We took a river cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow, with three days in each city included, the first two weeks in June of this year. It was simply wonderful! The purposes of the trip staff (in addition to making money) was to make sure that we Americans knew absolutely for sure that we were welcome in their country, that they have always felt that the problems between our countries were between our governments, not between our people (sounds like the 60's, doesn't it), and to be sure that we received a thorough understanding of the history and culture of Russia, so that we might understand why it is so paranoid, and why it is now so confused by their current free market system. The staff's objectives were fully met. In addition, the cruise director and staff bent over backwards to make us comfortable. Any little complaint was taken care of immediately.
We flew to Helsinki the first day (as part of the tour), got a tour of the city, stayed overnight, then flew to St. Petersburg the next day. From then on we were kept very busy for most of the next two weeks. Mostly excellent local guides showed us St. Petersburg, Moscow, and all the cities and other sites we stopped at in between.
St. Petersburg gave a first impression of a run down city with little civic pride. Almost everyone lives in huge, bleak apartment buildings that need repair and paint. Each building is surrounded by lots of land, full of weeds. One would think that the residents would plant gardens on the unused land. When I asked a guide about this, she said that that which was grown would just be picked (stolen) by others, so no one bothers. Sad.
However, St. Petersburg does have some amazing sights in an around the city. We visited the Hermitage Museum. Very large, not very impressive building. However, name a famous painter, and I have seen many of his originals in that museum. One of the highlights of the entire trip was Petrodvorets, the summer residence of Peter the Great, famous for its collection of amazing fountains, beautiful grounds, and Great Palace. Think Hearst Castle, only several centuries ago, and ignore the suffering of the people who constructed the place. The architecture of St. Petersburg along the rivers is quite fascinating and beautiful.
Moscow was an entirely different experience. It is a very large, very expensive, very crowded city. I have never seen so many Mercedes and BMW's anywhere. There is obvious wealth there. Interesting museums, especially Pushkin and the museum dedicated to Russian art and artifacts, whose name I have forgotten. (Maybe it was part of Pushkin.) The underground metro was amazing. Different art deco in every station. During rush hour, there is a train every 45 seconds. We visited Red Square, and toured inside the Kremlin (unheard of until a few years ago).
In contrast to both of these cities, most of the smaller towns we stopped at were quite beautiful and well maintained with obvious civic pride. All had wonderful parks. All had a monument to Lenin (huge), and a monument to the unknown soldier, with an eternal flame. Monuments to Stalin were conspicuously missing. No one had a kind word for him, which indicates to me that the country is unlikely to return to his style of government.
War, especially World War II, is very much in the minds of Russians. Until a few years ago, the country has always been under some sort of dictatorship, and seems to have been under attack for most of its existence. The Germans got within a few miles of Moscow, and hundreds of thousands of people starved in the city. People remember that, and definitely do not want another war. And for once, they seem to believe their government doesn't want war either.
At every port, every day, a local street band greeted us, usually playing American music. The smiles and waves seemed genuine. The can for donations was present, but no one asked us for money. Contrary to many other places in the world, at no time during the trip were we made to feel like unwelcome rich Americans.
All cities had many, many people in kiosks, on the street, at the docks, or in the parks, selling everything from cheap T-shirts manufactured in some other third world country, to military hats, to wonderful original arts and crafts made by the seller. Prices were cheap. It appeared to me that a very great number of people have quickly learned the techniques of capitalism, and would not ever give it up for a controlled economy. They like to tell us how poor they are, without mentioning how well they are coping. For example, one of our guides was a history professor at a local university. She said she is paid $60 per month (true). However, she failed to point out that she was making over $60 a day as a tour guide. Capitalism seems to be forcing people to do different things than they were told to do before. Sounds familiar. Think of what our parents had planned for us, and what we are doing now.
The exception to success stories is the old people. They worked hard under Communism, started receiving their pensions, then saw those pensions become worthless because of hyper-inflation. Imagine saving $500,000, only to find it worth $5000 a few years later. Scary. These folks cannot get work because of their age. Some sell arts and crafts, some beg, most depend on their relatives. They mostly want to go back to a controlled economy, and would vote for Communists. People who perform normal government functions are not paid enough. Teachers are grossly underpaid. Doctors are grossly underpaid - an American doctor on our cruise visited a local hospital, and told us their medicine is 100 years old. (There are excellent Swiss and American hospitals in the large cities, and in Helsinki, for those of us who can pay for them - trip insurance that includes medical evacuation is strongly advised). So most have second jobs. I asked how much the police were paid. I was told that "they have lots of ways to make money." The drivers in Russia were amazingly incompetent. We asked if there was a driving test to get a license. The answer was yes, but few take it, since it is easier to just "buy" a license from the official who issues them.
