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Cruise Ship Review
Viking River Cruises

MV Sergei Kirov

by Tim Josephson

If you're looking for a very different two week cruise experience, here's an idea: try a river cruise on the MV Sergei Kirov from St. Petersburg to Moscow in Russia. This is a cruise on a real "boat," visiting these two great cities of northern Russia for several days each, and for several more days visiting a few of the smaller towns along the rivers, lakes and canals that connect them. Unusual for a cruiser like me is that this trip was more about an adventure in Russia, rather than the typical cruise where the ship is a big part of the destination(s).

Beginning in St. Petersburg

Catherine's Palace
Tim Josephson in front of Catherine's Palace

Russia is the largest country in the world and has produced some of the most dynamic and powerful rulers ever. Up in her northwest corner, the largest lake in Europe, Lake Ladoga, dribbles into the little Neva River, which then drains into the strategic Gulf of Finland. Here, several of Russia's rulers have sought to create a "window on Europe" which would enable them to exert influence over the Baltic Sea, and then on to even greater impact to the west and south.

In the 1700's Peter the Great sought to create a stronghold out of the muddy marshes at the mouth of the Neva River. It was to be a city as significant as London or Amsterdam. Perhaps if you've been on a Baltic cruise, St. Petersburg has been featured and so you know of her strategic importance and great beauty. For probably more people though, St. Petersburg got named Petrograd or Leningrad and was then forgotten in the dustbin of so much history. Well, while we have been distracted with other things, the city and her extraordinary examples of 18th century architecture, design and decoration have been brought back from the rubble of World War II, out of the communist era, and is renamed St. Petersburg once again. Indeed, painstaking labor and some big bucks have restored the too-long-silent magnificence to this city. There is still much more work to do, just in restoration, that you wonder how it all could have been built in the first place. But then he [Peter the Great] was a very great leader.

St. Petersburg is rich with many grand structures. Even if there were not a single heroic sculpture or adornment, the great bridges of the city are proud and strong. The city's architecture is an 18th century dream. The interiors of the mansions, palaces, churches and museums, even without one piece of furniture or art in them, are breathtaking. Everything is dripping with gilded Baroque flourishes: wainscotings and walls and moldings and sconces and painted ceilings as fine as anything in the rest of Europe. The parquetry floors of the city easily deserve a book of their own. Yet all these attractions also begin to tell the story of the envy with which Russia saw the rest of Europe ahead of itself, and so brought all of the trappings here, virtually intact. I was absolutely riveted by it all, just slightly different and so far from its actual inspiration.

Any guidebook can suggest where to see all these fantastic sights. On a very short visit, I humbly propose that you:

  1. Spend as much time in the Hermitage Museum as you can. It is one of the greatest museums in the world, even if they casually open the windows for air and have incandescent lamps burning the Rembrandts. Among all its other significant treasures, they have finally put on display some of the loot lifted from Berlin, from which came many of the superb possessions of the doomed German Jews.

  2. Have a long look at St. Isaac's Cathedral (and all around Winter Palace Square) and go into the 43,000 square foot marble, malachite, lapis and semi-precious-stone-upholstered interior, if you are so moved.

  3. Have a sunny (I hope) stroll around Peter and Paul Fortress, including the Baroque elegance of the Cathedral (where the Romanovs are buried). Do have a look out of the Fortress's Neva Gate for a very nice view across the river to the Palace Embankment. They do not mow the parks or lawns anywhere, and dandelions are considered a sprinkling of grace.

  4. Leaving the city, go out to the vast, slightly more neo-classical Catherine's Palace, especially for the glittering Great Hall and the slowly-being-recreated-from-photos Amber Room. Also, away from the city, go to the earlier and smaller Peterhof Palace with its fantastic fountains spilling into a canal, then into the Gulf of Finland. Both of these palaces are undergoing thorough restoration due to the damages of weather and time, World War II, and the neglect of communism. A few of the old rooms were not damaged, so you can see what they look like after years of soot and climatic changes. At first I was not sure I liked the newly refurbished rooms, but of course now they look just like they did during the days when Peter the Great and the empresses Elizabeth and Catherine the Great walked the halls with their private thoughts.

Peterhof Palace
Peterhof Palace

Some of these visits and tours were included with our package; some were not but were modestly priced. Interesting souvenirs included the popular Matrushka dolls, highly detailed miniature painted boxes, small intricately carved wooden boxes, and amber fashioned into all sorts of personal decoration. All the icons on the streets are variously well handcrafted fakes, so don't pay too much, or be afraid you'll get caught with contraband. We found very good shopping selection and value at City Art.

