Caspian Sea to Moscow
September 13 - September 29, 1996
Introduction and OverviewThis cruise was very interesting and exciting. First, Russia recently made the transition from the Soviet "communist" system to a more democratic system encouraging free market enterprise. Second, much of the Volga River had only been opened to tourism since the fall of the Soviet system. My husband Gil and I had been previously to the Soviet Union. We lived for 3 months in Novosibirsk, Siberia, in 1979 and during that time we traveled to Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Yerevan, Bukhara, Samarkand, and took the Trans- Siberian railroad from Novosibirsk to Khabarovsk and Nahodka (the port used by foreigners since Vladivostock was closed to foreigners at that time). Gil had returned in 1989 through Leningrad to Yerevan -- during in fact the early political upheavals! These trips were scientific exchanges and on our trips we were either accompanied by scientists or traveling with Intourist, but not in a group. So we selected the Volga cruise from the Caspian Sea to Moscow because this would be entirely new territory for us, except for Moscow.
We did have some concerns. There had already been several upheavals in the governments of the states of the FSU (Former Soviet Union) and Yeltsin was very ill and possibly unable to hold his government together. Also, we were not looking forward to taking an internal Russian flight which this trip required. We were consoled by our knowledge that Americans are generally not disliked in Russia and it wasn't likely that we would be targets even if unrest did break out. And finally, Uniworld materials explicitly stated that we would fly on a new airline called Transaero which had new Boeing planes and was believed to be a good airline.
We selected the m.s. Yesenin, the best cruise ship that Uniworld charters in Russia. It was built in Austria for the Soviet elite, and it is comfortable and good looking. The cabins are all outside with large windows. They are small but modern, outfitted with fluffy American towels. The ship is heated and air conditioned. The food was good Russian food, well prepared, albeit created out of a very limited set of ingredients (lots of potatoes, cabbage, green and red peppers, tomatoes, pork, beef, and fish). The staff was friendly and attentive. The excursions were interesting, the entertainment good to excellent, the lectures excellent.
Our overall evaluation is that this was an excellent cruise and we have many fond memories. Uniworld delivered everything that they promised (except for Transaero) and more. This cruise/tour included air to Moscow, transfers to the hotel, hotel in Moscow (Intourist, near Red Square), dinner and breakfast, flight to Astrakhan, cruise from Astrakahn to Moscow, all meals on board including wine at dinner, onboard lectures, excursions at every stop, entertainment on board, excursions and the Circus in Moscow. The itinerary was Astrakhan (on the Caspian Sea), then sail northward on the Volga to Volgograd, Saratov, Samara, Simbirsk (Ulianovsk), Kazan, Kozmodemyansk, Yurino, Nazhni Novgorod (formerly Gorky), Kostroma, Yaroslav, Uglich, and Moscow. The brochure rate was $3098 per person, double occupancy, from Chicago.
On this cruise, the ship was only about half full. The passengers were a very interesting set of well-traveled people, all in their 50s and 60s. Most of us had been to Russia before. I would expect more of a mix of passengers on the shorter Moscow-St. Petersburg cruises. We recommend this trip with the caveat that the internal airlines of the FSU created with the breakup of Aeroflot are not up to the standards expected in the US and do not have a good safety record (International Aeroflot is a different case because it must abide by regulations in the countries in which it lands). Most people who are not very familiar with Russia may find the Moscow to St. Petersburg cruise a very nice trip. We would recommend that you select one that stops at several of the Golden Ring cities, which Uniworld's cruises do. People interested in more may find Uniworld's new St. Petersburg to Moscow to Kazan trip a nice alternative (St. Petersburg, train to Moscow, then cruise Moscow-Kazan-Moscow).
The ShipThe Yesenin, named after a famous Russian poet (Sergey Yesenin). was built in Austria in 1987 and renovated in 1996. The ship is equipped with an up-to-date navigation system and a satellite telephone. The non-smoking restaurant, featuring panoramic windows, accommodates all 96 passengers in one seating. A Russian medical doctor was on board. The forward lounge, with its windows on three sides, was very popular (if the weather had been better, we would have spent more time on the sun deck). There is also a comfortable, cozy bar.
Our staff included a cruise director, on-board guide, lecturer, and musicians. At each stop we had local English-speaking guides. There were several excellent special performances on board as well.
The PortsI won't go into great detail about each port, but just hit some of the more general points. First, the Volga is heavily dammed and looks more like a series of lakes than a river. Although we kept humming the "Volga Boatman" song, at no point could we see signs of a towpath where a person might pull a boat along the Volga. Considering this, it's surprising that there is as much left of the towns as there is. Possibly they were built high and away from the banks because of Volga flooding. Most of the towns have docks for river boats. Volga cruises were popular for citizens in Soviet times. Now there appear to be a lot of boats with German tourists.
We started at Astrakhan, which is in the delta of the Volga. The Volga delta is the source of much of the world's beluga sturgeon, source of black caviar. Astrakhan was once the capital of a Tatar kingdom. This Mongol/Tatar influence reaches even as far north as Moscow. For centuries, this part of Russia paid tribute to the Tatars, impoverishing the region. In 1556, Ivan the Terrible conquered Astrakhan and annexed it to Russia. All along the Volga still today you see the mixed ancestry and mixed culture: Russian and Tatar.
