John Plant, composer

Click here to edit subtitle


Our Russia cruise

Posted by John Plant on June 5, 2013 at 5:50 PM

Our Russian Cruise

May 15-29, 2013


Jocelyne and I have signed up for a Viking river cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg, with a two-day 'pre-extension' in Moscow...  Here's a day-by-day chronicle of the experience:


May 15

    Let's start at Moscow Airport (Domodevo), a scene of teeming chaos which somehow filters itself into a sort of line-up - which, contrary to all expectation, we get through in a reasonable amount of time. After passport control, there are two corridors, one of which is marked 'nothing to declare' -  we stride through that one, with no one showing the slightest curiosity as to the contents of our bags.

    Viking's driver is waiting for us with a sign, and we begin the three-hour drive to our hotel - our first glimpse of Russia is a massive traffic jam, locus of some of the most terrifyingly creative driving I ever hope to see.  I manage a conversation with our very pleasant driver, who doesn't speak a word of English.    He stops at a bank for us, and the ATM very agreeably supplies us with roubles - one anxiety removed!  The dismal Soviet-era buildings which lined the highway from the airport are gradually interspersed with breathtaking churches, and beautiful old buildings begin to appear; the bleak first impression of Moscow is considerably attenuated by the time we arrive at our destination: the Ukraina/Radisson, one of Stalin's Seven Sisters, right on the Moscow River - the most luxurious hotel I have ever stayed in, full of businessmen, poules de luxe,  and just a sprinkling of tourists like us.  Too exhausted to go out, we have a light supper in the hotel bar: pumpkin/ginger soup for Jocelyne, a jar of herring, mushrooms and potatoes for me, together with a glass of superb Nevskoye beer. Both soup and herring are exquisite.


May 16

Glorious breakfast in the mezzanine restaurant; too many delicacies to choose from. The sausages of my dreams, cheeses, fish, fruit, fresh-squeezed juices.

Metro-walking tour with our eloquent guide Svetlana.  Metro: the wonderful frescos of Kievskaya station, and the bronze crouched statues in Revolution Square (socialist realism meets Michelangelo).  Wonderful walk down Arbatskaya pedestrian mall.  Lots of bookstalls - I wish we had more time to browse! - Our first church: the lovely little Church of the Saviour on the Sands.  Our guide also takes us to the cylindrical constructivist Melnikov House, still in private hands.

    Moscow is in the midst of a heat-wave - coming from the foggy and damp Eastern Shore spring, we enjoy every bit of it; in fact, we are quite spoiled by splendid weather for most of the trip.

    We thank Svetlana and make our way alone to the Tretyakov gallery. We are gaping at the amazing collection of icons, many by Andrei Rubliev, and I chat with the guard in my lame Russian about Jocelyne's Slavic imagination. She urges us to head immediately to the museum temple, which closes in half an hour.  We do, but are more moved by the stately large Rubliev icons in the main collection. Thence to the wonderful late romantic/early impressionist paintings. A whole room full of Serov, an unsuspected genius.  I rejoice to see his portrait of Rimsky-Korsakov, but am very sorry not to find Repin's magnificent one of a very shaggy Musorgsky.

    We break for lunch at a very nice vegetarian cafe across the street, then decide to try to track down the 'Church of the Resurrection in Kadashi' nearby.  We find it surrounded by a wooden fence; the city had a development plan for this area which would hide most of the cathedral - there were signs saying 'This must not happen!' We try to find a way into the evidently closed church; a shabbily dressed man who has an adjoining garden emerges to talk to us, in a mix of Russian and French.  He asks us why Quebec failed to separate: propaganda? He's clearly disappointed that it didn't happen.  We return to the Tretyakov, and then head back to the hotel, intending to eat in the lobby again. But this time we're ignored (was our tip too small the night before?) and we go out to a lovely Georgian restaurant nearby which our Viking guides had recommended. Splendidly romantic evening.  

