ST. PETERSBURG - Some who remember the Cold War picture Russia as a gray and grim country, filled with people afraid to speak their minds and long lines of babushka-wearing women in search of nonexistent goods.
That was then. As a river cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow made amply clear, Russia today is a vibrant nation where people are happy to share their strong opinions and billboards hawk everything from the latest fashions to the newest cellphones. Young people dress stylishly and they maintain the Soviet-era love of American-style jeans. Brides and grooms emerge from stretch limousines to share a kiss amid cheers. Cars, including many luxury models, clog big-city roads. At the same time, the country's historical treasures and traditions remain.
Our cruise, with Boston-based Vantage Deluxe World Travel, was aboard the 223-passenger MS Nikolay Chernyshevsky, a four-deck ship built in Germany in 1981 and extensively refurbished in 2002. During the 16-day journey, called Imperial Russian Waterways & St. Petersburg, we plied rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and canals, including the Neva River, Lake Ladoga, the Moskva River, and the Volga. On and off the ship, we immersed ourselves in Russian culture, sampling the food and drink (along with many Western dishes), exploring big cities and little villages, learning the language - well, a few words, anyway - and hearing the music, including the haunting sounds of the balalaika, the three-string, lute-like folk instrument.
Twenty-two tours and other attractions were included in the cruise. Passengers were divided into five groups, all with English-speaking guides, along with local guides at the various stops. Our guide, Irina Kuzyka, was outstanding.
Our trip began with four days in St. Petersburg and ended with four days in Moscow. In between were dai ly stops at places most of us had never heard of. Wherever we went, we were surprised and pleased by the loveliness of the land and the friendliness and frankness of the people. When we could, we conversed with English-speaking Russians and heard such comments as, "We call Moscow the vampire," because the capital drains the nation's resources. The shoppers among us were happy, with plenty of varied souvenirs, even if there did seem to be more nesting dolls, or matryoshka, than people. Here is a look at the cruise by way of its destinations.
St. Petersburg. After the long Lufthansa flight from Boston, with a change of planes in Frankfurt, our minds were on sleep. We found our way to our cabin, which was small, with no phone or TV but with portholes. The ship remained in port during our time in the city, with buses taking us on tours or dropping us off near the famous thoroughfare Nevsky Prospekt for exploration on our own.
The magnificence of St. Petersburg rivals, or maybe surpasses, that of Paris. This city of 4.6 million people is laced with more than 60 rivers and 300 bridges and filled with ornate buildings, many in brilliant pastels. We visited many places, including the baroque Smolny Institute, the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, St. Isaac's Cathedral, the legendary warship Aurora, and the State Hermitage Museum, where it is said that if you look at each item for only a minute, you will need 11 years to see everything.
We were left awestruck by the accomplishments of Peter the Great in founding this former capital city in 1703, and of modern Russia in rebuilding it after the devastation of World War II. The city's culture was not neglected. A ballet at the Hermitage Theatre and a folklore performance were part of the itinerary.
Mandrogi. This reconstructed village is the closest thing to a theme park that we would encounter, with a windmill, carousel, mini-zoo, moose farm, vodka museum, and shops where traditional crafts were being made. The visit, complete with a shaslik (kebab) lunch, was a pleasant enough way to spend an afternoon.
Kizhi. This island on Lake Onega is home to about 90 people and a well-preserved group of wooden churches and houses built without nails. The highlight was the Church of Transfiguration with its 22 domes. During the walking tour of the island, we were warned to stay on the path because poisonous snakes could be lurking in the grass. Everybody obeyed.
Goritsy. The main attraction in this small settlement was the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, one of the biggest and most famous in Russia. We were duly impressed, although by the end of our journey some of us would grow a bit tired of visiting religious structures.
Yaroslavl. In this industrial city of 620,000 we made a couple of requisite church/monastery stops and were given a couple of hours to wander about, something that was much appreciated, especially since we could usually find someone who spoke enough English to help us out. Here was a chance to visit an Internet cafe, and to shop for crafts, icons, scarves, woolen caps, and other souvenirs.
Uglich. The home-hosted breakfast visit was one of the most rewarding features of the trip. We were divided into groups of eight for a typical breakfast of blinis (thin pancakes) and porridge. In this relaxed atmosphere, our group enjoyed chatting with our hostess, who spoke Russian and French, and her daughter, a schoolteacher who spoke Russian and English. It was a pleasure swapping questions about each other's countries and afterward comparing notes with passengers who had visited other homes.
In addition, there was a walking tour of this city of 38,000, said to be one of the most beloved in Russia because of its cathedrals, its palaces, and its ability to recover from the war's destruction.
Moscow. In this capital city of 10.5 million, each sight seemed to challenge the next for superiority. Among them were the Fabergé eggs and regal gowns in the Kremlin, the glistening onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral, the graves of Nikita Khrushchev, Raisa Gorbachev, and Boris Yeltsin in Novodevichy Cemetery, Gorky Park and other green spaces, the opportunities for conspicuous consumption in the GUM stores, the former KGB headquarters, the shops and kiosks of Arbat Street, the abundance of museums and statuary, the 100-plus brightly lighted nightclubs, the efficient and attractive Metro, and, of course, Red Square, which some of us adventurous types returned to by subway for a better look.
Both the Bolshoi Experience and Moscow Circus were to be part of our late September visit, but the Bolshoi was undergoing renovations and the circus was out of town. Although the replacement programs - the National Russian Dance show and an operatic performance of Rossini's greatest hits - were excellent, some passengers were disappointed. On the other hand, a visit to the Gorbachev Foundation was surprisingly enjoyable as we learned more about Mikhail Gorbachev, the architect of glasnost.
Aboard ship. Among activities on the ship were language lessons and history talks - more entertaining than they may sound - and a round-table discussion with three college women about Russia today. There were tea tastings, blini tastings, and vodka and caviar tastings. On most nights there were Russian-themed movies, from "Rasputin" to "White Nights." With help from our guides, passengers staged a rollicking talent night. The ship's photographer was an accomplished balalaika player, and other crew members likewise displayed vocal and instrumental prowess. In addition, we were almost always close enough to land to enjoy the passing scenery: dachas and other homes, both splendid and shabby; pleasure boats and industrial vessels; fields and forests; residents at work and play; and even a swatch of graffiti emblazoned with the name of rapper Eminem.
Meals were filling and frequent. Breakfast was buffet style, while lunch and dinner were served by a mostly cheerful young staff. In addition to Western-style meals, there were traditional Russian and Ukrainian dishes of stroganoff, borscht, golubsty (stuffed cabbage), pirozhki (pies with vegetable, meat, or fruit filling), and vareniki (stuffed dumplings). I can't think of one I didn't like.
In a final farewell, the ship's cruise director urged peace and understanding between our nations. I believe such trips go a long way in that direction.
Richard P. Carpenter can be reached at email@example.com.