Journey of the Czars
Text and photos by Alicia MacLeay, Colby '97
John Ridlon (Bowdoin '63) visited Moscow in 1989 on a two-week business trip and recalls poverty, dirty accommodations and suspicious people, but says even then he saw glimmerings of progress. Flash forward to July of 2003, after the downfall of the Soviet Union and the introduction of capitalism and democracy: Ridlon and his wife, Pat, are among a group aboard the cruise ship Novikov Priboy motoring from Moscow to St. Petersburg. This time around, Ridlon comments on the charming Russians and professional crew. "It's a whole new universe," he says. "What I really am glad to see is that Russia's status on its own has changed so dramatically. They have a real chance to do something today, and I think they're grabbing at it."
The Ridlons have come on this two-week river cruise along the canals, rivers and lakes of Russia to witness a country in transition. Their interest is not unique. Among the 200 passengers listed on the Novikov Priboy's captain's log are 26 Colby, Bates and Bowdoin (CBB) travelersÑalumni and two professors from the Colleges, along with their companions, all venturing on a "Journey of the Czars." For two weeks in July we explore Russia by river, starting in Moscow and ending in St. Petersburg, a city that is currently celebrating its 300th anniversary. We view countless icons, walk through elegant palaces, see the tombs of czars and Ñ along the 1,300-kilometer way Ñ share every meal, bus ride and photo opp together. Few on the trip have met any of their fellow travelers before arriving in Moscow.
"I think already you have a certain given when people decide to come to Russia," says Joan Brenner (Bates '49). "There's a certain level of curiosity that might be somewhat unique, in today's world anyway."
Brenner is right about the interest and activity level of her fellow travelers. "As long as the legs hold up we'll keep going," says Carroll Newhouse (Bowdoin '49), who is traveling with his wife, Frances. "I thought it would be a fun group."
Few of us have taken a Russian studies course before, which is fine, because the trip essentially is one. All CBB alumni trips have an educational focus on the country, its history and culture. In addition to the appeal of sightseeing in Russia, people have been drawn by the promise of lectures by CBB professors, the opportunity to travel comfortably by boat, and what everyone anticipates will be interesting and pleasant companions. As a group our only connection is having attended one of the three colleges, or being attached to someone who has. Some might find that a tenuous bond, but it works.
"You grant that, and you start to talk to people as if you know them in a way, and it makes for more of an intimacy," says Jim Foritano (Colby '65).
With my own exception, the CBB alumni range in class years from 1943 to 1965. All have vivid recollections of the Cold War. The opportunity to travel to a country that was once America's archenemy is a major draw for this group.
Surprisingly, while the CBB participants are an extremely well-traveled bunch (ask where people have been and you'll hear Italy, Egypt, Japan, South America and on and on), few are regular tour group travelers. "This is our first group tour after shunning them our entire life," says Bob Ferrell (Bowdoin '62) at dinner with wife Mimi the first night. "I wouldn't have come on a tour if it didn't include discussions of the history, literature and music."
Since the spring of 2001, Colby, Bates and Bowdoin have collaborated to offer alumni trips to such destinations as Tuscany, Normandy and Costa RicaÑalways with a professor or two along. While the colleges supply the appropriate professors and offer the trips to alumni, a specialty tour operator runs each trip, organizing all airfare, lodging, meals and sightseeing logistics, including tour guides. Even as international travel has declined drastically in the last two years affiliated group travel is gaining in popularity, with everyone from the local bank to bar associations offering programs.
In our case, Tony Antolini (Bowdoin '63), director of the Bowdoin chorus and a Russian music expert, and Sheila McCarthy, associate professor of Russian literature and language at Colby and director of Colby's study-abroad program in St. Petersburg, are along for the journey. Antolini and McCarthy are on hand to answer questions ("Are the arts supported?" "What's your favorite Chekhov short story?"), offer lectures ("Russian Music to 1800," "The Literary Myth of St. Petersburg") and provide language assistance ("How do I say, Ôgood-morning/how are you/thank you?'" Ñ "dobraye utra/kak dila/spasiba."). Ultimately, each professor is a fellow traveler, albeit one who just happens to know a heck of a lot about Russia.
"There are lots of tours you can take that tell you stuff and do the tour guide thing," says John Ridlon. "But these are recognized authorities in their field, and they bring a unique perspective."
Antolini and McCarthy want to show us the real Russia, "to break through being ushered from spot to spot as McCarthy says.
"This is kind of home turf for us," says Antolini in a welcome meeting on the Priboy our first night in Moscow. To be more exact, Russian music in Antolini's home turf. Growing up in New York City, he visited the Russian churches to hear their choirs. "I was so stunned by the singing. I couldn't wait to get started," he says. Antolini immediately signed up for Russian upn arriving at Bowdoin as an undergraduate, first visited the Soviet Union in 1962 ("They were just opening the country to students."), and has since led two musical tours here (see sidebar at right).
