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River cruise ship KrasinSept 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 line’s 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.

The Krasin's Motley Crew (L to R: Scott, Robert, Roger, Laura, Kathy, and Shelly)Before we know it, it’s 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 ship’s 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 40’s and stiff, STURDY, and stern. I protest adamantly, but to no avail.

I take a deep breath, toss down what’s 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.

The 2 'dummies'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 Russia’s 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.

Playing the timber saw like an old pro!!They 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 didn’t 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, Laura’s command performance became part of the whole ship’s vacation memories.

TransfigurationBright 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 – nails!!

Artists on KizhiIn 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.

Grocery in GoritsyThe 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 thatSelling fish at the market from a baby carriage 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.

Church of St. Dmitry of the BloodSunday 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.
Child, grandmother, and puppyBeyond 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.
Sunday market in Uglich
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 ship’s 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". Playing Neptune in the cruise playAfter 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 don’t know how I get myself into these things.

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Last modified: August 19, 1999    Photographs and text 1998 Scott and Laura Kruglewicz. All Rights Reserved.