Russia is an intimidating country to visit. Its vast size, difficult language, harsh winters, strict policies and jellied meats don’t exactly make it a top travel destination for many.
But a big part of what we know about Russia comes from fiction (thanks, James Bond) and the media, and all that one-sided information does not actually help the country’s tourism industry.
In truth, Russia is a beautiful country with a rich, colourful history that can be quite difficult to interpret from books or worse, movies. A visit to Russia is a must if you want to learn more, especially since so many well-preserved artefacts and relics from centuries past are on public display. Castles and palaces, churches and city halls can be found not only in big cities like St Petersburg and Moscow, but in villages like Valaam and Kizhi too.
“On a good season, there would be about 50 people living in Kizhi,” said our local guide Natalia, who took us around the small island near Lake Onega. We were on day five of our 11-day cruise on the Volga River in Russia, aboard the MS Victoria. It was a trip organised by Sedunia Travel and there were 16 of us in the Malaysian group.
Our trip across Volga – the longest river in Europe – took us from St Petersburg to Moscow, stopping over in five villages and towns in between. Kizhi was the fourth stop.
“Winters can be brutal here so that’s one of the reasons why there aren’t many people living on the island. I love it though, it’s peaceful,” Natalia shared. Winter typically lasts for six months in Russia, beginning from September; the coldest times would be from December to March.
We were in Kizhi in the last week of September, and at 16˚C, we were already miserable!
Natalia had a lot of nice stories to tell about Kizhi and its historical importance. Part of the island called the Kizhi Pogost is a Unesco World Heritage Site and it comprises two churches and a bell tower built in the 18th century. The Church of the Transfiguration is a unique wooden structure with 22 domes. “The carpenter apparently used only one axe to build the church. After he was done, he threw the axe in the lake so that nobody can make another church like it.
“There is no way of knowing how true this story is but it has been around for many years in the community and it is a story we like to tell. Of course, you are free to form your own opinion of that,” said Natalia with a smile.
The bulding has been undergoing restoration work for many decades now so we only got a glimpse of it from afar. “Putin visited this place before and has since donated generous sums of money for the restoration work,” Natalia revealed.
The other church within the Kizhi Pogost is The Church of the Intercession, which is still in service today. From the outside it is not as grand as the Church of the Transfiguration but it does have a beautiful iconostasis (a wall of icons and religious paintings usually seen in churches of the Eastern Christianity faith) inside.
Worshipping art and history
As a lot of Russia’s history revolves around religion, most of our visits involved going into churches and monasteries. But these buildings hold remnants of the past and are good starting points for visitors who wish to know more about Russia’s cultural background.
At the Valaam archipelago near Lake Ladoga, we disembarked on its main island (also called Valaam) and took a walk along the forest to see some sketes. A skete, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a settlement of Eastern Orthodox monks inhabiting a group of small cottages around a church and dependent upon a parent monastery”.
The local guide told us that 55 people, including herself, live on the island. “Only 55? Don’t you guys get bored?” we ask.
“No, it’s really nice,” she answered sincerely.
A few monks on Valaam live in isolation but they do visit the main monastery every now and then to stock up on food and other necessary supplies. As we sailed away from the island, I caught a glimpse of two human figures dressed in black robes, sitting separately near the edge of a cliff. I waved at them but they did not wave back.
On the river town of Goritsy, we visited the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery which was founded in 1397 by two monks. The monastery acted as a refuge for villagers and noble folk from afar, which is perhaps the reason why it looks more like a fort with its thick walls and watchtowers.
There is evidence that Russian Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich or Ivan the Terrible was fond of the monastery and visited it many times, donating money to help develop and maintain the place. But in 1764, Empress Catherine the Great stripped the monastery of its title, turning parts of it into a prison. In 1924, the Bolsheviks shut the entire place down. Monks were either killed, arrested or sent to gulags.
Fortunately, the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery was turned into a museum instead of a concentration camp like many other monasteries in north Russia. Today, the place is being revived not just for tourism purposes but also as a way to help the community in Goritsy.
The “cutest island you will ever see” is probably how the folks at Mandrogi should promote their tiny town to visitors.