McCarthy has been to Russia more than 20 times since her first visit in 1965 and has led various groups, from college students to seasoned museum veterans, as a guide and interpreter. Between the two faculty members, we're in experienced hands.
Our first day in Moscow, a Sunday, Antolini offers a side trip to a Russian Orthodox Church service. This is not on our official tour schedule, which appears nightly on the bunk of each traveler. "It was wonderful because Tony knows so much of the liturgy and so much of the music and that's really one of the things that interests me," says Ridlon after returning from the service, which included a hand bell performance. "It was just wonderful to have that kind of access." "People often don't know what to expect from Moscow, perhaps a gray dour place," says Marina, a guide from the tour company for our three days in Moscow. "When they come they're pleasantly surprised."
"I second that," says Chan Coddington, husband of Jane (Colby '55), seated behind me on our bus.
Many arrive in Moscow half expecting to see heavyset babushkas and poverty around every corner. But downtown Moscow's prosperity and cosmopolitan nature are surprising. Stylish young women stroll by in fashionable clothes, Western brands adorn storefronts and a glut of billboards, and dealerships offer Land Rovers and Mercedes, adding to the overflow of cars speeding through the city's streets (drivers appear to be still learning the skill).
Near such iconic sites as St. Basil's Cathedral, with its brilliant, multi-colored onion domes, and Manege Square outside the red brick fortress walls of the Kremlin, there is an underground shopping mall with a trendy Internet caf. The Metro, renowned for its magnificent mosaics and sculptures (and escalators that rank among the fastest in the world), is immaculateÑnot a gum wrapper in sight. And the enormous Cathedral of Christ the Savior (the original blown up in 1931 per Stalin's order, an outdoor swimming pool later appearing on site) was completely reconstructed in the '90s and opened for daily services in 2000.
Okay, so I do see packs of stray dogs roaming the city and we are continually warned about pick-pocketing Gypsies (a prophesy that proves true for one Bates couple in St. Petersburg). Still, Moscow appears to be moving forward while reclaiming and retaining the best of its cultural past.
On our way toward Red Square to view Vladimir Lenin in his tomb, a small group of us briskly follow Julia, another Moscow tour guide. We turn a corner and suddenly there is the hammer and sickle flag, being waved proudly on the steps outside the State History Museum. Pro-Communist songs blare from a bullhorn while a group of 20 or so protesters, both young and old, stand stoically in quiet support.
We immediately stop to stare, take photos, wonder about this vestige of Communism, while Julia marches on, seemingly oblivious. I'm torn between seeing this demonstration as the remnant of a misguided, backward ideology or as true political freedom in action. Either way I feel nave for not having expected it. Lenin and Stalin may be dead inside Red Square, but apparently, for some, their ideals are not.
"There are lots of mixed feelings about Stalin," says McCarthy later at lunch. "He brought them through the war, kept things together." For some it is nostalgic, she explains, the way Americans might idealize the "good old days," when Mom was waiting at home with milk and cookies. But in reality, as we learn from the onboard Russian lecturer, the time was marked by mass executions and a police terror stateÑmillions of lives lost, tens of thousands while constructing the Moscow Canal, the very waterway that begins our cruise north.
For five days we travel north along the Volga, Svir and Neva rivers, crossing the Ladoga and Onega lakes on our way to St. Petersburg. Along the way we navigate 17 locks, the first of which draws nearly everyone out on deck to watch the Priboy drop eight meters. "Just seeing the Stalinist engineering projects, the enormous scale of them, the big Communist seals on hydroelectric plants," says Paul Wescott (Colby '53). "This is stuff you read about."
The pace is relaxed, but there is always something to do: learn the Cyrillic alphabet during Russian language lessons, listen to a folk music concert, watch a film on the Romanovs, play the wooden spoons in an all-ship talent show. Or simply watch the changing scenery. Thick forests, green plains, small towns, busy public beaches and occasional bargesÑall these pass by while we watch on deck.
"There's something very conducive to relaxing and opening up on a trip like this," says Jim Foritano. "It's the boat. It's the rhythm and it's the fact of us all being in a very enigmatic country. We're all open to the adventure and that has been a great experience."
We stop in several towns and cities during the voyageÑ Uglich, Yaroslavl (where we are invited back for its millennium celebration in 2010), Svir Stroy. We see brightly painted churches and bustling city markets, hear concerts of native music. And at every dock we are met with a local band playing American standardsÑ"Stars and Stripes," "Hello Dolly"Ñwhile vendors sell matryoshka dolls, chess sets and lacquer boxes.
