There are only a few buildings in the world that are truly iconic. Everyone knows their names and what they represent. One of these is surely the Kremlin.
For decades, the powerhouse of a communist regime that suppressed, among other things, religion, it comes as something of a surprise to discover it is not just one building but many. And most of them are churches. It is a fitting introduction to the enigma that is Russia.
In fact, most Russian cities have a Kremlin – the fortress that was generally the earliest stage of a town. In Moscow’s case it covers 70 acres and, besides the churches, there are parks, museums and palaces that are now government buildings.
Its walls form the backdrop to Red Square with St Basil’s Cathedral (more accurately, the Cathedral of the Intercession) on the other side, a confection that is simultaneously magnificent and childlike, a kind of baroque gilded gingerbread.
Russian Orthodox churches are enjoying a renaissance, many being restored to their former glory – replete with icons, gilt and murals that cover walls and ceilings. At the other end of Red Square, in the tiny Church of Kazan, I found worshippers fervently kissing icons and a father teaching his young son how to genuflect. Eighty years of outlawing religion have seemingly vanished overnight.
As have the rigours and drabness of the Soviet era – at least for the privileged few. The great emporium GUM (pronounced ‘goom’) also stands in Red Square, an extravagant mall filled with the likes of De Beers, Cartier, YSL and Dior. Plus ca change – conspicuous consumerism nowadays bring practised by the new oligarchs rather than the Tsars. Russia has left its Soviet period far behind and what might be called the “real Russia,” dormant for 80 years, is staging a re-appearance.
But, after three hectic days in Moscow, Uniworld’s River Victoria left the capital and headed out along the Volga for a very different kind of Russia. It gives some idea of the scale of this country that it takes seven days to reach St Petersburg and, when not actually visiting one of the little ports along the way, we travel at a cracking pace day and night.
This is a vast and empty country. After Moscow, city soon gives way to a landscape of woods and water. There are occasional villages and towns, windmills and boathouses, the onion domes of churches rising above the silver birches and then – no sign of human habitation for miles on end, just a timeless, tranquil, primeval countryside. During the course of the next week, we travel through rivers and canals, locks and reservoirs, and the