Russia: Exploring the Volga River

Explore St Petersburg's canals and head out onto the Volga River — drinking plenty of vodka as you go — in search of the ever-elusive Russian smile.

By Tara Isabella-Burton
Published 26 Mar 2018, 16:00 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 11:19 BST
The downtown area of Yoshkar-Ola in the Volga region.

The downtown area of Yoshkar-Ola in the Volga region.

Photograph by Getty Images

Igor doesn't smile. This is the first thing I learn aboard the River Victoria cruise ship, docked on the Volga River a few miles north of St Petersburg. With his neck tattoo, his almost-black eyes, his no less dark hair, Igor looks like a character in a novel by the 19th-century ne'er-do-well Mikhail Lermontov, whose Byronic, constantly dueling anti-heroes came to define Russian Romanticism. He acts like one, too.

The bartender on the Victoria, Igor serves each shot of vodka with melancholy formality. He answers my questions curtly, without making eye contact, with a solemnity whose sincerity I can't ascertain. What kind of vodka does he like best? "I don't drink vodka." Where is he from? "Caucasus." He allows a beat. "North Caucasus." Who is his favourite Russian writer? "The famous one." He pours me another shot of vodka. I drink it. "Nazdarovye," he says. Cheers. He doesn't smile then, either.

But Igor's seriousness, I come to learn, is just part of the Russian experience. I'd spent years living in Tbilisi, Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet Union. I'd learned basic, conversational Russian in the surrounding countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan. I'd studied Russian literature, read Dostoevsky's and Tolstoy's paeans to the 'real' Russia: the countryside outside of the big, cosmopolitan cities such as St Petersburg and Moscow. I signed up for Uniworld's 14-day river cruise between St Petersburg and Moscow precisely to see that 'real' Russia, a land of homemade moonshine and riverside shashlik barbecues, icon-sellers and Orthodox priests.

But the Russian experience, I come to learn, begins on board the River Victoria itself. Unlike Georgians, who are famous for their warmth and almost aggressive ebullience, Russians tend to be more measured, at least until the vodka comes out. They don't waste words, nor do they mediate their controversial geopolitical situation for a more mixed foreign audience.

"I'm from south Russia," another of my waiters says, early in our trip, pouring out a glass of Russian saperavi wine from the Sochi region. "You know. Crimea."

None of us question him.

My first days in Russia are less of an adjustment. Stereotypically the most 'European' of Russian cities, St Petersburg is a grand lattice of boulevards and palaces, art nouveau facades and regal structures. I tick off the requisite tourist attractions — visiting the Hermitage, heading to the Alexandrov theatre for a ballet production of Swan Lake, where an elderly usher, pleased I have dressed formally for the occasion, sneaks me and my similarly attired companion into the 'tsar's box' for a private viewing. "Like a tsarina," he declares.

I also visit the palaces of the infamous (and promiscuous) Catherine the Great, in the town of Pushkin, just outside of St Petersburg. Here I learn the story of the powerful empress who, in the words of my guide, was "a mistress of self-invention", her skill in creating a legend of her dynasty far outweighing her political acumen. Next, I head to Peterhof, the 'Russian Versailles', known for its expansive gardens as well as for the fact that Peter the Great, a notorious agoraphobic, lived not in the main palace, as you might expect, but in a tiny house on the edge of the Baltic Sea.

As I wander the garden, the bleakly comic stoicism I've come to expect from my Russian guides is apparent. One tells me the story of what happened when a guest was late to dinner at one of Peter's parties. "He was a punctual man. He liked people to be on time. If you were one minute late…" my guide points to an enormous beaker on display, easily large enough to hold two bottles' worth of liquid. "You would have to drink that, full of vodka. Then you would stumble around the garden and everybody would laugh at you." She seems to think this a perfectly reasonable punishment.

Grand canals

Despite the loveliness of St Petersburg's gardens, the most stunning way to see the city is from the water. I head to one of the frequent canal cruises that traverse the city — St Petersburg's canals and tributaries are a total of 190 miles long, with more than 800 bridges. From there, history is laid out along the waterfront: from the Peter and Paul Fortress, the citadel from which the whole city sprung, to Stroganov Palace, the ornate rose-coloured neoclassical home of the aristocratic Stroganov family (and, legend has it, home, too, of the famous beef dish). Then it's over to the haughty and grand General Staff Building, housing the higher-ups of the Russian Army and Ministries of Finance and Foreign Affairs in the early 19th century.

