Russia befuddles Americans. We're told from the beginning to expect the unexpected. That's part of the adventure in traveling here.
As Russians continue to reinvent themselves and tourism grows out of its crawling stage, a popular way for foreigners to ease into the Motherland is to cruise it.Eight-day river trips follow waterways between St. Petersburg and Moscow, docking daily at rural villages and historic towns. Since St. Petersburg most powerfully evokes the melodramatic glory of the Romanov Dynasty, I decide to embark in Russia's northwest corner.
Before sailing, our ship ties up for three nights at Peter the Great's imperial capital. Sprawling across islands and canals, the 18th- and 19th-century city still looks regal. Massive baroque, rococo and neoclassical palaces, now used as public buildings, appear light enough to float. Soaring cathedral spires and gilded onion-domes adorn the sky.
Beyond the spacious squares and delicate pastel facades, unkempt yards surround dull, stone-block apartments. Stalled trolleys on strike, cars desperate for tires and paint, and even a shortage of bicycles present "another pair of shoes," as one Russian puts it.
"No wonder the peasants revolted," is overheard as we line up for an hour in the rain in front of the magnificent Winter Palace, waiting for the Hermitage Museum to open.
We have two hours to see the highlights of the huge museum. Yelena, our guide, waves her pink flower, steering us through the crowds, past art classics collected by the rulers of Russia. "It's a zoo," she giggles.
With only two full days in St. Petersburg, we must make choices between the ship's organized tours and exploring the city on our own. Some take a canal trip. Others head for the cemetery to pay respect to Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky.
Along Nevsky Prospekt, the main thoroughfare, private vendors set up stalls wherever tourists gather. In English they bargain over painted eggs, amber pins and embroidered blouses. It's hard to imagine a non-talkative young Russian. Say "dobraye ootra" (good morning), and you're in for some prolonged bi-lingual interaction whether you understand each other or not.
Oldsters may be less friendly. At busy street corners, somber babushkas selling cucumbers, tomatoes and flowers mutely point at prices in rubles. They lack permits to deal legally in dollars. Some seem unable to smile.
We settle in to sail. The m/v Krasin, while no Love Boat, is luxurious for this part of the world. The 245-passenger vessel, leased by Uniworld, caters mostly to American charter groups.
Some passengers are surprised to find: no pool, no elevator, no aerobics, no movies, no postage stamps. Staterooms reminiscent of the '50s with bunk-sized beds and folded sheet and blanket sets (do-it-yourself). Bathrooms the size of closets with showers that soak the place and towels changed every other day. The imported toilet paper "got arrested" before it reached the boat. We make do with rose-colored sandpaper.
The Russian crew tries hard to please - though "yes" may mean "no" - so we stifle our complaints and accept the "needs repair" list as a running gag. We feel like prisoners.
Daily lectures about Russia convince us that we have much to learn. For example, why does the pianist in the cocktail lounge keep playing ragtime?
Sleep seems a waste of time in this land of white nights. At midnight we're out on deck. A golden moon hangs in Chagall's blue sky. Late twilight pushes us through a looking glass. "When you cross our border," our host says, "put logic aside."
The River Neva takes us to its source in Lake Ladoga, Europe's largest body of fresh water. During the winters of World War II when hundreds of thousands of Leningraders starved or froze to death, the iced-over lake served as a supply route.
We cross the serene lake at its southern end, where our ship enters the Svir River. Dense pine forests give way to empty marshland stretching as far as the eye can see. A place for exiles.
The river narrows. Century-old settlements and churches take shape out of early-morning mist. At Lake Onega we turn north to Kizhi Island.
Kizhi is Russia's Williamsburg, Virginia, an outdoor museum of wooden architecture. Antique buildings from the northern region have been collected here and chemically preserved. Two of the island's original churches have been restored, including the 22-dome Transfiguration Church built in 1714. A few costumed women demonstrate traditional crafts.
Back on the pier, a well-stocked art gallery cashes in on sightseers.
Heading south, we navigate through scenic canals and lakes, past fisheries, hunting camps, lumber mills and rustic villages. Less picturesque are the hydroelectric plants, refineries, derelict shipyards and empty factories.
