Russia's Inside Passage

May 15, 2009

Jumping on a plane for an international vacation may not be an option right now, but don�t let that stop you from journeying with Dr. Anderson as he shares his travels through Russia with us.

Russia is the largest country in the world, almost as big as the United States and Canada combined. It’s so wide that a train journey across it would take eight days and nights of continuous travel.

Russia had long been on my wish list of places to visit, but it seemed its size would create difficulties for any tourist to get a handle on this land that Winston Churchill famously called “the world’s largest mystery.” Further problems for visitors included a tourist infrastructure that was nonexistent, a population of all ages that spoke no English and, maybe worst of all, confusing street signs—and road maps—written in Russia’s hieroglyphics-like Cyrillic alphabet.

The river boat cruise on the Volga (Europe’s longest river) between Moscow and St. Petersburg was my fairy godmother’s solution: Russia’s two most interesting cities connected by a captivating countryside of forests and farmlands with extraordinary towns dating to Russia’s Middle Ages.

The Vikings sailed those waters between the Baltic and Baghdad 1,000 years ago, carrying their longboats overland when necessary. In the 10th century, this trade area was northeast of Europe’s most advanced economic and cultural center. Local merchants and landowners became extremely wealthy and sought easy entry into heaven by endowing churches, no matter how many already existed. The small fortified towns and churches running across Russia’s northern principalities prospered so much they were called “The Golden Ring.”

Many of those towns, all with their differing personalities, are easily visited today from the Volga-Baltic Waterway, the composite of rivers, canals, and lakes that create, like Alaska’s Inside Passage, a channel for commerce and scenic cruising. The rivers were there before the highways, so the town centers tend to be grouped around the centuries-old docks and jetties. With the exception of Moscow and St. Petersburg, you could walk off the boat and essentially be downtown.

Many river boat companies offer Volga cruises. Viking River Cruises, the largest river cruise company in the world, has the advantage that it owns its own boats, unlike those who simply lease their boats from local companies. We went Viking, having heard that they’d grabbed the guides who spoke the best English, had arranged the best-included tours, and even had the best chefs for American palates. They sure had a high repeat rate on their cruises, which is what sold me.

I had an agenda. I wanted to stand in Red Square and feel that the Cold War was truly over and my country didn’t really need me or James Bond any longer. I wanted to walk through the visitor part of the Kremlin. I wanted to see if Russians would smile at American tourists. (They would.) I wanted to see Van Gogh’s painting of Doctor Rey at Moscow’s Pushkin Museum. I didn’t know much about Russian physicians, other than that Boris Yegorov was the first doctor in space in 1964, and Pavlov, who received the Nobel Prize in 1904, was the doctor with the salivating dogs. I wanted to see Pavlov’s lab in St. Petersburg, the way I’d been inside Pasteur’s lab in Paris and Fleming’s hospital in London. And of course, I wanted time in the State Hermitage Museum, to see the stuff of legends, to behold what God and Catherine the Great had wrought.

And believing the Hermitage would demonstrate that there never could be too much excess, and remembering the Russian Orthodox Church with its 1,000-year history was not known for architectural understatement, I also felt we would see churches embellished like wedding cakes. Boy did we see them!

Before the Russian Revolution, the country had more than 100,000 churches, 500 in Moscow alone. After the purges of the 1930s, barely 100 were left. Says Masha Nordbye, a writer, “Churches were turned into swimming pools, ice-skating rinks and atheist museums. Moscow’s Danilovsky Monastery was used as a prison. The Church of St. Nicholas became a gas station.” 1

Karl Marx called religion “the opiate of the masses,” but how could the Soviets dynamite and destroy Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior—built as the largest Orthodox church in the world to glorify Russia’s victory over Napoleon? Indeed, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture debuted there. How could they allow St. Petersburg’s unbelievably decorated Church on Spilled Blood, with its 75,000 square feet of incredible mosaics, be used to store vegetables after the communists came to power?

Because the churches were so gorgeous and their histories so riveting, their presentations were possibly the best part of the entire trip.

Many cruise lines take you to a foreign destination, but our river boat cruise led us, as one guide said, “Into the very soul of Russia.” I discovered Russia’s soul many times on this trip, and found that a nation that had suffered for a century could still laugh. “That yellow building was our KGB headquarters,” a guide said. “It had a great view. You could stand on the roof and see Siberia!”

I found statues everywhere of persons whose names were unknown to me. Lenin I did recognize. I photographed his statue on the main street in Goritzy, and in Volkov Square in Yarislavl, where he was pointing dramatically into the distance. His followers said he was showing the way to the Federation’s future. Cynics said, “He was pointing in the direction of the local prison.” And I photographed him in the Chocolate Museum in St. Petersburg where a chocolate bust was available for 3,000 rubles (about US $130).

The statue I remember from this trip was not Lenin’s, but Pavlov’s. It was Navy Day in St. Petersburg, so Pavlov’s lab was closed, but his figure stood proudly near the Naval Museum. And in Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, I finally saw the painting of Doctor Rey that an Arles guide had described years before in Provence where Van Gogh had painted it. “The doctor who’d treated Van Gogh after he’d cut off his ear didn’t care for his gift,” she told me, “so he used it to block a hole in his chicken coop for years until he heard it had developed value.”

Dr. Rey sure got a deal better than what we get these days as Medicare payments. He should be smiling more.

1 Moscow St Petersburg & The Golden Ring, Third edition, Odyssey Books © 1990, ISBN 978-962-217-771-0

If You Go

Visas are required for Russia, so allow adequate time for that. Get a good guide book before you go: DK Eyewitness Travel Moscow costs $23, and an even better buy at $12 is DK Eyewitness Travel Top 10 St. Petersburg. Both have superb maps, but we found a company online, Russian National Group, that has an office in New York City and great walking maps of Russian cities: info@rnto.org.

The benefits of river cruising include its obvious improvement over coach tours in that you don’t have to unpack every day. Furthermore, it was always comforting to have the boat and its restaurants available to us at the end of a busy day. With Viking, we had excellent guides who gave on-board, fascinating, and frank lectures on the Soviet era but, additionally on land, took us to places we’d never have found on our own. Our guides got us into some museums before they opened to the general public and even arranged for choirs to perform for us in historic churches.

Russia by river is not inexpensive. Cabins vary in price according to when you book and what you want. Air fares can be prohibitive. We snatched up tickets when prices dropped briefly, but even then, we paid $3,300 for two in Economy. We bought our tickets from Viking because it included airport transfers.

Eric Anderson, a retired San Diego family physician, is the only doctor in the Society of American Travel Writers and is the author of five books. His last book, The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor’s Life, is available from amazon.com