View Comments
In the lap of Mother Russia
Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg, Russia. Supplied picture

It's almost dusk as a shaft of sunlight breaks through heavy cloud, illuminating the forest while the ship slips quietly towards the lock.

More Eastern Europe
GEORGIA SELLS INTELLECT AND TOURISM
5 FREE THINGS TO DO IN GDANSK
THE REAL ROMANIA
AZERBAIJAN
THE BEST VALUE IN EUROPE
BY ROAD, RAIL AND RIVER
HIDDEN BEHIND THE CURTAIN
THE BEAUTIFUL DANUBE

Winter is days away and the few remaining leaves, outnumbered by bare branches, are a tapestry of amber and red, glowing momentarily in defiance of the first wisps of fog biding time until the temperature drops.

The other cruise ships which sashay up and down European waterways have long since headed south, their gaudy cocktail umbrellas and off-key karaoke a world away from this place.

Stone figures atop colossal columns grow taller as the vessel slides into the lock, but the statues granting boatmen passage along these waters are of neither deity nor lion. They are of workers.

Then the hammer and sickle insignia looms into view.

This is Russia, and we haven't come for a tan.

We're chasing something altogether different as we head north along the Moscow Canal to the Volga River via a series of locks.

Australian company Scenic Tours has pulled off a coup by managing to secure the first new vessel to be added to Russian waterways in 25 years.

As the 14-night tour from Moscow to St Petersburg unfolds, it becomes as much a journey into the psyche of modern Russia as it is a scenic river cruise.

The Soviet Union crumbled more than 20 years ago but it has taken this long for the country to become really ready for tourists.

With little else to go on, the rest of the world has largely retained a view of Russia based on enduring Cold War stereotypes tinged by a mishmash of dated James Bond movies, boozy Boris Yeltsin buffoonery and, more recently, the jailing of a dissident all-girl pop group.

From the start our hosts are intent on dispelling ill-informed perceptions, and the guests are eager to shed them.

Scenic Tours has assembled an incredibly high-quality group of locals from varying generations to operate the tour and calls them "Scenic Ambassadors" rather than tour guides for a reason.

The youngest is Arty, a Muscovite who has lived in New York and holds degrees in linguistics and psychology ("making me a psycho-linguist").

Oozing confidence and charisma, Arty delights in showing us around his city, even defending the horrendous traffic as a chance for commuters to catch up on their emails.

We assume he's talking about the passengers until someone spots a driver glued to a laptop while idling in gridlock.

The city heaves with constant construction, a teeming hive of 12 million people, (maybe 15 million, no one really knows), four million cars and an unemployment rate of 0.4 per cent.

Arty's best weapon in breaking down stereotypes is his irreverent humour.

"Oh, there's one of our KGB ravens keeping an eye on things," he casually observes as the bird's caw startles somebody.

A few laugh nervously.

Didn't Pussy Riot just have two-year jail sentences upheld for criticising President and ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin in a cathedral?

Should he really be making jokes like that?

Scenic Tsar at Kizhi Island. Picture: Russ Images / Alamy

There is no problem with expression in modern Russia, Arty insists.

"A lot is said about Russia. Some of it is true but most of it isn't," he says.

"So if you have a question, don't hold it back. But if you ask a question, you will get an answer. Russians always give you an answer and it's not always what you want to hear.

"They had to hold back for so many years and now they are using the opportunity to express themselves."

Our Moscow itinerary is full.

We ride the famed Moscow Metro, whose first passenger was Joseph Stalin in 1935 when the network opened with 13 stations.

It now has 186 stations, and with trains arriving every 30 to 40 seconds it is one reason why Muscovites consider theirs a city to rival Europe's elite.

Although the subway's speed and size has increased over the years, the original ornate stations retain the polished marble and chandelier-lit grandeur used to proclaim the glory of the Soviet Union.

We are taken behind the walls of the Kremlin, not just a building but a fortress containing four palaces, four cathedrals and the official residence of the President.

The Kremlin's State Armoury contains a surprising array of treasures from Russia's tsarist dynasties.

The twin thrones of Ivan and Peter. The summer carriage of Catherine the Great. Crowns, coronation dresses, sceptres, orbs.

Monuments to an epoch of excess while the peasants starved, providing ample explanation of their appetite for a revolution, but what is less clear is how the treasures survived it.