The whole island was set up to look picture-perfect for tourists. There is a 19th century living village with original wooden huts from the historic city of Vologda. Within the village are a few craft workshops with actual craftsmen and craftswomen making tools, lace and souvenirs.
There’s also a vodka museum there, with a collection of 3,561 bottles of vodka from all over the world on display. There a few funny-looking bottles and a handful that are just downright silly (a machine gun-shaped bottle, anyone?).
Mandrogi is a nice place to visit. Locals can stay overnight in one of the quaint guesthouses although foreign travellers may find it difficult to get to the island on their own. There are restaurants, pie shops and cafes selling Russian pancakes if you’re hungry, a picnic area if you prefer dining al fresco and a church if you’re in the mood for praying.
You can take the kids to the mini zoo or just let them run around in the park near the pond. In winter, you can ride on the horse-pulled sleigh in the snow!
Funnily enough, there was also a giant cast of a boot, displayed in a plexi-glass case for all to see. Measuring at 3.3m, it’s the world’s biggest valenki or felt boot, according to Guinness World of Records. There was no explanation as to why it was there though.
After Ivan the Terrible’s death, his youngest son Dmitry was banished to the town of Uglich by the Volga river, where he was brutally murdered a few years later. He was only 10 years old. The Church of St Dmitry on the Blood was built on the same spot where the prince had died. It is a distinctive structure with blue domes and red walls and had been perfectly preserved to this day.
We were also treated to a mini concert by some of the talented monks living there. They had some albums for sale; money from record sales would go to the church and monastery.
Back at Goritsy, we went to a local house nearby where its elderly owners welcomed us with pots of hot tea, biscuits and chocolates. They regaled us with stories of the town’s past as well as their own. The couple have lived in the same house for almost 40 years. Their children live elsewhere but visit them every so often. They love tending to their garden; the man works odd jobs sometimes simply because he hates not having anything to do.
If you think Russians are a cold and brusque bunch, you are wrong. Many are eager to talk to visitors but the language barrier keeps them from doing so.
Bright lights, big cities
St Petersburg and Moscow are as different as, well, Melbourne and Sydney.
One is a city where dreamers go to express themselves while the other is where youngsters go to make a name – and tons of money – for themselves. St Petersburg is where we began our cruise, and I thought it was a good introduction to Russia for tourists who know little about the country.
This is where we learnt about the city’s founder and Russian Tsar (as well as Emperor of the Russian kingdom), Peter Alexeyevich or Peter the Great. He was so called because of his vast contributions to the country. He expanded the kingdom, helped improve the economy and led a cultural revolution. We learned about all this and more from our knowledgeable local guide, Dima.
At St Petersburg, we went to the Hermitage Museum, also known as the Winter Palace. It is the second largest art museum in the world and has an amazing collection which I thoroughly enjoyed gawking at.
We also visited Tsarskoye Selo, an imperial residence that is officially known as a town. In 1937, its name was changed to Pushkin to commemorate the 100th death anniversary of Alexander Pushkin, a Russian poet whom Empress Catherine the Great was apparently sweet on. This Unesco Heritage Site comprises several buildings including the Catherine Palace and Alexander Palace.
While St Petersburg was filled with gorgeous palaces and art museums, Moscow had the Kremlin. It was raining on the day we were there, so we were cold and miserable. The prospect of learning about the secrets of the Kremlin kept me on my toes but alas, no such luck. We did see a huge cannon and a broken bell, though.
Of course, the Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral were also fun to look at and take many pictures of.
If you’re not into that, then be adventurous and take the subway. The Moscow Metro is well-known for its numerous beautiful stations. Obviously, don’t go during peak hours as the Metro is used by millions of people daily, and they probably do not appreciate tourists hanging around the walkways blocking everyone’s way while taking pictures of the ceiling and wall art!
As Moscow was our final port of call, we did not really have time to venture out as much as we could. But it was enough of a glimpse of an interesting city that deserves to be visited again.
Even after spending 11 days in the country, I would still probably return one day. Russia – and Russians – is nothing like what I have seen in all those spy movies after all.