Volga River Cruise with the Russian National Orchestra

Volga River Cruise with the Russian National Orchestra

Join veteran MIR client Moonyeen Albrecht on a cruise from Moscow through some of Russia’s lesser-known Volga River towns, while attending performances of the world-famous Russian National Orchestra.

  • Moscow

    May 5, 2008

    The trip began in Moscow. While I was eating breakfast at the Kempinski Hotel, I looked at the Kremlin. A beautiful view! We visited the sculptural ensemble of Mikhail Chemiakin which is called “Children are the Victims of Adults’ Vices.” It is located in a park not far from the Tretyakov Gallery. When I visited a friend in New York several years ago, we met with Chemiakin at his estate. He showed us photographs of this sculptural ensemble. Finally, I was able to see it in reality. If you want to see each statue up close, Google “Children are the victims of adults’ vices.” Then look for the entry by Scott Parrish. Today it was first on the list. You can click on an enlargement of each statue for a close look. The vices are: poverty, war, child labor, for those without memory, sadism, propaganda of violence, indifference, irresponsible science, ignorance, alcoholism, theft, prostitution and drug addiction. Indifference is in the center and dominates the large bronze sculptures. Amid the arc are two golden children, blindfolded, playing, unaware of their surroundings.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Group in Moscow ready to start the tour. Credit: Moonyeen Albrecht

    Group in Moscow ready to start the tour.

    View from my hotel room Photo: Moonyeen Albrecht

    View from my hotel room

    “Children are the Victims” sculptural ensemble

    “Children are the Victims” composition.

  • Volgograd

    May 6-7, 2008

    We arrived in Volgograd late Tuesday afternoon.  This was our first view of our teplokhod (boat) – the Peter Tchaikovsky.

    Volgograd’s Mother Russia

    Around 6:15 p.m. we left for the concert hall which was just a short walk from the boat dock to hear our first concert on the tour. The Russian National Orchestra was conducted on this tour by its founder, Mikhail Pletnev (pronounced Plyet-NYOV). The program was Beethoven’s Symphony No 6 (The Pastorale) and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7. The enthusiastic audience coaxed an encore from the ensemble: Prokofiev: Capriccio on Gypsy Themes.

    The next morning we began our tour of Volgograd. During WW II (The Great Patriotic War to Russians) Volgograd was known as Stalingrad.

    Under Stalin, the city became heavily industrialized and was developed as a centre of heavy industry and trans-shipment by rail and river. During World War II (Great Patriotic War), the city of Stalingrad became the center of the Battle of Stalingrad as well as the pivotal turning point in the war against Germany. The battle lasted from August 21, 1942 to February 2, 1943. 1.7 million to 2 million Axis and Soviet soldiers were either killed, wounded or captured, as well as over 40,000 civilians killed. The city was reduced to rubble during the fierce fighting, but reconstruction began soon after the Germans were expelled from the city. For the heroism shown during the battle, Stalingrad was awarded the title Hero City in 1945, and King George VI of the United Kingdom awarded the citizens of Stalingrad a jeweled sword in appreciation of the bravery that they had shown. A memorial complex commemorating the battle, dominated by an immense allegorical sculpture of Mother Russia, was erected on the Mamayev Kurgan, a hill that saw some of the most intense fighting during the battle.



    We toured Volgograd on May 6th. Russians celebrate May 9th as Victory Day and so Moscow, Volgograd and the other cities were still planning for Victory Day festivities. Of course, almost every city has a monument to an unknown soldier and other commemorations of valor during the war, and we saw an eternal flame being guarded by schoolchildren.

    If you are interested in the Battle of Stalingrad, watch the movie “Enemy at the Gates.” It is an American film starring Jude Law and Ed Harris. It is based on a true story. The first 40 minutes of this film are harrowing!

    During the course of our city tour we learned that there was no bridge across the river at Volgograd. We were surprised because it is such an important and large city. Back on board the ship we left for Saratov at 2:00 p.m.



    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Volga cruise ship

    Touring Volgograd

    Weeping Mother statue in Volgograd

    Volgograd’s Eternal Flame

  • Saratov and Victory Day

    May 8-9, 2008

    Saratov Memorial

    We arrived at Saratov around 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, May 8th. By the way, the weather was wonderful – pleasant temperatures and sunny or a little cloudy. Still on the boat, at 12:15 Lena treated us to a lecture about lacquer boxes and jewelry. She was one of the two young Russian women in charge of the gift sales on the boat.

    After lunch we started the city tour of Saratov. We saw another memorial to fallen citizens. The monument’s inscription translated from the Russian is:

    More than 300,000 Saratov(s) (citizens) did not return from the Great Patriotic War. Far from native shores they lay (down) in the ground, their own (land) and foreign (lands). To you, to our fellow countrymen, to fathers, to our grandfathers, to comrades, to comrades in arms (serving in the same regiment), we, the living, have raised this monument.

     We walked to the concert hall in Saratov where we heard two Rachmaninov pieces, “Capriccio on Gypsy Themes” and “Aleko.” I was particularly excited about hearing “Aleko” because 1) I love it, and 2) I never thought I’d get a chance to hear it in person. This was an exceptional performance! Very exciting. Singers were all excellent and we would get to hear the piece again in Kazan!