 May 17

 After a bout with insomnia during the night, I awaken at 11 A.M., with Jocelyne still asleep - we've missed breakfast, and we have to check out within an hour!  We are both parched, and I run down to the restaurant and beg for a couple of glasses of grapefruit juice. The angels in charge SQUEEZE it for us! -

    We make our way to the Kremlin, via the Lenin Library, but realize that what we really want is Red Square - to see St. Basil's Cathedral. Worth all the stress of navigating Moscow's metro.  Not one but many tiny churches housed in that labyrinthine building, icons and wall paintings to the top of each turret, with an excellent male quintet (Douros) singing.

    The Palace of the Romanov Boyars is not what we were expecting! Tiny rooms - a limestone basement with farming tools, weapons and armour; a miniscule banquet hall, beautifully painted, and a study with a tiny door right out of Alice in Wonderland.

We hasten back to the hotel to catch the bus which will take us to our boat.

    The boat is docked east of town facing a charming park full of kids playing, youths on bicycles, parents, lovers strolling, etc. I finally get my coffee, at 6 p.m. - and taste solid food at 7; a delicious dinner of hake stuffed with shrimp mousse, followed by sherbet (green tea and prickly pear).


May 18

      Our Moscow tour is led by Natasha, an enthusiastic, energetic and knowledgeable guide. We have a glimpse of the Bolshoi, and just a little free time to explore Red Square - we have just time to visit the reconstructed Kazan cathedral and then GUM, which is spectacular architecturally but not my idea of a shopper's paradise. Very happy to have visited St. Basil's properly yesterday! - We walk along the Moscow River Embankment to the reconstructed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which is too close to St. Peter's in scale for comfort - definitely not our favourite Moscow church, though it certainly bears witness to the religious revival, everywhere apparent in Moscow.  But the walk along the Embankment is a treat. We enjoy the padlocked trees on one of the bridges: lovers who have plighted their troth place a lock on the tree, and throw the key into the river!  

     We eat our boxed suppers on the bus before proceeding to the Tretyakov for the evening's concert by the very youthful Moskva Russian  Folk Orchestra. This turns out to be one of the highlights of the trip. Youthful performers playing with utmost concentration, intensity and passion on balalaikas, domras, winds, accordions and percussion. Mostly Russian repertoire, though a soprano treats us to Musetta's Waltz from La Bohème - which actually works quite well on strummed instruments! - But it's the Russian music which stirs our soul, like a great wind arising from a field of wheat. Nothing articulates contrapuntal inner voices like balalaikas!


May 19

     A difficult day following a difficult night - our stateroom adjoins some vibrating machinery and we have to reverse our beds in order to sleep. Today is the excursion to Sergiev Posad, some 40 miles outside of Moscow, home to a monastery and several cathedrals in honour of St. Sergius.  We get on the wrong bus and are distressed to be deprived of Natasha.  

    Interesting bus ride to Sergiev Posad (renamed Zagorsk during the Soviet era).  New high rise apartment buildings interspersed with ruined dachas;  the flow of bright unsubtle billboards - many of them announcing apartments for sale - gradually diminishes and yields to forest.  Today is a religious holiday, and we attend part of a really stirring service in the refectory; the priest is chanting and also conducting the congregation; when everyone suddenly joins in the singing the effect is overwhelming - I was reminded of the moment when Bruce Springsteen turns the mike on the audience during 'Hungry Heart'  - except that, of course, this is strictly a capella. We visit the magnificent museum on our own - full of textiles, priestly robes, metalwork,  miniatures in ivory and metals, ikons, crowns and other tsarist regalia. A group of ten or so young soldiers is visiting at the same time; I am struck by the reverence, devotion and wonder with which they gaze on everything; I find this simultaneously deeply moving and a little scary.

     The most disturbing event of the entire cruise occurs on the bus ride home; the man in front of us dies, presumably of a stroke, with his distressed wife right next to him. He is examined by a nurse, shows signs of recovery, and is taken to the back of the bus to lie down. I hear him say 'I think everyone is making too much fuss over me.'  The heavy traffic means that we are slow in getting a much-needed police escort, and when the ambulance arrives it is too late. We can only imagine what the widow must have suffered through those agonizingly long delays.

