Moscow Stories and Tips

Aboard the MS Tolstoy

This “Experince” review is specific to what we experienced on the MS Tolstoy. For a discussion of how to pick a
river ship cruise, see “Experience—How To Pick a River Cruise”

First off, and this is very important, there are several reviews of the Tolstoy on the Internet. Ignore them.
The ship changed owners and was completely remodeled for the 2006 season, and what we experienced in
May, 2006, was nothing like what those earlier travelers reported. It is misleading waste of time to even
read them. A couple examples: earlier passengers complained that breakfast was too skimpy. Now,
breakfast is a buffet. Earlier reviews complained about the fairly typical Russian ship bathroom where the
shower head is located above the toilet and you have to sit on the pot to take a shower. Not so on the 2006
Tolstoy. There is separate shower, but, like most advanced river ships, the bathroom is cramped.

We decided on the Tolstoy because we were satisfied with our previous cruise on the Danube which was
operated by the same company (Amadeus Waterways), the ship was refurbished during the winter 2005-
2006, Amadeus cruises include wine with diner (only one glass on the Tolstoy) and an early booking
discount from RiverDiscounts.com helped make the price right.

More than 70 ships operate the river cruise between Moscow and St Petersburg, and, up until 2006, the
Tolstoy was the cream of the crop. It was built in 1982 as the Soviet leadership’s cruise ship—Brezhnev’s
Suite was three doors down the hall from our cabin—and, as such, is a level of comfort above the
competition (a newly built ship which may rival or exceed the Tolstoy came on line in the spring of 2006).
As only some of these ships provide cruises in English, keep in mind that all my subsequent comments on
ship comparisons are limited to the English speaking trips and ships.

The Tolstoy is the only ship with a swimming pool, but it is very small. There is a bar on the deck of the
poll with unusually comfortable chairs for a cruise ship. The maximum passenger load of 150 is less than
any other ship. The typical ship carries 200 to 240. Even with its smaller passenger load, the Tolstoy has a
lot of public space. Public areas are: the sun deck—forget it in bad weather; the bars/lounges;
theater/concert hall; and library.

Good ship: plenty of room inside for everyone to sit in one of the public areas. Bad ship: not enough seats.

Good ship: comfortable chairs. Bad ship: uncomfortable. I’ve yet to find a good ship in this category, but
the Tolstoy was better than our two previous experiences.

We were tied up in St. Petersburg between two of the 240 passenger ships, and the Tolstoy’s sun deck was
clearly larger than the others.

Why a library? If you want to read, it is the only quite place. Tolstoy’s library was quite attractive, and
larger than any others we have seen.

Dining room. Good ship: all tables are window tables. Bad ship: lots of interior tables. The Tolstoy had
only three interior tables (12 seats).

There are two parts to the crew on a cruise ship—those who make the ship go, and those who serve the
passengers. Since passengers rarely interact with the ship operators, whenever I refer to the crew, I’m
taking about the passenger care staff. While the crews on our two previous cruises were fully competent,
Tolstoy’s crew went above and beyond. They were cheerful and friendly without being pretentious about
it. There were enough very good English speakers around that language was never a problem. The
following is a post-cruise email from one of the staff. Note how well this Russian native can write
English, and note the attachment to the passengers, which was reciprocated by the passengers.

“We have new passengers aboard the Tolstoy now, and we miss you immensely. The new-comers seem to
be strangers after the previous guests who have become so dear during our short period of acquaintance.

Take care,

P.S. Greetings from Sasha, Olga, and our receptionists Lyuba and Vlada, as well as the rest of the cruise
staff .

After what we had read on the Internet about the food on Russian river cruises, we were more than pleased
with the food quality. No doubt to give us taste of the country, the chef programed a number of Russian
dishes, which tend toward the bland– there is just so much that can be done with cabbage, beet soup, and
boiled potatoes. That aside, food was generally prepared very well, and include the best prepared pork and
chicken I have ever eaten. There was a tender and juicy pork cutlet, ½ inch thick, that was easily cut by fork.
Try that at Denny’s.

Soups were uniformly outstanding.

There was also a sauna, a gift shop, a TV room, but only Russian TV although the brochure said some
English language satellite stations would be available. Deluxe rooms and suites had in room TV/DVDs
with a small collection of DVD movies available at Reception. Electricity was standard European 220v,
but a hair dryer was in the cabin. There is a safe for keeping valuables. Coffee, three types of tea, and
animal crackers were avilible free, 24/7. All other drinks except one glass of wine at dinner were extra
charge. There are cabin controls for heat and air-conditioning, but the fan got really noisy above low speed.

The crew included a Professor of Russian History who delivered a series of lectures on post Soviet Russia,
a three person folk music group, and two musicians who entertained each evening in the main lounge.
There was also a doctor and masseuse on board.

Each evening the bed turndown ladies left a schedule of the next day’s events in every cabin.

Standard cabins on Russian ships come at 88, 92, or 110 feet² Mark this off in your living room, and
remember it includes the bathroom & closet. Suits/deluxe cabins are generally larger. On the Tolstoy,
standard cabins are 110 feet², deluxe cabins, 220, and suites 330. However, there is a wrinkle. Some ships
have standard cabins where one bed folds up against the wall during the day and the opposite bed converts
into a couch, turning a very cramped bedroom into a relatively roomy day room. Standard cabins on the
Tolstoy did not do this, making them petty much useless for anything but sleep. Some passengers solved
the space problem by alternating getting up time, wife stayed in bed until hubby showered & dressed & left
the cabin. In his type of cabin, you will spend almost all your waking hours outside your cabin, so the
Tolstoy extensive public areas are all to the good.

We opted for a deluxe cabin which was large enough to include a small desk, two bedside tables, a
refrigerator, a TV, and two arm chairs that were more comfortable than most of the seats in the public
areas. Unfortunately, it had two windows with flimsy curtains instead of one, but I had two pieces of black
plastic which turned them into real curtains.

Back to the cabin: the bathrooms on some Russian ships are so small that you have to sit on the toilet to
take a shower. Not so on the Tolstoy, but there is room for only one person at a time in the bathroom. Two
can squeeze in if one is in the shower.

The Tolstoy had such flimsy curtains that they were useless for room darkening (in St. Petersburg, sun set
was at 10:45pm, and it never really got dark at night). To darken the room, we took some black phasic
along big enough to cover the window and used spring loaded cloths pins to attach it to the flimsy curtain.
If you want it really dark, take a double layer of black plastic, it is light and doesn’t take much room when
rolled up in your suitcase.

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