After a day of cruising, we arrive at Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) at the confluence of the Volga and the Don (the Don canal goes to the Black Sea). Stalingrad (as it was then known) was the site of the battle which was the turning point in the Russian resistance to Hitler, and to the war itself. It was estimated one million Soviet soldiers and 200,000 Germans died, and the city was completely destroyed. High points here are the 170 foot statue of "Mother Russia" wielding a sword and the moving 360 degree diorama of the battle. I'm not usually a fan of Russian monuments, but these are interesting and very well done. Both Astrakhan and Stalingrad were closed to foreigners in Soviet times.
Kazan is the capital of the Tatar Republic which was founded in the 13th Century. The word Kremlin means "walled fortress," and Moscow's famous Kremlin is not the only one. Kazan has a well-preserved 16th century Kremlin, as did Astrakhan.
Other ports included Saratov, Samara, Simbirsk (formerly Ulyanovsk and the birthplace and boyhood home of Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, aka Lenin), Kozmodemyansk (outdoor museum), Yurino (castle), Nizhni Novgorod (formerly known as Gorki, was the city the famous physicist Andree Sakarov was exiled to).
Kostroma, ancestral home of the Romanovs, is the first city we visited that is part of the popular "Golden Ring" tourist route. These are a series of pretty towns with great historical and cultural heritage. In Kostroma our guide pointed out their huge statue of Lenin with his arm out pointing. She said "Lenin is pointing the wrong direction. Do not follow him."
Continuing on, we stop at Yaroslav, founded in 1010 by Prince Yaroslav the Wise of Kiev, with its interesting churches, and Uglich, founded in 1148, one of Russia's most beloved towns.
The towns are still full of an unbelievable number of churches, even though many were destroyed in Stalin's time. Of most interest to me architecturally were the churches (usually with gold domes) and the wooden houses with their carved window and roof-line trim.
The CountryThe country, cities and towns, look quite different now than under the Soviet regime. First, the patriotic banners are gone. Although, except for Moscow, I haven't visited these towns before, they must have removed many hammers and sickles as well. (The current Russian symbol is the Czar's double-headed eagle). Fixing up and painting up was going on most places. Moscow was completely different from before. When we arrived in the night in 1979, it was a dark dreary city with almost no cars on the streets. It's now lit by sodium vapor street lamps and neon advertising signs, and the streets are full of cars. The people are no longer all dressed in drab dark colors, although one can usually still tell a tourist from a Russian. The atmosphere is livelier, freer feeling.
It's hard to explain the difference in atmosphere if you haven't been there. On our previous trip we had been in Russia for 3 months, leaving via Nahodka on the Pacific to Japan. We had an enormous feeling of isolation ourselves by that time. When our Russian ship docked in Yokohama, one could feel the tension released, as if we had escaped from a prison. We saw even tourists who had only spent a couple of weeks in the Soviet Union kissing the soil of Japan (and they weren't Japanese, either!).
I knew that most churches were not functional under the Soviet regime, but I hadn't recognized the extent of the destruction of churches under Stalin. In most cities the main cathedral was razed and paved to become a huge parade and demonstration ground, usually flanked by monstrous ugly government buildings. We can now only imagine what these magnificent cathedrals were like. Of course, many small churches were destroyed as well. It was a surprise that despite the poor condition of the Russian economy, that money was being found to repair and paint buildings and especially the churches. It was not only churches that were neglected under the Soviet regime, but virtually all infrastructure, new and old. Paint fell off, buildings crumbled, and light bulbs burnt out, and little was ever repaired.
The river was not nearly as active as one would expect for a major artery that would be closed with ice in November. Industrial towns on its banks were very quiet and few of the hundreds of cranes were in use. We were told that many factories were functioning only a few days a week and the workers' pay correspondingly low. Russia is now open to goods from all over the world, and their generally poor quality goods cannot compete in the world market or even at home. This is all part of a very painful transition from a planned closed economy to an open market economy. There is an anecdote told in Soviet times: "They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work." One could also quip that the factories pretended to create items that people wanted and needed. Production was more on quantity rather than on quality, and parts with which to make repairs were always in desperately short supply.
On previous visits there were no beggars. This time old women were often seen begging in front of churches and other places. There was also a lot of peddling, of handcraft items or items the peddlers had purchased, at the ports.
It was clear that people were saving US dollars instead of rubles, probably because of the serious inflation of the ruble. In Kazan at the supermarket currency exchange, we saw a large US poster showing the new $100 bill. This poster was not facing the tellers, but rather the public, indicating that it was the public who needed to know what the new $100 bill looked like. U.S. currency (and German marks) appear to be the de facto standard. We wonder what it means to our country to be providing the currency for so many countries.
We had an interesting interaction with police. I was taking pictures inside a food market. Mostly we had tacit permission in that we took few pictures when the people weren't aware that we were taking them. In several cases people posed or gestured that we take a picture of another person too. (Note, this was allowed even under the Soviet regime.) A policeman came up to us and indicated that it was not allowed to take pictures. Since we had taken enough anyway, we weren't very concerned, but two women came up and started arguing with the policeman. Clearly it was their opinion that picture-taking was allowed. We heard the policeman say the word "Sovietski" and the women went into howls. Sovietski!!! And they verbally lit into him with renewed vigor. We had to get back to the ship, and as much as I wanted to take a parting picture of the ladies arguing with the policeman, we snuck away instead, after contemplating how happy our shipmates would be to delay the sail until they bailed us out of jail. . . .
More information about Judy and Uniworld's Russian river cruises can be found at http://www.4windstravel.com/cruise/russia/uniworld.html .
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