      While waiting for the police, we chat with Graham Whitehouse, the nurse's husband. He's an architect and an artist;  he and his wife Angela met at Verona at a performance of Madama Butterfly! He shows us some of his beautiful sketches.  The bus finally pulls into our river port five hours after leaving Sergei Posav.

 May 20

    Magnificent Kremlin tour, including the Armoury: dazzling fairy-tale coaches, thrones of Tsars, Fabergé eggs, crowns (both the old-Russian style with sable, and the 'European' style, riddled with diamonds) Empress Catherine's wedding and coronation dresses, both made with silver thread; and, of course, armour.

    Then the beautiful Cathedral of the Assumption, which has perhaps the most stunning, breathtaking iconostasis we've seen so far.

    Return for lunch, after which we set sail - announced by horrendous but heartwarming amplified music through the antediluvian sound system.  A beautiful ride toward Uglich:  gentle green landscapes interspersed with small towns and their gleaming churches.

May 21

    We've been in Russia for a week now - Jocelyne awakens with the cold, alas, which will turn into bronchitis. After breakfast I attend Natasha's excellent lecture on the Romanov dynasty.

     Uglich: where seven-year-old tsarevich Dmitri was murdered, reputedly by the henchmen of Boris Godunov.   A charming small town whose chief industry was watch-making; one manufacturer still survives, but our guide tells us that tourism is now what keeps the town going. The church (St. Dmitri on the Blood) is lovely, with wall frescoes in Renaissance style - including a naked Adam and Eve! - a welcome contrast to all the Byzantine severity of the churches we've seen up to now.  The martyrdom of the child St Dmitri, of course, is also depicted.  In the small museum we are serenaded by another male vocal ensemble, with a truly cavernous bass.

     We decide to skip the family visit and to shop in Souvenir Alley, a long tented lane with perhaps fifty or sixty stands. We buy a samovar, a Palekh pencil box for me (depicting the Firebird) and baby shoes for the forthcoming shower of our neighbour's daughter.

 May 22

Yaroslavl.  A short bus ride takes us to the confluence of two arms of the Volga, site of the gorgeous and spacious city park, and the church of St. Elijah the Prophet. As in the Uglich church, the paintings and icons are more Italianate, with gentler contours, and we like it very much.  We proceed to the market - a labyrinthine  jumble of stores and stands (clothes and toys predominant, not souvenirs) - and Jocelyne buys a skirt.  

Then to the Governor's Palace - where the guides are dressed à l'époque, with the girls playing the role of the Governor's daughters. They handle this potentially embarrassing role with great aplomb and grace, with a charming lesson on how to communicate your intentions with your fan.   We hear yet another fine male vocal quintet, featuring a tenor with an easy top D - we learn that he has been engaged by the Mariinsky and will be leaving the group - it's easy to predict a future for him in the stratospheric Rossini tenor roles.

    Jocelyne is feeling quite rotten by the time we get back to the ship.

    I dream that Britten has written a final opera, called Barlow, one in which he reveals himself even more pssionately than in 'Death in Venice.' The shirtless tenor has to perform all sorts of acrobatics while singing a poignant, simple melody - in the lineage of 'What harbour shelters peace' from Peter Grimes,' filtered perhaps through Glinka?!

 May 23

 At breakfast, we pass a bell-tower emerging from the lake - or rather, the Ribinsk Reservoir, Stalin's brainchild, the largest man-made body of water in the world - to make it,  he drowned some seven hundred villages. Hundreds of villagers refused to leave, chaining themselves to their homes; and they were drowned.

  The first rainy day of the cruise. We disembark at Kuzino, on the White Lake, and proceed by bus to Kirillov - I see a wolf from the window - and visit the local secondary school.  The building is dark and a bit mouldy, but the two classes we visit - grade 7 math and art - seem to be lively.  Our student guide, a graduating girl, is calm, elegant and self-possessed.  A short presentation for us: a young girl (perhaps ten) reciting Edward Lear limericks in English, and a boy (perhaps thirteen) playing accordion.  The art teacher shows us their work - including two-headed folk dolls enabling Little Red Riding Hood to transform herself into the wolf - some of the students' handwork is for sale.  Later, our guide tells us that the chief problem is that the young people leave, and gravitate to the big cities - to those of us on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia, that sounds sadly familiar.

