Russia and Ukraine

The imperial waterways in Russia and their impressive ports of call are steeped in history, tradition, and literature. A cruise on the venerable Volga River and inland waterways allows visitors to admire legendary St. Petersburg, reputed to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and marvel at Moscow, home of the infamous Kremlin and Red Square. A Russian cruise between these two giants usually takes in the Golden Ring cities, mysterious Kizhi Island, and the immense Lake Onega. Other itineraries might feature: Volograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, famous for its role in World War II with an impressive and touching War Memorial; Samarasa, which is wedged at the confluence of the Volga and the Samar, famous for Stalin’s Bunker; and finally Astrakhan, an important fishing port and home to Beluga Caviar. Cruising on the historic waterways of the Tsars is a magical opportunity to experience the stunning architecture and unique cultural heritage, see diverse and unique wildlife, and savor the rural flavor that make up this land of Mother Russia. Though a cruise between Moscow and St. Petersburg is the most well known, there are also other fantastic voyages on the Caspian and Black Seas.

The Volga River

The Volga River is one of the most important rivers of Europe and comprises a significant part of the Waterway of the Tsars, which is the largest river system in Europe. Flowing for 3,690 kilometers or 2,293 miles, the mighty Volga rises in the Valday Hills northwest of Moscow and continues to the southeast before finally emptying into the Caspian Sea near the city of Astrakhan. The Volga became an important trade route between the Slavic lands of Eastern Europe and points farther east as far back as the 8th century AD and has continued to play an inextricably important role in the cultural, economic, and historical development of the country. More recently, in the 20th century, the Volga was a key factor as an important transport route for troops and supplies and was the site of the Battle of Stalingrad. There are eight complexes, combining dams, reservoirs, and hydroelectric facilities, which have turned the river into a chain of man-made lakes.

Volga-Baltic Waterway

Moscow is linked to the Baltic, Black, and Caspian seas by a somewhat confusing, but amazing system of rivers, canals, and waterways. The Volga-Baltic Waterway, formerly known as the Mariinsk Canal system, is the 1100 km (685 mile) water route consisting of 10 different bodies of water connecting the Volga River with Saint Petersburg and the Baltic Sea, passing through forested plains, farm lands, tiny villages, small towns, and glaciated lake lands. The route from Moscow begins with the Moscow-Volga Canal, and then continues on the River Volga itself to its northernmost point where it enters the Rbinsk Reservoir and the official start of the Volga-Baltic Waterway. The system then continues with the Sheksna River to Lake Beloye, where it meets up with the Kovzha River to Lake Onega, where it joins the Svir River, which connects to the enormous Lake Ladoga, and then finally follows the tiny River Neva finishing in St. Petersburg at the Gulf of Finland.

Moscow-Volga Canal

Considered to be a masterpiece of civil engineering, created with the hard labor of Gulag prisoners during the dictatorship of Stalin, the Moscow-Volga Canal or Moscow Canal, connects the Moskva River at Moscow with the Volga at Dubna.

Rbinsk Reservoir (Rbinskoye Reservoir)

The Rbinsk Reservoir is an immense water reservoir between the northernmost part of the Volga and the Sheksna. Now considered to be an example of Stalin’s voluntarism, the building of the dam resulted in the disappearance of 663 villages under water.

River Sheksna and Lake Beloye (White Lake)

Located in Vologda Oblast, the Sheksna River joins the Rybinsk Reservoir of the Volga River near the city of Cherpovets. The source of the river is Lake Beloye, which is a round lake in between the Sheksna and Kovzha rivers.

Kovzha River

Flowing from Lake Onega and into Lake Beloye, the Kovzha River is an integral part of the Volga-Baltic Waterway in the northwest section of Vologda Oblast.

Onezhskoye Ozero (Lake Onega)

Lake Onega is the second largest lake in Europe, with a surface area of 250 square kilometers. The lake is fed by 58 rivers, has 1,369 islands, and is a popular sailing destination.

Svir River

Part of the Volga-Baltic Waterway, the Svir River connects the two largest lakes of Europe and is the largest river flowing into Lake Ladoga. Running from the southwestern shore of Lake Onega to Lake Ladoga, the Svir continues into the Neva and then joins the Gulf of Finland. The river has two hydroelectric power plants located on its banks.

River Neva

The third largest river in Europe in terms of discharge, the River Neva flows from Lake Ladoga to the Gulf of Finland, through the magnificent city of Saint Petersburg.

