During the Soviet era, the expression Potemkin Village meant a misleading show piece making Russia look
better than it actually was. The Soviets were good at this, and Moscow and St. Petersburg are Potemkin
Villages on the grand scale. The great advantage of a Russian river cruise is that it stops at some more
typical villages, towns, and cities which gave us a much better picture of Russian life than what is seen in
the two great cities.
Places visited (in order):
Moscow: Days 1-3 days, depending on when your plane arrives
Day 4 Uglich- a small village of great historical importance
Day 5 Kostroma- a noted monastery in a delightful classical style small city
Day 6 Yaroslavl- another monastery in a larger (600,000 pop.) city
Day 7 Goritsy (St Cyrll of White Lake Monastery)
Day 8 Kizhi Island Open-Air Museum of 18th-Century Wooden Village Buildings
Day 9 Mondrogui—Russian Colonial Williamsburg.
Days 9-13 St. Petersburg- Russia’s other showpiece city
The Rivers Volga, Svir, and Neva
The two largest lakes in Europe.
The rest of this Review will cover the stops between Moscow and St. Petersburg, each of which has a
UGLICH dates back to 1148, and while it is a backwater of some 40,000 today, Ugligh played a major role
in the history of Russia, about which you will learn from your guide. Our visit had three part– first, a tour
of the remains of the Kremlin (a Russian word meaning fort) whose cathedral had the most spectacular
iconostasis we saw on the whole trip. Here we first encountered one of the standard parts of tour of
religious buildings in the hinterland—the church choir performed a couple numbers, and announced they
had a CD for $20.
Part II: free time at the souvenir stands lining the dock.
Part III: A typical diner with home brewed vodka at a home in Uglich. First course: cabbage soup and carrot salad. Second course, boiled potatoes. Third course: apple cobbler. The 16-year old daughter of our host family spoke English better than most American teens do.
KOSTROMA was the most attractive stop along the Volga because it was large enough (350,000) to have
an interesting old town of classical buildings and old wooden houses but small enough that the streets were
not clogged with traffic. I used every possible moment to wander the streets, and wish we had had more
time here. Prince Mikhail Romanov lived here when a delegation from Moscow arrived and invited him to
become Tsar, starting 300 years of Romanov rule. The last Romanov Tsar, Nicholas II came to Kostroma
in 1913 to dedicate the foundation of a great statue in the city park in honor of 300 years of Romanov rule.
The last Romanov Tsar threw a handful of gold coins into the cement. The foundation now supports a
statue of Lenin.
The spacious town square is surrounded by fine classical buildings constructed after a devastating fire in 1773 destroyed much of the ancient city of wooden buildings. The building with what looks to be a lighthouse on top was the fire station, complete with a fire lookout tower rising from the roof of the building. Also on the town square is the largest old city market (the arcade buildings) remaining anywhere in Russia. The usual warnings about pick pocks apply if you visit the daily farm market.
Fifteenth-century St. Ipaty Monastery at the confluence of the Volga and Kostroma Rivers, is the town’s principal sight, including two numbers by the choir. CDs, $20.
Close to the town square, the baroque Convent Church was the prettiest church on the trip. Face the fire station at the town square, and walk a couple blocks down the second street to the right.
Because of its military installations, Kostroma was closed city, not even shown on Soviet maps, until 1991.
Linen is an local industry, and the usual pier side souvenir stand offer a variety of linen goods. The ladies will love the lace table cloths.
YAROSLAVL is the regional capital. With 750,000 people, the city is borderline on traffic congestion. We visited some attractive churches and another monastery. Instead of a choir concert, we had a demonstration and concert of northern Russian bell ringing, unique in that the bells do not move, only the clapper. The bell ringer controls a bunch of bells with strings wrapped around his fingers. CD, $20 (wait until Kizhi, bell CD for $12).
Our visit fell on St. Cyril’s Day, honoring the inventor of the Cyrillic alphabet. A religious procession marched through the grounds of the monetary near the end of our visit, and was most interesting to follow as long as we could.
GORITZY is the stop for transfers to busses for a visit to the Monastery of St. Cyril of the White Lake, eliciting several comments along the lines of, "Oh no, not another monetary," but the people who put this tour together know what they are doing. It was not just another monastery, and afterwards, all the initial grumblers were confessing they were glad they went. This is/was the largest monastery in Russia, ruling 400 villages and 20,000 serfs in its heyday. The role played by the Orthodox Church in subjugating the populace is obvious from the massive fortifications surrounding the monastery.
The monastery contains a small museum displaying 200 remarkable icons from the 15th to 17th century, a far better show than Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. The gift shop offered a variety of quality crafts at decent prices. Be sure to request a “Certificate of Authenticity” if you buy any amber. You don’t need it for anything, but makes a great souvenir with all the scroll work and incomprehensible words.
KIZHI (pronounced key-she) ISLAND MUSEUM OF WOODEN ARCHITECTURE will do as Russia’s answer to Colonial Williamsburg. Wooden churches and farm buildings, mostly for the 19th century were reassembled here as an open air museum starting in 1951. The star is the Church of the Transfiguration, built in 1714 and crowned with 22 onion domes whose well weathered aspen wood shingles shine like silver. The big church was a summer church, unheated. The smaller church next door with 11 onion domes, was the winter church.
We quickly left the guided tour with its excess of information and too much standing around and found there is a small plaque at each building with a brief English description of what it is.
Several of the farm houses are open and furnished in with original furniture of that era. Leaving the boat, most of the museum is to the right of the end of the dock. Almost everyone returned to the dock (souvenir shops) when their trip around the loop walk brought them back even with the dock. I kept going, and a short distance away, I came across another farmhouse museum, the largest and most interesting of all. Nearby was a display showing how the buildings were conducted with out the use of nails. They were all build from cut pieces of wood that fit together, something like Lincoln Logs. Any nails you might see were added in 20th-century reconstructions.
The oldest church dates back to the 14th century, and a bell ringer would occasional play some bell music, CDs,
MONDROGUI is about as authentic as Disneyland’s European villages. Described as a village of artisans, it is a big tourist trap, with somewhat more expensive souvenirs than most places. Nevertheless, there is a wide selection of souvenirs, and the buildings are fun to look at. Some cruises have a Russian BBQ lunch here in the big tents. Ours didn’t.
By some accounts, there is a vodka factory and museum here, with free tasting, but we didn’t find it.