Russia
St. Petersburg to Moscow by river


Tuesday 12th June 2018

Our flight left Heathrow at about 9.30am and landed at St. Petersburg at 2.40pm local time – European Russia is two hours ahead of BST. There were long queues at Immigration, taking up to five minutes per person. Heaven only knows how they'll cope now that the influx of hundreds of thousands of football supporters is starting ahead of the first World Cup match on Thursday evening.

We were met at the airport by a guide from the ship, the 'Volga Dream'. Most unusually, in our experience, the driver simply left the luggage doors on the coach open for us all to load our own bags while he lounged around – no gratuity for him, then!

The drive to the ship, moored on the Neva river to the south-east of the city centre, to only half an hour. We were welcomed on board with ice-cold vodka (surprisingly nice, actually!) and canapés and in no time we were in our cabin.

The ship carries only 109 passengers, so it's the smallest we've ever sailed on. The bathroom is quite modern, although the rest of the ship is traditional dark wood and chintz furnishings. The Hotel Director speaks slow but precise English, but most of the briefings were carried out by her two colleagues, Natalya and Elena, who will be our tour guides until we leave St. Petersburg on Friday. There's a group of a dozen German-speaking guests with their own guide, but in total there are only 68 passengers on board.

Dinner this evening was a buffet, with the sort of north German/Baltic dishes that I enjoy, e.g. meatballs in tomato sauce, herring and sliced onions, pike perch, curried eggs etc. We were joined at our table by the on-board lecturer, Tony Brenton, who, it emerged, was the British Ambassador to Russia from 2004 to 2008. He'll be doing daily lectures on Russia and its history and politics once the ship starts heading down the Volga. A really interesting man!

We also bumped into him again on deck as we admired the setting sun. He explained that at this time of year it's still not completely dark, even at midnight, i.e. 'White Nights'. This is something quite special for people from the UK and further south. On the other hand, he said that, in winter, while he was living in Russia, he'd arrive for a morning meeting in the dark, and when he left the meeting a couple of hours later it was dark again, meaning that he'd missed the entire day's daylight!

The daily programme said that at 9pm there'd be live music in the lounge, but when we got there there we found only two other guests present and the pianist was just tinkling the sort of night club tunes that you'd get on any ship, and not very well at that, so we slipped away. We'd expected something a little more local!

On top of this, where was everybody else? There's a Metro station only a few minutes walk away, but surely everyone can't have gone into town? Maybe we'll find out tomorrow.

Tomorrow we have a bus tour of St. Petersburg in the morning, and we're off again after lunch to Catherine's Palace. We've also booked for an 'Evening Boat Ride Tour' into the city – we were uncertain about this until our new 'Best Friend' Sir Tony said it was unmissable ;o)

Wednesday 13th June 2018
St. Petersburg

I took a photo last night at 10.45, after the sun had gone down, and the sky was still light. Today's sunrise was at 3.15am, we were told, and there's still a week before the solstice!

Breakfast this morning was a little hurried as our coach trip was leaving at 8.30. We were taken into St. Petersburg along busy roads that the guide assured us were much quieter than usual due to the very fine weather. We had a photo stop on the banks of the Neva where it divides into the 'Small Neva' and the 'Big Neva', with a view across to the Hermitage Museum that we're visiting tomorrow.

What's striking is that none of the older buildings in the city are more that four storeys high, and that the few newer and taller structures scattered along the skyline just look wrong.

We had a long stop at the Peter and Paul Fortress that entirely occupies one of the city's 42 islands. This was a defensive position built by Peter the Great after he recaptured the whole city area from Sweden at the start of the eighteenth century and gained access to the Baltic.

Within the fortress stands the Peter and Paul Cathedral, an elaborate and elegant baroque church that houses the remains of the Romanov dynasty from Peter the Great himself down to the last Tsar and his family who were murdered in 1917. The bones of the latter were tracked down in the 1990s and their identities were established by DNA tests, even though, post mortem, they'd been dismembered and attempts had been made to destroy their remains with acid and fire.

The amount of gold leaf that had been used to decorate the interior must have been enormous and was shown off impressively by today's sunlight streaming in. While we were there we were led into a small chapel where five male singers sang impressively to us 'a capella'. The harmonies were staggering, and the bass singer sang so powerfully that you could almost feel the building vibrate.

Leaving the fortress we crossed one of the city's many bridges for a photo stop at St. Isaac's Cathedral, with its forest of red granite columns each of which weighed over 100 tons! Then we drove back along the river bank for lunch on the 'Volga Dream'. At 2.15pm it was back on the coach and off to the town of Pushkin to see 'Catherine's Palace'.

Catherine was the second wife of Peter and also his successor on the throne. The palace was intended for entertainment and elaborate regal functions and was later greatly extended by Peter and Catherine's daughter, Elizabeth. The largest and most impressive room had beautiful parquet flooring whose protection requires visitors to wear shoe coverings. There's a huge painting on canvas that runs the length of the ceiling and the walls are covered with mirrors and golden statuary. With windows on both of the long sides of the room it was flooded with light today and quite a spectacle.