       We visit the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery and museum; the monastery has also been a fortress.  Desolate impression. At the pier, we are given an extremely hokey Viking presentation, in which hapless  volunteers are dressed in Viking attire and photographed. Jocelyne has the good sense to miss this.

 May 24

    Tatiana, one of the tour escorts,  gives a vivacious lecture on Putin, Medvedev and the Russian economy.

    Kizhi, on Lake Onega - our northernmost point. Kizhi is a beautiful island, and the huge, magical wooden church, with its multiple wooden onion domes, seems to be clambering out of a dream. We can't see the inside of the major church - the oldest wooden church in Russia -because it's closed for reconstruction, but the smaller winter church is lovely.  We have a splendid local guide, full of energy and philosophy.  We have free time to walk around the island, almost uninhabited - the whole place is a Unesco museum, with several reconstructed northern Russian wood houses of the early twentieth century. We visit several of these, and are struck by the resourcefulness with which they enabled families to survive and flourish, particularly in extreme winter conditions.  Bedrooms are ensconced between walls, with just enough of an opening to allow access; a rope-and-pulley system allows the baby's cradle to follow the mother's movements from one part of the house to the other. A place for everything: for the poultry, the animals, the fishing boat (only useable for six months at most); the farming and wood-working tools. And despite the harsh conditions, the house is beautifully ornamented, with artful carvings indoors and outside.

    We watch 'The Cranes are Flying' in our cabin, but Jocelyne is feeling feverish, and we visit the ship's doctor, who prescribes penicillin, with a plethora of other medictions,  homeopathic and otherwise.  The ship, built in the mid-1980s in East Germany, is a bit drab, excessively air-conditioned (i.e. cold), and rather noisy; it's unfortunate that illness obliges her to spend more time aboard than she would like.  One asset is that it's very stable on the rough waters of Lakes Onega and Ladoga; another is the very helpful and resourceful staff.  I might add that the ship has a fine library, including a volume (new to me) of reminiscences by Shostakovich's children.

 May 25

     We arrive in Mandrogy, the brainchild of a millionaire: it's a souvenir village on a large scale, but conceived with an eye to authenticity.  Lots of rather fantastical wooden structures, with oriental and Russian motifs jumbled together with more exuberance than coherence .  Lots of lacework, woodwork, ironwork on display (and for sale); we skip the vodka museum; but the island itself is very pleasant.  Jocelyne is very tired; we spend a long, relaxing time on a log swing; and I buy and eat a chicken pirozhi (delicious) from a strolling vendor.

    In the evening, I participate in the Guest Show via Gilbert and Sullivan: A policeman's lot is not a happy one, with audience participation obligatory - and happily forthcoming - in the chorus.

 May 26

We dock in St. Petersburg - or rather, several miles west of the city.

    Although we've paid for a full-day tour of the Hermitage, including a visit to parts of the museum which are closed to the public, we decide to opt for the shorter tour.  Natasha is an excellent guide, but we begin to long for independence and are very relieved when we are given free time. With Natasha we see the Prodigal Son of Rembrandt (for which she provides a very illuminating introduction), a room full of Titians and the two much-vaunted Leonardos.  But for me the high point is being left alone to gaze at the glorious collection of Cézanne, Gauguin, Bonnard, Derain, Matisse (no reproduction can prepare one for the stark luminosity of his 'Music'), Picasso, Rousseau - without the horrendous crowds trying to elbow into the Leonardos and Rembrandts (though I must salute here Natasha's skill in steering us to these paintings at the precise moment when the traffic subsides). 

     Evening performance of Swan Lake at the Conservatory.  Superb Odile/Odette and Jester. I enjoy the whole thing very much, despite a sometimes earthbound ensemble and the rather crude energy of the orchestral playing.)