Here, so far north, the flat land gives up a great big sky, huge as life, with long sunsets that seem to last forever into the "white nights." It seemed always "light out," even as the voyage progressed east and south. So now to tell of the ship and the cruise, and then on to Moscow. (I don't know whether to mention the mosquitoes now or later, but it doesn't really matter because they were with us everywhere [well, not on the boat]. In fact, they may as well have been listed as an ongoing activity [for some people] in the Daily Log. They think I'm their version of filet mignon.)

The Sergei Kirov

Sergei Kirov

The boat was very much not like that to which most of us cruisers are accustomed, and I had not been advised in advance. River cruisers are necessarily more compact than oceangoing vessels; I could have figured it out for myself, given enough time (or sense). In any case, the 1988 German-built, 424 ft. MS Sergei Kirov, accommodating 240 passengers and 130 staff, was a fantasy in Formica, a study in spartan. My cabin was a "standard" (miniature) 120 square feet. Yes there was a wardrobe, but no drawers; Yes on shelves and a couple of small cabinets. The bathroom was the most convenient ever, with only one place to sit for the sitting business, and the same one place to stand for all the other businesses. Just grab that spigot from the sink, put it up on a bracket on the wall, and you have a handy shower! Sorry to report problems with the air conditioning, apparently only on my side, on my deck. That thing could roar! But pump out cool air? Not for this trip. But wait, you can open the window, like in an old fashioned train! Too bad there was no blackout shade or drape. In any case, the entire ship was relentlessly immaculate. And the Deluxe Cabins and Suites were (again) spartan, but spacious.


Food & Dining

The food was outstanding -- Northern European modern gourmet, slightly nouvelle here and there, but with some cream added everywhere possible: soups, sauces, desserts. Someone's German "nana" must have been in the kitchen. The dining experience was formal. Lunch was always 3 courses, dinner 4 courses and a cheese bar. To my surprise, there was very little choice -- well, none really, except at the almost identical breakfast buffet each morning, where the only difference was whether it was sausages or bacon, and how the eggs were done. Several times there was the identical salad bar buffet. Five nights we were offered a choice between two entrées. We would have liked to have seen more Russian food.

The soups were very good, the desserts lovely, and the presentation five star. Wines were modest in selection and price. Service by the very young and pretty Russian waitresses was faultless and smooth. For the 50% of the time we could not understand each other, usually some hand signs would suffice, or we would all decide it was not desperately important. The Cruise Director and Hotel Manager and most of their staffs were excellent with English, and right on top of all the activities.

Getting Around

Note that there is a complete absence of facilities for the disabled on this boat. Our brochure stated that riverboats have no elevators, and that the ship's doorways, cabin doors and restrooms are not accessible by standard wheelchairs. The same inaccessibility applies to motor coaches. This is the norm throughout Russia. Most other assistive devices can be used. Always check with your travel agent about the ability of ships and tours to accommodate the physically challenged. Even just a difficult knee will make getting around the boat a special effort, since dining, lectures and other activities are all held on different levels. As for keeping up with fast moving tours (and they can be breathless through some of the more popular attractions), you're really on your own.


Russian Folk GroupOur first sailing afternoon brought us to the humble little village of Svirstroy. A lively young folk band with about six guys and gals in peasant garb greeted us. As we walked down the dock there were children and grandmothers offering us wildflowers, tulips and irises, freshly cut from their own gardens and put into old soda bottles of cold water (all for a small donation). Our path lead nowhere in particular, with a few booths here and there containing crafts the townspeople had made. There was something so genuine, so unpretentious here. They were open and honest about their offerings and their life. It was so dear to me. It broke my heart to think of how full of hate and fear we once were of each other. I could only wonder how mindlessly, how precariously we had come many times to such an unimaginable fate with each other. In a place of supposed small significance I was overwhelmed with the idiocy, the horror and the waste of all the bombs we both still have stacked up. After a refreshing lesson in Human Being 101A, I felt selfconscious returning to the boat, the comparative luxury, the indulgence.

