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Boating 2007 Moscow to St Petersburg FlickR album of these photos St Petersburg Page 2 - Volgograd, Astrakhan, and the Volga-Don canal to Rostov

October 2011 trip to Russia

1. St Petersburg to Volgograd (Leningrad to Stalingrad)

If you are particularly interested in boating, please see also the 'Boaters Page'.

We had been to Russia in 2007, taking the 1000-mile river cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg. If you haven't read my account of that trip, you may find it useful to read that first as an introduction to Russian cruising.

On that trip we had been fascinated to observe this intriguing country as it attempted to emerge from the Communist era into being a Western-focused member of the World's powerful nations. At that time we were carefully shown a highly sanitised version of the tourist trail from Moscow to St Petersburg, with limited opportunities to go 'off-track' and explore for ourselves. We had realised that the many 'interpreters' who accompanied us, were there not only to interpret the language but also to interpret what we thought we were seeing (such as a big hold in the road) into what they wanted us to see (the start of a major road-building initiative). Everybody we spoke to had been keen to speak to us but they were extremely careful what they said to us, always looking around to see who might be listening before they spoke. Hardly anybody criticised the authorities in any way, and nearly everybody loved Putin as a great leader with magnificent ambitions for his beloved country.

On this trip we found a very different atmosphere. For a start we were free to explore wherever we wanted, as much as we wanted, without being accompanied by interpreters - although of course this meant that we sometimes had major language difficulties. Nearly everybody seemed infinitely better informed about the world outside Russia than they had been, particularly where they could glean such information from the Internet, and felt that they had the freedom to speak their minds openly - even if that included criticism of the authorities. In particular we noticed that people's opinion of Putin had changed, for they now saw that his ambitions were personal rather than nationalistic, and there was a strong undercurrent of resentment at his methods.

In 2007 we had said that the conditions that had led to the Russian revolution of 1917, with a great divide between the rich and the poor, were in danger of repeating themselves. We had said that we wouldn't be at all surprised if there were to be another revolution within 10 years. In 2011 the situation seemed to be getting rapidly worse and we revised our estimate forwards by a few years, but even we were surprised when just three weeks after our return to England there were riots on the streets of Moscow, with people bearing placards against Putin and calling for a revolution. It came to nothing on this occasion, but the situation still remains frighteningly volatile.

We resolved back then that we would return one day to see more of this magnificent country, and in 2011 the opportunity presented itself to us. Every winter the entire river freezes over, with ice up to a metre thick covering the waters all the way to the Caspian Sea, 3000 miles to the south. The operators of the cruise ships take them away to spend the winters near the White Sea where they will not be frozen in, so once a year there is the chance to join this autumn exodus as a passenger on one of the ships, or to travel the return journey in the springtime. We just couldn't resist it when the postman brought us the offer of a place on the 2011 migration from Saint Petersburg to Astrakhan and then Rostov, at a price which was highly attractive because the ship operators seek to do no more than cover their costs of this essential journey.

As the departure date drew near, we set about completing the necessary formalities, including the extremely complex task of getting a Russian Visa. The new Russian website for doing this seemed unnecessarily complicated, asking hundreds of questions such as "Please list all the schools attended by both your parents, with dates" and "Are you now, or have you ever been, employed as a spy by the British Secret Service?", and it took me a solid 12 hours on the computer to complete the application.

Eventually all was ready. Bidding farewell to our two dogs who little realised that this time their 'holiday' in the kennels was to last for over 3 weeks (would they recognise us when we got back, we wondered) we set off for Heathrow. Our flight by Lufthansa was comfortable and efficient, although we discovered that even the rather bossy stewardesses didn't understand the Russian paperwork properly; we had quite a lively discussion when she tried to make us fill in a number of forms that were completely irrelevant but could have resulted in us having lengthy 'discussions' with the Customs Officers at St Petersburg.


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Our ship in 2007,
MS 'Sergei Yesenin'
Our ship in 2011,
MS 'Maxim Litvinov'

On arrival at our ship, the 'Maxim Litvinov', I was pleased to discover that my pre-trip studies of the Cyrillic alphabet had been relatively successful so that I could read the ship's name as we approached it. We were both struck by how much bigger it seemed than our previous ship the 'Sergei Yesenin', with the capacity for more than twice as many passengers, but as it was less than half full for this trip it seemed very spacious - and this meant that there were as many crew as there were passengers, so we could always find a crew member when we needed to (although the chance that they could speak any English was practically zero).

After a night on board, we spent the next morning in St Petersburg, with the highlight of the day being a few hours in the Hermitage Museum. Previously when we visited this amazing museum it had been so busy that we could hardly see anything, but this time it was almost empty because the tourist season had finished until next year and we had an amazing time there.


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Another view of Smolny
The church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood.
The Winter Palace, home of the Hermitage Museum
It seems that even Catherine the Great has a mobile phone now.

