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Thursday, February 2, 2012


GUEST BLOG/By Beth and Steve Hagman--It was a Viking River tour, a great way to deal with a country where you can’t figure out the signs -- not just a different language, but an entirely different alphabet. The autumn trip started in Moscow, wound north on the great canal built by Stalin to connect with the Volga, north on the Volga through the two largest lakes in Europe to end at St. Petersburg. Along the way we saw a couple of monasteries -- one still in use; a Peasant Museum, which was actually a tiny island; the quaint village of Mandrogy with its vodka museum, and the town of Uglich where we saw an a cappella concert of medieval music.

In St. Petersburg, we spent most of a day in the Hermitage, the largest museum of European art in the world; saw a variety of churches and monuments; were entertained by a Cossack troupe, and saw Swan Lake performed in the intimate theatre at the Hermitage itself.

The things we remember most vividly? Moscow made a big impression, much prettier than expected; despite Khruschev’s hideous concrete-block housing and horrendous traffic jams (the Russians have only been allowed their own vehicles for a bit more than a decade, and they abandoned a very good, efficient and cheap mass transportation system to sit for hours every day in a carbon monoxide hell).

Stalin rebuilt Moscow as a European capitol of grace and style, heavily influenced by the art deco movement, so the downtown area is full of stately, elegant buildings. The Kremlin is as impressive as you’d expect, oddly quite full of churches, and facing a very posh shopping center. Standing in Red Square was a truly memorable moment, despite the rain. Catherine’s Palace outside St. Petersburg was also a highlight; we just wished we had more time to explore the gardens.

The best part of the trip, however, was Kizhi -- which we’d never heard of, but will never forget. A tiny island among hundreds of islands in Lake Onega, very close to the Arctic Circle, it’s the site of the last remaining entirely hand-made wooden church, built there by one man in the 1400s. Incredibly beautiful, and very fragile, finally succumbing to the elements -- it is currently being propped up from the inside, and we were told it might only last another decade or so. Several other buildings were moved to the island, to display the peasant lifestyle of the area, including a chapel, a boathouse and a large farmhouse and barns. A new church was also built next to the old one, and is still in use, serving a fairly large congregation from the surrounding islands.

This was far different from our China tour in many ways. The food and service was okay -- apparently very good by Russian standards. We ate at two “local” restaurants, on a day trip outside Moscow to Sergiev Posad and outside St. Petersburg on the way back from Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace, but both were obviously tourist groups only. Our guide was taciturn and grudgingly answered questions -- we joked that he was ex-KGB.

On the other hand, we glimpsed a lot of Russian history, saw many beautiful things, discovered places and artists we’d never have known before, and gained a little perspective. Stalin’s presence still looms large (in a surprisingly positive way) in Moscow, where he built the subway system, the canals, and a city to be proud of. The Russians say, “If Stalin couldn’t do it, it couldn’t be done.” Of course, he had the benefit of total power and masses of prison labor.

Images: Cossack dancers entertained us in a tent by the side of the Nevsky River in St. Petersburg; Kremlin with architecturally splendid onion shape domes; Viking River Cruise ship docked in Uglich and yes, Natasha there is a real Swan Lake in Moscow.

About the writer & Photographer: Beth & Steve Hagman are ex-North Park residents, who have retired in Ireland to write and photograph travel articles for interested media on a freelance basis. She writes and he takes the photos. Beth was a reporter and art director for the national Competitor magazine group and locally for North Park News in the 1990s. Steve is a former elementary school teacher. They can be reached at

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