National Post Barbara Kay: Russia’s grand architecture and wretched past, as seen from a river boat

National Post - Thursday June 19th, 2014

Barbara Kay / National Post
The author and her husband in front of a Karl Marx statue.

MOSCOW — In its essentials — well-appointed staterooms, excellent food and warmly attentive staff — river cruising is much like ocean cruising (minus the lavish evening shows and casinos, which neither I nor my readers will consider much of a loss.)

Its one real downside, which I’ll get out of the way up front, and doubtless a deal-breaker for many of today’s fitness-obsessed Boomers and Zoomers (the same demographic as ocean cruising), is the absence of a gym or walking deck. At least, that was the case on the ship that recently took my husband and I on “The Waterways of the Tsars,”a 12-day river cruise through Russia.

Also appreciated: the small complement of about 120 passengers (versus the thousands aboard large ocean cruise ships), which confers a village-like sense of intimacy.

On the ship, we were about 10% Canadian, and the rest equally divided between Americans and Brits. Everyone was pleasantly open to sociable exchange (if you’re not, you shouldn’t river cruise). I can’t remember a single dud conversation, and that includes our first-night meal with four Texans – social and political anomalies, as I soon discovered – three of whom were stereotypically obese, and all four Tea Partiers and Obama Birthers. Their ideas were entertaining, if not edifying. We steered clear of them thereafter. Most dinners were shared with an amiable, upbeat and Canadianly well-informed Kelowna, B.C. couple.

One English couple we took to had, since his early retirement at age 48 after surviving what was supposed to have been terminal cancer, lived in France running a B&B, moved to Perth, Australia on a whim and later run a fish farm in rural England.

A youngish New Hampshire couple (55 is young on cruises) kept shyly to themselves at meal times, but were quite forthcoming otherwise. He was a poet and a publisher of poetry, she a potter. Both were ardent lovers of Russian literature, the raison d’être for this cruise. In Moscow, they hired a driver in order to visit Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate/museum, a round trip of seven hours for an hour’s communion with the master’s ghost.

Then there was the Canadian woman my age who, following her divorce, sold her house and everything in it, trading rootedness for an RV, in which she lived for six years, rambling solitary across the United States, and settling in for months-long sojourns at singles-only RV sites.

The obvious beauty of river cruising is that you’re never staring blankly at mere water. On the banks, just tens of metres away, there was always something of interest to see. Dacha after dacha. Locks. An exquisite Florida-everglades-like stretch. Families picnicking. Men fishing. We waved from our verandah; they waved back. (One cheeky fellow in a rowboat mooned my husband Ronny.)

St. Petersburg is so far north it stayed light until almost midnight: a reward for the cold and the rain that marked our days there. We were told the city has only 40 days of sunshine a year. The city is visually magnificent, but how grim the winters must be.

Our route took us through many different waterways. We began on the Neva River in St. Petersburg, eventually reaching the mythical 2,000-mile long “Mother Volga,” and ending our journey with the 80-mile long Moscow Canal, an awesome enterprise that includes seven concrete dams, eight earthen dams, 11 locks, eight hydroelectric power stations, five pump stations and 15 bridges. (Although its dimensions are greater by far than the Panama or Suez Canals, it was completed in just five years. But then, the latter projects were not built by millions of prisoners from Stalin’s gulags, and the Moscow Canal was.)

We also cruised through two of Europe’s biggest lakes, one of which, Lake Ladoga, was — frozen — the famous “Road of Life,” the only route that connected the city of St. Petersburg to the mainland during the 1941-44 tragic 900-day Siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg’s former name, which itself had replaced the former Petrograd).

It is difficult for the ordinary imagination to graft the horrors of that siege — food was nonexistent or rationed to less than 200 calories per person per day, cannibalism was not unknown, and some 630,000 residents perished — onto today’s prosperous-looking St. Petersburg, where contented residents in their finery enjoy ice cream cones as they stroll and window shop along the storied Nevsky Prospekt (St. Petersburg’s Fifth Avenue).