But around the bend will appear miles of white birches lining the river - an endless Dr. Zhivago scene.
At Goritsy we board a bus to the Monastery of St. Cyril of the White Lake in the village of Kirillov. One of the czarist Russia's most politically privileged monasteries is now a historical museum.
The stopover we've been waiting for is Irma, a "typical country village." Its citizens are known for their hospitality. A few farms are left, but most of the simple dachas are summer get-aways, and a large resort community hides in the forest.
Families still invite strangers into their homes for tea and biscuits. "Just don't drink the homemade vodka," we are warned. The townsfolk are so gracious that we can't leave the village without buying souvenirs, but we don't mind parting with our rubles here.
Feasting on shashlik (shish kebab) in the park, we hear the music of German and Russian picnicker. At Irma, as at other small ports-of-call, a German, a Russian and an American cruiseboat tie up to each other, sharing the pier. Sometimes we walk through the boats of former adversaries to go ashore.
At a large reservoir the Upper Volga branches off to the east, allowing a sidetrip to Yaroslav and Kostroma, medieval trade centers. We make the rounds of almost too many famous monasteries and fresco-walled churches. But in one a choir sings like Byzantine angels.
We make a picture (in our minds) of a wizened women bent over a short-handled broom, sweeping, in a stream of sunbeams from incense smoke rising to the heavens. Possibly it's the best photograph-not-taken of the trip.
A wedding party arrives. "It's modern to believe in God in Russia today," our guide tells us.
Our final stop before Moscow is an ancient fortress-town called Uglich, once an important port on the Volga. It was here that Boris Gudonov was falsely accused of planning the murder of the son of Ivan the Terrible. Like pilgrims, we dutifully visit the Church of St. Dmitry on the Blood.
Six locks take us through the Moscow Canal to the capital.
The metropolis of 9 million vibrates with the energy of its young workaholics. "Our parents and grandparents promised us a miracle and it didn't happen - now it's on our skins," explained one, deploring the cruelties of liberated prices while praising the freedom of glasnost.
Red Square takes an American's breath away. We gray-haired ones especially find it hard to believe that we are standing in the center of this former Red Army parade ground, buying postcards and snapping pictures.
We stare in disbelief at flamboyant St. Basil's Cathedral. To quote the guide, "This unique, superb, unsurpassable landmark is a monument, not really a cathedral." Russians have out-Disneyed Disney.
From the watchtowers and cathedrals of the Kremlin, pealing bells surround us. It's an impressive ringing-in to the citadel on the hill where the city was founded in 1147, long before St. Petersburg.
We step into Annunciation Cathedral for a look at early Greek icons, then move on to the Armory. Russian's oldest museum houses crown jewels, vestments, royal coaches and other national treasures. They had a taste for splendor, those czars. Few Russians can afford the $15 entrance fee.
Our tour continues through narrow, crooked streets with buildings that have survived two centuries to boulevards banked by modern casinos and deluxe hotels. In traffic jams, Mercedes amd converted 1940s army trucks are equals. Drivers, many of them novices, ignore lights and bypass the gridlock by driving up on a promenade.
Two of us want to go it alone on the Metro, though we worry a little about our own safety, seeing old women clutching their handbags. As we struggle to decipher destinations in Cyrillic, somebody always comes along to point us in the right destination.
That's how we arrive at a panoramic overlook near the top of an Olympic ski jump, where we try quietly to put Moscow into perspective.
The distance between St. Petersburg and Moscow is a six-to-eight hour drive by car. In eight days of cruising we've experienced a Russian captain's dinner (pizza) and a Neptune Party with shipmates in tutus imitating little swans. We've heard a Chopin nocturne performed in the middle of a shadowed lake by a virtuoso concert pianist, Buxtehude on an accordion, and gifted folk music ensembles.
We've also glimpsed another side of Russia with some American Jews on board, bringing books, clothing and medicines to a needy synagogue.
Drifiting slowly, we've sensed the vastness of this country that has 11 time zones. And at countless landings, little brass bands with contribution boxes greeted us, sometimes playing traditional Russian melodies - and always ragtime. They've been invaded by "The Sting."