Voyage of Rediscovery: Cruising from Moscow to St. Petersburg reveals the cultural riches of the world's largest nation, 2009
By By Jean Scheidnes: SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Americans know of Russians' fortitude and resilience. If we consider the centuries, the battles and the winters they've endured, it's hard not to feel intimidated. But Russians surely identify less with the vicissitudes of political history than with the unbroken lines of their cultural heritage. Likewise, Russia's Volga is the mightiest river in Europe, whose widening by Soviet engineers drowned forests and towns to smooth the path of industry. But cruising on the river today recasts the Volga basin as a cradle for Russia's artistic achievements, from the charming crafts to the immortal masterpieces.
My mother, a painter, chose our vacation destination primarily for its major art institutions. I signed on because I'd always been interested in the Soviet Union, which collapsed in my early teens as I was first becoming politically aware. That dated me one or two generations away from every other tourist in our group. Naturally, my older fellow Americans had more complicated feelings about the former empire, but their basic willingness to see it from the other side after so many decades of fear and enmity was inspiring. For them, the awesome surreality of being able to pose for pictures in the middle of Red Square or inside the Kremlin underscored the infinite political possibilities of this planet.
In years past, it was common for Volga cruisers to sleep onboard for the entire journey, even while docked in major cities. Today, tour companies such as Grand Circle Travel include hotel stays in Moscow and St. Petersburg, which bookend the cruise.
To begin, we flew to Moscow. Modern Moscow. Russia's capital is simply happening right now. The global commodities boom pumped tremendous wealth into the privatized Russian economy in the past decade — so much that last year Moscow ranked as the world's most expensive city, with 74 billionaires and a cost of living 42 percent higher than New York's, according to Forbes. The current economic malaise has erased many assets. But Moscow remains a vital capital reinventing itself, and the upside to the downturn is the increasing accessibility of the abundant cultural amenities.
Our first day, we toured the city by bus, with a long stop to take in Red Square. St. Basil's, the famous onion-domed cathedral, does not disappoint. The 200 years that St. Petersburg was Russia's capital put dramatic wrinkles in Moscow's environment. Buildings in Moscow seem to date from either before 1700 or after 1917. Fifteenth-century structures rub elbows with Soviet holdovers and ultramodern developments.
Moscow's premier art museums are the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and the State Tretyakov Gallery . At the Tretyakov, a treasury of Russian art spanning 10 centuries, I was surprised by how much Russian art has shared with French and Italian art, yet has never been as well appreciated.
Moscow also is ground zero for soaking up Soviet history. The Central Museum of Armed Forces is dedicated to World War II, which Russians call the Great Patriotic War because they fought for their own liberation — ferociously and at great cost. Almost 30 million Russians died before their compatriots victoriously raised a Soviet banner over the Reichstag in Berlin, a banner now hanging in the museum.
Americans can't get enough of World War II history, and my group enjoyed this new perspective. We had a Q&A session with four highly decorated Russian veterans, including a woman who volunteered for the army at age 16. About a million Russian women fought. They saw the same combat that men did, she said, before she implored all the women in the room to prevent future wars.
At last we entered the Kremlin, whose fortress walls enclose not just government buildings but also historic churches, monuments, parkland and museums. I could have spent hours gazing upon the imperial treasures at the Armory, especially the jewels and coronation gowns.
Cruising through the Golden Ring
After four days, we embarked on our river cruise. Our ship, the M/S Rossia, sailed through the locks of the Moscow Canal (which required a bigger dig than the Suez or Panama canals) and met the Volga the next morning. The talented crew provided constant edutainment, steeping us in Russian cultural topics. Alternatively, one could simply laze about. The Rossia was no luxury liner, but a quiet, open deck is luxury enough for me.
The area east and north of Moscow encompasses four ancient principalities that essentially gave birth to the Russian nation and, as a result, boasts many of the country's oldest and finest churches, monasteries, convents, kremlins (fortresses) and religious art. Moscow rose to prominence only after becoming the center of taxation for the Mongols, and before the Mongol invasion, these Golden Ring towns were Russia's imperial and clerical centers.
Russian Orthodox churches, with exquisite frescoes and icons, became part of our daily diet, and shore excursions exposed us to countless Russian crafts.
