Friday, October 19, 2012

Falling for Mother Russia

 The holiday I've just taken in Russia began and ended in cities. We joined a river cruise in St Petersburg, spent three sunny days there, and six days later we arrived in Moscow. And these were wonderful places, and deserve a blog post to themselves. But when I think of this journey - because it felt more journey than holiday - it is a scene such as the one above that plays on the screen in my head. This was the very first place we stopped at after sailing all night from St Petersburg up the Neva river for 150 miles: Svirstroy. Every cruise that goes along these waterways stops here, it seems, but apart from a small enclosure of wooden stalls selling crafts and traditional goods, the village - population c.1,000 - seems utterly isolated. It began to rain as we went ashore, and the golden leaves lay everywhere on the muddy roads. The people selling their goods were quiet and it made me embarrassed to be a tourist - the very fact of our being there meant we were rich. But we passed so many of these small settlements of wooden houses, with their hens (firmly fenced in because of wolves in the forest) and their vegetable gardens, the produce from which was being stored in cellars before the winter, that they seem to have become "Russia" in my mind.

Of course, there were special sites to visit. Kizhi Island, on the vast Onega Lake, is a World Heritage Site in Russian Karelia of wooden churches, chapels and houses rebuilt there to preserve them. The church in the photo - the 22-dome Church of the Transfiguation - dates from 1714, and you can read more about it here. We walked along gravel paths in wonderfully clear air, the sound of bells - deep from the church, tinkling and musical from a distant chapel - constantly in our ears. I wanted to stay.
We visited more churches than I've ever seen on a holiday. I learned that the word that has become synonymous with Soviet rule - Kremlin - is in fact the term used for the central fortified area in any town, often centred on a monastic foundation. So in a little town called Uglich, I was amused to hear our guide say nonchalantly that the Kremlin walls, being wooden, had disintegrated and the local authorities had decided not to rebuild them. There were a few monks living in the monastery in the upper pic, at Kirilov, but most of the buildings are now museums of various kinds, fascinating in other ways. And yet the people - or the state - are rebuilding churches from scratch - the cathedral in Yaroslavl, on the left, is new - they are still finishing the decorative tiling on the exterior. It was extraordinary to see this.

 Kirilov was some distance from the port we landed at - Goritsi, on the Volga-Baltic waterway south of Lake Onega. It was becoming colder, and the sky was grey, the sun was grey - even the trees had fewer leaves. The picture on the right is  shot from our coach back to the boat - I wanted to show the kind of houses in the village, with their tin roofs and vegetable plots. There was little sign of life there - it seemed that all the locals had gone to the port to sell hats and linen shirts to the visitors. A dog tried to follow us onto the ship.
By the time we reached Uglich (left) we knew this carefree time of slipping through the countryside was nearing an end. The demands of the city and the long days of sightseeing would be upon us again. No more vodka-tasting (4 glasses of different vodkas in an hour), doll-painting or Russian lessons; no more swooping ashore for a few hours to dance walzes in the Governor's House in Yaroslavl, whereMr B was favoured with a dance with a beautiful Russian girl in 19th century dress and nearly died of heat in his winter togs. Soon we would be negotiating terrifying road-crossings, epic traffic jams and unfamiliar street-signs again, and then we would have to pass the nerve-racking scrutiny of the border guards at the airport and hope that our visa was still valid. We were cruise virgins in a vast land in a ship full - or as near as dammit - of Australian tourists, but guided by a dashing Russian captain with a saturnine smile. I loved it. There are hundreds more photos going up on my Flickr stream that may do more justice than these words.

When we said goodbye to people who had looked after us - the lecturer on Russian history, the lovely deputy cruise director - they said "Do not forget our country". We had been given the bread and salt on our arrival on board, and when we came ashore at Uglich. Perhaps that helped to cement us to the land. Whatever happened, there is a part of me still gliding through the dark water, with the golden woods of Mother Russia slipping past on either side.

*I've been defeated, in the end, in my attempt to lay this post out pleasingly. Too many photos, I reckon.


  1. Tbis was really fascinating, Christine, and I love your photos. Russia is one of the many places I would like to visit, but DH, having traversed it on the Trans-Siberian railway in his gap year back in the 60s, can't be persuaded. :-)

    As far as post formatting is concerned, this problem of placing photos and text properly on the page is one of the many things people are complaining about with the new Blogger interface. Hopefully they will improve it over time.

    1. You'll have to work on him! I usually stick to one photo per post, so don't run into problems, but I've so much I want to reflect on, it's difficult.