Destination Highlights for Moscow - St. Petersburg Cruises

Moscow

Capital of the former Soviet Union and Muscovite Russia, Moscow is the most populous city in Russia. At the heart of this sprawling city is the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Red Square and its glorious monuments. Since the 13th century, the Red Square has been linked to all the most important Russian political events. Built between the 14th and 17th centuries, the Kremlin is a fortified complex consisting of four palaces, four cathedrals, and the enclosing wall, situated in the center of Moscow, which now serves as the ceremonial residence of the President. Also on Red Square is the Lenin Mausoleum, which is the tomb of Vladimir Lenin, considered to be one of the masterpieces of Soviet architecture. The marvelous Cathedral of Saint Basil the Blessed (Saint Basil’s Cathedral) is a symbolic union of Russia, Europe, and Asia and has a splendid array of onion domes in magnificent colors. Also worth a visit is the lovingly reconstructed Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which was commissioned by Tsar Alexander I and first built in the 19th century.

Sparrow Hills is a spectacular lookout point affording wonderful views of the University, Luzhniki Stadium, and the site of a circus.

Novodevichy Convent is the most well-known cloister in Russia and is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in 1524, the convent has remained virtually intact since the 17th century and the cemetery is the eternal resting place of the likes of Gogol, Chekhov, Khrushchev, Kropotkin, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Stanislavski.

Home of the Bolshoi Theatre and some impressive museums, such as the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, Moscow also boasts many scientific and educational institutions, as well as sport facilities, which have produces a multitude of Olympian athletes over the years. The Metro consists of a complex and complicated transport system, but the stations are reputed to be among the most beautiful ever built, featuring a variety of architectural styles and designs.

Uglich

Officially founded as a city in 1148, Uglich is a cultural town on the banks of the Volga River. Among the three monasteries and large number of churches to explore, the Alexeievsky Monastery is a must, which, with its Assumption tented roof, is considered to be one of the best examples of medieval Russian architecture. Additionally, the 17th century Resurrection Monastery with its huge cathedral and belfry is worth a visit, as well as the Church of Nativity of Saint John the Baptist.

One of the only noble dwellings still existing in Russia is the Palace of the Uglich Princes or Prince Dmitri’s Palace. Its cathedral has a vast collection of icons and the Church of St. Dmitri on the Spilled Blood, which was built in 1692 under Peter the Great, has impressive red walls and starred blue domes, as well as a collection of frescoes depicting the death of Ivan the Terrible’s only son, Dmitri.

Kostroma

A lovely and historic city and one of the Golden Ring of Russian towns, Kostroma is located in central Russia at the confluence of the Volga and Kostroma rivers. Kostroma is where the Romanev dynasty came to power and is now the admistrative center of the Kostroma Oblast. Located on an important trade route, and built in the 14th century by a Tatar prince, the Ipatievsky Monastery is a short drive away. The posad style Trinity Church dates to 1652 and has a lavish exterior and a spacious intereior. The countryside aound the monastery is replete with small villages, wooden houses, village churches and located within the gournds is the History and Architecture Museum.

Yaroslavl

Sitting on the confluence of the Volga and Kotorosl rivers is Yaroslavl, with its World Heritage Site classified historic center. Home to many buildings with unique architectural styles, such as the impressive and brightly colored town hall, Yaroslavl is also known as one of the country’s most important intellectural centers and a thriving industrial town. The Spaso Preobrazhensky Monastery or Transfiguration of the Savior Monastery is a fascinating visit and there are many Yaroslavl-type churches dating to the 17th century, characterized by brightly tiled exteriors and built of red brick. Of these, St. Nicholas Nadein and Church of Saint Elijah the Prophet, with its green cupolas, are the most noteworthy and contain some of the most impressive frescoes to be found in the Golden Ring of ancient towns.

Goritsy

A tiny village on the Sheksna River, Goritsy is a quaint and charming place. The countryside surrounding the town is best described as tranquil, with pastoral elements, such as the Kirilo-Belorevsky Monastery. Usually offered as a guided visit on a river cruise, the monastery is surrounded by fortress walls, decorated with brick patterns, and crowned with magnificent towers.