The highlight is Kizhi Island, a remote UNESCO World Heritage Site home to an outdoor museum of wooden churches and structures. On this small island, we see the Transfiguration Cathedral Ñ 30,000 wooden shingles adorn its 22 cupolas and shimmer in the mid-day sun. The guides tell us to keep on the paths because of the poisonous vipers. I never see a snake, but the warning keeps our group together.
Everyday Antolini and McCarthy offer up daily lectures onboard. One day it is McCarthy's "The Literary Myth of St. Petersburg." "I find it fascinating. I'll go home and read some Gogol," says Jane Coddington. Another afternoon Antolini plays us music from concerts we have heard in churches along the way, explaining the evolution of Russian music. "We've certainly had our share of the cultural development," says Bob Ferrell.
The atmosphere is informal (the lectures are held in the boat's Sky Bar), but informative.
Antolini and McCarthy even team-teach a lecture on 19th and 20th century literature and music. "One of the highlights was collaborating with Sheila today," says Antolini afterwards. "I don't get to teach like that at Bowdoin. It turned out better than I could have hoped."
Paul Wescott (Colby '53) is drawn to onboard lectures like "From Lenin to Putin." Wescott was a senior history major when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin died. When Wescott heard the news he had one question: what was next?
Wescott recalls the answer given by his Russian studies professor, Harold Raymond: "I have no idea." That immense unknown, so emblematic of Russian history, has intrigued Wescott ever since. "It's been such an important part of history in my life and is undergoing a sea change," says Wescott on deck as we pass the small dachas (country houses) that appear unexpectedly in the trees on the banks along the upper Volga River. "I wanted to see it."
"From Lenin to Putin" is offered by Irina Nikolashina, a professor from Moscow State University and the Novikov Priboy's official onboard lecturer. While Wescott and the rest of us could simply have read a history book (and most have read many), Nikolashina offers human context.
It is one thing to read about the economic crisis caused by Yeltsin's devaluation of the ruble. It is another to have Nikolashina tell you that her mother's life savings of 5,000 rubles had the three zeroes lopped off on January 1, 1998. Overnight, her 5,000 rubles, given to a then-pregnant Irina for her child, became five. "I bought a bottle of vegetable oil, put it in the cupboard. It is all that is left of my mother's life savings," she says.
Or to hear her recount bicycling down to the 1991 uprising outside Moscow's White House. Before leaving home, Nikolashina asked a friend in Canada to come get her child if she wasn't heard from in a month. Eventually the tanks turned away and the old Russian flag was flown. "That was a tremendously emotional moment," she says.
"That was most interesting," says Frances Newhouse later. "You get a lot more insight into Russian history and her life in it."
These personal accounts aren't just enlightening for the trip's participants. "Irina's final talk was astounding," says Antolini. "It's irreplaceable to have a person who's an eyewitness to an historical event. She wasn't just watching it on TV. She was there."
Group tours can conjure up images of herds of people following tour guides like sheep and being shepherded from site to site, buffered from the actual country they're visiting. But, Antolini and McCarthy offer us unique opportunities for local exposureÑa Q&A with Tim Wiswell (Colby '01), who works in the investment banking industry in Moscow and tells us about efforts to gain foreign investors; a discussion with a taxi cab driver on St. Petersburg politics and the city's recent $500-million restoration project, conducted at 90-mph ("They spent an enormous amount of money, but there was nothing in it for us," says the driver); a tour of the St. Petersburg Classical Gymnasium school, which houses the Colby program where students study and teach Russian high school students.
"I think I would have really missed something had these professors not been here," says Everett Brenner (Bates '47).
The tour offers its own benefits. In St. Petersburg we enter the Hermitage museum, home to more than 2.7 million pieces of artwork, hours before its regular opening. The museum, usually teeming with visitors, is virtually empty, save for our group and a few art students attempting to reproduce the works of masters. We tour Catherine's Palace, a sprawling masterpiece, after the regular visitors have been sent home. We have a private ballet performance of pieces from "Swan Lake," "The Nutcracker" and "Giselle" in Catherine the Great's Hermitage Theater. It's hard to not see the advantages. Being able to view a Rembrandt or the restored Amber Room up close, rather than through the back of someone's head, is priceless.
And it's not just the professors and guides who have given us new insight. The alumni who make up the tour group are themselves an interesting group, with skills and interests that are broad. In our group alone we have an art docent, a ballet dancer, several sailors. "We all profited from the specialized knowledge of each member of the group," said McCarthy.
After 1,300 kilometers, two celebrated cities and countless facts, lectures and observations, our journey ends in St. Petersburg, Peter the Great's personal vision of Russia's future, a future that merged Western affluence with distinctive Russian drive and ingenuity. For our CBB group, the question of what is next for Russia remains unanswered, but the trip has opened our eyes to its possibilities.
"I've been pleased and excited with the sense of wonder I've had about the place," says Bob Ferrell. "I feel like I've just put my toes in the water."