On my Russian cruise last August, I tried to drink in all I could of that fascinating country and its people, yet knew I was only getting a sip.
Like the blind men trying to describe an elephant, each with a wildly different idea, I can only convey my own limited perceptions.
The ship made several stops along the rivers and canals we traveled during this “Waterways of the Tsars” cruise. Ironically, the tsars weren’t able to travel between St. Petersburg and Moscow via these waterways, as the canals and locks connecting the rivers and lakes weren’t constructed until the 1930s. Forced labor was provided by prisoners shipped in from Siberian camps.
I visited a school in Kirillov, a home in Uglich, and an historic monastery, among other sites.
The gray-brick school building looked like one of the U.S. public schools built in the 1950s or ’60s. Students were out for the summer, but several teachers and high-school-age girls came to meet with tour groups. In one classroom, long tables displayed piles of crocheted and handcrafted items students had made. I bought a cloth doll, cleverly constructed to be Red Riding Hood on one side and her grandmother on the other. When the two-faced head was turned upside down and the long skirt pulled inside out, it became a scary wolf.
The children, in costume, sang and danced for us visitors. I was delighted by the crafts and entertainment, and appreciated the Russians opening their school for us during their vacation. It was an upbeat visit until we saw a hallway bulletin board memorializing dozens of students, all of whom had enlisted in the military and been killed in action.
When 15 or so of us tourists made use of the school’s bath room facilities, the toilets couldn’t handle it, and we stopped them all up, possibly by flushing toilet paper. We informed our guide. I felt disheartened and guilty, especially since we couldn’t do anything to fix it.
That afternoon, we visited the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, founded in the 14th century and home to stunning art, icons and ceremonial items. I was overwhelmed by so many elaborate paintings and embroidery, gilded crosses, icons and chalices. The guardians of this ancient treasure allowed no photographs.
One item on display was the St. John Lestvichnik Church’s colorful iconostasis, a wall of paintings in gold and red hues. Russian Orthodox churches traditionally have at least one iconostasis. The painted wall is sectioned, each panel representing a scene from the Bible.
Russia is famous for religious icons, which are paintings of the Holy Family, usually Madonna and Child, partially covered by silver settings in gold leaf. Our guide that day, Oksana, explained that carved silver icon coverings are placed over the entire painting except for head, hands and feet. She told us she had an icon at home, treasured for years. When taking it apart one day to clean it, she found it was only painted on the face, hands and feet.
Although many visitors would like to purchase antique icons, we were told Russia bans taking them out of the country.
That night we dined on local food: marinated pork and cabbage, artichoke-and-greens salad and meat dumplings. All delicious.
Another stop on our way to Moscow was in the small town of Uglich.
We were invited to a resident’s home for “moonshine,” yes, homemade spirits. Vodka, of course! Our hostess, Leeza, was an energetic teacher with a green thumb. A large, bountiful garden flanked this modest house, which appeared to have been added onto over the years. Twelve of us visitors sat around her dining room table entertained by her grandchildren. Leeza had prepared pickles, cucumbers and tomatoes from her garden and served them with thin brown bread on her lovely china.
We were each poured a finger of vodka and toasted one another. “Vashe zdarovie!” (To your health.) What fun at 8:30 in the morning! A few minutes later, Leeza cheerfully poured each of us another splash of vodka as custom called for a second toast. OK!
And then she came around again for a third toast. Good grief.
And finally, I learned tradition called for a fourth toast! That was a fun morning.
One of Leeza’s grandkids wore a Darth Vader T-shirt, which I made an effort to speak with him about, but he was uninterested in trying to communicate with a tipsy American.
My Viking cruise in Russia was educational, entertaining, humbling and amazing. When this coronavirus is conquered, I hope traveling will be safe again. There is nothing like exposing oneself to a different people and culture.
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