Another room is internationally famous in its own right – the 'Amber Room', gifted to Tsar Alexander II by Friedrich of Prussia. Its contents were looted by the Nazis in WW2 and its amber is missing to this day, so it has been entirely reconstructed as an accurate replica. In fact, as they retreated the Germans did huge damage to the palace that a generation of Russians have painstakingly restored.

After a walk in the palace's beautiful English-style gardens it was back on the coach for a return to the ship and dinner at 7.15pm. Meals are buffet-style, and we're wondering if they'll switch to a more formal service menu once we set sail.

At 8.10pm we boarded our coach again and set off into the city for the 'Evening Boat Ride Tour' that Gill booked last night. The boat was like those that ply the canals in Amsterdam, i.e. sitting very low in the water in order to slip under the many bridges on the canal system. We sat in the open deck area at the stern, and by the end of the tour at about 10.30pm we were pretty cold.

St. Petersburg looks absolutely wonderful in the light of the setting midsummer sun, and we were both really glad that we'd booked this tour.

One interesting thing about the city and its bridges is that, in order to let cargo ships through, many of them can be raised. It has become a tradition that, at 1.30am each night, all of the bridges open up until 5am, letting ships pass through. Until a high bridge was built some years ago on the ring road further up the Neva this meant that if you were on the 'wrong' side of the river at 1.30am you were effectively stranded there until morning. These days the opening of the bridges attracts spectators – one of our fellow guests has witnessed this and says that it's an impressive spectacle.

It's now 11.25pm and I've just looked out of the window – the sun's gone down but it's still light :o)

Thursday 14th June 2018
St. Petersburg

Another full day in St. Petersburg. We spent this morning in the Fabergé Museum, a fairly new addition to the city's cultural landscape. Set in one of the many former palaces a collection of the company's creations is being slowly assembled, probably at great expense. And it's not all about eggs ;o)

Fabergé was set up in the 19th century and hit its peak between 1880 and the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Easter Egg tradition seems to have begun after Carl Fabergé presented the Russian Empress with the first ever Fabergé Egg. Thereafter, he was commissioned to make one every year, and it was said that it always took him until the following Easter to complete it.

Fabergé was given complete freedom of design, with the only pre-condition being that each one should be unique and contain a surprise. The first ever completed egg was on display, consisting of a simple white, undecorated, enamelled egg of normal size that contained a golden 'yolk', which itself contained a golden chicken. After that, the eggs became progressively larger and more elaborate, culminating in the inclusion of portraits of the Imperial Family, clocks, end even mechanisms that opened the egg when a particular part of them was pressed.

After the Revolution the Imperial treasures, including the eggs, were auctioned off and most items went abroad. The foundation that runs the museum has since been buying back the Fabergé creations where they can. Carl Fabergé was a jeweller and goldsmith, so the collection also includes gold and silver items such as vases, tea sets, snuff boxes and cigarette cases, some of which are delicately decorated with precious and semi-precious stones.

The biggest 'takeaway' from this visit was probably that it was no wonder that the Romanovs were overthrown, given the huge disparity between their extreme wealth and the poverty of most of the population. That said, earlier attempts at introducing liberal reforms hadn't gone down well with the ruling class, so the Emperors and Empresses were arguably stuck in the middle.

After lunch back on the ship it was back into the city to the Hermitage and Winter Palace. Here is said to be the finest collection of art treasures in the world after the Louvre, with over six million items.

The collection was started in the mid 18th century by Catherine the Great. To see it all would probably be impossible, and even a couple of days would be needed just to walk through all of the galleries, stopping at the more interesting exhibits.

Our guide, Natalya, who has been with us since we arrived on Tuesday, and whose English is simply excellent, led us around a few of the galleries. We saw an amazing clockwork peacock that's a time-piece, crowing and flapping its wings on the hour. It's today considered too fragile to let it run very often, so we watched a video recording to get the full impression.

There were large galleries of excellent Italian art, including Raphaels, da Vincis and other big names, and a whole gallery for Rembrandt and his contemporaries. And as we moved between galleries we passed tables and huge vases made of lapis lazuli and malachite. The galleries were themselves spectacular, with elaborate plaster ceilings and marble columns.

We had only two hours in the Winter Palace and the various Hermitage buildings, but it was enough to get a feel for the scale of it all. Unfortunately, it was packed with other tourists, which is inevitable in the summer months.

We'd originally planned to stay on in the city, explore Nevsky Prospekt, and go back to the ship on the Metro, but we were so hot and tired (and I was frankly a bit too achey for any more exercise) that we took the soft option of staying with the bus, arriving back on board at 6.30pm.

Dinner back on the ship took the normal format. In the dining room there are tables reserved for English-speaking guests and others for German speakers. We usually arrive promptly when the dining room opens and choose our seats on a table for four people. Waitresses descend immediately offering red or white wine – both varieties are surprisingly pleasant.

There's always freshly-made soup to start, always delicious, followed by a buffet of salads and main courses of meat and/or fish. There's cheese and fruit for dessert, plus cakes and ice cream. All very enjoyable.

We set sail tomorrow evening, which we're looking forward to because we'll then get more relaxation time!

