Russia

Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Russia

white nights festival st petersburg

White Nights Festival – St Petersburg

MAY TO JULY.

THE SUMMER MAY BE SHORT IN RUSSIA BUT THEY KNOW HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF IT IN ST PETERSBURG.

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Do they! In what should be described as a series of many major artistic events and not just one festival, White Nights runs over the longest days of the year and features a staggeringly varied array of performances and exhibitions.

WHAT SORT OF THINGS CAN WE EXPECT?

There is classical music, opera, dance, film, circus acts, comedy, theatre, sculpture, jazz concerts and myriad other performing arts pieces on show. Many performances are outdoors, so strolling around the city centre or along the banks of the River Neva you’re likely to catch a free show.

GIVE US A COUPLE OF MUST-SEES.

One of the most justifiably popular events is the Scarlet Sails – the recreation of a child’s storybook. A giant crimson-tailed longship is sailed up the River Neva towards the Tsar’s palace, with accompanying fireworks and lightshows. This spectacle draws crowds in their millions. Also, make sure to be at the opening of the drawbridge at least once – a street party erupts at 2am each night the drawbridge is retracted.

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Follow A (Literary) Communist Trail – Moscow

Communists tend to get a bad rep on our side of the world, possibly because they don’t photograph well, or they tend to shy away from platforms like Facebook. In Russia, however, it’s a whole other story. And Moscow in particular hits the sweet spot between great vodka, literature and Communism.

Start with Anton Chekhov, for instance, whose plays like The Sea Gull and The Cherry Orchard were steeped in ideas of Marxism and Communism, and whose home from 1886-1890 is carefully preserved as a museum close to the center of the city. Chock-full of his personal possessions, it welcomes visitors for a ridiculously cheap sum that should warm the heart of any Communist tourist.

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Anton Chekhov house and museum

Not too far away stands the home of a writer heavily favored by Stalin himself, Mikhail Bulgakov. What makes Bulgakov House so special is the role it occupies, along with locations around it, in his classic novel The Master And Margarita. If you’re lucky, you might run into a celebrity here, given the writer’s enduring popularity with everyone from Mick Jagger to Daniel Radcliffe.

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Mikhail Bulgakov house and museum – Moscow, Russia

If it’s atmosphere you’re after, nothing beats the charming home of Nobel winner and Communist supporter turned-critic and poet Boris Pasternak, a 20-minute train ride from Moscow. But the capital itself deserves more than just a cursory visit: See the last home of Nikolai Gogol, pay homage to both him and Chekhov at the Novodevichy Cemetery and visit the apartment where Dostoevsky wrote Crime And Punishment.

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St. Basil’s Cathedral – Moscow, Russia

Regarded as one of the most beautiful monuments to the Russian Orthodox Church, St. Basil’s has come to represent Moscow and Russia to the outside world. Commissioned by Ivan the Terrible to celebrate the capture of the Mongol stronghold of Kazan in 1552, the cathedral was completed in 1561. It is reputed to have been designed by the architect Postnik Yakovlev. According to legend, Ivan was so amazed at the beauty of Yakovlev’s work that he had him blinded so that he could never design anything as exquisite again.

The church was officially called the Cathedral of the Intercession, because the final siege of Kazan began on the Feast of the Intercession of the Virgin. However, it is more usually known as St. Basil’s after the “holy fool,” Basil the Blessed, whose remains are interred in the cathedral’s ninth chapel.

BASIL, THE “HOLY FOOL”

Born in 1464 into a peasant family in the village of Yelokhovoe, Basil worked as an apprentice to a shoemaker. His skill at divining the future soon became apparent and at the age of 16 he left for Moscow. There he undertook the ascetic challenge of walking the city’s streets barefoot educating Muscovites in piety. Although he was often derided and beaten for his sermonizing, his fortune changed in 1547, when he foresaw the fire of Moscow and was credited with preventing it from destroying the entire city. On Basil’s death, at the age of 88, Czar Ivan the Terrible carried his body to the cathedral for burial. He was canonized in 1579.