The ship had three guides – Dmitri (Dima), Yulia and Tatiana – who travelled with us, led the tours of the major sites such as the Hermitage, the tsars’ palaces, the Kremlin and so forth — and, on every travel day, when stops were short and time on board was long, gave in-depth talks on the various epochs of Russian history. These talks blew life into textbook facts.

Yulia, a 40-something dynamo with a wicked sense of humour covered the Romanovs, from the first, Mikhail (1613-45), to the last, also Mikhail (I bet you didn’t know that Nicholas II had actually abdicated before he and his family were executed, so the very last Romanov tsar – very briefly – was also a Mikhail). What a dizzying saga of bed-hoppings, tortures, regicides and intra-family conspiracies.

Tatiana, in her 60s, lectured on the Soviet period. She took us from 1917 to Perestroika, and every major figure from Trotsky to Gorbachev. The 1917 Russian Revolution was hell on earth. In the civil war that followed, 1918-21, 6-million Russians died. (In the American civil war, the death toll was less than a million.)

Tatiana told us that of her mother’s entire school caught up in the siege of Leningrad, only she and one other girl survived. (Tatiana’s mother has fond memories of Leonid Brezhnev, because under his leadership she had enough to eat. How could we enjoy our lavish cruise-ship dinner after such humbling knowledge? Yet we did.)

By the end of the Second World War, Russia was victorious at the terrible price of 26-million dead. Tatiana asked us to consider the demographic implications of so many dead young men. Many millions of girls would never have families. Millions of children with no fathers lost their childhoods to slavery in factories to restore industry. Russia once had a population of 250 million. Today it is 140 million.

When does the going get good for Russians? Almost never.

Yulia did a session on Perestroika, 1985-91. We in the West liked Gorbachev, because he appreciated and cultivated the West, but he was a disaster for Russians. It was on his watch that the country was thrown into complete economic chaos, causing a wave of voluntary childlessness, rampant suicide and mass emigration, as the USSR disintegrated, with one republic after the other declaring independence (we think that’s good, but Russians don’t). Gorbachev won the Nobel prize, but he is universally loathed in Russia. Which is probably why he chooses to spend his declining years (he is 82, in fragile health) in London.

Yeltsin? A briefly-admired hero turned drunken buffoon, whose clumsy privatization strategies created the insanely wealthy oligarchs who literally don’t know what to do with their obscene fortunes. Under Yeltsin, the average male Russian’s life expectancy dropped to 59. He is detested here.

Dima, not yet 30, exuded more lightness, his family having weathered the perestroika storm relatively unscathed. He spoke about Putin, the man and his politics. He also participated spiritedly in a final “town hall” discussion with Yulia and Tatiana, where we were free to ask any questions about Russia apart from political ones (although someone brought up Ukraine anyway, which they skirted gracefully.) And so (lightly edited):

Q  What do you think of Barack Obama?

A  We never think about Obama when he is not criticizing Putin. We see him as weak, though. And America leaving Afghanistan has meant a flood of drugs and refugees into Russia, a terrible problem.

Q  Homophobia?

A  Yulia: I have no problem with gays, and I have gay friends, but we don’t like activism.

A  Tatiana: Russia will never allow gays to be parents. Never.

Q  We’ve seen so many churches. Do many people actually still go to church?

A  Absolutely. Russia is a very religious country. Even young people go. It’s quite trendy.

Q  Is Russia going left or right?

A  Yulia (passionately): Neither. It is a complete mess here, a “vertical system” that is “going nowhere.” The mass media are all pro-government, nobody watches the very few opposition channels. You can protest, but you need permission, which is never granted. “What I am saying to you now I doubt I will be allowed to say in the future.”

Q  How come we never hear about the families of your leaders?

A  It is a custom Gorbachev broke with when he married Raisa. But after Gorbachev, the custom returned. Dima: Putin has two daughters you never hear of. One lives in Japan, the other in The Netherlands. By the way (here an uncharacteristic spasm of cynicism), all the children of every single Russian leader since the Revolution lives abroad.

Q (from our Tea Party Texan)  “Ah don’t ayesk in a spirit u’ criticism, but how is it that y’all keep accepting autocratic rule?”

A  Silence as the three look at each other and shrug. “We don’t know.”