Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Russian Cruise is the copyright of Jim Shead - an extended version of the previous article Moscow to St Petersburg, with 5 extra photos, as orgiginally submitted to Waterways World.
The inland waterways of Russia are on a different scale to those of Britain so I left behind my 57 foot narrowboat and boarded the 423 foot Viking Lomonosov at Moscow’s Northern River Terminal on the Moscow Canal. The whole trip to St Petersburg, plus a couple of detours, was to be around 1,150 miles with just 18 locks and would include sailing the largest and second largest lakes in Europe.
For our first three nights aboard we moored at the Northern River Terminal, which is about an hours drive from the centre of Moscow. This gave us a full day and a half to see the sights of Moscow including the Kremlin, St Basil’s Cathedral, a circus and the Moscow Metro. We were transported by coach and accompanied by experienced English speaking guides who gave us a real insight into what we were seeing and into the way of life of Russians today. Perhaps the most unexpected sight was the three cathedrals within the Kremlin walls. It is certainly unusual to find three cathedrals together but to find them at the political centre of a state that was officially atheist for some seventy years is truly amazing.
The Moscow Canal
In the afternoon after our trip to the Kremlin we set sail down the Moscow Canal, which was completed in 1937. Canal building in Russia was 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. This work was expanded by later Tsars but although in the brochure our trip is called Waterways of the Tsars it is Stalin that must take the credit for the waterways we travel today and he who must take the blame for the huge cost in human life and suffering that his ruthless methods of modernising the waterways 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 that was one of those previously on the Kremlin walls before it was decided to replace them by the more impressive ruby glass stars that are there now.
The port is still busy with cruise ships, commercial craft and private pleasure boats of various sizes. The wide stretch of water here, called the Khimki Reservoir, soon narrows as we join the Moscow Canal. We passed not only a variety of vessels but also swimmers and fishermen in small boats. The banks provide recreation for walkers, sunbathers and picnickers. It seems that Muscovites make full use of their canal. At various points along the canal there are semi-circular constructions on both sides of the canal with steps down to the water. These project into the channel and form narrower points from which concrete stop gates can be raised to cut-off sections of canal in emergencies or for maintenance. There is always a small building on one side of these constrictions and this houses the mechanism for raising the gate.
Six locks take the canal down to the River Volga. Each lock is 951 foot long and 98 feet wide and so we were able to share the locks with our sister ship Viking Pakhomov which is the same size as our own ship, Viking Lomonosov, named after Mikhail Lomonosov (1711 – 1765) the eminent Russian scientist. These locks are not only massive but grandiose having tall monumental towers at each end of the lock and some, like the top lock (number 6), ornamented with statues. Lock number 3 has its towers at the bottom end of the lock surmounted by huge copper replicas of Christopher Columbus’s ship Santa Maria. We passed through lock 3 at 10pm and by the next morning the ship had descended the remaining two locks and was cruising on the Volga River.
The River Volga
The river here is wide and varies in width as the journey progresses. This is because of the damming of the Volga for a hydroelectric plant at Uglich, opened in 1940, and creating the Uglich Reservoir that has covered much of the natural banks of the Volga. As evidence of this we passed the flood belfry of St. Nicholas Cathedral at Kalyazin, This was erected in 1800 and stood in the town’s Market Square. It is now the only visible part of the town lost below the water. 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 Uglich we come to the hydroelectric plant and the lock, which is the same size as those on the Moscow Canal. On leaving the lock we turned to moor at Uglich quay from where there is a clear view of the cathedral and church that are the main tourist attractions in the town, whose history dates back to 1148. From the ship to the town we walked up a path that 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 to many of these waterside communities.
Uglich, like many Russian towns and cities, has a Kremlin (fortress or citadel) and although its walls disappeared long ago the buildings they enclosed still remain. The first we visited was the Transfiguration Cathedral built in 1713 and like most Russian churches richly decorated with icons, gold leaf and frescoes. Here we listened to our second professional choir, a small group of singers who filled the church with a sound as rich as its decorated interior. We heard a similar choir to this in one of the Moscow churches and were to hear a few more before the end of the trip, all very good singers and all with CDs available for sale. The second place visited was the Church of St. Dmitry on the Blood, built in 1692 to commemorate Prince Dmitry, the only heir of Ivan the Terrible, who was murdered here.
Our next port of call was Yaroslavl, still on the Volga but 70 miles further down than the direct route to St Petersburg required us to travel, thus making it the first of two detours on the cruise. Yaroslavl seems a pleasant city with squares and public parks, a lively market and a pedestrian shopping street, although this looked quite old-fashioned to me as it lacked the modern shop fronts that are almost everywhere in the UK and which we had seen at GUM in Moscow. We were taken on a guided coach tour of the city the highlight of which was the Church of St. Elijah the Prophet with its magnificent interior. We were told that in soviet times this church was saved from demolition by local people who occupied the building and refused to come out. Obviously the local commissar could not reach Joseph 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. This situation also applies to the 110 members of the Viking Lomonosov’s crew and for thousands of others in the Russian tourist industry who must have some alternative occupation during the winter months.