Lake Onega and Kizhi Island

Located on Lake Onega is Kizhi pogost, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The entire island is home to the remarkable Open-Air Museum of Architecture, which has an amazing display of wooden houses and a variety of mills, such as water, wind, or threshing. There are two 18th century churches on the island, the most famous being the Transfiguration Church, which is the largest wooden church in the world. Built without nails, the style is an amazing composition of three tiers and 22 cupolas, giving an overall imaginary and legendary feel. The Church of Intercession is also interesting and is located next to the Transfiguration Church.

Petrozavodsk

Founded by Peter the Great, Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Republic of Karelia, is located across the lake from Kizhi. The city has a long shipbuilding history and industry and was used as a place of exile for the oppenents of the Tsars and Bolsheviks. The city has a peaceful ambiance, with tree-lined boulevards and parks. There are many buildings built in the Neo-classical architectural sytle and the main attractions are Round Square and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

Mandroga

Mandroga is a friendly place, popular with boaters, found on the River Svir in the Podporozhsky district of the Leningrad region. Fine examples of Russian wooden architecture can be seen in the village, which is a great spot to become aqcuainted with some national dishes and Russian vodka.

St. Petersburg

The majestic St. Petersburg is known as the city of palaces, the ‘Venice of the North’, and the city of 300 bridges (368 to be exact). It is considered the most European city in Russia and is situated in the western part of the Prinevskaya lowland where the river Neva flows into the Gulf of Finland. The city has more than 40 rivers, branches, channels and canals, and a multitude and variety of bridges, which help to give the city its unique ambiance. The Neva River is a main thoroughfare in St. Petersburg and together with the Peter and Paul Fortress (Petropavlovskaya crepost) is the central point of the city, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Thought of as a neo-classical open-air museum, St. Petersburg is the political and cultural capital of Russia and boasts a vast assortment of magnificent buildings. The striking appearance of the city is created by the long and straight boulevards, the green areas, Baroque palaces, and amazing noteworthy sculptures. Some of the most well-known monuments are: the discreet Summer Palace; the illustrious Winter Place, which is a huge and dazzling building housing the Heritage Museum, the Menshikov Palace, named for the creator of the Peter and Paul Cathedral; and the Peterhof Palace, also known as the Versailles of the North, with its cascades, gardens, fountains, and opulence.

Moscow to Astrakhan or Rostov-on-Don

Cruise tineraries from Moscow to Astrakhan often include the Golden Ring cities of Uglich, Kostroma, and Yaroslavl, in addition to Nizhi Novgorod, Kazan, Samara, Saratov, Volgograd, and Astrakhan. Itineraries from Moscow to Rostov-on-Don will often include most of the above named cities, with the inclusion of Rostov-on-Don via the Volga-Don Canal and the River Don.

Volga-Don Canal

Connecting the River Volga with the River Don at their closest points, the aptly named Volga-Don Canal flows for 101 km, passing through various rivers and reservoirs.

River Don

Located southeast of Moscow, the River Don is one of the major rivers in Russia with a length of 1950 km or (1220 miles). Rising near Tula, the river first flows southeast to Voronezh, then southwest to its mouth in the Sea of Azov.

Destination Highlights

Nizhni Novgorod

Located at the strategic confluence of the Volga and Oka rivers, Nizhni Novgorod is an economic and cultural center of the Volgo-Vyatsky region and the third largest city in Russia. Formerly known as Gorky and re-baptized after the fall of Communism, the city was closed to outsiders for 45 years and the home of political exiles. With this unique situation, Nizhni Novgorod offers insight into life in the heartland of Russia and is a modern stage for the battles of democratic reforms and free-market initiatives.

Kazan

Lying at the confluence of the Volga and Kazanka rivers, charming Kazan is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. Frequently called the ‘Pearl of the Central Volga Region’, Kazan is a major industrial, commercial, and cultural center with a tumultuous past. Kazan boasts some unique architecture, such as the Leaning Tower of the Princess Suumbike, the Kremlin, the Moslem Mosque, and the Annunciation Cathedral.

Ulyanovsk (Simbirsk)

Birthplace of Vladimir Lenin and Alexander Kerensky, Ulyanovsk is a city on the Volga River and the administrative center of Ulyanovsk Oblast. The city, formerly known as Simbirsk, has lost much of its historical heritage, but has a unified spirit. The presence of Lenin is still felt in the hearts and minds of the Ulyanovsk inhabitants.

Samara

Founded in 1586 as a fortress town on the Volga River, Samara is the administrative center of Samara Oblast in the southeastern part of Russia. The city was closed during the Cold War and has grown to be a major intellectual, commercial, and academic center. Samara has many universities, theaters and musuems, as well as a large aerospace industry.