Friday 15th June 2018
Peterhof

Today we had our last excursion in St. Petersburg before sailing tonight at 7.30pm (5.30pm BST).

Peter the Great and his successors had palaces all over the area. Peterhof was a summer palace on the shores of the Baltic, with extensive gardens that run for two kilometres along the shore and half a kilometre inland. There are beautifully-managed, extensive woodlands with many ancient trees as well as manicured laws and freshly-planted flower beds. All of this is very English in style.

This part of Russia has heavy annual rainfall, which enabled Peter to pepper his gardens with impressive fountains. The most impressive is the 'Samson' fountain, which shows him strangling a lion. This was a memorial to the Russian victory over Sweden that confirmed Russian ownership of the St. Petersburg area, with the lion representing Sweden.

Peter turned Russian eyes westwards, to Holland, Germany and England, particularly keen to learn about ship-building. At one point he lived in Deptford while working at the dockyard. He rented the house of John Evelyn, a notoriously cantankerous writer, who he famously annoyed by getting gloriously drunk with his companions night after night and then being taken home in a wheelbarrow, repeatedly damaging Evelyn's much-loved ornamental hedge. There's even a statue to Peter on the river bank at Deptford.

Clearly, Peter liked a laugh, and a couple of his fountains make that clear. One of them is mushroom-shaped and water comes down vertically from its perimeter.  Behind the curtain of water are benches, which the unwary sit on while admiring the garden, whereupon the water is turned on, trapping them behind it.

Another fountain has water playing harmlessly, but hidden jets spray out, seemingly randomly but in reality triggered by a servant hiding in the bushes nearby. Guests wearing elaborate court dress would hardly have been amused, but who was going to complain to the Emperor who'd set it all up? :o)

Returning to the 'Samson' fountain as we left we learned that the retreating Nazis took the original gilded statue/fountain with them and probably had it melted down. They also gratuitously wrecked the palace itself, seemingly for the hell of it. Together with the mass murders that they perpetrated everywhere they went it's hardly surprising that the Russians wreaked such dreadful revenge as they poured into Germany in 1945.

After lunch back on the ship we had three hours 'free time'. The original plan was to go into the city on the Metro, but Gill found out from Reception that there was a good hairdressers nearby so went there instead for a wash and blow-dry while I found an ATM. We then had a walk around a small 'shopping centre', where the clothes on sale were, in Gill's opinion, about 30 years behind the times. And on the pavements outside 'Tanya' had stencilled with spray paint her price and her phone number. The contrast with the city centre was stark.

After those diversions there didn't seem to be enough time to get to Nevsky Prospekt, so we went back to the ship for tea and relaxation.

At 7pm came the Captain's Welcome – he spoke only Russian – and the introduction of the senior crew members, followed by an excellent formal dinner consisting of 6+ courses and the usual complimentary wine. After dinner the ship cast off and set off up the Neva towards Svirstroy, our first port of call. We went up on deck for the sailaway and found ourselves chatting to the on-board lecturer again. We're waiting eagerly for his first lecture at 10am tomorrow.

And now it's a gradual farewell to the White Nights – we're told that Moscow is on about the same latitude as Edinburgh.

Saturday 16th June 2018
Svirstroy

Overnight the Volga Dream sailed north-eastwards along the Neva, across the enormous Lake Ladoga and into the Svir river.

After breakfast the Cruise Director gave us an overview on the future highlights of the cruise and this was followed by the first of four presentations by Sir Tony Brenton, UK Ambassador to Russia 2004-2008.

He talked about Peter the Great as being one of those rare individuals whose drive and determination changed the world. He became Tsar at a fairly young age, initially sharing power with a weak half-brother. Russia was very inward-looking at every level, but he was determined to change this, with a particular wish to introduce western European customs, artistic standards and industrial capabilities.

He went on a tour of Europe, as mentioned yesterday, and eventually returned to crush a plot against him by disaffected nobles. He brought with him hundreds of skilled workers who set up for him ship-building and ceramic and porcelain production. He obliged men to stop wearing the long beards insisted upon by the Russian Orthodox church, initially shaving his courtiers himself but then taking a simpler, more effective, route of taxing beards!

He was married at an early age to Evdokia, a very religious and  conservative woman, but eventually took up with a 'serving wench' who had already been the mistress of two of his senior advisors. He eventually married her, and after his death she became his successor as Catherine the First. He died in his early fifties in poor health after a life of wild excess, but had nevertheless wrenched Russia into the modern world.

After lunch, having passed through the first of the seventeen locks ahead of us, we arrived in the tiny settlement of Svirstroy. This came into existence only in the 1930s when the nearby hydro-electric plant was built. We were taken by coach to the nearby town of Lodenoye Pole where we visited a local school. This was an establishment entirely for extra-curricular education that students opt for beyond the school day.

The building was extremely shabby and had until 1991 been Communist Party property, but, to the obvious joy of the headmaster, it's due to be demolished next year and replaced by a new structure. It employs seventy teachers and specialises in music, dance and art and craft.