Everyone knows Russians are standard-bearers in the rigors of ballet, classical music, literature and architecture. But these are complemented by a wealth of exquisite regional crafts and folk arts. We all were enthusiastic about matryoshkas, the famous, wooden nesting dolls. But we soon clamored for the incredible things Russians make with linen, amber and birch bark. We coveted their blue-and-white Gzhel ceramics, floral printed Pavlovsky Posad shawls, Vologda lace, Lomonosov porcelain and Rostov enamel. We held finely inlaid metalware called niello , felted wool boots called valenki and hand-painted wooden tableware called khokhloma. We considered tea samovars, Easter eggs and lacquer boxes. One Floridian was determined to buy a balalaika, the stringed instrument played in "Dr. Zhivago." It was easily found. Families refined these crafts over centuries, and tourist dollars were clearly appreciated, especially in the smaller towns.
Our 1,000-mile cruise proceeded across Onega and Ladoga, the two biggest lakes in Europe. (Russia west of the Ural mountains might be considered part of Europe. East of the Urals is Siberia, in Asia.) The Volga is bordered mainly by flat, partially drowned forests that aren't terribly exciting. Photo opportunities, such as a flooded belfry, came no more than twice a day. My favorite shore excursion was Kizhi, an idyllic, picturesque little island contained within Lake Onega and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It served as a center for pre-Christian pagan rituals and eventually put up ornate wooden churches and other structures that are fantastically well-preserved.
Last, we went ashore in Svirstroy, which would have been a rather unremarkable village had we not visited homes there. In the Soviet days tourists had to stay on prescribed paths, and KGB officers ensured that they did. But locals, especially in these remote places, now thrill to the possibility of encountering foreigners on their own terms. So a dozen of us went to meet a retired couple who had a little cottage and a lovely garden. They served us pirozhkis (pastries) and tea from a samovar. Back onboard, our directors continued a wide-ranging discussion about modern Russian life with us. The ample insider perspective they offer is one of the best aspects of a comprehensive group tour.
After a week, we bade farewell to the crew and disembarked in St. Petersburg. I'd been told that everyone falls in love with this "Venice of the North," which Peter the Great commissioned to emulate Western European cities. Well, baroque architecture is nice enough, but if I'm in Russia, I'd rather see the art deco and neo-Gothic structures of Moscow, please and thank you. Regardless, I dutifully took in the Cathedral of the Resurrection, the Smolny Cathedral, St. Isaac's Cathedral and the Peter and Paul Fortress, where most of the tsars are entombed. I hopped a hydrofoil on the Gulf of Finland to the Peterhof palace, Peter the Great's "Versailles by the Sea" that engineers tricked out with gravity-powered fountains. Of all the European and Asian palaces I've seen, I've never seen anything more indulgent than the Peterhof. I could think only of the poor serfs who had to build this outrageous playground where the royals spent no more than two weeks per year. I began to feel that the Bolsheviks had a point.
Then I remembered that St. Petersburg, once known as Leningrad, suffered one of the longest and most destructive sieges of a major city in modern history during World War II. The Peterhof was among the countless landmarks demolished and painstakingly rebuilt. Though impressive, one effect of all this reconstruction was to suspend St. Petersburg in the past and invite the ghosts to linger forever. The city is a beautiful tragedy.
The next day my mother and I arrived at the singular goal of our entire trip, the Hermitage. This pre-eminent art museum, which rivals the Louvre in Paris, originated as an extension of the Winter Palace and a retreat for Catherine the Great, who collected so much art that further extensions, up to 400 galleries, were needed to display just a fraction of it. I tried to imagine it emptied of artwork, which was all hidden during World War II. But the Hermitage's ornate interior dazzles as much as what hangs in it. These aren't spare galleries for showcasing paintings, oh no. We drifted from one elaborate, palatial hall to another. I judged the Hermitage less harshly than the Peterhof because Catherine left such a great contribution to the humanities. I just had to warm up to these royals if I was going to enjoy their city.
Looking back on our day at the Hermitage, I couldn't help thinking that a Renoir in Russia looks the same as a Renoir anywhere, whereas I found the opportunity to discover Russian art uniquely stimulating. The tableaux of peasantry and aristocratic life brought to life all the history I'd absorbed over the previous two weeks.
Posted with the permission of the author.
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