July 16, 2014
In response to some questions about our cruise, let me elaborate. Viking Cruise lines has a corporate philosophy that results in cruises that incorporate history and culture into travel. They work at giving the traveler a feeling and an understanding of the places visited. This is our second cruise with them so we can compare.
They provide an opportunity to make a home visit to a “typical” home that is not a museum. Thus, in China we visited the Hutong home of a Johnny Cash look alike. In Russia we went to the home of a Babushka and sampled her moonshine. In both cases it is somewhat weird to see how they decorate their homes and invade their privacy but valuable at the same time. Otherwise our understanding would be limited to souvenir transactions and museums. They also contract with numerous groups to provide us snatches of ethnic entertainment. A couple of songs in a church or a performance using traditional instruments are great ways to experience the culture. It is somewhat contrived but nonetheless wonderful. The “Viking” village was a good example of this type of experience where Viking contracts with a local entrepreneur to provide an entertaining look at the past. There are regular lectures and presentations on the history of the country as well as little tidbits posted at our meals about local customs including things like hangover cures. The school visits provide another view of the culture.
While I am on the subject of schools, our visit confirmed another observation. Once out of Moscow and the well-preserved areas like the historic center of Jaroslav, things get shoddy. You would think that a public building like a school would be a point of pride. Instead, the construction quality was obviously substandard. The bricks were laid like I did them and the concrete finishes were sloppy and primitive. Now I realize that a building doesn’t make an education system. However, you do start to wonder about their priorities. As we continue to travel through rural Russia you see some amazing stuff.
We went through the Panama Canal and saw a structure that demonstrated pride in the workmanship and of a high quality and maintenance despite its relative antiquity. Similar structures like the locks on this route are obviously workable but crude by comparison. This may be partially due to the use of Gulag labor or as result of trying to meet Stalin’s timeline and avoid execution.
Like the school and the canals, the vaunted electrification of Russia was completed and the rusting transmission towers appear unsafe to any reasonable observer. Now we have crumbling infrastructure in the US but this stuff is scary. We learned that there was a fatal derailing on the same Moscow subway that were riding on a few days ago. The cars appeared to be from the Stalin era (we will stay off the St. Petersburg Metro and use the tour buses instead). The same can be said for Russian airliners that sit in the weeds at the airport. There are ongoing improvements to the roads in Moscow, but it still ranks as the world’s worst traffic to which we can attest. As we glide down the river we pass by crumbling factories and piles of slag lining the waterway. This doesn’t keep families from using the river for recreation. Just don’t drink the water.
Most of the river view is of trees and more trees. In clearings you see small homes and boat shacks. Sometimes you see some very nice residences and new construction. Mostly things look like the dilapidated village we visited a couple days ago. Many of our fellow travelers have noticed and commented on the lack of wildlife. Seagulls and few ducks are about it.
On the other hand, the Russians have extraordinary skill in their intricate handicrafts. We spent the morning in Mandrogy watching craftspeople create objects of intricacy and beauty. The entire village was created as midway stop between Kizhi Island and St. Petersburg for river ships like ours. In 1996 there was a meadow instead of the village that the Nazis leveled. Since then craftspeople and entrepreneurs have moved there to practice their occupation. It was very enjoyable to wander and watch the creation of endless Matryoshka dolls and many other crafts. We found a few things we could not live without.
While the Russians can create crafts of great beauty, they struggle to produce goods that are salable on the world market. Russian made appliances and vehicles are scarce except for the occasional thrashed Lada. One is reminded of the ill fortuned Yugo automobile of the 1980’s. Our Russian ship was refitted and upgraded in Germany because of the inability of the Russians to produce a competitive product. The country remains primarily a producer of raw materials and vodka. They leave it to the Swedes to turn their lumber into IKEA furniture. It really is sad to see a country of such talent and resources teetering on the edge of the Third World. Perhaps that explains their enthusiasm for Putin and his plans to restore the old Soviet Empire. Personally, I see a very fragile economy and nation.