Travel: Moscow to St. Petersburg by boat 

A cruise through the heartland of European Russia

click to enlarge Church of Demetrios on the Blood, Uglich
  • Church of Demetrios on the Blood, Uglich

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The Moscow Canal was the first leg of our 1,321 km voyage along the Volga-Baltic Waterway to St. Petersburg. The route winds through a complex of interconnected lakes, rivers and artificial waterways, and passes through 17 locks with a combined rise of 160 metres. Shortly after pulling away from the dock in Moscow the Kirov nosed into the first of six successive locks that lowered her down to the Volga River about 100km upstream from the Uglich Power Station. Here the river is wide, dotted with low islands and flanked by brushy scrub forest. On the starboard side we pass the bell tower of a church. Rising enigmatically out of the Volga it is all that remains of the old town of Kalyasin — a reminder of the many villages that were destroyed by flooding during the Soviet era of industrial expansion.

The Kirov slips smoothly into the Uglich dock and we join Victoria for a walking tour of the town and a slice of Russian history. Although it dates back to the 900s Uglich is best known for its dubious relationship with Ivan the Terrible. As his favorite town Ivan chose Uglich’s walled kremlin as the place to dump his seventh and last wife into exile. After Ivan’s death in 1584 his youngest son and heir to the throne, Dmitry, was also banished to Uglich. Seven years later the 10-year old boy was found with his throat cut in the palace courtyard. The official verdict: “the boy must have fallen on his knife.” Victoria shrugs, “and that was the beginning of the ‘time of troubles,’” she explains, “the people refused to believe that Dmitry was dead and they supported several ‘false Dmitrys’, pretenders who led the country into chaos. It was a terrible time of killing and destruction.”

When the Romanov czars came to power in 1613 the young Dmitry was canonized and Uglich became a place of pilgrimage. The small but beautiful Church of St. Demetrios on the Blood was built on the spot where Dmitry was murdered. It’s one of several magnificent domed churches and cathedrals on and around the Uglich kremlin — each one a gem of Russian medieval architecture surrounded by gardens and mature forest. Before returning to our ship we spent several hours strolling through the grounds, visiting the temples and marveling at the ornate architecture.

Uglich was the first of several shore excursions during our 14 days aboard the Kirov and between trips ashore there was plenty to do on the ship. The food was superb — five-course meals served by friendly young women in the ship’s spacious dining room. Lectures in the ship’s media room provided a surprisingly candid analysis of Russian history, from Peter the Great right through to Vladimir Putin. There is also a quiet library and, for those suffering from information overload, the two bars are well stocked with beer and vodka. But, because we are usually close to shore, I never tire of just watching the passing scene from the observation deck. People wave as we slide past their tiny fishing villages. A southbound freighter acknowledges us with a toot of its horn and then everything is again quiet. The utterly flat forest-covered land seems to go on forever without any sign of human habitation and then, suddenly, there is another village.

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