The very confident youngsters did a series of traditional folk dances in national costumes and a separate group of five musicians played what sounded like typical folk tunes. One of them played the biggest balalaika that we're ever likely to see. Happily, it all went down well with our fellow passengers,and our applause was genuine and enthusiastic.

The second stop was at the home of a local resident of about 70, who'd laid on a tea party for us and who, through our guide who translated, told us about her life in post-communist Russia. She was clearly very content with her lot in spite of losing her husband and one daughter in an accident some years ago.

Since her retirement she's found herself becoming a sort of village elder who people seek out for advice, and has even embraced new technology to the extent that she helps her contemporaries with their computer problems. There was a surprised reaction from our fellow passengers when she said that she regularly Skypes her other daughter who lives in St. Petersburg. Our guide commented wryly that local people were quite up to date ;o)

As we left our coach we ran the gauntlet of little cabins selling surprisingly nice souvenirs which left us struggling to communicate with the sellers, but it's surprising how much easier it becomes when there's a sale to be made!

Before dinner, I went to a Russian language class given by the cruise director, but found that, unsurprisingly, it was intended for complete beginners. Nevertheless, it was good to have a crib sheet of useful words and phrases!

Sunday 17th June 2018
Kizhi Island

I never ever imagined that I would ever see Macchu Pichu, and the same was true of Kizhi, and yet here we were today.

Kizhi Island is a World Heritage site, an open-air museum at which a collection of traditional log structures has been assembled. It's located in Europe's second-largest lake, Lake Onega, and has a number of churches plus farmhouses, barns and other agricultural buildings, all built from logs of Scots Pine without the use of nails.

The highlights are the 22-dome Church of the Transfiguration and the smaller 9-dome Church of the Intercession, together with the belltower. A number of buildings have been moved from nearby locations, including the Church of the Resurrection of Lazarus that dates back to the 14th century and is the oldest wooden church still standing in Russia.

Once again, the weather was glorious today and the buildings could be seen at their best. The island is small – five kilometres by 500 metres, and a number of people in traditional dress were displaying local crafts. Watching rough flax being beaten out into linen fibres was fascinating, but the best demonstration was wooden shingles being cut individually from aspen with an incredibly sharp hand axe.

The farmhouse offered a fine insight into the lives of the local community. Cattle and hay were kept downstairs, and above was the living and sleeping accommodation plus a very large workshop where sleighs and small boats, amongst other things, could be constructed. Whilst there was a large stove in the centre of the building it must have been bitterly cold in winter.

We were back on board by midday, and at 1pm the ship set sail southwards. There were various on-board activities in the afternoon, including a Russian Tea Ceremony. Two of the staff acted out some sort lovers' dispute centring on tea served from a samovar, with the cruise director providing a commentary that we couldn't really hear. Then we were served with Russian tea, no milk but lemon slices available. There were also buns called something like 'Pirozhki', that fortunately has jam in them – yesterday we chose carelessly and ended up with the ones stuffed with cabbage! ;o)

Tony Brenton's lecture today was about Russian art and culture, called 'Engineers of the Soul', and was hugely enjoyable. It made me want to read up on Russian fairy stories and folk tales and also piqued my curiosity about Pushkin, the poet who is still revered in Russia but was daft enough to get himself killed in a duel when still only in his early thirties.

This evening we have gone through two locks, with two more to come between 10 and 11pm - we're climbing all the time. The landscape around us has been marshy and surprisingly beautiful, and the area is called 'Karelia', which, we assume, means that the same terrain stretches westwards into Finland.

Monday 18th June 2018
Goritsy

Today's been a quieter day, with only a couple of hours ashore.

The lecture this morning by Tony Brenton was entitled, 'Vanguard of Mankind – Communism in Russia', in which he stressed the extent to which the Russians of a century ago were convinced that they were changing not only their country but also the world. The sheer brutality of the way in which Lenin and Stalin imposed their wills on the nation was appalling, and yet they are both, to varying degrees, still respected as strong leaders.

The suffering of the people in WW2 was horrrifying, especially as the Nazis swept eastwards into Russia and as both Leningrad and Stalingrad were beseiged, and then the Red Army lost huge numbers as they drove the Germans back into Germany. They count their losses in WW2 at 25 million, and are convinced that they won the war. Consequently, they can't understand why the West wasn't, and still isn't, more grateful.

Brenton lectures on the Cold War at Cambridge and is staggered at how little today's students know about it – for them it's the equivalent of ancient history. It's a modern day  example of the need to have a good understanding of history, because those who don't are forced to re-live it. An interesting presentation.

We moored at Goritsy at 2pm, after a long cruise along two rivers and across yet another very large lake. We went by coach to the huge monastery at nearby Kirillov. It started life in 1397 and the buildings externally are a bit run down after many years of neglect. It's only in the past 20 years that monks have returned, and now the state is funding extensive renovations.

Our guide, Andrei, was a larger than life character with a good sense of humour. He said that there were only 17 monks living there, “but very high quality”, which drew a laugh. Their diet is miserable, being mainly vegetarian and limited at that. When talking about vodka he asked if we knew how many types there were. We didn't. “Good and very good”, was the answer.