CATHEDRAL DESIGN

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Central Chapel of the Intercession is situated on the highest tower

St. Basil’s Cathedral consists of nine churches dedicated to different saints. Each of these, with the exception of the Central Chapel of the Intercession, symbolizes the eight assaults on Kazan and is topped by a multicolored dome. All of the churches are uniquely decorated and different in size from each other, giving the structure an all-around balance. The building is designed to be viewed from every angle, hence the absence of a single main facade. In plan, the eight churches form an eight-pointed star. The four larger domes form the endpoints of an imaginary cross with the Central Chapel in the middle, and the smaller churches between the larger ones.

ICON PAINTING IN RUSSIA

The Russian Orthodox Church uses icons for both worship and teaching and there are strict rules for creating each image. Iconography is a symbolic art, expressing in line and color the theological teaching of the Church. Icons are thought to be imbued with power from the saint they depict and are often invoked for protection during wartime. The first icons were brought to Russia from Byzantium. Kiev, today the capital of Ukraine, was Russia’s main icon-painting center until the Mongols conquered it in 1240. The Moscow school was founded in the late 15th century when Ivan the Terrible decreed that artists must live in the Kremlin. The great icon painters Dionysius and Andrey Rublev were members of this renowned school.

Chapel of St. Cyprian

This is one of eight main chapels commemorating the campaigns of Ivan the Terrible against the town of Kazan, to the east of Moscow. It is dedicated to St. Cyprian, whose feast is on October 2, the day after the last attack.

Entrance

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An exhibition on the cathedral’s history, and armor and weapons dating from the time of Ivan the Terrible, can be seen here.

Chapel of St. Basil

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The ninth chapel to be added to the cathedral was built in 1588 to house the remains of the “holy fool,” Basil the Blessed.

Domes

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Following a fire in 1583, the original helmet-shaped cupolas were replaced by ribbed or faceted onion domes. It is only since 1670 that the domes have been painted in many colors; at one time St. Basil’s was white, with golden domes.

Gallery

Running around the outside of the Central Chapel, the gallery connects it to the other eight chapels. It was roofed over at the end of the 17th century and the walls and ceilings were decorated with floral tiles in the late 18th century.

Main Iconostasis

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The Baroque-style iconostasis in the Central Chapel of the Intercession dates from the 19th century. However, some of the icons contained in it were painted much earlier.

Chapel of the Entry of Christ into Jerusalem

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This chapel was used as a ceremonial entrance during the annual Palm Sunday procession. On this day, the patriarch rode from the Kremlin to St. Basil’s on a horse disguised to look like a donkey.

MININ AND POZHARSKIY STATUE

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A bronze by Ivan Martos depicts two heroes from the Time of Troubles (1598-1613): the butcher Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitriy Pozharskiy. The men raised a volunteer force to fight the invading Poles and, in 1612, led their army to victory when they drove them out of the Kremlin. The statue was erected in 1818 in the center of Red Square. It was moved to its present position, in front of St. Basil’s, during the Soviet era.

RED SQUARE

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St Basil’s Cathedral is located in Red Square in the heart of Moscow. The name of the square is derived from the Russian word krasnyy, which originally meant “beautiful” but later came to denote “red.”

KEY DATES

1555: Building work commences, and St. Basil’s is completed six years later.
1583: Onion-shaped domes are built to replace the original cupolas destroyed by fire.
1812: Napoleon’s cswalry stable their horses in St. Basil’s during his invasbn of Russia.
1918: The Communist authorities dose the cathedral and melt down its bells.
1929: St. Basil’s is turned into a museum dedicated to the Russian conquest of Kazan.
1990s: St. Basil’s is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990, and returned to the Orthodox Church in 1991.

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The Winter Palace – St. Petersburg, Russia

This superb example of Baroque architecture was the home of the Russian czars and czarinas, including Catherine the Great, from the late 18th century. Built for Czarina Elizabeth (r. 1741 -62), the opulent Winter Palace was the finest achievement of Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli.

