It’s one thing to learn about a foreign country through spy movies, outdated Cold War propaganda and sound bites. It’s a whole different education looking a foreigner in the eye and listening to what they really think.
“People think it’s politicians who will change the world,” says Diana Lapshina, cruise director of the Scenic Tsar, the first new passenger vessel on the Moscow-St. Petersburg waterways since the Soviet thaw. “But this, this face-to-face interaction among the common people, this is how we come to understand each other. Through friendships, one-on-one.”
Although international relations was probably not the top priority for this year’s introduction of the new luxury Scenic Tsar, a sleek, amenity-laden vessel that sails back and forth between Moscow and St. Petersburg, it’s certainly one of its most satisfying bonuses. For an idealist like me who believes in the power of travel to further truth, peace and open communication, my recent voyage on the refurbished river barge couldn’t have been more meaningful.
I had daily interaction with Russians from all age groups, from those who once stood in lines for chickens and toilet paper to young fashionistas who snatch up pricey Denis Simachev (Moscow’s 38-year-old wild child designer) t-shirts as fast as he can get them into Moscow’s opulent new shopping malls.
Suffice it to say, the Russian story I grew up with is no more accurate than recent jargon about nefarious geopolitical threats from a foolhardy presidential candidate.
“We hear from Romney that we are returning to communism. And we think, ‘Really?’” says Arty Lavronenko, a Russian linguist who travels back and forth between the two countries. “That’s certainly news to us.”
He went on to opine about not only politicians, but about mass media that he calls “one of the biggest tragedies of the 21st century.”
At least when it comes to spreading fear and misinformation. Let’s take Pussy Riot, for example. Most Russians, although proud of their newly-acquired freedom of speech, think Pussy Riot deserved to be punished.
“Maybe not two years in work camps. That might have been a bit severe,” says Vadim Palchun, a poetic Russian who sees both sides of Russia’s transformation from hammer and sickle to Hermes and sable. “But most Russians (86 percent according to Levada Center, Russia’s equivalent of Gallup Polls) feel it was disrespectful to protest in a church.”
Indeed, a mere six percent of Russians sympathize with the all-female group that has dominated the headlines since their February 21 performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Even Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, although flattered by the support, reiterated from prison camp that they don’t want their music turned into “a capitalist commodity.”
But back to Russian indignation over choosing the church as a political platform. To Russians, who surprised me with their devotion to religion, surely a byproduct of being deprived of it for 74 years, there are some lines better not crossed.
Still, they’re fiercely protective of their freedom of expression.
“We can say whatever we want,” Lavronenko emphasized, proving his point by making a joke about Putin and insisting his wife needs a new hair cut. “See, there’s no KGB coming after me.”
No subject was off-limits with the Scenic Tsar’s all-Russian staff who were consistently warm, friendly and eager to dispel ongoing rumors and stereotypes. In fact, we were far more reticent picking “acceptable topics” than the Russians were in answering our questions with unapologetic aplomb.
Meeting such amusing, thoughtful and uninhibited Russians was by far the highlight of the 14-day cruise between the country’s two most well-known cities. But here are five more reasons why Russia’s new Scenic Tsar is, in my humble opinion, the best introduction to a misunderstood country:
1. Nothing about Russia is straight-forward. Winston Churchill’s comment that Russia is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” is still true today. Nothing here is simple, not getting a visa, not traversing the country (traffic is never-ending, resembling LA freeways at the best of times) and certainly not understanding the language. So by putting your travel fates in the hands of Scenic Tsar’s expert staff, confusion and wasted time is all but eliminated. No-nonsense Lapshina went so far as to help us navigate ATM’s and decipher dollar to rouble ratios.
2. Hotel rooms are outrageous. For nearly a decade, Moscow has led the list of cities with most expensive hotel rooms. According to a biannual study by Hogg Robinson Group (HRG), the Russian capital is numero uno when it comes to top price ($407 average nightly rate), mainly because the hotel demand is simply higher than the supply. On the Scenic Tsar, your bedroom is included (as well as amazing food, live nightly music and an on-board doctor) and there’s no need to repack your bags when moving from city to city. Plus, this small boat (56 rooms) with balcony cabins, sophisticated lighting, plenty of closet space, free WiFi and other luxury accoutrements puts most hotel offerings to shame.
3. There’s more to Russia than Moscow and St. Petersburg. I wouldn’t trade my four days in each of those cities for all the Faberge eggs in Russia. Well, maybe for all of them. Seeing the Kremlin, Red Square and, of course, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg has been on my bucket list for years. But to really experience a new place, beyond the pat description in a guidebook, it’s important to leave the city behind, to get out into the country, meet people who don’t cater to tourists. This Imperial Jewels of Russia tour winds through many rivers, Europe’s two biggest lakes, in and out of locks and stops in several exotically historic small towns including the Golden Ring city of Yaroslavl, founded in 1010, and Khizi Island, whose 22 timbered onion domes is one of few Russian locations in the new film, Anna Karenina. Of Russia’s 15 World Heritage sites, Scenic Tsar takes in four.
4. Private ballet performances and other perks are thrown in. How many people can say they’ve seen a private ballet performance in an Imperial Russian Palace? In a small theater in the sumptuously barbaric Vladimir Palace, just down the Neva from the Winter Palace, we enjoyed a rare performance by dancers from two of St. Petersburg’s great ballet companies. Our visit to the Moscow Space museum concluded with a Q and A with former cosmonaut Alexandre Laveykin. Scenic Cruises sets up lots of rare, one-of-a-kind experiences including vodka tasting, (who knew there were so many kinds of vodka), riding Moscow’s impressive Metro and a special tour of Ivan the Terrible’s 400-year-old St. Basil’s Cathedral. And because the Scenic Tsar is all-inclusive, there is no charge for this impressive line-up of excursions.
5. Even the boat itself has a romantic heritage. Although the ship is marketed as the Scenic Tsar by an Australian company (Scenic Cruises, a leader in upping the ante on Europe river cruising), it’s owned by a Russian company and its bow still carries its original name, the Alexander Grin. Grin, although not as well-known as Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoevsky and other Russian scribes, was a poet and novelist who lived in St. Petersburg in the early 20th century. Scarlet Sails, probably his best known story, is a fantasy tale about explorers finding adventure, romance and ultimate truth. To my way of thinking, the name is absolutely perfect.
Photos: E. Gillies/Scenic Tours