like the Vikings: take to the rivers. The territory book-ended by Moscow and St. Petersburg is a fascinating countryside of pine and spruce forests, rolling farmlands, and towns from the Middle Ages. This is European Russia, the closest part of the country to the West and this is a land that surely lived its history! A land of Tartars, Bulgars, Mongols and Cossacks; a land occupied by the Golden Horde of Genghis Khan for 200 years; a land pulled up by its bootstraps by Peter the Great and almost impoverished by Catherine the Great and her glorious excesses that gave us the Hermitage; and a land almost destroyed by Lenin and Stalin with political theories that defied reality even common sense.
There’s a lot to see on the Volga, the longest river in Europe. Many river boat companies have discovered this river for tourists. We went with Viking River Cruises, the largest river cruise company in the world. It owns its own boats in contrast to some companies who simply lease their boats from local companies. They have maximized the Russian experience for Americans: grabbing up the guides who speak the best English, arranging superior coaches for the land travel and apparently even finding the best chefs for American palates. Whatever, they sure have a high repeat rate on their cruises. Many included shore excursions took us to the most interesting places and their guides provided fascinating insider lectures on Russia’s political adventures.
The Volga and the canals and wooded waterways that connect the rivers and lakes were our highway for a week. It was a fascinating part of the country – and a busy one. Forty five percent of Russia is forested but the Volga basin yields one quarter of all agricultural products and one fifth of all fish caught in the country and moves two thirds of all overland cargo freight. Despite those statistics the land surrounding our exploration seemed strangely serene and the pace of river transport actually languid.
We slid along the Mother Volga past rolling fields as green as any in Ireland’s Emerald Isle. We soon knew why; it was summer but even then we saw our share of rain showers and sullen skies most days. We slipped past onion-domed churches scattered around the countryside as plentifully as red-painted barns grace New England. We waved to families laying out tents on low escarpments above the river. We eased past humble homes next to tall walls of pine standing like sentries around expensive mansions and sprawling estates -- and we recalled that Russia always was a country that was particularly ill divided when it came to individual personal wealth.
We rose and fell on the locks of the canals and at other times sailed on lakes so vast we could be at sea seeking the New World. Barges bustled by laden with sand and bricks. Tiny aluminum rowing boats and inflatable dinghies as small as Irish coracles drifted by, their occupants pulling on fishing lines and contentedly counting their catch.
This was going into the heart of a land to see how its people lived. This had all the interesting, changing viewpoints of the coach tours that gave travelers the almost-Grand Tour of Europe in the last part of the 20th century without the tedium of disembarking from a bus every night. Viking River Cruises could be the way to see a country. And Viking sure showed us the country’s churches.
This small town of about 40,000 on the Volga has records going back to 1148 but it figured more prominently in Russian history when Ivan the Terrible banished his seventh wife, Maria Nagaya, there with their son Dmitri. When the nine year-old boy was murdered in 1591 a church was built over the location and replaced in 1692 by a more elaborate red and white stone structure, the Church of St. Demetrius-of-the-Blood. The 15th Century palace still stands and is now a simple museum where a small choir often enchants visitors with a musical performance. The enclave of the yellow painted Monastery of the Resurrection lies next door. We walked past street entertainers and past little old ladies selling wilted flowers to a street where church after church lay in varying degrees of decay and attempted restoration. Uglich has other attractions that could conceivably attract some visitors such as the Library of Russian Vodka and the Museum of Prison Art. We found out a bit late (after leaving this small town) that the largest display of inexpensive souvenirs we might ever want to buy was along the gauntlet of stalls that ran from the dock at Uglich to where buses took passengers into town. There was plenty of time on our return to poke about the stalls, talk in sign language with the locals and, of course, haggle over prices. We got by a lot with our only Russian, the phrase that sounded phonetically a bit like spaseeba, the words for thank you.
Yarislavl was once the second largest city in Russia. It still has a population of more than 600,000 but the famous merchants once wealthy from the fur and gold trade no longer seem relevant. Their largesse helped develop the city once it was founded by Prince Yarislavl who, famously, killed a bear on this spot in 1010. The city was built at the confluence of two rivers, the Volga and the Kotorosl to become the Volga’s first port.