Though the exterior has changed little, the interiors were subsequently altered by a number of architects and then largely restored after a fire gutted the palace in 1837. After the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, the imperial family rarely lived here. In July 1917, the Provisional Government took the palace as its headquarters, which led to its storming by the Bolsheviks.

THE SMALL AND LARGE HERMITAGE

Catherine the Great hired architect Yuriy Velten to erect the Small Hermitage so she could privately entertain her chosen friends at court. The building was designed in Baroque style with Classical features to blend in with Rastrelli’s Baroque Winter Palace. After the Small Hermitage was completed, Catherine decided to house her newly acquired collection of more than 255 paintings in the building. The Large Hermitage was built a few years later to accommodate the tsarina’s vast library and works of art. Over the centuries, Catherine’s original collection has been added to. There are now more than 3 million pieces of art displayed in the Small and Large Hermitage, as well as in an ensemble of buildings that includes the Winter Palace. There are exhibits from the Stone Age up to the 20th century, including works by Matisse, Rembrandt, and Cezanne.

BARTOLOMEO RASTRELLI

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The Italian architect Rastrelli (1700-71) studied under his father and assisted him during his appointment as architect for Czar Peter I. In 1722, Rastrelli took on his own commissions in Moscow and St. Petersburg, which established him as a brilliant Baroque architect. During Elizabeth’s reign, he was appointed Chief Court Architect and went on to design several buildings, including the grandiose Winter Palace. When Catherine the Great ascended the throne, Rastrelli retired from court as the empress preferred a stricter, Classical style.

CATHERINE II

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Czarina Elizabeth chose the German-born princess Catherine (1729-96), the future Catherine the Great, as a wife for her successor, Peter III. When he ascended the throne in 1762, Catherine had resided in Russia for 18 years and had fully immersed herself in Russian culture. Six months into Peter’s reign, Catherine and her allies at the imperial guard had the czar killed. She was then crowned ruler of Russia in 1763. During her reign she implemented many reforms and expanded Russian territory. Art and trade flourished and new academies were built, including the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Fine Art.

Nicholas Hall

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The largest room in the palace, this was always used for the first ball of the season.

Jordan Staircase

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This vast, sweeping staircase (1762) was Rastrelli’s masterpiece. It was from here that the imperial family watched the Epiphany ceremony of baptism in the Neva, which celebrated Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River.

Field Marshals’ Hall

The devastating fire of 1837 broke out in this reception room.

Hall of St. George

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Monolithic columns and wall facings of Italian Carrara marble are features of this room.

1812 Gallery

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Built in 1826, this has portraits of Russian military heroes of the Napoleonic Wars, most by English artist George Dawe.

Armorial Hall

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With its huge gilded columns, this vast chamber covers more than 8,600 sq ft (800 sq m). It houses the European silver collection and a restored imperial carriage.

Alexander Hall

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Architect Aleksandr Bryullov employed a mixture of Gothic vaulting and Neo-Classical stucco bas-reliefs of military themes in this reception room of 1837.

Small Throne Room

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Dedicated in 1833 to the memory of Peter the Great, this room houses a silver-gilt English throne made in 1731.

Malachite Room

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More than 2 tons of ornamental stone were used in this sumptuous room (1839), which is decorated with malachite columns and vases, gilded doors, and rich parquet flooring.

French Rooms

Designed by Bryullov in 1839, these house a collection of 18th-century French art.

White Hall

This room was decorated for the wedding of the future Alexander II in 1841.

Dark Corridor

The French and Flemish tapestries here include The Marriage of Emperor Constantine, made in Paris in the 17th century to designs by Rubens.

Golden Drawing Room

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Created in the 1850s, this room was extravagantly decorated in the 1870s with all-over gilding of walls and ceiling. It houses a display of Western European carved gems.