Saratov

Saratov was founded in 1590 by Ivan the Terrible and has served as the crossroads for many historical events. Capital of one of the largest provinces in Russian, Saratov contains the longest straight street in Russia, Moskovskaya Street, and one of the longest bridges in Europe, connecting Saratov with Engels. The architecture is a combination of European and Asian influences and some of the major monuments include Trinity Church, Dukhososhestvensky (Spirit Coming Down Cathedral), the conservatory, and the covered market. Saratov is the regional center for trade and culture, with an industry consisting of agricultural products, fishing, salt, and metal production.

Volgograd (Stalingrad)

Known as Stalingrad at the beginning of the 20th century, Volgograd was founded in 1598 as Tsaritsyn. Volgograd is at a strategic crossroads linking Europe with Asia and has been the scene of many battles, including some heavy fighting in the Russian Civil War and more famously, the World War II Battle of Stalingrad. The city became heavily industrialized under Stalin. The monuments to see are the war memorial at Mamaey Hill, Mamayev Kurgan, the Avenue of Heroes, the Stalingrad BattlePanorama, the Railway Station, and Pavlov’s House.

Rostov-on-Don

Established as a customs house in 1749, Rostov-on-Don is located on the Don River not far from the Sea of Azov. The site quickly developed into a fortress town and its colorful history began. Though much of the city was reduced to rubble in various years of German occupation, the most well-known existing monument is the Cathedral of Virgin's Nativity in the center of town. Having experienced considerable economic growth in recent years, Rostov-on-Don is being transformed into a modern and technology-rich center, with a thriving population. Worth a visit is the nearby is Starocherkassk, capital of the Don Cossacks, with the Cossack museum, The Resurrection Cathedral, and the Church of the Transfiguration.

Astrakhan

Situated in the Volga Delta, close to the Caspian Sea, lies Astrakhan, a major city in southern European Russia, which is an important fishing port and home to Beluga caviar. Along with the 16th century kremlin, there are two impressive cathedrals featuring baroque exteriors and traditional Russian church architecture.

UKRAINE

River Dnieper

The Dnieper flows 2,290 km (1370 miles) from its source in the Valdai Hills west of Moscow, south through western Russia, into Belarus and Ukraine before eventually spilling into the Black Sea. As the 4th longest river in Europe, the Dnieper meanders through rolling hills in the northern section, high and rocky banks in the middle section, and then courses across the vast plains and enormous wheat fields of Ukraine in its lower stretches. The river scenery also consists of intriguing architecture and interesting wildlife as you cruise into history. A Ukraine cruise usually consists of traveling from Kiev, one of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe conjuring images of bygone Imperial days, on the River Dnieper to the Black Sea and exploring some towns in the Crimean Peninsula. The ports of call after Kiev typically include: Dnipropetrovsk, an 18th century fortress town; Novaya Kakhovka; Kherson, perched high above the river; Odessa, bringing images of spy novels and the Cold War; Sebastopol, a town frequently under siege during battle times; and the fashionable harbor town and resort of Yalta.

Destination Highlights of a River Cruise in Ukraine

Kiev

Kiev, the bustling and scenic capital of Ukraine, which used to belong to Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, is one of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe. The spirit and national identity of Kiev and Ukraine have persisted over time, despite repressions, political turmoil, and ecological disasters. The ancient city of Kiev was renowned for its architectural heritage and although it was severely damaged in World War II and many irreplaceable architectural and art treasure were destroyed, Kiev has undergone some extensive restoration. The major sight and treasure of Eastern Slav civilization is St. Sophia’s Cathedral, which was completed in 1031, with 13 domes and a rich assortment of mosaics and frescoes.

Vulitsya Kreshchatik is the sophisticated main avenue of Kiev, with many shops, restaurants, cafés, and Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), which was made famous during the Orange Revolution.

Designed by the Italian architect Ratelli, of St. Petersburg fame, the Andriivska Tserka (St. Andrew’s Church), at the entrance of one of Kiev’s most pleasant streets, Andriivsky Uzviz (Andrew’s Descent), is a an elegant and beautiful monument.

One of the most memorable sights is Pecherskaya Lavra (Kiev Pechersk Monastery), located southeast of the city center amidst a resplendent complex of churches, caves, and museums.

In addition, the Museum of Folk Architecture is an interesting and informative visit and an opportunity to view over 200 structures originating in various regions of Ukraine.