We went into one of the larger buildings that's now used as a museum, with icons everywhere. He explained a couple of oddities of Russian Orthodox faith that could be seen in the paintings and icons. One of these showed God and Jesus plus the Holy Spirit – it's heretical to show images of God, apparently. Some of the saints were shown holding mirrors because they weren't allowed to gaze directly on Jesus, and Lucifer as a fallen angel could not be seen in a mirror. Also, Russians show Christ on the cross with a nail through each foot, as opposed to Catholicism, which shows one nail pinning both feet to the cross. It's amazing what pointless detail is present in religious dogmas.

Andrei is in his fifties, we'd guess and is fairly overweight. To hear his wheezing and breathlessness as he plodded up the stairs with us was quite distracting. His wife died two years ago, and you had to fear that it might not be long until he joined her. He was such an interesting and amusing guide that people were tipping him quite generously, and he seemed genuinely emotional about that.

At dinner this evening we had a 'Festival of Russian Cuisine'. The meal included three breaks for Vodka tasting – you know, take a big breath and knock back the ice-cold glassful in one. We both managed it without mishap! At the end the traditionally-dressed waitresses dragged a dozen people, including Gill, on to the floor to dance. I have video evidence!

And then at 9pm we had a session of 'Liar Liar', the game where you're given three stories (this time about the Volga Dream) and have to pick out the true one. There were four teams and we didn't win – we blamed the vodka! Great fun though :o)

Tuesday 19th June 2018
Yaroslavl

A fascinating morning.

Tony Brenton's presentation today was called, 'Is the Bear out of the cage? Russia today' and was superbly enlightening. His theme was how Russia has traditionally, and more recently, seen the West, and how the actions of the West have been viewed and interpreted in Russia.

 As the lecture proceeded it struck me very strongly that this is exactly the sort of analysis that we should be seeing in Britain and which, somehow, is being denied us. So much of what Russia does makes more sense when you see things from their perpective.

For instance, from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries Russia has been invaded from the West every hundred years, i.e. Poland, Sweden, France and Germany. This perfidy has not gone unnoticed in Russia. And the enduring uncertainty about their safety that this generated in Russians has meant ever since that the nation demands strong leadership for comfort. The chaos that the former Soviet Union went through after 1991 as it disintegrated reinforced this urge, and therefore both the arrival of Putin and his subsequent leadership has been generally welcomed in Russia.

Also forming part of Russian understanding of the West is that it is constantly trying to undermine Russian stability, e.g. by allowing the Baltic states to join the EU, by opposing
Russian interests in The Ukraine, and by arming and supporting revolts against despots in the Arab world that have allowed Islamic terrorism to flourish. The latter example is a hot issue just now – Western involvement brought down Saddam Hussein and Ghadaffi, and is trying to get rid of Assad in Syria, and in every case has allowed Islamic extremism to burst forth. Russia has a huge problem with Islam, with several of its republics like Chechnya having an enormous Islamic majority.  There have been several Islam-sponsored atrocities in Russia, which is why they are supporting Assad in its suppression of ISIS.

Putin's attitude on Islamic terrorism is that it is largely the West's fault for supporting despotic leaders and then abandoning them to terrorists. In a speech at the UN a while back he levelled this accusation at his audience – 'Do you understand what you have done?'

And now, Russia is turning away from the EU and towards China as a trading partner, which has huge implications for the future of Europe. It's easy to feel uneasy about this, and Brenton quoted a Russian saying to go with it – 'An optimist is someone who thinks that tomorrow will be better than the day after'.

As we entered the Volga we passed a huge statue of Mother Volga, and shortly afterwards lunch was served on the sun deck in glorious sunshine. We arrived in Yaroslavl at 3pm for a four hour visit.

Yaroslavl, with a population of 600,000, is the largest town that we've visited since leaving St. Petersburg. The first stop was another monastery – the Monastery of the Transfiguration. We just walked around it, but when you've seen one Russian monastery ….   The next stop was an Art Centre where we saw some incredibly impressive paintings by children as young as seven but mostly ten to fifteen, then it was off to the Governor's House.

We were shown around by a young woman dressed a bit like Jane Austen who explained about the man to whom the house had belonged and asked us a riddle that he had liked. 'What is it that isn't much use to you while you have it but becomes very important when it goes away'. I said, “Money?”, which it seems was the right answer, and I was then rewarded by being allowed to sit behind the great man's very own desk as a reward.

The young woman talked about the balls that had been held in the building's large ballroom, and explained etiquette as it had applied to people like her – you had to signal  your interest or lack of it in suitors by discreet hand signals or use of your fan. We were then led into the ballroom where musicians started playing – piano, violin and cello – and two young couples in the same period costumes as the young woman danced to the music.

The, 'Oh, no!', moment came when the dancers approached us to join them. I tried to show my unavailability (without a fan!), but, when chosen, decided that it would be churlish to refuse the young lady in question. I had to follow her steps, which pretty much amounted to just walking about, and even that I bungled dreadfully. I escaped when the music ended, and next Gill was approached by one of the young men for a waltz – video available on request ;o) She coped very well indeed!