We also had a quick coach tour around the city to take photographs and buy souvenirs. We visited once again the Smolny nunnery and cathedral which was never consecrated or used for its intended purpose because someone committed suicide inside the cathedral shortly after its completion.; instead it was made into a home for widows and a school for the daughters of the gentry. Following this we returned to the ship, making just a short photo-stop on the way at the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, built on the spot where in 1881 Emperor Alexander II was assassinated.


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Modern graffiti at  the docks says 'Saint Petersburg'
The crew assemble on the deck as we prepare to leave St Petersburg
Dozens of balloons danced in our wake.
We join the steady stream of cargo boats heading up the river Neva

As we got ready to set off most of the ship's crew assembled on the decks, and as we pulled away from the shore they each threw a few coins over their shoulder for good luck, followed by dozens of balloons. There were a few tears shed too, as this was the last time for 6 months that any of them would see St Petersburg or any friends they had there.

All seemed to be going very well indeed as we settled down to enjoy the trip, but all was to change the next morning when I slipped on the wet decks and fell heavily. Upon finding that I was unable to walk after my fall I was confined to our cabin and attended by the ship's doctor who was a fearsome-looking middle-aged Russian woman. She was extremely competent however, and although I could have wished for her to be a little less enthusiastic with the many injections that she gave me, her attention was first-class. For a while, all I would be able to do was to stay in the cabin and watch the scenery through the window.


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The autumn colours of the forests on the banks were simply magnificent
The water levels in the river were extremely low, and at one point it became too shallow for us to proceed
There was a long wait while we waited for the water level beyond the next lock to improve

Fearing that I may have broken a bone in my hip, the doctor arranged for me to visit the small hospital at Yaroslavl which we would reach three days later. The hospital visit was fascinating; the bleak grey building was unlike a British hospital, and although the admissions area had clearly been repainted recently, everywhere else I saw was just grey concrete which looked in need of urgent maintenance. For example the entrance ramp was too badly cracked for the trolley to be wheeled up from the ambulance, and one wall of the X-ray room bore cracks and stains from a long-term leak from a water pipe. Talking to the surgeons via our tour guide who had come with me as interpreter, I was told that when they get money they don't waste it in paying high wages to the doctors, nurses, or surgeons because they shouldn't be doing the job for the money; and they don't waste it in redecorating the building because it's not actually likely to fall down; but they do spend it on ensuring that all their equipment is up to date and in perfect working order. I noticed that all the staff were cheerful and dedicated, that everywhere was scrubbed spotlessly clean, and that there was an air of calm efficiency everywhere; I felt that I would be happier being treated there than in some of the British hospitals that I've seen. However I wonder if I'd be allowed back in, after the admissions clerk had with wicked humour entered my occupation on their computer system as 'KGB agent'

Luckily the X-rays showed that nothing was broken so, hobbling on borrowed crutches, I was able to attend my birthday party that evening - particularly as the paramedic had over-ruled the ship's doctor by saying in halting English and with a big grin on his face "there is no contra-indication for Vodka". It was a great party: about 20 people joined me in the bar where our wonderful ship's guides had arranged for the chef to bake me a birthday cake. I received a card in Russian from the tour guide and a great many drinks, and I can confirm that sufficient glasses of Vodka and of Russian Champagne make an excellent pain-killer for a sore hip.


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Grey Stalinist flats like battery-farms for people as we approached the town of Nizhny-Novgorod ...
... are side-by-side with historic churches ...
... with the ancient Kremlin (citadel) overlooking them all
When we set off again we had a visit to the bridge. That's me with crutches and the Captains hat.

So we continued down the river. At each town the ship stopped so we could explore, and much to the ship's doctor's disapproval I managed to get ashore by bouncing down the stairways on my backside. We were given a surprising amount of freedom to go wherever we wanted, although this was limited by my being in a wheelchair at first and later on crutches. Every town had its own central Kremlin, an ancient walled fortress containing one or more magnificent Russian Orthodox churches, and inside the Kremlin at Kazan (the ancient capital of Tatarstan, where the Tartars came from) there was also a highly impressive modern mosque showing that the Russians of this area have a high level of religious tolerance.


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The gateway into the Kremlin at Kazan
The church inside the Kremlin
Inside the church
Inside the church
A brand-new mosque next door to the ancient church
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The beautiful ancient cathedral inside the Kremlin at Kazan
The view from the cathedral
The view from the cathedral
The leaning tower of Syuyumbike
The emblem of Kazan is a Gryphon. It looked to us very like a Welsh dragon.