Tatiana, our local guide, explains that after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution Vladimir Lenin decreed that works of art should be protected.

Visiting Russia is like visiting three different countries at once.

The split personalities of tsarist imperialism, godless Communism and the adolescence of today's maturing Russian Federation collide yet coexist in ways that often confound.

Contradictions are everywhere.

Many of Russia's cathedrals - with those distinctive onion-shaped domes built to represent a candle's flame - have been restored after being used as barns during the Soviet era.

"Here is where Ivan the Terrible used to pray.

"He was a very religious man," Tatiana says matter-of-factly.

"He killed his son in a fit of rage but he prayed a _lot _."

Another of Russia's personalities is revealed after our four nights in Moscow are over and the cruise begins.

Out here, with thatch-roofed farmsteads and dense forest sliding slowly past the window, the effects of 90 years of astonishing upheaval are less pronounced.

We have only just begun to peer behind the cloak of rural Russia with visits to the riverside town of Uglich and the larger Yaroslavl when our journey comes to an abrupt halt.

Heavy fog has descended with the sharp drop in temperature during the night.

Continuing along the waterway in visibility this low is illegal.

We're forced to abandon two stops on our five-towns-in-five-days itinerary to make up time, a great pity for passengers more keen to explore villages than cities and something to consider when booking a late-season tour.

After 36 hours straight on the ship, an unscheduled stop is hastily organised to let passengers stretch their legs.

Vytegra is well off the tourist track and, after so many examples of how much Russia has changed, reveals how far it has to go.

Wooden fences lean and tired shutters sag.

Children play in tyres on pot-holed, barely sealed backstreets, where one man has chained his car to his driveway.

We trudge back to our luxury cruise ship in silence.

Though this was impromptu, Scenic Tours has done well to infuse the tour with realism.

Sure, there's the harmless tackiness of a Russian matryoshka doll-painting competition (which Arty describes as Russia's first democratic election).

But passengers are also encouraged to attend a round-table discussion with the ambassadors where no question about Russia is off limits.

Yes, Pussy Riot has been dealt with harshly - but for demonstrating in Russia's most sacred cathedral, not just criticising the president.

Yes, many Russian people don't smile much - because here a smile is regarded as an intimate gift. Yes, the Communists controlled all aspects of life, down to when heating came on - but standards of education and health were very good.

By the time we reach the magnificent St Petersburg, a glimmer of understanding of this place has dawned.

Scenic Tsar. Picture: Scenic Cruises

The following days are packed with attempts to absorb the city's embarrassment of cultural riches. A night of ballet at the Palace of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich.

An afternoon at the State Hermitage Museum, where only the surface of its three million exhibits can be scratched.

A trip outside city limits to the fully restored Grand Peterhof Palace, which the nazis occupied and then blew up rather than relinquish in retreat.

It is impossible to know the world's biggest country in a fortnight. But as the tour draws to a close there is no argument that Russia is more ready than ever before to make our acquaintance.

While the stunning visuals of bold architecture, unfathomable treasures and wild, birch-lined waterways will long linger in the mind's eye, just as enduring - and certainly more cherished - will be that glimmer of understanding.

FACT FILE


• Australian-based Scenic Tours will operate its 14-night Imperial Jewels of Russia river cruise on the Scenic Tsar between Moscow and St Petersburg from May to October 2013.

• The Scenic Tsar, which underwent a complete rebuild from the hull up to become the first such vessel to be registered in Russia in 25 years, had its inaugural cruise in July.

• Prices per person vary from $7295 to $11,640 twin-share depending on the time of season and cabin purchased, including standard, balcony, deluxe balcony, royal suite and panorama suite.

• The Scenic Tsar caters for a maximum of 112 guests and 93 per cent of cabins have balconies.

• All meals are included and beer, wine and soft drinks during lunch and dinner are free. Also included are tips, gratuities and airport transfers.

• Wi-fi internet is complimentary but rarely works while the ship is moving.

• The program includes sampling traditional Russian food and vodka, traditional musical performances and a question-and-answer session with a Russian cosmonaut.

• Allow plenty of time to satisfy the lengthy Russian visa process.

• 1300 136 001, scenictours.com.au and travel agents.