By Marilyn Jones
I am often asked what I liked best about a trip when I return home. Invariably I say the people. Most of the world’s population has the same priorities as I do: taking care of their families, cultivating friendships and their faith. Human differences are usually superfluous, proving to me we are all more alike than different, no matter our culture, heritage or religion.
This is certainly true in Russia. Viking River Cruises is known for its local immersion. I had the opportunity to meet and get to know many Russians on this cruise bookended by Moscow and St. Petersburg.
My Adventure Begins
Moscow is the political capital of Russia and the largest city in area and population. It has been a community for eons and first mentioned historically in 871.
“Before 1917 there were 1,500 churches in Moscow. Now there are 50 from that era,” my guide says. “There is currently a religious renaissance. Churches are being rebuilt.”
Cathedral of Savior the Redeemer, for example, was built in 1839, but destroyed in 1931 on the order of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the church was rebuilt on the site – a tribute to the nation’s Christian faith.
Nearby is Red Square with the amazing Saint Basil’s Cathedral, completed in 1561. Each dome has a distinct design. One side of Red Square is a wall on the Kremlin with its Spasskaya Tower built in 1491. Opposite the Kremlin wall is GUM Department Store, which was used as a trading centre throughout Moscow’s history, except for some of the Soviet years.
The word Kremlin means a fortified complex at the heart of a city. The Moscow Kremlin includes five palaces and four cathedrals. The complex also serves as the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin.
A popular tourist destination, throngs of people stream into the Kremlin even on this day when the skies open up and the rain pours down on a rainbow of umbrellas. I pass by cannons and grand buildings before touring three medieval churches.
Gold and silver domes top the beautiful churches filled with frescoes honouring Russian Orthodox saints as well as past state heroes and tsars.
From Moscow our ship heads toward St. Petersburg. Our first stop is Uglich, where several residents open their homes to Viking passengers to better understand the life of an average Russian citizen. I meet a sweet woman who shares photos of her children and grandchildren. Through an interpreter she encourages us to have some of her homemade moonshine. During the toast she wishes us friendship, prosperity and safe travels. She talks about her children and their accomplishments, including her daughter’s beautiful craft work. She says, too, it hurts her to know the free world was afraid of Russian citizens during the Cold War. Her parting wisdom is that she wishes for peace among all nations.
Uglich is known as the place where Ivan the Terrible’s 10-year-old son Dmitry was murdered. The Church of St. Dmitry on the Blood was built on the site where the boy’s body was found.
Founded in 1010, Yaroslavl prospered as a trading port on the Volga River. This stop includes a local market. With sign language and many smiles, I am able to buy Russian chocolate and bags of dried fruit. On each tour we are given a lot of free time to explore, shop and converse with merchants.
We tour St. Elijah the Prophet Church, considered the most beautiful of the city’s churches. Built between 1647 and 1650, it is a monument to the Renaissance era.
Another highlight of our morning is a visit to the 19th century Governor’s Palace, a living museum of art, history and culture. After viewing the many fine pieces of Russian art, we are invited into a grand hall. A trio of musicians play as period-dressed dancers perform before asking members of the audience to dance.
Kuzina is home to the grand and massive Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery with its medieval religious artifacts, but it is the school visit that most impresses me. A well-spoken 15-year-old student serves as tour guide. Using perfect English, she confidently shows us her school.
After a look at student artwork and an enjoyable performance of traditional dance by a charming 13-year-old, we follow our young guide to a classroom where she answers questions about education in Russia.
Situated at the north end of Lake Onega is Kizhi Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the Open Air Museum of Architecture. Dozens of buildings including farmhouses, barns, mills and lovely wooden churches make up the site.
Settlements are known to have been here since the 15th century. Our tour includes watching local craftspeople weave and make shingles for the church domes.
Mandrogy Village was created in the 1990s to appear as it did before being bombed during WWII. The buildings house artists and craftspeople painting Matryoshka dolls, creating fine woodwork and ceramics, and blacksmiths pounding out metal treasures. I walk the circumference of the village and enjoy this recreated time lost to war.
As much as Moscow is the political capital, St. Petersburg is the cultural capital of Russia. Founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great, its named changed to Petrograd in 1914 and Leningrad in 1924 but changed back again to St. Petersburg in 1991 at the end of the Soviet era.
Once settled by Swedish colonists, Peter captured the area in 1703 and soon set about building Peter and Paul Fortress followed by the city. He wanted to gain a more accessible seaport in order to trade with the rest of Europe.
In 1728, Peter II moved his office back to Moscow, but four years later under Empress Anna, St. Petersburg was again designated the capital. It remained the seat of the Romanov dynasty and the Imperial Court of the tsars as well as the seat of government until the revolution in 1917.
One of the highlights of the city is The Hermitage, a world-class art museum. The collections occupy six historic buildings, including the Winter Palace that was once home to tsars and tsarinas from the 18th century until 1917. In this palace all that glitters is gold defined by ornate plaster work, marble, crystal chandeliers and inlaid floors. The collection of the world’s most famous painters, sculptures, jewellery makers, furniture designers and porcelain masters are represented here. In this setting, viewing such beauty and rarity is magical.
The Catherine Palace, located south of the city, is named after Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great, who ruled Russia for two years after her husband’s death. Originally a modest home, its grandeur is the result of their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who chose the location as her chief summer residence. Starting in 1743, the building was reconstructed by four different architects, before Bartholomeo Rastrelli, Chief Architect of the Imperial Court, was instructed to completely redesign the building on a scale to rival Versailles. Completed in 1756, it is nearly one kilometre in circumference. The Great Hall, also known as the Hall of Light, measures nearly 1,000 square metres.
Its opulence is staggering, but nothing can compare with the famous Amber Room. To create this extraordinary chamber, panels of amber mosaic were installed by surroundings them with gilded carving, mirrors and mosaics of Ural and Caucasus gemstones.
The room was completed in 1770. In 1941, when German troops took over the palace, the Amber Room was dismantled in 36 hours and shipped to Konigsberg in what was Germany at the time. Its eventual fate remains unknown.
In 1982, the order was given to begin the recreation of the Amber Room, a process that took more than 20 years and cost more than $12 million. Opened in 2003 by President Putin and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the restored Amber Room is a truly exceptional monument and testament to the painstaking care of the craftsmen who worked on it.
I also have the privilege to see a ballet performance of Swan Lake in the Hermitage Theatre, once the court theatre of the Romanov dynasty. The performance is a consummate close to my 12 days of exploration and understanding of Russia’s people, culture, heritage and history.
Travel is a great neutralizer among nations. It’s the perfect way to understand the world’s citizens truly are more alike than different.