Kizhi Island

Transfiguration CathedralAfter a sunny day "at sea" in Lake Ladoga, the largest freshwater body in Europe, our fog-beshrouded vessel finally blasted into the sunlight and revealed the approach to the mostly deserted Kizhi Island, where we would have a walking tour. Local guides (as throughout) led us to several restored wooden structures -- a modest but meaning-filled chapel, a couple of interesting farmhouses fitted out with all the tools and implements of life in the 19th century, and then even a small wooden hand-bell tower that rang the most magical music. However, the main feature here, and it can be seen for miles, is the amazing wooden Cathedral of the Transformation, assembled somehow without a single nail. It shines softly in the sun because its 22 unpainted domes are made of silvery aspen. I made sure to count the domes, of course. The floor plan is always that of a cross, so with one dome for the center and one for each wing, every Russian Orthodox church or cathedral will have 5, 9, 13, 17, or 21, and so on, domes. This huge building has an extra one over the entranceway. We were sad to discover it was closed for restoration. By the way, I always thought of the domes as "onion" domes, and had always heard them referred to in that way. But we were told the shape is meant to resemble the flame of a candle, which in turn represents the immortality of the human soul. The domes are now infinitely more beautiful and precious to me. I must add it was painful to see such a magnificent structure gently disintegrating into the air, absolutely unprotected from the ravages of nature and time.

Learning Aboard

Another day "at sea" featured all the ship's activities. These would include Morning Gymnastics with Oksana (a young female member of the cruise staff), one of the lectures on the changing nature of the new Russia by Sev Marinov of the Mikhail Gorbachev Foundation, and of course Russian language lessons given by our very sweet Cruise Director, Marina. These lessons would always end with our little group singing a Russian folk song. There were also geography and dance lessons and enough other activities to fill anyone's dance card.

Gradually (with some bits dragged back up from the dark depths of memory) we came to get a better grasp on the tremendous history of Russia. It is an endlessly fascinating story of Vikings and Finns, of Mongol-Tartar invasions, of Constantine and the Poles, of the 17th century Time of Troubles, of the great men who fought and won and lost and won again, and of the Romanovs. Perhaps ultimately the greatest influence on Russia was the intervention and prominence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Many people are devout, having had this religion handed down through the generations.

Up the Volga

As we traveled southeast through more rivers, lakes and locks, we came to the town of Yaroslavl, on a promontory towering over the Volga, where the Kotorosl River comes in. It has been occupied for well over a thousand years and is named for the 10th century Rostov Prince, Yaroslavl the Wise. Our morning visit almost coincided with President Vladimir Putin's afternoon visit, so the town was spiffed and looking good. By bus we viewed the 17th century historical district, the church of St. Elija the Prophet, then stopped for a visit at the Monastery of the Transfiguration for a little shopping and a colorful folkloric show.

Ipatievsky Monastery CathedralKostroma
Later the same day, just a few hours back up the Volga, was Kostroma with the important Ipatievsky Monastery, the eventual cradle of the Romanov Dynasty. Beginning in the 14th century, this site has been adopted by strong, ruling men as their holy place and refuge. It is protected with massive walls. It has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, and endowed over and over again. The Romanovs were the last to rebuild the rather austere gold domed church. Also on the grounds is a residence remodeled into a small museum for Romanov memorabilia. I was particularly taken by a very bad but earnest love poem written in English by Nicholas II to his betrothed Alexandra, who was at the Court of St. James, her childhood home.

Once more back up the Volga brought us to Uglich, one of Russia's oldest cities. We walked through the vendor-filled square, which was about to host a holiday festival. Out on a point in the river is a small 1692 church, which was founded on the spot where the stepbrother of Ivan the Terrible, acting on instructions given in a fit of Ivan's famous anger, murdered Ivan's son, Prince Dimitri, in 1591. Hence the church became known as the Church of Prince Dimitri-on-the-Blood. Actually, many churches we'd seen here and there in Russia had been founded on particularly attractive sites where someone of significance happened to be murdered "on-the-Blood." I especially noted a previous one, in St. Petersburg where a monumental church, a riot of late 19th century Russian Revival architectures, had the name of "The Church on-the-Spilled-Blood." Something about the spilling seemed quite treacherous.

On to Moscow

Then on to the Moscow River and its amazing system of locks. As we approached Moscow, it seemed like we were going to go up and up forever. All about the countryside there were handsome, newly minted dachas to see. We wondered who could be so special to have a brand new dacha for their weekends (hurricane window covers and all). After awhile, we slowly began to wonder how there could be so many special people. It would seem the years since the end of socialism have been very good.