My attention is drawn to the sight of a young boy, hardly 12 years old, running alongside the embankment. At first, I think he must be just a playful local, fond of crossing each bridge and waving to us as we pass. By the 10th or 11th bridge he pauses at, joyfully out of breath, I realise this is his modus operandi. For nearly two hours, the child runs alongside our boat, his waving and grinning no less enthusiastic for the many miles he has run. At last, when our boat returns to dock, he stops and takes a bow, to the applause of everyone on the boat. He seems genuinely surprised when I tip him.

For all the beauty of central St Petersburg, I find the city's Soviet-style outskirts, where we are moored, no less fascinating. There, old women set up little tailoring shops in the vestibules of chain supermarkets, which sell 'single-serving' portions of vodka (about a pint) for under a dollar. I buy several.

But it's once the Victoria sets sail that I begin to fall in love with the strangeness of the 'real Russia': the Russia we can see from outside our cabin windows. As we sail to Mandrogi, an imitation historic village on the Svir River, groups of men gather on the riverbank to cook shashlik, a traditional barbecue, smoke rising in the air. Men with accordions play folk songs that echo across the river.

As we leave urban Russia behind, heading north to where July is almost snowy and where no phone signal can reach, I grow attuned to this new rhythm. At Kizhi, a chilly and darkly romantic island in the heart of Lake Onega, I stop to marvel at the wooden 17th-century Church of the Resurrection. The sky is white and frozen; the marshy fields of the island — Russia's largest open-air museum — extend into the mist of the horizon. The gargantuan church complex casts a shadow out into the distance.

The guide, with typical Russian philosophism, explains the mystery of the churches' creation. Nobody knows exactly how the intricately carved, onion-domed wooden churches were constructed — according to legend, without the use of a single nail. "Who knows?" our local guide shrugs. "It's mystery. Is like life. Also mystery. You try to make decision, to know outcome. You can't."

Regardless, the Church of the Resurrection is haunting, its wooden interiors filled with candles, icons and priests. The light enters the room slantwise in the morning sun, reminiscent of the 'slanting rays of the setting sun' Dostoevsky wrote about in The Brothers Karamazov. At last I understand the meaning of that slant. On this particular Sunday morning, a service is about to begin, and a few old women follow the Orthodox priests into the complex, their heads covered, as is traditional, with kerchiefs. The votive candles flicker on either side of each silver and gold icon, a rare source of light: the church is not electrified. And even in July, the frost in the air is palpable.

We go onwards through the complex: exploring the historic houses, still inhabited by a few re-enactors spinning wool and selling crafts, as well as an enormous ginger tabby cat. "He has own Instagram," says the guide. (This turns out not to be true.)

Melancholy & intoxication

Meanwhile, I continue my mission to finally strike up a conversation with Igor. Night after night at the ship's Catherine the Great themed bar, I try new varieties of vodka, and practise what little Russian I know. Igor grows to tolerate my presence or, at least, he doesn't seem visibly annoyed when I, the only person under about 45 on the ship, decide to make my way to the near-empty bar for a drink.

I learn a little more about him. He had been a languages student in the North Caucasus. He wanted to try his hand on a French cruise ship one day, to see the world. He had once been in love. It ended badly. Still, I can't get him to smile.

Nowhere I visit captures the spirit of the Russian countryside, of melancholy and intoxication, quite like Goritsy, a small country town a few days' sail from St Petersburg. When I disembark onto the birch-lined riverbank onto a raucous riverside flea market hawking lace and furs and homemade vodka concoctions, I'm at once adopted by an elderly icon-seller.

Upon hearing about my graduate studies in theology, he immediately sets about trying to find me the perfect Orthodox icon to take home. He regrets that he's out of my favourite, the Dormition. In Eastern Orthodox thought, this is the moment the Virgin Mary falls asleep and her soul is brought to heaven by Jesus Christ, who is depicted as a maternal figure, cradling Mary's soul in his arms as he would a child. But perhaps I would take another classic Russian icon: a 19th-century wooden, hand-painted rendering of the Transfiguration, representing the moment Christ appears to his disciples as a divine being on Mount Tabor. "Is beautiful! Is old!" I agree, and buy it.

