||Sept 27-Oct 6, Russian River Cruise, Volga River, Russia From St. Petersburg to Moscow
by boat, more acurately, by river boat. We will spend the next 10 days floating south,
following the flow of the waters of the great Volga River, on the Russian cruise ship
Krasin. The cruise line is a partnership between investors and the state. The state, of
course, owns the controlling share. The lines audience is clearly English speaking
passengers. Of the 200 or so aboard, the majority are Americans with the remainder of the
guests being of British decent. After a month of travel, I indeed find being surrounded by
kinsmen from the states to be quite an adjustment. We, of course, make friends quickly
with two other couples. Roger (who owns a PR agency) and Shelly (who owns a travel agency)
from Orlando, FL, and Robert (a dentist) and Kathy (part-time travel agent, and soon to be
full-time mom) from Coon Rapids, MN. Immediately, we find much in common and spend the
first full evening of the cruise in the Kremlin Bar aboard the ship chatting
and tossing back a few.
Before we know it, its 12:55 a.m.. Just as
we get ready to call it a night (the bar closes at 1:00), the bar fills with people
very festive people. The bartender (one of our new close friends) tells us that the crew
has been planning for weeks to have this night be a birthday celebration for the
ships Food Director. We are welcomed to stay, on the condition that we join in the
festivities. Before we can give him a collective "well O.K., twist my arm", we
have no less than half a glass of vodka each, in our hands ready for a celebratory cheers
to the birthday girl. The group yells some type of toast in Russian and down the hatch! A
lot to swallow, but oh so smooth, very smooth indeed!
For some reason, I am singled out by one of the younger crew. She comes over and asks
me to dance. There is a pause in the music and her true intentions come out. She tells me
that I must walk over and ask the guest of honor to dance with me. Well, the guest of
honor is the picture of a good Russian Kitchen Manager late 40s and stiff,
STURDY, and stern. I protest adamantly, but to no avail.
I take a deep breath, toss down whats left of my vodka and Coke, and sheepishly
make my way to the corner where she is sitting surrounded by her staff. Just as I was
instructed, I extend my hand to shake hers, wish her happy birthday, and then ask her to
dance. Apparently she understands me. Her face lights up with a huge smile, she pops up
from her chair, and we hit the floor and boogie down in the middle of what becomes a
circle of clapping hands around us. A few songs later, our bartender comes out dawning a
sleeveless tee-shirt and a long, dark wig, jammin on a sax. This soon turns into a
full scale parade around the whole bar with the Kitchen Manager, complete with Russian
soldier hat, in front waving a full sized Russian flag, one of the bartenders (and later
our new friend Robert) beside her waving an American flag (of all things), and the rest of
the 30 or so people dancing in line behind them. Quite a start to our trip! From that
night forward, I got secret smiles and waves from almost the whole kitchen crew
especially my new friend, the Kitchen Manager.
Day 4 of the cruise, and day 2 of actual sailing, brings us to
the shores of Mandrogi. This place is living proof that capitalism is alive and well.
Basically nothing more that a large dock in the middle of the woods, this pleasant little
stretch of riverfront will soon be a full-blown resort for some of Russias wealthy.
After getting off of the boat and being greeting by a shot of vodka and a pickle (yes,
that was our breakfast that morning), we toured the cabins and hotel in the early stages
of construction. The owner, a successful restaurantor from St. Petersburg, definitely knew
how to reel in the tourism money. Next to the dock was a large stage. Around 10:30 a.m. a
band, dressed in very traditional and colorful Russian folk costumes, bounds up on the
stage to entertain us.
soon draw a crowd, and within minutes have their audience clapping with them to the beat
of the music. Laura, in search of a good picture, finds her way to a seat in front of the
stage. Well, being an accomplished musician, it didnt take more that a song or two
for the leader of the band to recognize the potential talent of this cute little,
pony-tailed girl in the front row. He jumps off the stage, grabs Laura by the hand, and
sits her down behind a 5 foot long steel timber saw. He places a bow in her hand, places
her hand in his, and proceeds to help her play the saw (it sounds something
like a cross between an owl and a coyote with a belly ache). The crowd is definitely into
it. I suppose that Laura did so well with that, that he keeps her on stage for an encore,
this time on her own with a wooden sort of xylophone. With flashes flashing, and videos
rolling, Lauras command performance became part of the whole ships vacation
Bright and early the next day, we docked at the island of
Kizhi. In ancient times it was a pagan ritual site for northern tribes. Today, it is home
to a rather fascinating outdoor museum of wooden architecture. The big draw here is the
280 year old, truly awe-inspiring Transfiguration Cathedral. In short, it was a group of
basically uneducated, and by our standards, illiterate, craftsmen that built this
beautiful, all wooden cathedral using no plans, blueprints, or get this
In addition to the three hundred year old buildings, once
again, those enterprising Russians made sure there was plenty of shopping for those who
were interested. I happened to catch a snapshot of two of the local craftspeople catching
a break on the porch. The following day brought us to Goritsy and Kirillov.
The fortress-like monastery of St. Cyril of the White Lake was
pretty much a snoozer, but the town grocery in Goritsy offered a pretty accurate peak into
the life of the average Russian in the rural countryside.
We docked at 3:00 p.m. of day 7 in my favorite town of the trip, Yaroslavl. Looking
back in search of a reason why, I believe it may have had more to do with a feeling that the residents here gave a damn about their city. Like the others we
had seen, this town had its share of buildings and facilities in need of repair. But for
the most part, things were clean and well kept.
It was also in Yaroslavl that we saw our first signs of new commercial construction. It
was apparent that these folks were very industrious and took great pride in their city.
Sunday morning, the 4th, we arrive in
Uglich. A living example of the poverty of Russia. Although there were enterprising
part-time merchants with tables of crafts, souvenirs, and other merchandise lining the
walk to and from the ship, there were also almost as many beggars. Most of them old
ladies. This is the group hit hardest by perestroika.
Beyond their working years, and most likely
alone, they have watched as their monthly pension from the state has dwindled to a
relative pittance. And then, recently, sat hopelessly as the state withheld pension
payments (as well as all other state salaries) over the last 4 months. This town did, like
all others, have the majority of its populous with enough money to buy at least the basic
necessities, if not a few luxuries. This was evidenced by the huge market we strolled
through that sunny Sunday afternoon.
The remainder of the cruise was also a lot of fun. Time spent talking about a little of
everything (for the most part, with refreshment in hand) with our new friends proved
relaxing, fun, and sometimes even silly. The crew also did their best to keep us
entertained. There was, for instance, the ships play and talent show. I was informed
one night over dinner that a vote of the tour directors had been taken and I was selected
from the other 200+ on board for the starring role of "Neptune, ruler of the seas,
lakes, rivers, streams, and yes, even puddles". After carefully pinning my lines inside my cape so I would be sure to
remember them, I proceeded to ad-lib through almost the entire script. I had a
lot of fun, and from the reaction from the packed house, so did the audience. The
remaining 2 days always brought the good humored greeting of "Your Highness"
from any of the other passengers. I still dont know how I get myself into these