Where the Moscow River flows through the capital city, it is lined with lush parks as if it were a series of shapely, connected lakes. I found the city architecture in general to be notably burdened by the enormous weight of Stalin's ponderous version of the Georgian revival style. There were still many examples of Khrushchev's sad "projects," inspired by a trip to New York and Chicago to see ours when they were new and full of hope.

Kremlin GateOur city touring took us first to the Kremlin, which, like St. Petersburg, has several superb examples of buildings in the 18th century Italian Baroque style. We hungered into the State Armory Chambers to feast on the richest treasures of Russia from the ages, and indeed we were sated. Blown away is more like it. From centuries past there were the wooden coaches in which royals traveled. Some older ones were as heavy and crudely carved as if from the middle ages. Then there were some lighter ones, and even several from France, finely carved, painted and gilded, and with beveled glass all around, looking as if they wanted to fly. There was even Catherine the Great's huge, heavy winter sleigh, which took 100 horses to pull. Apparently she loved to travel back and forth in winter between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

There were glorious gowns, ceremonial garments and precious dressing implements - some from important moments in world history. Also on view were the stunningly bejeweled crowns, orbs, scepters and other symbols of state. Alongside these were all styles of weapons, shields, and other armor devices into which were embedded various precious stones in beautiful patterns. There were extremely fine examples of gold, silver and ceramic tableware of Russian and imported origin that hint of a barely comprehensible level of luxury in dining. And, most important, there were the Fabergé Eggs. Beyond their exquisite workmanship and precious worth, their true value lies in the meaning that each was specifically meant to convey as deeply personal expressions of love among the last royal family. Each has such a special story. Sadly, very few were on display; apparently they like to travel.

That evening, many of us attended a performance of the world famous Moscow Circus. I had never been to a circus and was a little timid, since I'm sensitive about how animals are treated. Of course, a good circus is about much more than animals, and so there were delights for children of all ages. The acrobatic and high wire acts were amazing. However, towards the end of the show, seals, an elephant, and lastly some bears were made to do things that were perhaps cute to some people, but not of the animals' true behavior, and it seemed wrong. Then it became almost too much for me to watch, as at the very end there was a difficult failure in the bear act, so the show really did end up badly.

Honestly, we did not have time to do justice to the many fine sights of Moscow. There are famous museums and other treasuries with outstanding historical collections which we never got near. On a related topic, security seemed lax or even nonexistent at many sites housing important and irreplaceable artifacts. It might be because everyone's not walking around packing a gun.

Our Last Day in Russia

Our last full day in Russia took us out of Moscow, through different countryside with gently rolling hills, and copses thick with birch trees here and there among the fields. We saw Victorian-era dachas with traditional gingerbread woodwork painted in bright colors, and plots of collective farms. Since it was a Saturday, everybody was out tending to their vegetable gardens. It all seemed so serene and restful.

Our destination was the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius in Sergiev Posad. The meaning of this site, a UNESCO World Heritage site, could be likened to the Vatican for Roman Catholics. In the 14th century an obscure monk, destined to become the patron saint of Russia, founded here a small settlement and monastery, which became the center of Russian Orthodoxy. Over the centuries it was heavily fortified, and several times it mounted successful defenses which saved Russia. It survived socialism as an art and history museum, but came back to its intended life immediately upon glasnost and perestroika. For most Russians, this is a place of holy pilgrimage. The iconostasis (usually five rows of icons) of the two main cathedrals are among the most unusual and priceless monuments of all of Russian art. These and other buildings on the crowded premises of Sergiev Posad house the greatest collections of icons in the world.

Cathedral of the AssumptionBeing inside the Trinity Cathedral and the Cathedral of the Assumption were the most moving experiences of my visit to Russia. I had an overwhelming awareness of being in the absolute presence of God. Holy Masses were being sung at both cathedrals (musical instruments are not allowed in Russian Orthodox churches), the echoing voices evoking the most mysterious impressions. It was awesome.

Ultimately, Russia, as any other large country, eludes definition and defies any nice, clear generalizations. It is too large for that. During one lecture, our Uniworld Professor Sev Marinov described the 146 million people of Russia as a "tossed salad," compared to the United States' "melting pot." It made me wonder if the States haven't come to be more like a tossed salad, and perhaps that's not a bad idea.

Photos courtesy of Tim Josephson.


Tim Josephson is a long time San Francisco-based Mariner, passionate about blue water cruising, and frequent contributor to the SeaLetter. Tim's 3-part travelogue of his 1999 Crystal Symphony world cruise was a favorite of our readers. Tim can be reached for questions or comment at: timjosephson@juno.com.

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