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Travel: Moscow to St. Petersburg by boat

A cruise through the heartland of European Russia

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Twenty-one hours and 40 minutes after lifting off from Vancouver’s YVR we rolled onto the wharf of Moscow’s Northern River Station and were welcomed aboard the Sergei Kirov. After 14 bum-numbing hours wedged into the economy class of a Luftansa Airbus, an interminable delay in the catacombs of Frankfurt’s sprawling airport, and a two-hour bus ride to the dock in Moscow, the bunks in our tiny stateroom were a welcome sight — but first, the mandatory ship’s briefing. I think it included a shot of vodka but about all I remember is Victoria’s concluding remark “the life of a tourist is not easy.”

For the next two weeks the Kirov would be our floating base and Victoria, a “happily divorced” resident of St. Petersburg would keep tabs on the 30 of us assigned to bus 22. The 423-foot Kirov is one of several multi-decked riverboats that ply the tourist route between Moscow and St. Petersburg and stop at several points along the way for bus or walking excursions ashore. Our stateroom, not much bigger than a walk-in closet, is a masterpiece of miniaturization, complete with two bunks, a clothes cupboard, bathroom and shower, plus a large window to the outside. We shared the ship with about 170 other passengers — an eclectic mix of people, young and old, from around the world. And, regardless of what language they spoke Victoria seemed able to communicate with them. Like the other guides aboard the ship she is both multi-lingual and passionate about the history and culture of her country. At times the Kirov seemed as much a time capsule as a ship, transporting us across the vast heartland of European Russia and through the heroic sweep of her history.

The idea of building a waterway linking the Volga River to the Baltic Sea goes back to the time of Peter the Great. The digging began in 1709, six years after he founded the new city of St Petersburg, but it would be another 200 years before the first ship made it from the Gulf of Finland to Moscow. And it was Joseph Stalin, long after the last of the czars had been laid to rest, who masterminded the final link between Moscow and the Volga-Baltic Waterway. In the early 1930s he decreed the building of the Moscow Canal, a 121 km waterway between the city and the Volga River. The project, which included the construction of multiple dams, locks, bridges, and hydroelectric power stations, is a feat of engineering that rivals the building of the Panama Canal, but under Stalin’s iron-fisted control it was completed in a mere five years. When the canal opened in 1937 Moscow became an international port connected to all five of Russia’s Seas and the oceans of the world.

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