Cruising and Dancing through the Waterways of the Tsars

By on November 24, 2017

By Pamela Lovegren–

Russia is a country of intrigue where misconceptions and surprises abound. I’ve always been curious about this nation. But honestly, the disturbing thought of soviet secret police kidnapping and persecuting me did cross my mind. How would anyone ever find me in this vast motherland of varied topography and eleven time zones? However, my husband wanted to go to Russia. I discovered Viking River Cruises’ first ship set sail in Russia on August 5, 1997 so in 2017 they celebrated 20 years of cruising in the Viking homelands and beyond. 

We boarded the Viking Akun ship, set to sail from St. Petersburg to Moscow, and immediately felt at ease and safe. Cruising’s the perfect way to experience the people, observe the culture and learn about the history of Russia. The flowing melodic voice of Margo, the program director, greeted us with “a very good morning dear ladies and gentlemen, dobraya ootra” and our adventures began.

The design of the most cultured city in Russia, St. Petersburg, gave us expansive panoramic views. Our eyes surveyed the low bridges and rectangular block buildings interspersed with an intriguing mix of elaborate cathedrals and palaces tucked in between 65 rivers and canals. All these waterways reminded us of Vienna. Entering the famous Hermitage we joined a mass of humanity and shuffled through an airport-like check point to enter the extravagant Winter Palace. Our breath caught when we passed through the golden grandeur and ornate style in room after room resplendent with prolific art collections started in the late 1700’s by the Empress of Russia. Catherine the Great built the Hermitage theatre inside this palace for the plays she enjoyed writing for her grandchildren. Our love of dance lead to the opportunity of attending a famous classic ballet in the exquisite theatre setting. During this enriching evening all our focus was swept up into the performance of ‘Swan Lake’. Emotions rose and plummeted as the enchanting saga unfolded about white and black swans in rapture, heartache, the woe of two doomed lovers and the evil that thwarts their romance.

The next morning we accepted an invitation to have an intimate look at a seldom seen Soviet way of life in a communal setting. The “Kommunalka” home shared by multiple families has outlived the Soviet era that created them. Handing us shoe protectors, our hostess greeted us with a serious, yet kind demeanor. While sipping steaming hot tea and nibbling delectable traditional Russian pastries we engaged in conversation and entered Anna’s world of compassionate nurse-caregiving and the painful loss of family though our interpreter. She and her cat are grateful to live in St. Petersburg and proudly owns one room, a mere 194 square feet, along with sharing tight quarters of a kitchen and bathroom with three other families. I observed the rundown decay of broken floor tiles, paint peeling and exposed electrical wires but noted with limited funds Anna still kept her crowded home pleasant. “Is this middleclass level of living”, I asked our guide. Sasha said, “Oh no, she is poor. If Anna sold her place today she would not have enough money to buy anything else.” Without resources to travel, our hostess allows people from all over the world to come visit her instead and she shares about her personal life.  In her own home, Anna’s world expands beyond limiting physical borders.

Each day we were on the alert searching for avenues to dance. Summer street musicians no longer played as autumn swirled her chilly breezes through a 1000 shades of gray skies. Palace ballrooms teaming with tourists left little room to partner dance. Jazz blues drifting through the ship corridors tugged at us to dance in the Panorama lounge and we indulged almost nightly. But in the grand ballroom at the Governor’s Palace in Yaroslavl, my husband beamed the “I just scored” grin when the beautiful Governor’s daughter invited him to dance. Like Prince Charming with one arm crooked stately behind his back, Peter lead a traditional waltz twirling, dipping and swaying as if dancing with Cinderella.

Our sights were also set on experiencing a true Russian dance. We envisioned a man with arms folded doing the squat-and-kick move called prisyadka (knee-bending) requiring good balance and substantial leg muscle strength. Strolling hand-in-hand into a big white tent by our ship docked at the Salt Pier we settled in for the real deal. Cossack folk music danced in the rural tradition brought raucous celebration to the stage. Tapping our feet we felt the pulse of generations in the rhythm and marveled at the intense precision of the dancers. After the grand finale, we jumped up and joined in a toast with a shot of Vodka! 