We had half an hour wandering in a pedestrianised street, where the most interesting sight was a huge group of students, seemingly with their tutors, celebrating the end of their courses. A short walk then took us to the splendid Church of Elijah the Prophet, where we admired its riot of frescoes and icons. Some of the scenes depicted from the Old Testament were, frankly, a bit mad, like the story of 42 children being torn apart by two she-bears sent by the almighty for laughing at Elisha. Like all Orthodox churches there is no seating, and so the great length of religious events – three to four hours in some cases - must be a trial.

The church is a World Heritage Site, and to keep that status the city has had to refuse planning permission for a large Radisson hotel right next to it and to look for a less intrusive alternative. In the meanwhile, archaeologists are busily at work on the site and making important finds. Nearby is a splendid WW2 war memorial with an eternal flame.

Before going back to the coach, we were entertained in another historic building by four male singers singing unaccompanied Russian songs. We got back to the ship at 7pm and it departed for Uglich at 7.30pm, just as we went to dinner. Tony Brenton joined us on our table and we had an extremely pleasant 90 minutes listening to his stories.

At 9.30pm the resident pianist gave an hour's recital of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov pieces which was very enjoyable indeed – he's clearly a very gifted pianist when he has sheet music in front to him but not so hot at improvisation. So, a quiet morning but a busy afternoon and evening!

Wednesday 20th June 2018
Uglich

There was a settlement at Uglich even before Moscow, and it's said that locals raised a force to go to the aid of Moscow when it was  attacked by the Mongol hordes.

But nowadays the town is most famous for being the site of the death/murder of Prince Dmitry, 7 year old son and heir of Ivan the Terrible, allegedly at the instigation of the latter's close confederate, Boris Gudonov, who later was himself Tsar for a while. After Ivan's death his dynasty failed, leading to the 'Time of Troubles' when the country was leaderless and vulnerable, until the young Mikhail Romanov took over as Tsar.

As our guide, Irina, said, the history of her town is so miserable that it's not necessary to invent or embellish stories for visitors. The plausible story of Dmitry's death is that he was murdered by associates of Gudonov, who asked to look at something that he was wearing around his neck and then slashed his throat. Thereupon, people nearby attacked the assailants and, we were told, tore them to pieces. The bell of the nearby church was rung in alarm and the locals, together with Dmitry's mother, came running to find him dead.

Three days later, officials arrived from Moscow to 'investigate'. They declared that Dmitry had had an epileptic fit whilst holding a knife and had stabbed himself in the throat – yeah, right! They had all of the witnesses killed, sent Dmitry's mother to a nunnery and exiled the town inhabitants to Siberia. And, for good measure, they exiled the church bell to Siberia, having first punished it by lashing it – a touch of Basil Fawlty! ;o) The bell remained there for 300 years, but is now back in Uglich, where we saw, and heard, it today.

Later, a number of imposters came forward, claiming to be Dmitry, so the Church had him canonised to stamp this out – after all, you don't canonise the living.

In a later tale, Irina told of a Polish invader who was captured and killed. His ashes were loaded into a cannon that then was fired in the direction of Poland. She quipped that this was another form of 'Canonisation' ;o) Her English was superb and at the end of the tour we congratulated her on it. She said that she'd never yet visited an English-speaking nation because of difficulties with visas. Bearing in mind our own experiences Gill said she sympathised.

After Dmitry's death a church was built on the site – the Church of St. Dmitri-on-the-Blood. This was the usual overload of high walls, six levels of icons on the Iconostasis (Icon Wall) and frescoes everywhere else. We also visited another building for a concert of two songs, one unaccompanied and then the ubiquitous 'Kalinka' supported by balalaikas.

To get back to the ship we walked through an avenue of souvenir stalls and bought a few things. After lunch we had a presentation concerning the excursions awaiting us in Moscow – Red Square, Kremlin, Metro and Tretyakov Art Gallery. The ship continued along the Volga, which, in places is very wide due to raised water levels following the construction of dams and hydro-electric plants, and at 3pm passed 'The Flooded Bell Tower of Kalyaz'. This is the remains of a large church, all of which from the bell tower downwards is below water level nowadays.

We arrive in Moscow tomorrow, but we don't leave the ship until Sunday, so it was a bit of a surprise to learn that tonight was to be the Captain's Farewell Dinner. We're assuming that because the Volga Dream will be moored for several days the captain will go ashore until it's time to set sail again. We're also assuming that we'll go back to buffet dinners from tomorrow, which in a way will suit us better – we probably eat less when we serve ourselves.

We sat this evening with an Australian couple from Queensland who are a bit older than us but seem typical of their nation – funny, disrepectful of authority, sports mad and the life and soul of any party. We stayed with them at the dinner table long after the meal had finished.

Thursday 21st June 2018
Moscow

We had a leisurely morning, reading our books on the sun deck. It wasn't as warm as it has been up to now, with a strong breeze, but time passed very agreeably as we sailed along the Volga and the Moscow Canal.

We moored just before midday, and at 12.30pm boarded the coach that took us into the city through very slow traffic. The first stop was Red Square, which was closed to traffic because of the World Cup. One side of the square is dominated by the Kremlin, and directly opposite is the GUM department store, which is where the top Soviet bureaucrats used to get their Western luxuries while ordinary folk queued for hours for even simple things.