Gothic library

The wood-paneled library was created by Meltzer in 1894. This, and other rooms in the northwest part of the palace, were adapted to suit Nicholas II‘s bourgeois lifestyle.

Rotunda

Built in 1830, this connected the private apartments in the west with the state apartments on the palace’s north side.

STORMING THE PALACE

On the evening of October 25, 1917, the Bolsheviks fired some blank shots at the Winter Palace, storming it soon after to arrest the Provisional Government that resided there. The Communists took over power and the Russian Revolution was a fact .

KEY DATES

175 4-62: The Winter Palace is constructed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli.
1764-75: The Small Hermitage by Yuriy Velten is built for Catherine II’s art collection.
1771-87: Catherine’s art collection grows and a second extension, the Large Hermitage, also by Yuriy Velten, is added.
1917: Anatoly Lunacharsky of the Soviet Government declares the Winter Palace and the Hermitage state museums.
1990: The city of St. Petersburg, including the Winter Palace and Hermitage, is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Enjoy The Romance Of The Baltic Regions

I’m sipping a Vesper martini by the pool bar somewhere near the Gulf of Finland. It’s our first day at sea, my wife is in the spa luxuriating in a seaweed body-wrap treatment and our teenage children have rushed off to make tie-dye t-shirts as part of the Youth Programme. The vast horizon is hypnotic and a curious sense of unexpected calm envelops me. There are 302 crew on board Silversea’s Silver Whisper looking after 382 guests. Complimentary Wi-Fi and laundry service for guests staying in silver suites is a big hit. Our butler soon becomes the fifth member of the family, gently organising us and packing small treats for the kids in ease of emergency on excursions. Moscow-Kremlin-Russia

In Helsinki the quayside market is full of souvenirs we can’t resist: local artisan jewellery and knick-knacks adorned with moose.

It’s a city easily explored on foot and the main Senate Square, with its imposing cathedral, is a 10-minute stroll from the ship (the benefit of a small vessel is that it can often dock closer to the heart of a city). We reach Tallinn, the oldest capital in northern Europe, where I quench my thirst with a local dark honey beer before tackling the ankle-wrenching cobblestones to admire the view from Toompea (the upper old town) across the city rooftops.

But it’s St Petersburg, with its gold domes of orthodox churches and neoclassical architecture, that’s my real reason for choosing this cruise. There is no need for a Russian visa if you’re going ashore on an organised tour. Trips to the Summer Palace in Peterhof and the Winter Palace are well planned. And it is especially satisfying to gain access to the Hermitage museum before it opens to the general public (the chance to see Leonardo’s lgth-century painting Madonna Litta is thrilling).

In the evening, as I dine on steak fillet with bearnaise sauce in the grill restaurant on deck (it’s so good it’s difficult not to order the same thing every night), I can see the strict geometric lines of this magnificent city, softened by twinkling lights. I discover that many of my fellow passengers are here as much for the ship as for where it is sailing.

St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg

Silversea has a loyal following: one couple on board have racked up over 1,400 days at sea with the company. Our teenage children find this fact ‘cool’ and announce they really want to cruise with Silversea again. The Youth Programme (for ages six to 16) has been liberating, with mocktail parties for them and grown-up time for us, and for once, our holiday has made us all feel a little bit less dysfunctional.

White Rabbit, Moscow

Best not to drop any acid before heading here, as the decor of this elevated space – the best views of any Moscow restaurant – tips its hat to Alice in Wonderland, with a variety of pictures and sculptures featuring dressed-up white rabbits and rococo furniture. The food shows that a gastronomic Russian revolution is underway with an updated menu – Borodinsky bread with caviar, suckling pig and rabbit and cabbage rolls with foie gras and truffle juice.

Moscow – The Red Heart

Russia is a country that has always fascinated me because of its turbulent history, longstanding tradition of art and politics, and its many representations in fiction. Over time, it became larger than life in my mind and I started mixing it up with some fabled land. In 2014, when the value of the rouble dropped dramatically, Russia seemed accessible to me. Last year, I took advantage of an opportunity that arose and finally made my way to Moscow.