While in Russia I fully expected to encounter “anti-faith” propaganda. It wasn’t that long ago that Stalin turned cathedrals into businesses like skating rinks, theaters and restaurants only retaining one state-run church in each town. Today 72% of the population embraces Russian Orthodox Christianity.  Additional proof of Russia’s devoutness lies in the town of Sergiev Posad, just 1½ hours from Moscow, give or take for traffic jams. One of the largest monasteries in Russia, home to more than 300 monks, it is the spiritual center of Russian Orthodoxy. Elaborate cathedrals and brilliant colorful churches appear to be stepping right out of a fairytale with their “onion” or “candle flame” shaped domes. Our guide explained the most prominent dome represents Jesus Christ. An addition of three smaller domes symbolizes the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). A five-dome configuration signifies Jesus and the four Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Inside, the cathedral walls come alive with icons from floor to ceiling depicting stories from the Old and New Testament. These exceptional icon painters choose not to sign their art out of reverence for God.

For one of our stops we docked at Uglich, a petite historic town of the Golden Ring cities founded in  1148. Piling into a charming rickety old city bus with windows adorned by whimsical cotton curtains we bumped along to the outskirts to visit a family living in a fourth generation home on one acre. Most households in this neighborhood have one cat, one dog, chickens, flower and vegetable gardens, fruittrees and a banya (Russian wooden sauna with bracing cold rinse or river dip). It’s tradition! Our jovial, bearded translator with twinkling eyes facilitated conversations with our warm-hearted hostess. Together we learned the true Russian way to drink homemade moonshine. First, sniff homemade dark rye bread squares topped with egg salad and a pickle chunk, down the strong moonshine shot and follow immediately by popping the food into your mouth to reduce the burning sensation. It didn’t take long before everyone was laughing.

Arriving in Moscow, I pondered what the words “Kremlin” and “Red Square” usually bring to mind. My thoughts ran the gamut of executions, military parades and communism. To my astonishment I learned the term ‘kremlin’ means “fortress inside a city” and they exist in towns and monasteries throughout Russia. The most famous, the Moscow Kremlin, includes five palaces, four cathedrals and government buildings all within crenellated red brick walls complete with spired towers. The Russian word for Red Square (krasnaya) means both “red” and “beautiful” and is at the historic heart of the city. This old merchant quarter lies just beneath the imposing east Kremlin wall. Expecting doom and gloom from the past to hover over us, we wandered into Red Square. Pulsating energy was tangible and made us want to dance all the way from the entrance into Red Square down the expansive gray pavers to the famousornate and vibrant onion-domed St. Basil’s Cathedral on the other end. In between we passed by high red Kremlin walls rising behind Lenin’s smooth, block mausoleum, founder of the Soviet Union; the State Historical Museum whose outlines echo those of red Kremlin towers and the sprawling ornate GUM department store next to the Kazan Cathedral. We had stepped into a photographer’s paradise rich in history, architectural contrast and the intriguing pull drawing us to what lay beyond each door. 

Reflecting on our voyage, it all began in the complex and artistic city of St. Petersburg. We navigated through rivers and lakes to little known obscure places like the wild, isolated island of Kizhi Island where generations of hardy families weathered long bitter winters. Cruising on Europe’s longest river, the Volga and her canals, we reached the bustling metropolis of creative vitality in Moscow. This journey filled us with longing for more adventures into territories unfamiliar to us. Pulling my luggage out for the return flight, I packed new perspectives of Mother Russia to take home with me.

Pamela Lovegren
Business Manager / Travel Editor
Pamela’s expertise flows from building her own successful business to guiding small to mid-size family owned companies. She analyzes business structure, is a diplomatic negotiator, identifies operational issues, and implements effective resolutions to lead a firm on a path to excellence. Her experience ranges from resort management, leadership conferences, property management and business consulting to extensive traveling and travel editor of this online publication. Pamela shares the vision of Carol Doyel to celebrate and encourage women of 50+ who desire to live life with spirit and passion each and every day.

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One Comment

  1. Bernice

    November 29, 2017 at 10:42 pm

    Your commentary on Russia and the photography to back it up gives it a feeling of a magical land with a history to match.

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Cruising and Dancing through the Waterways of the Tsars