May 27

     Glorious sunny day - in fact, we have splendid weather throughout our stay in St. Petersburg.

    Natasha takes us on a metro/walking tour of the city. We emerge at Nevsky Prospect, near an art nouveau gourmet foodshop of great splendour. We walk up the canal to the Church of Spilled Blood, built on the site of Tsar Alexander II's assassination. The church is stunning, inside and out.   Once again, the frescoes and icons are more Italianate, more humane, more gently contoured, without losing anything in splendour or mythic resonance.  The profusion of inventive energy everywhere, the generosity and self-renewing splendour of shapes and colours. We separate from our group here and have the afternoon and evening on our own.

    The beautiful Mikhailovsky Park adjoins the church; it's full of couples and children - hard to reconcile this with our guide's statistics that 70% of marriages end in divorce -  and we snooze a bit on a bench in the sun before proceeding to the Russian Museum, where we are greeted by two gigantic primeval Roerichs - followed by a delightful room of Larionov and Goncharova, and another full of Malievitch, onward via Tatlin and the other suprematists to  'socialist realism' - including some really striking and moving works -right through to the 1980s.  There's also a splendid temporary exhibit of works inspired by birds and other wildlife..  We backtrack to the nineteenth century and the late romantic works of Repin and Serov.  Also rooms full of crafts and folk art, incredibly delicate work in ivory, Palekh lacquered papier mache boxes, lace, textiles…  I'm delighted to have seen so many churches, and feel utterly satisfied on that score; but I regret not having had more time to spend in all three museums.

    We walk from the Russian Museum to the Mariinsky - along one of the canals, stopping in Dom Knigi - a three-volume bookstore where I find what I'm looking for, a Russian edition of Pushkin which includes Eugene Onegin, Boris, the Small Tragedies, the Captain's Daughter & lots of poems - as well as what I think and hope is a complete Tsveteyeva. Desperate search for a place to eat, we finally settle on a rather dubious Chinese restaurant near the theatre, and have a very good fish there. The Mariinsky - splendid to look at, though Jocelyne finds it a bit 'defraichi' - lots of children and young people in the audience - but the performance (of Tchaikovsky's wonderful Eugene Onegin) is disappointing. Badly conducted and badly played - and atrociously staged. The production dates from 1982!  Fine tenor as Lensky; and Tatyana, at least, has a voice.  Tourist fare, which angers me, as this is supposed to be part of the White Nights festival. I suspect that some of the orchestral musicians must be second-string - and not trying very hard to impress anyone.  Where is the smouldering passion in Tatiana's letter scene? Next to us is a small boy, whose first opera this must be - he arouses the ire of the guy sitting next to me by his stream of questions - but the lad is clearly bored to tears, and I can't help contrasting this with my own first lucky experience. We leave before Act III.A bitter disappointment - this was to have been the climax of the trip. The perils of great expectations!

May 28

     We spend the morning packing.

    After lunch, the canal cruise, absolutely sensational.  We emerge from the canal network to the Big Neva, in front of the Peter and Paul fortress. Our very young guide evokes the horrors of life under the Bolsheviks, and when one of the guests asks who they were, he answers, "Well, they were mostly Jews," - and goes on to say that Lenin had a grandmother named Kaplan, as though that explained something.  This rather spoils the rest of the cruise for me, but it's almost over, and the ride through various intersecting canals - past unbelievably beautiful Mozartian architecture - beautifully sculpted and painted buildings - has been a joy.

    At supper, Jocelyne is serenaded and presented with a sumptuous birthday cake! I stay for the evening's entertainment: a fine short recital by a young American (Russian grandparents) soprano from the Mariinsky, with an excellent accompanist - Bizet, Poulenc, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff; the pianist plays a couple of Chopin preludes, very well except for the excruciatingly out-of-tune piano.  I get more pleasure from this recital than from Eugene Onegin at the Mariinsky!