CRIMSON TIDE – All the photos I’d seen and descriptions I’d heard didn’t quite prepare me for the imposing architectural beauty of Moscow’s Red Square and surrounding areas. However, I caught my first glimpse of the glory of Russian Revival architecture in the heart of the city at Manezhnaya Square, which connects Red Square with downtown Moscow. On one end of Red Square is the large and splendorous State Historical Museum, in a deep, rich Moscow red brick. A few steps north, along the main street of Tverskaya, passing under a bridge, I was once again surrounded by beautiful red. The crimson towers of the Kremlin, a sprawling fortified complex with palaces and cathedrals, spiral as high as 62 feet towards the sky.

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The combination between modern and traditional architecture along with nature creates beautiful views in Moscow.

Its bulky walls, some 21 feet thick, line one side of the square. The blue, yellow, and green domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral built in the typical Eastern Orthodox architectural style stand out, looking fairy-tale-like besides the formidable red buildings. During winter, there’s an ice-skating rink built right in the middle of Red Square. So when you fall on your back, as most first-timers will, you can stare at the motionless beauty around. Inside the Kremlin is a world of winders, with sprawling gardens and magnificent buildings, including Putin’s official workplace. You could easily spend all your time in Moscow between Red Square and the Kremlin complex, visiting its museums and admiring its Russian Orthodox cathedrals of which the Cathedral of the Annunciation is one of the most beautiful. With walls covered with frescoes dating to the 17th century, it is like walking inside a painting.

SOUL WARMERS – Moscow has many food options, and I strongly recommend that visitors indulge in local food. LavkaLavka, on Petrovka street, is a farm-to-table restaurant that is also a design-lover’s delight. Here, you can get rustic Russian food such as fish pies and sbiten, which is a hot winter drink. The decor incorporates lots of warm wood brightened by lanterns made of red milk cans. In this place full of design quirks and hipster cool, my glass of wine cost only RUBI 195 and a meal for two costs as little as RUB1,150.The food store outside has a heady array of cheeses, meats, pickles, and preserves.

The Camembert-like artisanal cheese I brought back was delicious and I ate it with walnuts. Another fabulous dining experience is to be had at the White Rabbit, celebrity chef Vladimir Mukhin’s rooftop restaurant that broke into the World’s 50 Best Restaurants at number 23 in 2015. The 12-course tasting menu at this Alice in Wonderland-themed restaurant was priced at about RUB 8,000 per head—before the rouble dropped in value, this would have meant about 35,000—and I went for it. The meal included unforgettable preparations and presentations: caviar on biscuits lying on solid rocks of pink salt; red mullet with pickled bamboo; calf sweetbreads and deconstructed liquid grapes, and many other delights. Not everything was fancy, but it was uniformly good.

Another lovely spot in the centre of town is Cafe Pushkin, which feels like an exclusive “members only” club from the 1820s, with old-world wood decor, stiff upper lipped waiters, and silver cutlery. My typical Russian breakfast comprised pumpkin porridge, baked milk, which tasted like cheesecake, and kefir, a fermented milk drink. One of my favourite Moscow memories was sitting on the cafe’s terrace under the glass roof topped by entwined creepers, sipping a strong coffee. With all this fare available at affordable prices, for the first time I felt empowered as a spender in Europe. From preserved apples or pickled cucumbers at the Danilovsky food market to pelmeni (Russian dumplings) and fish or meat pies at a cafe, you can eat heartily in Moscow7 for about RUB690 for two.

BROWSE AND PICK – GUM is a shopping mall on the Red Square that could be mistaken for a monument. GUM’s facade is lit up year-round with decorations even more spectacular around Christmas. Inside, you can find everything from clothes to curios, vodka to chocolates. Definitely stop at the quirky art gallery and store Shaltai-Boltai, for cat cushions, fun art prints, mugs, and more. At the general store Respublika, I found beautiful souvenirs made by the company Heart of Moscow and at the Zhostovo, boutique lacquer trays and plates with bright, folk-style floral paintings.

The Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

The Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

VIEW FROM THE WING – Don’t return from Moscow without visiting the Bolshoi Theatre. The theatre building opened in 1856, and has seen many renovations over the years, the last one in 2011. Take a guided tour of the lavish neoclassical architecture and fascinating interiors and spend at least an hour inside, going from room to ornately crafted room, ending at the stunning auditorium. To catch a ballet performance bookings can be made online. On my last night in Moscow, I had drinks at 02 Lounge, the rooftop bar of the Ritz-Carlton Moscow, which has, undisputedly, the best view of the Kremlin and Red Square. Walking onto the terrace to take in the view, I stood gaping at the length of this marvellous old fortress, lit up against the night sky. At that moment I felt lucky to be in Moscow.

WRANGEL-ISLAND

WRANGEL ISLAND, RUSSIA

Why go? Why indeed – you’d think you’d want to avoid this hostile, hard-to-reach Russian zapovednik (strict nature reserve), which remains littered with the detritus of would-be settlers past. But in the summer months, when the daylight is continuous and the melted sea ice permits ships to come close, Wrangel is one of the hottest wildlife tickets in town. Thought to be the last redoubt of the woolly mammoth (which survived here until around 2000 BC), the island is now home to a high density of polar bears (around 350-500) plus reindeer, musk ox and Arctic fox. It’s also beloved of 80,000 Pacific walruses, which gather on the rocks and floes here to breed.

Birdlife is abundant: snowy owls nest on the tundra, snow geese flock on the 900-odd lakes and colonies of kittiwakes clamour on the cliffs.

When to go: July-August, when temperatures peak at around 15°C. This is when walruses gather, the island’s 400 plant species burst into life and cruises run.

How to go: Only accessible by very few specialist expedition cruises a year. Voyages leaving Nome (Alaska) may also include the Russian Kamchatka and Chukchi peninsulas.

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St. Petersburg and Moscow – Two Russian Jewels

A cruise along the Waterways of the Tsars is a journey into the heart and soul of this enormous country, discovers David Short.

Just outside Leningrad on a hot day in May 1969, during the Cold War, my friend and I found ourselves being berated by an armed and a very angry security official. He had stopped us for driving our Mini on the wrong, unauthorised road. After a lot of gesticulating and shouting we were made to clean our car with a dry cloth, and ordered to keep to our authorised route.

This time, on a Viking river cruise, we found that Russia was a lot more agreeable. From the moment we arrived in what is now St. Petersburg we were superbly attended to by the most engaging guides and staff right up until we were dropped off at the airport in Moscow 13 days later.

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Port of St. Petersburg – Russia

It turned out that we had embarked on not just a sightseeing cruise but a journey of discovery into the heart, mind and soul of Russia. We were free to explore St. Petersburg and Moscow, several small towns and villages in between and even to meet Russians at home. There was also an opportunity to visit a kommunalka — a communal apartment for several families.

We travellers were a mixed, international bunch. We were keen to ask our hosts all manner of questions. Some of us were very well informed and eagerly explored various topics, including political issues. And our Russian hosts didn’t duck any questions.

The ship was a very comfortable base for the duration of our journey as well as our gentle transportation along idyllic rivers, lakes and canals between the two.

Our first day in St. Petersburg began after an extensive breakfast and consisted of a full-day tour of the best of the three million artworks in The Hermitage museum. These include works by Titian, Matisse, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, Monet and Rubens. The visit was followed by dinner and a performance of of the ballet Swan Lake. It was after 11 pm when we arrived back on board, but Viking was ready with a substantial late-night snack, including wine and beer as they do for all normal lunches and dinners.

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The Hermitage Museum – St. Petersburg

Throughout our stay in St. Petersburg we were dazzled by the opulence of Russia’s rulers and the sheer extravagance of the palaces: the Winter Palace; the Amber Room in the Catherine Palace; the ‘Royal Village’ at Pushkin; and the extraordinary UNESCO World Heritage site of Peterhof Palace.