The 60-ft high leaning tower has a fascinating legend attached to it. Ivan the Terrible besieged Kazan because Syuyumbike, Queen of the Tartars, refused to marry him. To end the siege she said that she would accept his proposal if he could prove his worth by building within one week a tower higher than any other in Kazan. Ivan built the tower, but the Queen defied him by climbing to the top and hurling herself to her death from the top. Of course, Ivan did not have time to build any proper foundations, and today the tower leans almost as sharply as does the famous tower of Pisa in Italy.

The scenery continued to be magnificent as we left Kazan and continued down river. On board I had been working hard at the Russian language classes but was still finding it quite difficult to progress beyond the most basic of topics without a crib-sheet to hand. By now we were also finding that although the food on board was excellent, certain items were being continually repeated and the selection of drinks in the bar was dwindling; we realised that the aim was to arrive at our destination with as little as possible left of the ship's supplies because she was about to be laid up for the winter. In fact they managed this very well indeed, and we were quite happy with the selection of items that were available; for example it wasn't a big hardship to discover that only three or four different types of vodka were left by the end of the journey.


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The docks at Kazan
The docks at Kazan
The autumn colours on the Volga banks were amazing
The 'sea' defences at Ulyanovsk are needed because the inland lake there is so huge
The memorial to the letter Yo, may it never be forgotten.

One town where I did not get off the ship, because there were too many steps for me to negotiate on my crutches, was Ulyanovsk which has just two main claims to fame. Firstly it was the birthplace of Lenin, and secondly it has - intriguingly - a monument to a letter of the alphabet. The letter Yo which looks like an 'e' with two dots over it is hardly ever used nowadays, as people just forget the dots and write an ordinary letter 'e', so this town has decided to erect a memorial to Yo in order that it shall never be forgotten.


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The square at Samara has a magnificent new concert hall ...
... and a beautiful old merchant's house ...
... and an ugly town hall ...
... which has an amazing secret through this side door.
The label over the side door (can YOU read the Cyrillic lettering?)

Samara was one of the many cities in this area which was entirely closed to outsiders until the 1990's. While tidying it up before opening it up to tourists, workers opened the side door of the town hall and discovered a staircase inside, which led down 150ft to a previously unknown bunker complex. Research indicated that this was Stalin's Bunker built secretly during the war. The construction had used only hand tools, so that the local residents would not know what was happening, and after the war it had been shut away so nobody knew it was there! It was turned into a museum - that large red sign over the door says "Bunker Stalin" in Cyrillic script - and we paid it a visit. I nearly couldn't go because I was unable to manage the steep stairs on my crutches and although there was a lift the caretaker's response was that it was for staff only and that if I was disabled I should stay at home. Our tour guide's response nearly melted the flat hat off his head and I was soon being shown into the lift. The caretaker's response was typical of the attitude to disability in Russia, and people we spoke to were amazed when we said they might have to change their attitude when they hold the World Student Games in 2013 - not to mention the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in 2014.

The bunker was fascinating. It had never actually been used by Stalin, but it was there just in case it was needed. Nearly three times as deep as Hitler's bunker, it contained an impressive office which was designed to fool visitors into thinking it was part of a major system of rooms by having several false doors (the only working door apart from the main entrance led to the toilet); there was also an impressively large conference room.


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A map showing the underground extent of Stalin's bunker
That's me again, sitting at Stalin's desk
Stalin's personal facilities suite
The conference room
This map was just for show - interestingly it shows the planned deployment of Soviet troops if the US had invaded through Europe during the Cold War

After Samara we went to Saratov, which until the 1990's  had also been a closed city. It is one of the few places where the Volga is narrow enough for a bridge, although it is quite an incredible bridge to behold. Once again we had a tour of the city.


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The bridge at Saratov
A Catholic church on Saratov
The new Opera House in Saratov
These figures over the doors of the Opera House are apparently supposed to represent dogs singing.

Saratov had celebrated its 400th anniversary in 1999, and had built a magnificent model of the city's waterfront showing its development through the ages; even a cruise-ship like ours was depicted. One universal theme in the busts here, and all around the town, was to honour Saratov's most famous son, Yuri Gagarin who was the first man in space in 1961. People we spoke to in the city, told us in hushed tones that his behaviour subsequent to the space flight had become an embarrassment to the authorities because he repeatedly claimed openly that he had not received the rewards that he had been promised, so they had arranged for him to become the test pilot for a MiG fighter which had then crashed in mysterious circumstances. The official reports, of course, say otherwise.


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Saratov's 400th anniversary plaque
The model represents Saratov's development through the ages
The model represents Saratov's development through the ages
Plaques of Saratov's famous citizens through the ages including Yuri Gagarin

And so, the day after leaving Saratov, we arrived in Volgograd for the rest of our journey. Previously and perhaps more commonly known as Stalingrad, our visit there was for me the most moving experience of the trip ...


Boating 2007 Moscow to St Petersburg FlickR album of these photos St Petersburg Page 2 - Volgograd, Astrakhan, and the Volga-Don canal to Rostov
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