We were taken by bus from the port to the town center; we entered near the 17th century White Tower, passing a more recent edifice, an imposing statue of Lenin that dominated Volkov Square. Lenin is pointing dramatically into the distance. His followers said he was showing the way to the Federation’s future. Cynics said he was pointing in the direction of the local prison.
“At one time Yarislavl had 200 churches; now it has only 50,” says a guide declining to comment on a passenger’s remark that surely 50 was more than plenty. We got to see the two most significant. The red-brick 1684 Church of the Epiphany with its five blue onion domes stands near one square and the more dramatic 1647 white-stone Church of Elijah the Prophet with its green domes and extraordinary frescoes dating to 1680 dominates the other.
In Yarislavl we examined expensive lacquered boxes made by generations of Guild-like artisans. The embellishments included colorful scenes from Russia’s history or from folk legends. For example, the village of Holui favored black boxes decorated with red landscapes; Palekh used gold leaf inserts and Fedoskino mother of pearl. The Viking guide who ran the gift shop on board gave passengers helpful advice as even the small boxes cost several hundred US dollars in Yarislavl.
Goritzy appeared on the horizon as a small, featureless settlement on Lake Siverskoye Pleshcheyevo. Its main interest to the passengers was the famous Kirillo-Belozersky monastery founded there in 1397. The entire medieval village is encompassed by the monastery’s fortified walls. Indeed at one time during the often-mentioned Polish and Lithuanian invasions the monastery was besieged for six years. Those were indeed turbulent times and the churches were not off limits to invaders – nor even to the country’s rulers. The revered Peter the Great once came to this monastery, the most famous and richest in Russia, for no reason but impound its church bells. He needed the metal to cast cannons for his war against the Swedes. He stayed only a few hours but his diligent subjects were thrilled enough by his visit to have his portrait placed on the monastery wall.
This community has grown to a population of about 8,000 souls, most now involved in tourism: the monastery gets 200,000 visitors a year. Many come by boat; there are more than 200 lakes in the area. They disembark and pass booths that sell vodka and fur coats, wood carvings and lace. The nuns who embroidered lace worked in such bad light and for so long they ended their lives blind. Visitors come also to buy the simple wine, Kvass, home-made from rye bread -- or to stroll through this vast retreat once favored by czars or royalty as just the place to incarcerate a wife if history or succession required the czar to remarry.
After the October revolution the monastery became a geriatric hospital and nursing home. A statue of Lenin graces the main street.
The Viking Lomonosov subsequently entered Lake Onega, Europe’s second largest lake. (The largest, Lake Ladoga -- at 7,000 square miles – came the next day.) Ahead lay a destination, an island so special its treasures have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Occupied by primitive peoples for 5000 years it has been called, rather fancifully, “the Stonehenge of Russia.”
Kizhi island is an open-air architectural museum displaying wooden churches that have been brought to this location from all over Russia. The catalyst for this was the creation in 1714 of the island’s Church of the Transfiguration, a wooden edifice with 22 onion domes built -- according to the legend -- by a single man with an ax and without a single nail. Our guide laughs at this, “And he did it in a single day, then he threw the ax into the lake so the magic could not be replicated!” Actually local carpenters were famous for their skills with wood. It took many hands and there are indeed some nails holding the curved silver-colored aspen shingles that were handmade to cover and waterproof the cupolas. At the time the church was built, 20 iron nails had a value of one cow which shows the wealth of this agricultural community in the 18th century. The rough-hewn 14th century Church of the Resurrection of the Lazarus, now brought to stand beside it, is thought to be the oldest church in Russia.
Those wooden churches are vulnerable to deterioration and since maintenance has been long deferred in this place of harsh winters the buildings are showing their age. Perhaps the new industry of tourism will be their salvation.
Our ship seemed to sense it was now downhill to St. Petersburg -- literally. In fact we had passed through about 18 locks and dropped nearly 600 feet on our 1800 km cruise from Moscow. And so the “Blue Route” along the Svir river and through Lake Ladoga brought our boat into the city Peter the Great created in a mere seven years to be his “window on the western world.”