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Peterhof Palace – St. Ptersburg, Russia

After four eye-popping days in St. Petersburg it felt as if we’d been guided around just about every well-known church, monument and museum there is including the Peter and Paul Fortress. This is the original epicentre of the city, and many former tsars are now laid to rest in the cathedral including the relatively recently reinterred remains of assassinated and last tsar Nicholas II and his family. Another highlight was the private viewing of the Carl Faberge collection, chief among which are the nine exquisite imperial Easter Eggs.

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Peter and Paul Fortress

To cap off our final day in this remarkable city we enjoyed a loud and lively Cossack Folk song and dance performance with a drop of vodka. Naturally.

Our days in St. Petersburg were hectic but not arduous and we were continually informed about every aspect of Russian life, its complex history and detailed facts about all the places we visited.

Before dinner each evening there was a full briefing about what to expect the following day, which was very informative. In addition the ship’s newsletter the Viking Daily was delivered to our room.

Russia-night-view

From Russia, With Love

Train number 054 left Moscow’s Kazansky Station bound east for the Middle Volga’s unheralded republics. The night train was lively. Four noisy men drank vodka and played cards in one compartment; two mothers barely contained boisterous infants in another. Throughout a fitful night’s sleep I was aware of passing stations and shadowy moonlit forest. The next morning, 750km later, we disembarked at Cheboksary -but I knew little about my destination. The Russian Federation incorporates 22 federal republics. Some are better known for the wrong reasons, such as Chechnya. And you may have heard of Russia’s latest acquisition, the Republic of Crimea?

I’d joined a pioneering small-group trip to six of these republics clustered around the River Volga’s lowlands, west of the Urals. I’d heard of Tatarstan but Chuvashia, Mari El, Udmurtia, Mordovia and Bashkortostan remained mysteries. Ivan the Terrible brought them into Russia’s fold when overcoming the warlike Tatars in the 1550s. He established a series of forts along the Volga to guard Russia’s borders across the lands of these minnow minorities; they were eventually subsumed into the Russian Empire and, over time, forgotten. Yet now they seem extra relevant given the prevailing crisis of Russia’s intervention in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. If this current bloody mess is a precursor of how Russia might rule its republics I wondered what life must be like for those already assimilated? Are they subjugated people yielding to Russia’s power? Or thriving ethnic diversities with cultural and religious freedom? Only one way to find out.

The master brewers – At Cheboksary, capital of Chuvashia, we were greeted by Chuvash women dancing to accordion music in white dresses sewn with breastplates of coins. All very faux. But Tamara Vorobieyeva, our waiting Chuvash guide dressed in an embroidered scarlet kaftan, possessed the engaging enthusiasm of an explorer making first contact with a strange tribe. Tourists are a novelty here. We were soon touring Cheboksary with excitable Tamara yielding her microphone like a Gatling gun. She explained that Chuvashians speak a Turkic language courtesy of the Bulgars who settled here around the eighth century before dispersing.

Over time they mixed with the neighbouring Mari (more of them later) and were duly invaded by the Mongols before federating with Russia in 1552 for protection. They surrendered their paganism for Orthodox Christianity but, Tamara insisted, joining Russia was a matter of preservation rather than colonisation. She said that 68% of the republic remains indigenous Chuvash while the remainder are ethnic Russians plus myriad minorities such as Ukrainians and Tatars. Trying to piece together this region’s complex cultural casserole would prove as challenging as solving a Rubrik’s cube only using one hand.

cheboksary

Visitors can get a close-up of the giant Russian sculpture by climbing up hundreds of stairs to reach it.