One thing that we've learned on the cruise is that every old city in Russia had its Kremlin. The word means 'Fortress' or 'Citadel', and it defended the heart of the city around it.

At one end of the square is St. Basil's Cathedral, which is the building with all the multicoloured 'onion domes'. It was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible, who was delighted with the outcome - so delighted that he asked the two architects whether they would be able to build similar buildings for other people, They said that they could – BIG mistake! He had their eyes gouged out so that 'his' cathedral would remain unique.

In front of the very high wall of the Kremlin is Lenin's Tomb, where his embalmed body has been on display since his death in 1924. It's usually possible to view it, but this has been suspended during the World Cup. Prospective visitors are told either that he is 'in a meeting' or that he's 'writing a letter' ;o)

We then had a brief tour of GUM, which looked like Harrod's or like KaDeWe in Berlin, i.e. extensive and expensive. We hadn't been able to enter St. Basil's, but at the next stop we made up for that, with a visit to the huge Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The original had been torn down by the Communists, who had intended to build a great Soviet skyscraper on the site. When they found out that the ground was unsuitable for such a building they built a swimming pool instead.

At the fall of Communism in 1991, Yeltsin promised that the Cathedral would be re-built, and over the next ten years many rich benefactors funded the work. Amazingly, it was opened in 2001 – you only have to look at the internal decoration to see what a monumental challenge this must have been. An ancient icon that had been displayed in the original building was bought at auction in London by the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who returned it to the new church.

Then it was back on the coach and off to Novodevichy Cemetery. Here the top people in society have traditionally been buried, but not the Communist heirarchy, whose remains were always deposited in the Kremlin Wall. An exception was Nikita Kruschev, who was thrown out of the Party by his successors and who was then accommodated here. We wandered around having various gravestones and memorials pointed out to us, including Gogol, Chekov, Stanislavsky, Shostakovich, Rostropovich, Gorbachev's wife, Raisa, and Yeltsin himself.

Our guide had become increasingly tetchy during the afternoon, and with hindsight this was probably because she felt that too much had been scheduled for the time available. The final event on the tour was a trip on the Moscow Metro, which showed that she was probably right.

I couldn't take seventeen people, mostly aged from sixty to eightyfive and some infirm, on the London Underground and have any confidence that I'd lose none of them along the way, and yet that was our guide's challenge. She bought tickets for us all and shepherded us down to a platform, telling us all to board the next train and be sure to be in the same carriage. We hopped on and off trains for the next hour, with her announcing, through the wireless audio systems that we were all wearing, where to disembark.

The glory of this tour was to see the wonderful stations that we'd all heard about. In each case there was a central hall with arches off to either side leading to platforms for either direction. We paused briefly in each to listen to her explanations, all the while getting in the way of Muscovites hurriedly embarking or disembarking their trains. At one point it seemed reminiscent of the Ministry of Magic scenes in 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows'.

Amazingly, we all paid close attention to her and stayed close to her as she dashed around, and nobody was left behind. When we finally emerged into the daylight of the longest day the coach was quickly on hand to pick us up and take us the short distance back to the pier.

We had only an hour to relax before dinner, and again had the stimulating company of our former Ambassador to Russia. The fourth person on our table was an elderly man who also represented the UK abroad, working for the Foreign Office as a communications engineer in Beirut, Lagos and other places. It certainly made for wide-ranging discussions about the days when Britain meant something in the world.

Friday 22nd June 2018
The Kremlin

Our booking at The Kremlin was really early, and so we had to leave the ship at 7.45am!

The greater part of the visit took place in the Armoury. The title is a little misleading, since only a small part of the exhibition involves armour and weapons. The first section was of items of clothing worn by the Tsars and Tsarinas.

The most noticeable aspect of the womens' dresses was their seemingly impossible waist size – tiny, tiny, tiny! We were told that sometimes the woman wearing one of these dresses fainted - you could certainly see why. There were religious vestments worn by the priests, made of gold silk and with hundreds of freshwater pearls and semi-precious stones sewn into them.

Moving on through the exhibition there were sections displaying the elaborate golden carriages used by the monarchy and the gold and silver tableware that graced their tables, often given as gifts by visiting monarchy or other nobility. The final section featured armour and weaponry, including full body suits of armour and lighter chainmail protection that allowed to wearer greater mobility. There was also armour for horses.

Leaving the Armoury we walked through the gardens of the Kremlin, the flowerbeds all nicely planted with annuals and automatic watering systems keeping the grass green.

We hadn't been aware that there are several church buildings within the Kremlin's walls, but there were two on our schedule. Frankly, by now Russian/Greek Orthodox churches hold no surprises. High internal spaces with pillars, usually square, the icon wall (Iconostasis) covered with icons six rows high, Mary and Christ in the middle of the bottom row and the personality after whom the church was named to the right of Christ, and all other surfaces - walls and pillars – covered in frescoes. Then finally, as you left the church, the walls around the exit covered with dire warnings about religious compliance – lots of Last Judgement, fires of Hell and the Devil.