Dnipropetrovsk

Used as a fortress settlement in the middle of the 16th century and officially founded in the 18th century, Dnipropetrovsk is now a large and beautiful industrial center in a pleasant setting where the Dnieper and Samara rivers merge. Located in a surprisingly green stretch of the River Dnieper, Dnipropetrovsk is filled with long boulevards and spacious parks and is a major high-tech center. The countryside around the city reveals expansive open spaces and landscapes with forested hills, green plains, small villages, and wooden dachas.

Zaporizhzhya

Though not considered one of the prettiest cities along the Dnieper, Zaporizhzhya is a stop on Dnieper river cruises in order for passengers to visit Khortytsia Island, the main fortress capital of the Cossack state and Cossack Hetmanate Republic, which faces modern Zaporizhzhya from across the river. The fortress of Aleksandrov was built in 1770 in order to ensure government control over the Cossacks of Zaporizhzhya, ensuing in a 300-year struggle against social, national, and religious oppression.

Novaya Kakhovka

The small town of Novaya Kakhovka on the shores of the Kakhovka Reservoir came into being thanks to the building of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Station in 1950. The town was built with an emphasis on pleasant and green surroundings, with a variety of parks and gardens.

Kherson (Herson)

An important port on the Black Sea and Dnieper River, Kherson is a hilltop city perched high on the west bank of the river, with sandy, wide beaches. The city is the center for a major ship-building industry and was the first Russian Naval Base. Worthy of a visit, St. Catherine’s Cathedral is the burial site of Grigory Potemkin, the military leader and statesman who founded Kherson in 1778.

Odessa

Odessa was founded by Catherine the Great on a site once occupied by an ancient Greek colony. It is a major port town on the Black Sea and the administrative center of the Odessa Oblast. With many health resorts and spas, Odessa is a popular tourist destination and has been home to many musicians, comedians, chess players, and writers over the years, including the families of Tolstoy, Vorontsov, and Potocki, who owned palaces here. There are numerous monuments of antiquity as well as French-influenced architectural styles. The Odessa Opera House is currently in need of renovation, but the ceiling depicts scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. The Uspensky Cathedral, or Assumption Cathedral, is built in the Russo-Byzantine style and has five onion domes. On the waterfront is the Vorontsov Palace, built in the Russian classic style with a Greek Colonnade affording lovely views of the bay. The Potemkin Stairs are an optical illusion and are considered the official entrance to the city from the sea. Beneath Odessa lie the Catacombs, a complex labyrinth of underground tunnels created by smugglers connecting abandoned limestone mines.

Some river cruises offer excursions to the Uspensky Monastery. Founded in the 15th century, the monastery is one of the oldest monasteries in Crimea and is fascinatingly perched on a cliff above the Black Sea.

Sevastopol

Located at the site of the Ancient Greek colony of Khersonesus in the southwestern part of the Crimean Peninsula is Sevastopol. It is the largest commercial and fishing port of Ukraine in the Black Sea and a major industrial, scientific, and cultural center. The city is one big museum, boasting over 1,800 monuments and memorials of various and intriguing origin. Occupying a prominent place in Russian and Soviet history, the town was frequently under siege during battle times. Things to visit are the Panaroma, the Maritime Museum, and the indoor Flower Market.

Yalta

The site of choice for the summer palaces of the former Russian nobility, Yalta is a fashionable resort and harbor town on the north coast of the Black Sea. Said to have been founded by Greek sailors looking for a safe haven, the town was also used frequented by the Soviet elite and some literary greats, such as Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, as a vacation destination. The hub of the town is centered around the Bystraya River and many visitors spend time on the seafront, where are several beaches, attractive hotels, dacha, sanatoria, and festive rides.

On the approach to the port, the impressive Swallow’s Nest marks the entrance to a town with more health resorts and spas than any place in the world. The main attraction in Yalta itself is the Checkov Residence or ‘White Dacha’, which houses a museum.

There are several interesting sights just outside of Yalta, such as the Nikitski Botanical Gardens and the Levadia Palace, which was the summer residence of Tsar Nicholas II and the site of the famous conference when the ‘Big Three’ powers were drawing up the post World War II map of Europe, with Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt in attendance.

Some cruises offer excursions to the Massandra Palace, which was the summer residence of Alexander III and also a favorite of Stalin, where it is possible to taste the Massandra wine.