Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Moscow to St Petersburg is the copyright of Jim Shead - Cruising the waterways of Russia. First published in Waterways World November 2007.
Moscow to St Petersburg
Hydroelectric plants, 1 000ft locks, and Europe's largest lakes - yes, but also World Heritage Sites, cathedrals and markets.
JIM SHEAD finds Russia's waterways are full of surprises
A holiday in Russia can be a startling experience - especially for the waterway enthusiast.
The inland waterways of Russia are truly on a different scale to those of Britain. A trip between the country's two most famous cities, Moscow and St Petersburg, is around 1,150 miles with just 18 locks - in this case, including a couple of detours and the largest and second largest lakes in Europe. So I left behind my 57ft narrowboat and boarded the 423ft Viking Lomonosov, at Moscow's Northern River Terminal on the Moscow Canal.
The River Terminal is an hour's drive from the centre of Moscow. Our ship moored there for three nights, giving a full day and a half to see the sights - travelling by coach and accompanied by experienced English-speaking guides. Perhaps the most unexpected sight was the three cathedrals within the Kremlin walls: truly amazing at the political centre of a state that was officially atheist for some 70 years.
The Moscow Canal was completed in 1937, but canal building in Russia was actually started in 1698 by Peter the Great, after he returned from the Netherlands. Although his early attempts proved unsuccessful he persevered, and by the end of his reign, hundreds of miles of waterway had been made navigable.
But although in the brochure our trip was called ‘Waterways of the Tsars’, it is Stalin that must take the credit for the waterways we travel today - and the blame for the human suffering that his ruthless methods caused. A special Gulag was set up to provide the army of forced labour required to build the Moscow Canal and the Northern River Port Building. This building has a tall spire surmounted by a gold star, which adorned the Kremlin walls before the more impressive ruby glass stars that are there now.
The port is still busy with cruise ships, commercial craft and private pleasure boats. We also passed swimmers and fishermen in small boats, and on the banks, walkers, sunbathers and picnickers: Muscovites make full use of their canal. various points there are semi-circular constructions on each side with steps down to the water. From here, concrete stop gates can be raised to cut off sections of canal in emergencies or for maintenance.
The River Volga
Six locks take the canal down to the River Volga, each one 951ft long and 98ft wide. We were able to share the locks with our sister ship, Viking Pakhomov. The locks are not only massive but grandiose, having tall monumental towers at each end of the lock, some ornamented with statues. Lock number 3's towers are surmounted by huge copper replicas of Christopher Columbus's ship Santa Maria!
The river varies greatly in width as the journey progresses. This is because of the damming of the Volga for a reservoir and hydroelectric plant at Uglich, pened in 1940. One visible sign was the flood belfry of St. Nicholas Cathedral at Kalyazin: erected in the town's Market Square in 1800, it is now the only visible part of this drowned town. As our journey progresses, this story will be repeated as we navigate rivers and lakes dammed to provide water, hydroelectric power and shipping routes as part of Stalin's modernisation juggernaut.
At unsubmerged Uglich, though, there is a clear view of the cathedral from the quay. The path from the ship to the town was lined on both sides by about a hundred stalls selling a great variety of souvenirs: in contrast there seemed to be very few shops of any sort in the town centre, demonstrating the importance of the tourist ships. Like many Russian towns and cities, Uglich has a Kremlin (fortress or citadel), and although its walls disappeared long ago the buildings they enclosed still remain. In the Transfiguration Cathedral of 1713 (like most Russian churches, richly decorated with icons, gold leaf and frescoes), we listened to a professional choir who filled the church with a sound as rich as its decorated interior. We were to hear several more like this before the end of the trip.
Unlike Uglich, Yaroslavl - still on the Volga, but a detour from the direct route to St Petersburg - did have a lively market and a pedestrian shopping street, although its shop fronts looked quite old fashioned to UK eyes. In Soviet times, the magnificent church here was saved from demolition by local people who occupied the building and refused to come out. Obviously the local commissar could not reach Stalin's own level of ruthlessness. Our guide here taught English at the university, and seemed able to fit this in with acting as a guide for the six months of the river cruising season. Thousands of others in the Russian tourist industry, including the Viking Lomonosov's 110-strong crew, also need to find alter native employment during the winter months. (The crew were excellent, not least chef Wolfgang Koch, who was able to produce four or five course meals daily that were a delight to the palate and the eye.)
The Volga-Baltic waterway
For most of the cruise, the scenery was rural land with forested banks, broken by the occasional village or town. The locks were always a highlight. As we rose in one at Rybinsk, hundreds of seagulls swooped to catch the fish brought to the surface by the turbulence; after leaving, we passed the statue, in the true tradition of Soviet art, of Mother Volga holding in one hand the plan for harnessing the Volga's waters for hydro power. We had entered the Rybinsk Reservoir, completed in 1947. Built by Gulag forced labour, this reservoir flooded 700 villages to form a 37-mile long lake that covers 1,768 square miles - when built, the largest man-made body of water in the world. It is now part of the Volga-Baltic Waterway.
Europe's second largest lake, Lake Onega, was two days further on. Here, we were invited to visit the captain on the bridge, situated on deck 5 at the front of the ship a good place to steer from, as there is little headroom below the lowest bridges on the route. Within Lake Onega is Kizhi Island, less than four miles long and a little over half a mile wide, but with a collection wooden buildings in a delightful rural setting. Its cathedral has 22 cupolas roofed with 30,000 shaped aspen wood singles. The island is now on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
There was a whole day of cruising left before St Petersburg, during which we made our way onto the River Svir passing through Upper and Lower Svir Locks: Lower Svir Lock was one of the few Russian Locks which boasted any sort of garden, the general style than horticultural. The Svir runs into Lake Ladoga, the largest lake in Europe. We were miles to the exit into only crossing the width of the lake rather than its length so it was a mere 93 the Neva River that flows into St Petersburg.
St Petersburg's River Passenger Terminal was by no means the most picturesque stop on our voyage, but a good base for three full days of sightseeing. At the start of the 18th century, Peter the Great decided to build a new city in the European style on land recently captured from Sweden, with valuable access to the Baltic Sea. In 1712 the new city of St Petersburg became Russia's new capital, which it remained until 1917. Briefly Petrograd, then Leningrad, it is now St Petersburg once again.
Of course, we visited the spectacular Catherine Palace, the ballet, the Hermitage museum, the Peter and Paul Cathedral... but for WW readers, a boat trip on the city's waterways is essential. The canals sneak past the palaces and grand houses of the rich and famous, passing the Pushkin House Museum (where Alexander Pushkin lived) and the Winter Palace. From the Neva, the main river of the city, many famous landmarks can be seen - including the cruiser Aurora, that famously fired the blank shot on 25th October 1917 that signalled the start of the assault on the Winter Palace, sparking the October Revolution. (Mike Taylor explored the St Petersburg waterways in July 2006's WW.)
A voyage on the Russian waterways is truly memorable friendly people, outstanding architecture and stunning scale. If you ever hanker for wider horizons than those afforded by 72ft locks, go east for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
For another veiw of this trip from fellow travllers on the voyage see Moscow - St Petersburg a personal guide
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