In the afternoon we set sail to return 70 miles up the Volga passing river scenery that was typical for most of the cruise, flat rural land with forested banks, broken by the occasional village or town. Most of the interest came from the various other craft we passed and the people fishing from small boats. For those wanting a break from the scenery the following events took place after we sailed: lunch, daily briefing, teatime, Russian History lecture, cocktail hour, caviar tasting, dinner and a Russian Concert. Meanwhile we passed the city of Rybinsk and entered the lock by the Rybinsk Hydroelectric plant. As we rose in this lock hundreds of seagulls swooped to catch the fish brought to the surface by the turbulence. After leaving the lock 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 are now on the Rybinsk Reservoir a project conceived in 1932 and 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 and when built was the largest man-made body of water in the world. It is now part of the Volga-Baltic Waterway.
The next morning we arrived at Goritzy the ship having passed through the lock at Sheksna while I slept. Goritzy is a very small place but it provides a landing point for a visit to the town of Kirillov where we were to see the Monastery of St. Krill of the White Lake. Even here the path from the ship to the coach park is lined with souvenir stalls and some wooden chalet style shops as well. The large walled monastery by a lake is a bit different form the churches we became so familiar with on this trip. Here there is living accommodation, various kitchen gardens and an interesting museum too. Back on the ship we ate lunch as the crew casted off and headed for our next port of call just over 24 hours sailing distance from Goritzy. Before crossing the 28 mile long White Lake we navigated the Upper Sheksna River passing the flooded Church of Krokhino another victim of a hydroelectric scheme.
By morning the ship had travelled from the White Lake (or Lake Beloye) through the Kovzha River, Watershed Canal and had descended the six locks of the Vytegra Canals so that at 8.30am we entered Lake Onega, Europe’s second largest lake, and headed for Kizhi Island about 90 miles down the lake and our second detour from the direct Moscow to St. Petersburg route. While crossing this vast lake we were invited to visit the captain on the bridge which is 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.
Kizhi Island is less than 4 miles long and a little over half a mile wide but houses a collection of wooden buildings in a delightful rural setting. We walked from the ship to the Kizhi Ensemble, a collection of three buildings consisting of the Transfiguration Cathedral, the Bell Tower and the Intercession Church all built from wood with the simplest of tools but displaying a flamboyant architectural style. The cathedral has 22 cupolas roofed with thirty thousand shaped aspen wood singles. We then walked through fields of wild flowers to see two wooden houses, a bell tower with carillon and a windmill. We were lucky enough to have a sunny day to see this unique island now on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Having left Kizhi Island at 6pm on Tuesday we were not to dock in St. Petersburg until Midnight on Wednesday giving us a whole day of cruising during which we made our way back across Lake Onega and 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 being monumental rather than horticultural. The lock is a mere 649 feet long so we went through the lock without our sister ship. The Svir River runs into Lake Ladoga, the largest lake in Europe. We were only crossing the width of the lake rather than its length so it was only 93 miles to the exit into the Neva River that flows into St. Petersburg. Thirty miles down the Neva we came to the St. Petersburg’s River Passenger Terminal by no means the most picturesque stop on our voyage but our base for three full days of sightseeing in Russia’s most beautiful city.
After his visits to various European countries, including England, Peter the Great decided to build a new city in the European style on land recently captured from Sweden and in 1703 began building a fortress to protect these lands that gave him a valuable access to the Baltic Sea. In 1712 the new city of St. Petersburg became Russia’s new capital, which it remained until 1917. In 1914 its name was changed to Petrograd, in 1924 to Leningrad and finally in 1991 back to St. Petersburg.
Our sightseeing here included visiting the spectacular Catherine Palace at Pushkin, a night at the ballet, the vast collection in the Hermitage museum, the Peter and Paul Cathedral and many other sights of the city but there was one excursion that may be of special interest to our readers and that was a boat trip on the waterways of St. Petersburg.
The trip started on the Fontanka River or Canal. This was probably a natural watercourse back in the days when the city was built on the swampy land that is now St Petersburg but it now runs in a direct regular channel with roads on both sides. Its name comes from its use in supplying water for the fountains of the Summer Palace gardens. After heading north past the palaces and grand houses of the rich and famous we turned west into the Moika Canal past the Pushkin House Museum where Alexander Pushkin lived immediately before his death on 29th January 1837. We then turned north into the city’s shortest canal the Winter Canal, which runs between the Winter Palace (now the home of the Hermitage Museum) and the Hermitage Theatre. This canal joins the Neva, the main river of the city, from where 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 and sparked the October Revolution.
So ended a very enjoyable cruise. I brought back memories of the many things we saw, of the friendliness of the Russian people we met and above all the excellent way we were looked after by our guides and all the ship’s crew. If one member of the team is to have a special mention it must be Wolfgang Koch, the chef, who was daily able to produce four or five course meals that were a delight to the palate and the eye.
For another veiw of this trip from fellow travllers on the voyage see Moscow - St Petersburg a personal guide
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