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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.

The Moscow Canal was the first leg of our 1,321 km voyage along the Volga-Baltic Waterway to St. Petersburg. The route winds through a complex of interconnected lakes, rivers and artificial waterways, and passes through 17 locks with a combined rise of 160 metres. Shortly after pulling away from the dock in Moscow the Kirov nosed into the first of six successive locks that lowered her down to the Volga River about 100km upstream from the Uglich Power Station. Here the river is wide, dotted with low islands and flanked by brushy scrub forest. On the starboard side we pass the bell tower of a church. Rising enigmatically out of the Volga it is all that remains of the old town of Kalyasin — a reminder of the many villages that were destroyed by flooding during the Soviet era of industrial expansion.

The Kirov slips smoothly into the Uglich dock and we join Victoria for a walking tour of the town and a slice of Russian history. Although it dates back to the 900s Uglich is best known for its dubious relationship with Ivan the Terrible. As his favorite town Ivan chose Uglich’s walled kremlin as the place to dump his seventh and last wife into exile. After Ivan’s death in 1584 his youngest son and heir to the throne, Dmitry, was also banished to Uglich. Seven years later the 10-year old boy was found with his throat cut in the palace courtyard. The official verdict: “the boy must have fallen on his knife.” Victoria shrugs, “and that was the beginning of the ‘time of troubles,’” she explains, “the people refused to believe that Dmitry was dead and they supported several ‘false Dmitrys’, pretenders who led the country into chaos. It was a terrible time of killing and destruction.”

When the Romanov czars came to power in 1613 the young Dmitry was canonized and Uglich became a place of pilgrimage. The small but beautiful Church of St. Demetrios on the Blood was built on the spot where Dmitry was murdered. It’s one of several magnificent domed churches and cathedrals on and around the Uglich kremlin — each one a gem of Russian medieval architecture surrounded by gardens and mature forest. Before returning to our ship we spent several hours strolling through the grounds, visiting the temples and marveling at the ornate architecture.

Uglich was the first of several shore excursions during our 14 days aboard the Kirov and between trips ashore there was plenty to do on the ship. The food was superb — five-course meals served by friendly young women in the ship’s spacious dining room. Lectures in the ship’s media room provided a surprisingly candid analysis of Russian history, from Peter the Great right through to Vladimir Putin. There is also a quiet library and, for those suffering from information overload, the two bars are well stocked with beer and vodka. But, because we are usually close to shore, I never tire of just watching the passing scene from the observation deck. People wave as we slide past their tiny fishing villages. A southbound freighter acknowledges us with a toot of its horn and then everything is again quiet. The utterly flat forest-covered land seems to go on forever without any sign of human habitation and then, suddenly, there is another village.

A half-day cruise beyond Uglich the Volga swings east and churns through the Rybinsk power station. We pass a statue of Lady Volga and continue north through a series of reservoirs on the Kovzha and Sheksna rivers that lead into Lake Onega and on to Lake Ladoga, the largest body of fresh water in Europe. Watching the shoreline disappear over the horizon I try to imagine how it was for the people of St. Petersburg during the WW2 blockade of their city, when the “road of life” across frozen Lake Ladoga was their only lifeline for provisions and medical aid. The 900-day siege of Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was called back in 1941, is a harrowing saga of starvation and disease that claimed the lives of at least a million people — more than the combined war losses of the U.S.A. and U.K. But no amount of reading had prepared me for the sense of isolation the people of Leningrad must have felt. Lake Ladoga and the vast empty land surrounding it are far larger and more remote than I ever imagined.

From Lake Ladoga a short cruise down the Neva River takes us through the industrial outskirts of St. Petersburg and on to the River Passenger Terminal on the southern outskirts of the city. Bus number 22 is waiting on the wharf and Victoria is ready to show us around her hometown. But that’s another story and another slice of Russian history.

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