The music and entertainment offered to us (sometimes at an extra price), was truly wonderful. In St. Petersburg, the director of the wonderful Ensemble of North-West Russia Cossacks made me think I was listening to Pavarotti. The people who went to the Ballet in St. Petersburg said it was excellent. We heard folk and religious singing at most every stop. We saw and enjoyed the famous circus in Moscow.
Some of the children like to point at things you have, like the pen in your pocket, trying to get you to give it to them as a souvenir. (So bring lots of pens with English written on them if you want to be mobbed by kids. American picture postcards are also popular gifts, as well as "stickers.") Sometimes they will offer to trade if you ask. So once they started pointing at my binoculars. After saying no a lot and looking shocked, I finally figured out that they didn't know what they were. So I let them look through the lenses. They were fascinated. They of course looked backwards and forwards, and were absolutely delighted. So I got to thinking about government spending on technology. Here is Russia, who scared the pants off us with Sputnik, atomic bombs, and ICBM's. Yet none of that very sophisticated technology every got to the people. Their kids don't even know what binoculars are. And here I am writing about this trip on a machine that would not have existed had it not been for our space program. I hope priorities change over there.
During the entire cruise, I saw no resorts, no water skiers, two speed boats, and one jet ski. Quite peaceful, and ripe for development, so see it before this happens.
The food on the ship was outstanding! Always a choice, always a Russian specialty. I especially enjoyed the various ways the Russian raviolis were used, and the stews oven baked in individual crock pots. The beautiful and tasty pastries and desserts were prepared by a pastry chef who looks like one. The cruise director considers the food to be one of the cultural experiences she wanted us to experience.
The ship is small (holds only a few hundred passengers), so there was rarely a choice of activities, although there was almost always something to do. We had lessons on Russian language, Russian culture, Russian cooking, and Russian geography, which was essential to understand the lessons on Russian History. On board we had a truly amazing lecturer. She was a woman in her 80's who was a translator for all Communist administrations from Stalin on. She translated the stolen atomic bomb papers (she says she knows the Rosenburgs didn't do it), and was present at Yalta. Her father was station chief for the KGB in New York, and never got caught. She has a very good handle on who the Russian people are. She is looking for a publisher for her just completed book.
I had an interesting conversation with the captain of the ship, during which I was able to compare what he was doing with my experience as a Coast Guard officer on the Mississippi River. The skill of the captain and his crew were amazing to me. Although there is considerably less traffic to deal with than on the Mississippi, the waterways are much narrower, with much tighter turns, much more shallow water, and much worse navigation aids. The draft of the ship is 10 feet, and the water is sometimes only 12 feet deep, and then only in the channel. The man knew what he was doing. I toured the ship's bridge and engine room. Both were quite modern, safe, and most impressive.
The cabins on the ship are quite small, but there is no reason to do anything but sleep and bathe in them anyway. Bathing is and experience: The bathroom is the shower. Pull a curtain in front of the toilet, yank up the spigot from the sink and hook it on the wall, and viola, you have a shower. There are no elevators on the ship, and one must climb two or three very steep stairways to get between the decks for meals, entertainment, and entering and exiting the ship. So this is not a ship for those who are physically handicapped. The company does not warn of this in its brochure, and a few elderly folks were having some difficulty with this.
There are several cruise ships doing this route, all of the same design, all made in East Germany. I was able to look at the menus and schedule of activities of some of the other ships, and to speak with some of the other passengers. My cruise was clearly far superior to anything else on the waterway, and was less expensive per day than most. Our food was better, our staff was better, our activities were more varied, and our lectures were far better than the others.
The name of the company that runs the cruises is G.T. Cruises, but you should book through Cruise Marketing International in San Carlos, California, if you are interested (always shopping on the internet for discounts first, of course). It was generally agreed by passengers who used other booking agents that Cruise Marketing did the best job for everyone. The only thing they do is book for G.T. Cruises. Everyone who works there has been on the trip, and several live in St. Petersburg in the summer. Phone (800) 578-7742, email firstname.lastname@example.org
I highly recommend this trip. I suggest that if you go, go now, while the country is still open and its people still actually welcome Americans, and still haven't quite figured out how to rip us off or hassle us to death with offers of everything you can find on the street.