Cheboksary sits alongside the Volga, a river so wide that the opposite bank was barely visible. The city’s landmark is a 46m-high statue called Mother the Patroness, a sort of Chuvashian Christ the Redeemer. Otherwise Cheboksary retains a Soviet legacy I’d find common throughout these republics, with trolleybuses, solid neo-classical tenements and broad boulevards named after Lenin and Marx: “We haven’t got around to changing the street names,” offered Tamara.

Hearteningly, she felt Chuvashia was well represented inside the Russian Federation. “Were happy being part of Russia. We have our own national congress and our language is taught alongside Russian,” she said. Chuvashia’s cheeriest statistic is providing Russia with 80% of its hops. The Chuvash are prodigious beer-brewers. “In Chuvash culture you’re more likely to be offered beer than tea,” said Tamara. It duly flowed during lunch, when the costumed dancers returned to perform a Pythonesque beer dance that saw me eventually engaged in a traditional kissing ceremony. I took one for the team.

The pagan survivors – There was barely time for a third (or was it fourth?) glass before we departed for our second republic that day, Mari El – which sounded more like a fashion magazine. It was a 94km drive north through pine lands to its capital, Yoshkar-Ola. Mari El National Museum contained artefacts and costumes relating to the Mari, a Finno-Ugric people who share a linguistic heritage with Finns and Estonians. The museum guide, Nastia, said they were recorded migrating west from the Urals back in the sixth century. With 600,000 Mari remaining, they’ve long been a vulnerable minority so they too ceded to Russia. Nastia, raven-haired and dark-eyed, explained that it’s impossible to say how a true Mari looks because over centuries they’ve mixed with Russians and Tatars. Yet the Mari remain the last true pagans of Europe.

Recent photos showed karts (shamans) in birch groves practising the Mari traditional religion that, according to Nastia, still thrives in the forests. “Every village has a kart. I have attended the ceremonies and the energy of our offerings, including animal sacrifices, travel up sacred birch trees to the spirits above,” she said. Outside the museum, Svetlana Maimina was waiting to guide us around Yoshkar-Ola. ‘Are you Mari?” I ventured. “No, I’m Jewish,” answered the English tutor with an accent lifted from the streets of Brooklyn. She insisted she’d never been to America; I vowed to quit guessing ethnicity.

“My parents are Ukrainian-Jews who migrated here after the Second World War,” she said. “I’m one of many minorities in Mari El among the Russian majority but I’ve never experienced anti-Semitism.” We began our tour – which was totally unexpected. Yoshkar-Ola has become a city of architectural preposterousness that makes Dubai seem like a paragon of modesty. “Ten years ago three adjectives could be applied to Yoshkar-Ola – boring, boring, boring,” quipped Svetlana. “Now, whatever architectural style you want to see you’ll find.”

fountain-night-view

Tatarstan’s oil wealth has helped fund its spectacular night fountains and recently completed Kremlin mosque.

Neo-Lego meets Disneyland is one description of Yoshkar-Ola’s showy rebuilt centre. Amid the abundant building cranes were a newly rebuilt replica Kremlin, a scaled-down fake of Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein Castle and a part-finished St Basil’s cathedral that was awaiting its golden domes. A fantasy Venetian clocktower was animated by a mechanical Jesus and the Apostles, while the pseudo-Gothic waterfront along the unfortunately named River Kokshaga resembled Bruges. Totally flabbergasted, I asked how Mari El could afford this theme-park makeover. Svetlana smiled and shrugged: “They say our president looked out of his office window and didn’t like the view.”

The easy-going oil-men – There’s no mystery surrounding the wealth of Tatarstan, the largest republic we were visiting. Eastern Tatarstan overflows with oil and gas. It was a 160km drive south to its capital, glittering Kazan, Russia’s third-largest city, home to 1.3 million people. Kazan’s darker-haired occasionally eastern-looking Muslim Tatar majority seemed to bear the most cohesive identity to date although our excellent Tatar guide, Rezida Mukhametzyanova, warned against stereotyping. “We’ve no particular look as we’re a mixture from Europe and Asia,” she said. Appropriately the word ‘Kazan’ translates as cauldron.