“Moscow is not true Russia, nor is Petersburg,” my friend Sergei had warned. Where, then, is the real Russia? “In between, of course!”
It is a dauntingly sizeable in-between: almost 400 miles as the Aeroflot flies, three-and-three-quarter hours on the new high-speed train – or a leisurely week’s voyage of 825 miles by riverboat. But what a voyage this is, first along the Neva – on my trip, still awash with ice-floes defying the spring sunshine bathing St Petersburg – and across misty, out-of-time lakes, to join the mighty Volga as it flows towards the capital.
I’m aboard the MS Volga Dream, one of the most luxurious river cruisers plying these waterways – though AmaWaterways’s redesigned MS AmaKatarina inaugurated its 2011 Volga voyages last month, and two more poskoshnyji recnoj kruz (super boats) are due to be launched later in the summer to meet a rising tide of interest in old Russia and its mysterious “Golden Ring”.
I had been reluctant to quit the Tsarist ambience of St Petersburg’s Hotel Astoria, with its views over St Isaac’s Square, proximity to the Hermitage, and population of well-appointed girls in fur, chatting over blinis with red caviar in the Rotonda Lounge. Having been restored by Rocco Forte Hotels, the magnificent art-nouveau Winter Garden (booked – prematurely – by Hitler to celebrate victory in his Russian campaign) once again glistens with candlelight. By comparison, a week in the cabin of a river cruiser seemed to promise little more than claustrophobia.
I need not have worried. The top-deck staterooms of the MS Volga Dream, which underwent a total refurbishment in 2005-2006, are delightfully spacious and suffused with light, their wide windows presenting a diorama of the riverscape, while the Owner’s Suite almost qualifies as palatial. The panelled cabins would surely have met with Mr Toad’s approval, with their nautical take on hotel bedroom layout, en-suite shower and wide picture windows. Oil paintings of St Petersburg decorate the gangways, inspired possibly by the Tsar’s imperial yacht, Standart. Service by the upper-deck crew is cheerful and multilingual: their Volga Espresso proves a powerful pick-me-up, the active ingredient being vodka.
The Volga Dream is small by riverboat standards, just 314ft long, with a maximum of 109 passengers and 60 crew, but no shortage of promenade decks and lounge space from which to survey the ever-changing landscape with cappuccino or cocktail in hand, and the occasional caviar tasting. The Russian and international menu, if not quite scaling the heights now considered mandatory aboard the very top-end seagoing cruise vessels, is nonetheless of good quality and well executed. Aft, a library offers computers with (intermittent) internet connection and a continuous view of the wake bubbling astern. With most of the officers, mess stewards and shore guides trilingual in English, German and Russian, language is rarely a problem for our complement of European and North American passengers.
As we cast off on our voyage southward, to explore the Golden Ring of Russia’s first city-states, the view of palaces and fortresses surrenders to inland seas; the open sky illuminates the white nights of a St Petersburg summer. Gradually, waterborne traffic dwindles as we enter a sequence of lakes, home to the famed Baltic sturgeon. Such is the size of Lake Ladoga – at around 7,000sq miles, the largest in Europe – that the shores slip beneath the watery horizon, leaving the impression of open sea. I am lulled to sleep by the gentle motion of the waves.
By the morning, we are deep in a country of silent sylvan forest, inhabited almost exclusively by bear, wolf and wild boar, following the meandering Svir river. The ship ties up to replenish water at Mandrogi. Here, in a private conservation enterprise verging upon the eccentric, a village of wooden boyar houses has been rebuilt to serve as homes and workshops for a collective of artists and craftsmen. The dress code seems to consist strictly of embroidered smock, top boots and full beard. A moose farm produces meat and the milk that the peoples of northern Russia consider healing. Following a participatory visit to the vodka museum, some of our party have recourse to pony and trap – still the principal mode of transport here – for the return to the vessel.
As our ship sails southward, the talk is all of the Golden Ring – the 12 legendary cities in which the Russia of the Tsars was forged. Solzhenitsyn spoke of the country’s “ancient, deeply rooted, autonomous culture... full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking”. It is in this region of myth and turmoil that the enigma was woven. Such were the defences required to repel Mongol and Tatar invasions in their day that these kremlins – fortified towns – have proved resistant even to modern onslaught.
