Russia lives in both Europe and Asia, tundra and desert, mountain and plain, has the world’s largest forest. It crosses 11 times zones, and is a quarter of the globe’s circumference. It borders Finland northwest, North Korea southeast, and adjoins Poland, Romania, Iran, Afghanistan, Mongolia and China; and across the Bering Strait, America is only 17 miles away. And its image, as can be seen on Peter The Great’s Throne, is that of a two-headed eagle: one head looking west, the other east.
Down from the mountains, across steppes, forest, and tundra, the rivers of Russia flow. It is said that Russia’s identity, history and culture were born on these rivers and lakes. Three major rivers – the Dvina, the Dnieper, and the Volga, and others, have their source in the Valdai Hills, 118 miles from Moscow.
But it is the Volga we first came to know well, as it was on this river, the longest in Europe, we first sailed on our Viking Truvor.
The Volga, called Mother Volga by many Russians, one of the first to provide a trade route between east and west. Centuries before, the Volga was the primary the route of the Tartars, warriors from Turkey, who first penetrated the Russian heartland. There were 15th century military expeditions commanded by Ivan IV, and Catherine The Great traveled the Volga in the 17th century.. In modern times, much of Russian war history took place along this river, from the Russian Civil War, to the Battle of Stalingrad. And now, we moved along the river, on the Viking River Cruise called Waterways Of The Tsars, on the Viking Truvor.
Though this cruise on the Truvor was for many a great Viking River Cruise vacation holiday, I came to see it as a two week experience of needed enlightenment, as we travelled the waters of the Volga from Moscow to Uglich, Yaroslavl, Goritzky, and Kuzino, through the Volga-Baltic Waterway, moving to Lake Onega and the island of Kizhi, then to Mandrogy on the Svir, and finally to St. Petersburg on the Neva. It served as an educational and philosophical voyage fragmenting past stereotypes, creating new realities, as before this exceptional Viking River journey, I was apprehensive about Russia.
I grew up in the Cold War era, and the last place I would have ever wanted to visit was Moscow. I remembered the Cuban Missile crisis, of Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table of the UN, of talk of the Communists, and the bomb. Russia was the country of the Communists, and Moscow was their capital. But this Viking River Waterways Of The Tsars cruise changed all that. It began in Moscow, on the Moscova River, a Volga tributary, where my stereotypes of the humorless Russian, the ubiquity of the Hammer & Sickle image on that red flag, the stark ways of life – all living concepts as I entered the country, dissolved and AHA! surprises took their place.
First, the flag. Most everyone on our cruise (but not me) already knew that many years ago, the red Hammer & Sickle flag had been replaced by another: a simple red, white and blue, with no other symbols. Live and learn!
Second, Moscow. This city of between 12 and 16 million — no one knows exactly — is a very busy, cosmopolitan capital. It has the New York intensity to it: the traffic is terrible, and there is much renovation going on. Old Stalinist buildings stand beside modern ones, punctuated every so often by another onion-domed Russian Orthodox church.
One of our first tours away from the Viking Truvor was Red Square, home to St. Basil’s, the State Historical Museum, The GUM (department store,) the Lenin Mausoleum, and the Metro – the subway that carries, it is said, 9 million people a day. Surprise #3: the stations range in design, from palatial baroque marble with chandeliers to granite structures with iron and glass.
The station we visited was called the Ploshchad Revolutsii station, and was decorated with 76 bronze sculptures of workers, soldiers, farmers, students and other workers during Soviet times. And, almost right above this subway homage to the proletariat, was the GUM Department store, and its luxury dimensions.
This shopping complex has been in existence since 1893, but Stalin closed it in 1930, not caring very much for the consumption of luxury goods. He died in March of 1953 and GUM opened again in December of 1953, proving once again that the win often goes to those who wait. Today, shoppers can buy at Emporio Armani, Hugo Boss, Trussardi Jeans, Brooks Brothers, Hermes, Dior, Gucci, and other high-end brands. Once inside the GUM it is hard to believe it is in Moscow, across Red Square from the final resting place of Lenin.
The Lenin Mausoleum was deeply somber place, with a dark gray stone entryway. On the day I was there, a single wilted yellow rose lay in front of that gray stone area. From a poetic as well as practical viewpoint, the wilted rose was just sad.
But yet again, in a kind of wry contrast, near the Mausoleum was the bright, almost circus-colored St. Basil’s Cathedral with its onion shaped domes and turrets. Built by Ivan The Terrible, there is nothing else like it, architecturally speaking, in Moscow. And a word about Ivan The Terrible. We were told again and again that the word grozny was translated as terrible, but in reality the word means more like thunderous or awesome. Good to know! As we entered Red Square through the Resurrection Gates, those originally built in 1535, so we left them to see the Kremlin.
The buildings on Red Square readied us for the buildings inside the Kremlin, as behind the red Kremlin walls is yet another flow of history, combining government offices, the Presidential residence, the Armoury Museum, and some of the most historic cathedrals in Russia, those being on Cathedral Square, the oldest square in Moscow dating back to the 14th century. The entrance is at the Kutafya Tower, built in 1516. Visitors cross a bridge into a place of profound Russia history and culture.
Once the visitors are inside the Kremlin, the Russian Orthodox cathedrals tend to overwhelm. The Cathedral Of The Assumption, The Cathedral Of The Annunciation, The Ivan The Great Bell Tower, The Cathedral Of The Dormition, and The Cathedral Of The Archangel Michael — are the living symbols of ancient Russian Orthodox history. Their great wall paintings and icons define the consistency — no matter what the government says –of deeply held Russian Orthodox belief. Each are active cathedrals, with daily and evening services.
And then, there is the Kremlin Armoury, where the State Armoury Museum is housed. This museum has one of the most exceptional collections of Tsarist artifacts – defining three centuries of rule.
The Armory covers two floors, the lower dedicated to artifacts directly linked to Russia’s rulers, including Catherine the Great’s coronation gown, and Peter the Great’s high boots and cane. About Peter The Great’s boots: they looked awfully large — and the guide explained they made them large, then stuffed fur inside to protect feet from the cold. Also, she said, back in those days, there was no difference in foot templates between right and left.
Finally, this Museum holds nine of the Faberge Easter Eggs, given as Easter gifts from the Tsar Nicholas to his wife and children. The most famous one in this collection of is the Siberian Railway Easter Egg. The Trans-Siberian Railway Egg is a jeweled Easter egg made under the supervision of the Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé.
The exterior of the 1900 Trans-Siberian Railway egg is made of onyx, silver, gold, and quartz, and is decorated with colored vitreous enamel. . A route map of the Trans-Siberian Railway is engraved in silver across the face, with major stations marked by a precious stone, forming a belt around the egg.
In thinking about Moscow with its exceptional, and highly contrasting history, I came to think about the multiplicity of ideologies also. From monarchy to communism to capitalism with (no doubt) other -isms in between.
Did we see any symbols of these conflicts on Sparrow Hill, the highest point (all 723 feet) in Moscow? No. We saw a thriving city below, traffic, noise, schools, churches, smokestacks, and I came to think this is what history does in terms of time: it equalizes, heals wounds, wounds heels, all within proximity of the Volga’s serpentine, fluid path.
Back on the Viking Truvor, I am reminded of Billy Joel’s refrain from his song, River Of Dreams.
We all end in the ocean/we all start in the streams/we are carried along/ by the river of dreams.
So, onward we went on our Viking Truvor, to other historic towns and cities, all with their own histories on Mother Volga, the river of history, culture, dream.