One of the churches was built just for the Imperial coronations. These always took place in Moscow, even when Peter the Great moved the capital to St. Petersburg. When Catherine the Great was crowned (or 'coronated', as our guide kept calling it!) she had to travel from St. Petersburg by imperial coach, covering 800 kilometres in only a few days – horses died en route.

One interesting point kept coming up. Christianity started with Rome, and when the Roman Empire fell it split into two, East (Byzantium) and West (Rome). The word 'Orthodox' is intended to convey that Greek Orthodoxy is the true faith from which, later, Catholicism split. It seems that the Greek Orthodox church sees Catholics, and, by extension, Protestants (the result of a subsequent schism), as heretics. Certainly, our guide when describing Catherine the Great, a German princess who converted to Greek Orthodoxy, spoke of her 'becoming a Christian'. Admittedly, she was a Protestant, but we doubted that she'd have been more lenient if she'd been a Catholic.

At midday, after taking a few photos of Putin's official quarters we left the Kremlin by the gate closest to St. Basil's Cathedral, split from the rest of the group, (many of who were going straight back to the ship) and headed for 'GUM', where we had lunch. The serving staff were all quite young, very polite and had excellent English. The whole area was flooded with football supporters, from all of the competing nations, and there was a real party atmosphere. It seemed the perfect justification for Russia hosting the World Cup – an opportunity for people of all nations to find out about Russia for themselves, not relying on politicians for their opinions.

Aftr lunch we took the Metro two stops westwards to the start of Arbat Street, recommended by Tony Brenton as good for shopping. We ambled from one end to the other for an hour or so, before concluding that we needed to start heading for 'home'.

Getting back on to the Metro we failed to notice that two stops on neighbouring lines (light blue and dark blue) had the same name, and we travelled to the wrong station. Still, it gave us the chance to explore another station (Revolution Square) with superb Communist-era sculptures, before getting on the right line to take us back to the ship.

The walk from the Metro station was longer than we'd hoped, and when we got back on board we were pretty much exhausted. Before dinner, having showered and relaxed, we treated ourselves to cocktails on the Sun Deck, and after dinner we returned there, reading and watching the sun gradually go down.

Saturday 23rd June 2018
Old Tretyakov Gallery

Our last day In Moscow before we travel home tomorrow.

We had just one place to visit this morning – the 'Old Tretyakov Gallery'. The Tretyakov brothers made their fortunes in business in the 19th century, and decided to found a gallery of Russian art. In the 1890s, after the death of his younger brother, Pavel Tretyakov donated all of their considerable collection to the state. It has been added to since then, and nowadays a separate building houses the 20th century collection, much to Gill's disappointment, i.e. no Chagall or Kandinsky for us today.

However, there were still some wonderful paintings for us to enjoy, particularly from the Russian Impressionist period. Unfortunately, our guide insisted on dwelling on the large collection of icons that occupy the first rooms you come to – the gallery is laid out on chronological order. We'd had enough of icons and things got stranger when we came to a room where a dozen black-dressed priests were worshipping one of the icons and singing to it!

This is one of the most highly-regarded collections of Russian art in the world, so things were bound to improve as we continued our tour. We've found that it's often the case in a gallery that Gill and I independently choose the same painting as a favourite, and it happened a couple of times today. We're bringing home a print of one of them to frame and add to our collection.

We had a couple of hours in the gallery before we were taken back to the ship for lunch, followed by a lazy afternoon reading, initially on deck and then in our cabin when rain started to fall quite suddenly from a sunny sky – strange!

At the beginning of the cruise we were offered the chance to see a Russian Dance show, tonight. An additional payment was required, which seems to have put people off, but enough of us were interested to warrant the ship laying on transport for us. We set off at 6pm, with our driver taking a longer route than necessary so that we could see a bit more of Moscow.

The theatre is really quite new, and seems to specialise in folklore. The theatre company whose work we saw tonight comes to Moscow each summer with a new show, and 'spectacular' doesn't even come close to describing it. I dislike dance in nearly every one of its manifestations, with the single exception of Tango, and yet this evening's performance was gripping and exciting.
 
There were well over forty dancers, and at times two thirds of them were on stage at once. That wouldn't sound remarkable but for the fact that on leaving the stage many of them re-appeared in different costumes within a minute or so . Also they danced at such a frantic pace that you couldn't help seeing how very fit they all must be.

The costumes were all very Russian as was the pre-recorded music – a lot of folk dress and some fabulously elaborate dresses for the women. What was especially wonderful to see was the way in which the women dancers in long dresses at times seemed to glide across the stage, as if on wheels or on a moving walkway – it was breathtakingly elegant!

We were collected after the show and returned to the ship for a late night snack – we'd missed dinner. Gill has nearly finished packing and I've been writing up this last update before turning in.

So, Russia. It's like all other places we've visited, in that ordinary people are friendly and helpful, no matter how obnoxious their government, e.g. Burma/Myanmar. With the help of the former British Ambassador we've gained a very valuable insight into how Russia sees its history, itself and its neighbours. Unless Russia makes getting visas more simple and less expensive we very much doubt that we will ever return, but we will have very pleasant memories of the country for years to come.