A night of cruising brings us into remoter country yet, and to the eerie beauty of Kizhi island on Lake Onega. Close to the water and set apart from the village stand two 17th-century churches and a separate bell tower, all three constructed entirely of wood and topped with the characteristic cupolas and onion domes of the Russian Orthodox. Outside, a bearded peasant is using an axe to chip roof tiles from a block of aspen. Women in traditional dress are brushing out the house of a merchant. Its interior is fashioned from wood, iron and wool, materials with which the few inhabitants still work.
Kizhi has become by population default an island museum of Russian rural life, now listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. As a symbol of the exodus from the countryside following the collapse of Soviet agricultural collectives, it signals a melancholy truth. This reflection is mirrored as our ship sails onward past derelict industrial works reclaimed by the forest. Only the buzz of timber mills breaks the deep silence of Russia’s heartland.
Next stop is Vytegra, a centre for lace-making and tractor overhauls. A Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine is docked at the lake’s edge. Our guide, Valentina, wears a naval-cadet uniform with a swagger stick and a skirt so short and tight there is concern for her ability to negotiate ladders. Although the weaponry has been defused and sensitive communications equipment removed, the cramped interior conveys an authentic whiff of Cold War claustrophobia. When I enquire about its location so far inland, Valentina’s answer is “State secret”. It is hard to tell if she is joking.
The first indication that we are approaching the Golden Ring is flagged by the doubleheaded eagle flying from the topmost tower of the high walls guarding the fortified monastery of St Kyril at Goritsy. Its situation, on a lake so pure that motorboats are forbidden, is sublime: but it is far from a ruin. Bearded monks in black habits hasten to the abbey church in answer to the bell. Such is the crowd of worshippers that we do not make it inside; Christianity is experiencing a powerful resurgence in Russia, despite more than half a century of ruthless suppression under the communist regime. “Every Tsar until Peter the Great gave a treasure to Kyril,” explains the curator of icons. “And so has Tsar Putin.”
The princely cities of the Golden Ring grew up between the 10th and 14th centuries, cradles of learning and Orthodoxy, later absorbed into the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, precursor of the Russian empire. Today it is to this circle of towns that Muscovites retreat to immerse themselves in their history. The contrast between the drabness of revolutionary (and post-Soviet) architecture and the elegant palaces in these kremlins is arresting.
At Yaroslavl, our first Golden port of call, 155 miles from Moscow, the tug-of-war for the Russian soul is evident. In this “Florence of Russia”, a statue of Lenin glares up Soviet Street towards a district still named after Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka secret police, forerunner to the KGB. Nostalgia for the certainties of the past seems woven into the fabric of life here. In Millennium Park, the 13th-century Assumption cathedral dynamited by the Bolsheviks has just been rebuilt, its golden domes serving as a beacon to shipping at the misty confluence of the Kotorosl and Volga rivers.
Downstream, the walled Golden Ring city of Uglich, burned by the Tatars, is forever associated with the murder of Ivan the Terrible’s 10-year-old son Dmitry at the instigation of Boris Godunov, and a tiresome succession of false Dmitrys laying claim to the throne. Babushkas animate around the bell of the old kremlin cathedral and subject it to a ritual flogging for sounding the alarm after the murder. Like the leaders of the uprising, it was exiled to Siberia but now pardoned. Another attraction is the museum of imprisonment. “This is like being inside the dreams of the Tsar,” reflects Alison, the cruise’s blonde bombshell. “Or, rather, his nightmares...” Today’s Uglich is quaint, if shabby, and a centre of vodka and samovar (tea urn) manufacture, both widely sold and used.
So far, so surreal. But there is more to come as we navigate down the Volga. Rising from the waters of Uglich Reservoir is the belltower of Kalyazin. The 18th-century church of St Nicholas and its village were submerged when Stalin ordered the valley flooded. Such is the doggedness of the parish priest that services are still held in the bell chamber. In counterpoint to this timeless scene, a massive satellite ground station (its purpose another supposed “state secret”) dominates the horizon – a metaphor for the elision of historic past and conflicted present that characterises the region.
Our growing proximity to the capital is signalled by the appearance of ever-grander dachas (country residences) on the riverbank, some with sport boats moored at private docks. By the entrance to the Moscow Canal, two men in camouflage fatigues fish patiently from a small boat. In an hour or two I’ll be looking down upon the largest fortress of all – “the” Kremlin – from the roof terrace of The Ritz-Carlton, Moscow, the eye tracing a route across Red Square to the crazy, multicoloured roofscape of St Basil’s. And to the Moscow River beyond. But for me, as for Sergei, this is no longer the true Russia.