Un­cover the lay­ered his­tory and tra­di­tions of Rus­sia on a river cruise from Saint Peters­burg – where op­u­lence reigns supreme – to its cap­i­tal, Moscow.


In the pit be­low the goldem­broi­dered the­atre scrim em­bla­zoned with a dou­ble­headed 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 dove­g­rey 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 meat­filled 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; salt­baked 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. vikingriver­

T HIS SPR EA D, F ROM LEFT Ris­ing above Red Square in Moscow, Rus­sia, the jewel-bright domes of St Basil’s Cathe­dral have lured both the faith­ful and myr­iad vis­i­tors since the mid-16th cen­tury, when its con­struc­tion was com­mis­sioned by Ivan the Ter­ri­ble; a view of the Krem­lin, a for­ti­fied com­plex in the heart of the cap­i­tal city, from the Moskva River. Hous­ing five palaces, four cathe­drals and en­closed by a gi­ant wall, it is the coun­try’s main mu­seum and the of­fi­cial (work­ing) res­i­dence of the pres­i­dent.

T HIS SPR EA D, CLOCK­WISE F ROM TOP LEFT Wooden nest­ing ma­tryoshka dolls are a sym­bol of the babushka, a strong ma­tri­arch and cen­tral fig­ure in the Rus­sian fam­ily; Ho­tel Na­tional’s op­u­lent Bel­uga restau­rant ( bel­ug­ is a pop­u­lar gas­tro­nomic at­trac­tion; birch trees along the Neva River dis­play au­tum­nal hues; an el­e­gant take on tra­di­tional food at Bel­uga: smoked pike with mush­room sauce, shal­lot con­fit and fried mush­rooms; Uglich, north of Moscow on the Volga River, boasts a vast sou­venir mar­ket with all man­ner of hand­painted trin­kets; with its emer­ald onion-shaped spires, the or­tho­dox Church of Eli­jah the Prophet is one of the best-pre­served mon­u­ments in Yaroslavl; from the 1700s un­til the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion of 1917, Saint Peters­burg’s lav­ishly baroque Win­ter Palace was the chief res­i­dence of the monar­chy. It is the main build­ing of the Her­mitage Mu­seum, and home to an ex­ten­sive art col­lec­tion.

T HIS SPR EA D, CLOCK­WISE F ROM OP­PO­SITE PAGE The mul­ti­hued ex­te­rior of Saint Peters­burg’s Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood stands out from the city’s typ­i­cally strict ar­chi­tec­tural pro­por­tions and colour com­bi­na­tions, and was built in mem­ory of Alexan­der II, who was as­sas­si­nated in 1881; Pavil­ion Hall of the Small Her­mitage at the Win­ter Palace; Bel­uga head chef Evgeny Meshch­eryakov’s in­no­va­tive ex­pres­sions of Rus­sian cui­sine have gar­nered the restau­rant in­ter­na­tional ac­claim; clad in tra­di­tional at­tire, a mu­si­cian plays the bayan, a type of chro­matic but­ton ac­cor­dion de­vel­oped in Rus­sia in the early 20th cen­tury.

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