May 29

Easy ride to the airport - we arrive too early. Jocelyne buys a lacquered bowl and I buy a nice cheap Russian edition of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons.  Terrifying time trying to connect flights at Frankfurt - the Air Canada terminal is miles away from where we land, and you have to take a train to get there.. We barely make it. Easy crossing of the Atlantic, with a free beer - for some reason we are in Hospitality rather than basic Economy for this stretch - and the quietest plane so far. More panic in Toronto, as we can't find our declaration form and are once again in serious danger of missing our Halifax connection, but Jocelyne retrieves it from her handbag, we  arrive at the last minute and reach Halifax at midnight - and finally get home close to 2 AM.




    Though perhaps not the idyllic carefree vacation we'd been hoping for, the cruise was an unforgettable and intense experience.  We were both astonished to observe the slow passage of time - though now that it's over, it seems in retrospect to have only lasted a few minutes!  I think this is the only way we could have seen Russia - but the question as to whether we are 'cruise people' has - despite the excellence of our guides, the helpfulness of the ship's staff, and the stimulating encounters with many wonderful fellow passengers - been answered resoundingly in the negative.   

    Russia has been part of Jocelyne's inner world since her childhood; her piano teacher was Russian, and his brother was an icon painter and close friend of the family. The Slavonic atmosphere evoked a deep response in her.  She writes of the cruise: 'I found this experience overwhelming. Perhaps just as some people experience a voyage to India. A whole range of childhood dreams collapsed in the face of the hard reality of this country, which I had always associated with legend. So much beauty, built at the cost of so much suffering.  Its history is inscribed in its monuments and its architecture; one cannot forget it for a single instant. Moscow is a masculine city, tough, assertive, massive; while St. Petersburg is rather feminine, tempered by Italian architecture..  In short, a difficult trip, but worthwhile."    One of our fellow guests, Pamela Smith,  is an expert in Russian textiles and art.  Her website is a rich and stimulating resource for those who want to know more about this astonishing country, with many useful links.  I recommend it very highly:

    Further impressions: the proportion of young people seems much higher than in our part of the world, and they look healthier and more beautiful, though too many of them smoke. The religious revival is powerfully evident.  Notes to any future revolutionaries: if you want to ensure the flourishing of religion, ban it for the better part of a century and then just watch it swing back with redoubled force! -  Putin seems to be wildly popular - understandable, perhaps, given the nation's relative current prosperity  contrasted with the abject economic misery of the early 90s.  But from a North American perspective, the combination of intense patriotism with intense religious fervour is more than a little disquieting.  The pervading sense of energy and optimism, however, is heartening; this does not feel like an unhappy country.




Categories: None

Post a Comment


Oops, you forgot something.


The words you entered did not match the given text. Please try again.

Already a member? Sign In


Reply Graham Whitehouse
2:53 PM on June 6, 2013 
Hello John
I have read your account of the Russia trip with great interest. Thanks for the mention and flattering to be termed "artist"!
Would you believe thatBBC Radio 3 have just broadcast Eugene Onegin from ROH Covent Garden, you may be able to catch it on I-player?
I found your reflections on Russia resonated with me.
I trust you are both now fully rested and Jocelyne is feeling better.
Warm regards
Reply Phil Loomer
10:39 AM on June 10, 2013 
Thanks so much, John, for this vivid informative account of your and Jocelyne's trip. I once covered some of same ground but not with your depth of cultural appreciation. And perhaps the 'unevennesses' of the trip will, in the long run, render it more meaningful to you than would have been the case if it had been simply an 'idyllic carefree vacation'. I remember my 'rough' travel with more affection than the relatively uneventful easy stuff....

I particularly identified with Jocelyne's observation, "So much beauty at the cost of so much suffering". Many times in my travels I have deeply felt the same thing.....whether viewing the monumental architecture of Karnak/Thebes, the temple complexes of India, Buddhist monuments like Angkor, Borobudur, Bagan,....or Versailles for that matter! Most of the world's great art was unfortunately the product of civilizations with hugely uneven distributions of wealth and comfort.