To Russia with Love: a River Cruise From Saint Petersburg to Moscow
In the pit below the gold-embroidered theatre scrim emblazoned with a double- headed imperial Russian eagle, the orchestra is warming up on a chilly autumn evening in Saint Petersburg. In a different way, I’m limbering up, too: this is the first night of a highly anticipated journey by ship into the heart of Russia. I’ve long been curious about life in the world’s largest country, but also humbled by the scale of this Slavic enigma and, despite the dulling scents of damp wool and wet leather in the overheated air, there’s an aura of collective wonderment in the audience, composed mainly of my fellow passengers aboard the Viking Ingvar.
We’re in the lavishly gilded private theatre of Catherine the Great in the Hermitage Museum, which also houses her 18th-century Winter Palace. The conductor arrives, and bows to the audience. He raises his arms, holding them aloft to insist on silence, just a second or two longer than anyone expects, and the performance begins. The exquisitely doleful opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake draw to the stage a cast of long-limbed dancers in white tutus, and we watch as the story of doomed love unfolds between Prince Siegfried and Odette, the swan princess. I think of it as a profoundly Russian tale, because embedded in the ballet’s tragic story is an implicit celebration of the Slavic soul, the cardinal points of which are pride, perseverance and discipline.
And so, as often happens at the beginning of a great trip, I find the wick of my journey – the chance it will offer to fathom the uniquely intense and complex Russian character. Peter the Great built his magnificent Saint Petersburg in the 18th century, on the marshy delta of the Neva River where it empties into the Baltic Sea, to be Russia’s window on the West. Our 13-day cruise will venture deep into the countryside and then to Moscow, the citadel of Russian power and pride.
Since the allure of a trip to Russia is decidedly cerebral compared with that of Mediterranean destinations, Viking River Cruises arranges tours and lectures tailored for an intellectually curious audience during our four days in Saint Petersburg.
There’s a private-access visit to the Hermitage, one of the world’s great art museums, and I join an excursion to the Catherine Palace in Pushkin, a day trip south of Saint Petersburg. On a sunny afternoon, a trip to Peterhof Palace, the country estate founded by Peter the Great in 1709 on the shore of the Baltic Sea, is dazzling; its gravity-powered Grand Cascade and Samson Fountain were inspired by those at King Louis XIV’s Château de Marly.
But almost more compelling than these splendid encounters with imperial grandeur are the intimate glimpses of modern Russian reality that we get during a range of encounters and home visits. On a dove- grey Sunday afternoon I join a small group of fellow passengers for tea at the home of Larisa Baltrukova in a kommunalka – a communally organised block of flats – in a tidy residential district of central Saint Petersburg composed of late 19th-century apartment buildings with wedding-cake facades. A plaque at the main entrance says the building was nationalised in 1917 under [Bolshevik party leader] Lenin, who created this socialist-style living as a way of accommodating the city’s rapidly growing population during a time of acute housing shortages.
Thin light filters through lace curtains at the three tall windows in Baltrukova’s living room as she fills teacups and serves cakes – one filled with sweet curd cheese, another with minced meat and onions – from Stolle, one of the best-known bakeries in the city. Through an interpreter, she says she’s a trained nurse and the widow of an admiral in the navy, and she lived in Vladivostok in the Russian far east for many years. She bought her flat with its shared kitchen and bathroom, for the equivalent of $US27 000 (about R415 000) 12 years ago.
‘How is life in Russia today – better or worse than it was during the days of the Soviet Union?’ asks someone. The 60-something Baltrukova smiles briefly and cocks her head. ‘Life was more civil, stable and better organised during the Soviet times, especially the Brezhnev years. People were better disciplined and thought of the well-being of their community rather than just their own needs and desires,’ she says.
On the way back to the ship, our guide circumspectly echoes our host’s assessment of Russia’s foreign policy. ‘We want to be friends with every country, but [President Vladimir] Putin had no choice but to try and restore Russia to its rightful place in the world,’ he says gravely, ‘and it was wrong of you to take parts of our country into NATO.’ There’s often a frisson in conversations during this journey – a pervasive assumption of being misunderstood and a polite insistence that visitors try to appreciate the points of view of Russians.
