Song of the Volga

Cruise between Moscow and St Petersburg on a culture-packed journey along the Volga


Of course we have a synagogue,” said Andrei, our guide in Yaroslavl, the historic metropolis dubbed “city of churches” for its never-ending gold, green and scarlet onion domes.

These colourful spires alone don’t tell the full story of this religious town; alongside the Russian Orthodox, Jews prayed more than a century ago in a handsome blue building of their own, hastily renamed a cultural centre after Stalin declared religion an enemy of the state and confiscated it.

Now congregants not only pray again in the shul, the city’s mayor gave the community money to help renovate when they reclaimed the building in 1994, and they are building a mikve. Being Jewish is kosher again, even in Russia’s Christian heartland.

This is a country where Jews can feel conflicted — so much seems reassuringly familiar, from the menus awash with Ashkenazi comfort food ingredients like pickled cucumber, sour cream, beetroot and horseradish, to the same kind of folk dancing we enjoy at weddings and barmitzvahs.

Yet Russia has alternately embraced its Jews, acquired en masse with the conquest of Poland and other east European nations, and scapegoated them, eventually chasing most of them into the diaspora with generation after generation of pogroms.

Finally, political stability has spawned more religious tolerance, and the community has grown almost to the size of Britain’s.

One of the most interesting stops on a cruise from St Petersburg to Moscow, Yaroslavl is still only one of the urban jewels in Russia’s Golden Ring.

Others fielded dozens, even hundreds more multi-coloured onion domes, not to mention monasteries, convents and charming little riverside settlements where meeting locals was the main attraction.

But you did not have to be in port to experience Russian life; Volga Dream, one of the highest-rated ships cruising Russia’s waterways, is family-owned and devoted to offering passengers a full immersion in Russian culture.

We had language lessons, learned how to form kreplach-like pelmeni and painted matrioshkas; we listened to a fine pianist play Tchaikovsky and a history professor relate the events leading up to glasnost and perestroika.

She also lectured us on top Russian artists from Levitan to Chagall (the country’s two greatest painters, arguably, both of them Jewish), authors from Tolstoy to Chekhov and explained how and when Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and other kingdoms which were once full of shtetls were acquired, absorbed and liberated.

The culture was optional, as was the Russian food with plenty of international choices alongside, but for this Russophile it was a treat to be welcomed on board with vodka shots and caviar canapes and sample dishes rarely enjoyed outside the mother country like rossolnik — think minestrone with pickled cucumber chopped into the vegetable mix, served with a dollop of sour cream — and julien, a rich starter of mushrooms folded into creamy melted cheese.

Volga Dream’s vegetarian dishes were among the best of the boat’s cuisine, available at every meal. Forbreakfast there were eggs or omelettes cooked to order plus some of the best Danish pastries tasted outside Copenhagen.

Standard cabins were comfortable if not lavish, with high portholes; given the scenery, it’s worth upgrading for picture windows.

And if decor was a little dated, there was plenty of inside and outdoor seating to enjoy those spectacular river views, which included a couple of memorable half-sunken churches, their belfries emerging above water.

Another highlight was Kizhi Island, with the treat of being treated to a chamber music recital and impromptu “ball” in the Governor’s Mansion, followed by the chance to browse shops and cafes.

This 15th century settlement in the middle of Lake Onega has earned World Heritage Status, thanks to a pair of quite amazing 18th century wooden churches, the larger of which glistens with the beauty of unadorned silver aspen — no gilding the onion domes here.

More wooden buildings were moved here in the 1950s to create an open-air Museum of Architecture, and a highlight was watching a jeweller in one of the houses crocheting glass beads into one of the exquisite necklaces on sale.

Other stops included the settlement of Goritsy, where the main attraction is a huge and picturesque 14th century monastery, but whose multi-coloured wooden village houses have a charm of their own.

The multi-coloured Church of St Dimitri on the Blood in Uglich, named to commemorate the mysterious death of the son of Ivan the Terrible, is visually spectacular, but a nearby performance by a sublime three-man choir was even more memorable.

It’s possible to take the cruise without visiting either of Russia’s main cities but you’d be missing out: there’s an add-on package from the cruise company, although booking your accommodation independently reduces that cost significantly. With a shuttle to the Metro, the DoubleTree Moscow Marina’s rooms were a fraction of the cost of city centre hotels.

My Moscow wishlist focused on Russian art and Jewish heritage, although I couldn’t miss a peek inside the most multicoloured cathedral of them all, St. Basil’s on Red Square, actually a collection of tiny, exquistely-decorated chapels.

After that, I gazed on the artworks in the Tretyakov Gallery: Impressionists and their predecessors are housed in the elegant main branch, unmissable early Chagalls and Kandinskys in a newer building a pleasant mile’s stroll away down the riverbank in Gorky Park.

But my main mission was a visit to the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre, considered one of Moscow’s most innovative attractions — a mission indeed, hard to find on the northern edge of the city centre in a residential neighbourhood known as the Jewish Quarter.

It’s worth remembering that while the city’s Metro stations are magnificent works of art in their own right, they are far more widely spaced apart than the London underground or Paris Metro.

Luckily, taxis are very affordable, and you get advance notice of the fare by summoning them through phone apps from one of the myriad cafes offering free wi-fi rather than hailing one on the streets.

The museum — easy to reach by bus from the Metro once you know how — aims to tell the story of Russian Jewry, mostly the story of the four million East European shetl-dwellers who suddenly found themselves under Tsarist rule.

It’s fitting, therefore, that a recreated shtetl is the centrepiece after a rush through the most vivid events of the Old Testament from Noah’s Ark to the Exodus from Egypt in a panoramic theatre.

Multiple film clips and stills tell where Jews settled in what went on to become the USSR, and how they fared; there is even a recreated Soviet-era apartment which shows that cultural identification endured even in the decades when worship was forbidden by the state.

While those decorative onion domes provide the most striking images of a voyage along the Volga, this Russian journey reveals the many layers of culture and heritage hidden beneath.

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