I wander Goritsy, heading to the nearby 14th-century Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, once the largest monastery in Russia. It's impossible, I find, to contend with the Russian Orthodox Church, or with orthodox imagery more generally. In today's Russia, the church is a powerful political force. The Russian patriarch, Kirill of Moscow, and President Vladimir Putin are allies who share a socially and politically conservative vision of the 'true Russia' — a religious place where church and state power are intertwined. But as I walk through the monastery, I realise how old this alliance between church and state in Russia really is.

A near-impregnable fortress, the monastery is full of churches and chapels containing treasures from both the medieval era and the 17th-century: from the hand-painted icons in the Dormition Cathedral to the 16th-century wooden chapels on the grounds.

In the distance, I can hear the plaintive sound of music: men's voices in a strangely discordant harmony. I slip away from my tour group. There, in one of the smaller chapels, a group of three Orthodox priests, clad in black robes, all with long brown beards, are rehearsing their music. The haunting sound of Eastern plainchant echos off the domes.

They stop, briefly, when I come closer. Then they nod at me and keep going, their voices melding together in chant. I leave as it begins to pour down rain, rushing under a protective archway. In the distance, I can hear another guide, no less fatalistic. "Yes, it's raining. But, you understand, it is Russia. Things can always be worse."

Beauty in the bleak

Slowly but inexorably, I come to fall in love with Russia. Although it isn't as obviously friendly or gregarious as the countries that had first awakened my love for the former Soviet Union, the work I have to put in so as to find my away around and meet people soon proves rewarding; their very brittleness becomes endearing. At the small city of Uglich, most famous for its frescoed churches, including the Church of Saint Demetrios on the Blood, built to commemorate the murder of Ivan the Terrible's young son, Dmitri, I meet a mysterious woman wandering the manicured parklands. She's dressed in ornate Edwardian garb, and will not consent to a photograph.

"I've been in Hello magazine," she sniffs. "I don't need you." I later learn her story from my shipmates: she dresses up in her elaborate costumes daily, in the hope of finding a wealthy husband among the tourists who stop along the shore as part of the cruises. This only intensifies her mystery and my affection for her, and for Russia.

Later, I stop by yet another outdoor accordionist. He's playing a sad but familiar song, one that I've by now heard several times along my cruise. At last, I ask a companion what it is. It's the Song of the Volga Boatmen, one of the most popular of Russian melodies. It's no more optimistic than anything else I've heard, a paean to hard work and repetitive days. Ey, ukhnyem!, the chorus goes. Ahoy, heave-ho. But by now, the music has become familiar, even comforting. Before I know it, I'm humming it, too.

Back on the ship, I find that, almost two weeks into the cruise, I'm starting to learn the Russian way. During my evening sessions with Igor, I no longer try to make him laugh. Instead I listen as he teaches me the words he deems necessary for me to make the most of my Russian experience: stopka, a shot of alcohol, as well as a few more profane terms.

Finally, I teach him a word of my own: 'Deadpan'. I explain to him that it encapsulates his personality fairly accurately. 'Dead. Pan.' His mouth twitches, which I take as a sign he likes it. "Yes," he decides. "I'm deadpan." He pours me an extra shot for my trouble.

As the Victoria sails into Moscow, docking at Rechnoy Vokzal, the old Soviet river-port, complete with an enormous, charcoal-grey monument to the humble working boatman, Igor decides that I need to try every kind of vodka on the menu: each one a stopka.

As one might predict, I stumble off to bed, and wake up the next morning to an excruciating headache. As I sleepwalk to breakfast, I catch sight of Igor coming down the hallway. He takes one look at me, struggling to put one foot ahead of the other. Then, and only then, does Igor smile.


Getting there & around
Aeroflot flies daily from Gatwick and Heathrow to Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport. British Airways also offers daily flights from Heathrow to Moscow's Domodedovo Airport and St Petersburg's Pulkovo Airport.  

When to go
While the Uniworld sailing runs May to October, aim for the warmest part of the year, between June and August.

How to do it
Uniworld offers the Imperial Waterways of Russia cruise, sailing on the River Victoria, a 13-day itinerary which alternates every two weeks between St Petersburg-to-Moscow and Moscow-to-St Petersburg. Prices start at £4,648 per person, including meals, most excursions, and wine with dinner.

Published in the April 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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