I ask Daniel, our unfailingly gracious maitre d’hotel, if the kitchen and bars on board the Ingvar would be affected by the draconian import bans and restrictions that Russia has imposed on many European foods and wines in retaliation for the economic sanctions enforced on the country after it annexed Crimea in 2014. ‘Yes, the sanctions have made supplying the ship more complicated and expensive,’ says Daniel. ‘But we’ve also discovered many more good Russian products than we used before. So the silver lining is perhaps a greater authenticity.’
Rather than a bland international menu, the daily offer is largely Russian. Dishes such as rassolnik, often made with giblets and pickles, but which appears here as a rich chicken soup, are a regular feature, as are the Siberian speciality pelmeni, little meat- filled dumplings, and Pozharsky cutlets – meat or fish rissoles encased in crisp bread cubes. There’s also an extensive list of Russian and Georgian wines, and a range of food and drink experiences including a pelmeni-making demonstration and a vodka tasting.
Just before dusk, we leave Saint Petersburg and churn upstream through the pewter-coloured waters of the Neva. I’m glad of a quiet afternoon on the balcony of my veranda suite, a well-designed space with a Scandinavian look created by neutrals and blond-wood fittings.
For many kilometres, the birch trees lining the riverbanks present a cook’s palette of autumnal colours – tea, cinnamon, caramel, lemon and apple red – interrupted only occasionally by the rusty docks and locks of a country that often looks worn and dated as soon as you leave its cities.
Almost everyone, even those who think they know European geography well, is surprised to find that Lake Onega is so huge, you often can’t see its shores. We discover this on our passage to Kizhi, an island bound by marshes and covered by emerald fields, to see the two wooden churches of the Transfiguration and the Intercession, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Seen from afar, the silvery wooden domes of the churches are both stirring and spectacular; they get their metallic appearance from the weathering of their hand-hewn aspen shingles. Built from thousands of logs transported to the island from the mainland, they were constructed without nails, using dovetail joinery instead.
Nearby, in an old farmhouse, we learn a little about life on the island, once inhabited by several thousand, today home to only a handful of custodians. The home’s single large room worked as a sort of machine for living, as the huge brick stove occupying a third of the space provided light and heat. ‘It was built off the floor so that chickens could live underneath it in the winter and continue to supply the family with eggs,’ says our guide. ‘When it was very cold – winter here usually begins in October and runs through to May – it was the privilege of the elderly and children to sleep on top of the stove. And, of course, most people lived this way in northern Russia less than a century ago,’ we’re reminded. ‘You made or grew almost everything you ate, stored or needed.’
This kind of sinewy ancestral memory helps to inform the recurring subtext of the bemused remarks and well-polished jokes of Russian staff and residents we meet. I recall an exchange with a cab driver in Saint Petersburg a few days earlier. He lived in Toronto for six years and returned to Russia because of his disaffection with ‘nonstop consumerism’, causing people to buy things they don’t need and can’t afford.
In contrast to the sunny optimism of the relatively new colonial countries of America, Australia and Canada, Russians are a reflexively pessimistic people. It makes sense to brace yourself for disappointment when almost everything that surrounds you is a regular reminder that life is hard, arbitrary and frequently unfair. Making peace with this reality engenders a wry sense of humour that dulls the resignation necessary to stay sane in the face of circumstances you’re usually powerless to change, too. And so the ironical wit and truculent pride of the Russians in their country and culture become the quiet backdrop of our trip.
Just before we reach Moscow, a friend who lives in the Russian capital messages to ask if I’m free for lunch at Beluga, a recently opened restaurant in the Hotel National on the edge of the Kremlin. So the next day, I arrive at a beautiful dining room with a Baccarat crystal bar and tables dressed in snowy linens. The waiter responds to my friend’s fluent Russian by bringing us a feast for a tsar: Oscietra grey caviar with blini; Baltic herring tartare with marinated onions; grilled artichokes with pressed sturgeon caviar; salt- baked sturgeon with Abkhaz lemons and thyme; and smoked pike with mushroom sauce, shallot confit and fried mushrooms.
But the Russian dish I knew I’d end up craving soon after returning home is shchi, the famously homey, slightly sour cabbage soup served with a big dollop of smetana – sour cream. After my trip through the heart of Russia, I couldn’t think of a single food that better expresses this great Slavic nation’s endearing humility, ingenuity and tenacity, along with its appetisingly piquant perspective on life.