    Touring Saratov

    Evening concerts started at 7:00 (more or less!) and on those evenings dinner was served after our return to the boat – usually around 9:15 – 9:30. A little late for our American tummies . . . but you haven’t heard anything yet!

    We spent the entire day on Friday on the
    teplokhod because of the travel time needed to sail from Saratov to Samara. The bad news is that we were not able to witness Victory Day festivities/parades etc firsthand but we had special events and time to relax on the ship. At lunch today our servers donned special costumes in honor of Victory Day and Ilonna and Volodya presented a folk music program. We started to learn how to sing “Kalinka” and “Katyusha” in Russian. At 4:30 our small MIR group had a special meeting with our wonderful tour manager Katya where we asked her all kinds of questions about life in Russia now. Katya’s “hometown” is St. Petersburg but she has also lived elsewhere including Minsk in Belarus. She is very knowledgeable and graciously answered all our questions in superb English!

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Photo Credit: Moonyeen Albrecht

    Touring Saratov

    Photo: Moonyeen Albrecht

    Touring Saratov

    Photo: Moonyeen Albrecht

    Lunchtime performance


    Lunchtime performance

  • Samara

    May 10, 2008

    This was an interesting day. Early in the morning the river seemed a little more choppy than it had in the past. Breakfast on board was from 8:00 to 9:00. At 9:00 we left for the city tour of Samara which would take about 3 1/2 hours.

    In Samara there is a fairly new monument on the long Volga river embankment. It represents a boat’s sail and if you can imagine it all, including the base walls from the side, it looks like the prow of a ship extending into the river. It has become an important symbol of the city and is often represented in painting and sketches.

    We saw a Russian bridal party visiting the historical monuments of Samara before heading to our only afternoon concert, where we heard pianist Rem Urasin perform Mendelssohn’s “Scherzo and Overture from Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestr” and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6.” The boat was leaving Samara this afternoon during our concert and sailing to Toliatti. After the concert we would be taking a 2 hour bus ride to Toliatti to meet the boat. This was because of the time needed for the boat to sail and also meet the schedule required by the locks along the river.

    During the intermission a woman came up to Betty and me and asked where we were from. She was happy when we told her America. She wanted to practice her English. She was absolutely charming and we had a lovely conversation. She is a choral music teacher so we had a lot in common. We were so glad to meet her.

    We enjoyed the view of the river during an evening photo op stop on our way to Toliatti by bus after the concert. This is supposed to be the narrowest point on the river between two “mountains” – brothers by legend, who were separated, forever, by “the Volga.”

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Cruising down the Volga

    New sail monument in Samara

    Touring Samara

    Touring Samara

    Local wedding party taking photos at Samara monuments

    Beautiful view of the Volga River

  • Kazan and Cheboksary

    May 11-12, 2008

    We disembarked in Kazan with Mikhail Pletnev, the Russian National Orchestra’s artistic director. A costumed arrival commitee treated all of us with the traditional gifts of bread and salt. We saw another performance of “Aleko” featuring the same choir from Samara.

    Cheboksary port

    The next day we continued on to Cheboksary. Probably not many Americans have heard of the town of Cheboksary. It is the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Chuvashia. The people are Chuvash by ethnicity but there are also Russians and it might be difficult to distinguish between them.

    I had the very good fortune to be on the first Volga trip (arranged by MIR Corporation) with the Russian National Orchestra back in September of 1997. At that time the only “visitors” on the ship with the orchestra were the five of us American tourists with our Russian tour manager (and now my good friend) Katya Boyarskaya. That trip on the Volga, for us started in Samara. We heard two concerts: the first in Ulyanovsk (Simbirsk) and the second in Cheboksary.

    Cheboksary welcome party

    Back then, when our teplokhod pulled into Cheboksary it was very picturesque, but old and very provincial. There was no river port, per se. Our boat pulled up to a wooden pier adjacent to the monastery below with the green domes. The white building in the lower right of the photo was probably the river port although we did not notice it. We just pulled up to the wooden pier and disembarked. Cheboksary seemed old and poor. We visited an art museum. I bought a painting of a local church for $10 and received attention from about five people working there as they fussed and packed it up for me. They were so excited that someone was buying a painting from them. It was fun buying it from them. It now hangs lovingly on my bedroom wall.

    Cheboksary monastery

    Now there is a fully functional river port! Chebkosary is now a vital, renovated, seemingly properous city.  It is good to see such changes. It is a real gem.

     We were met with a wonderful greeting party. Bread and salt, music and even Chuvash dancing. The smiling sun greeted us and as we left the River Port we walked under a rainbow for good luck!

    The renovated (and still under renovation) men’s monastery is now active again near the embankment of the old river port. The red letters (as could also be seen in other churches, some in neon lights!) say “Christ is Risen!”

    Daily performances onboard

    Before we returned to the ship for lunch we stopped at a brewery and enjoyed the local beer. After lunch we had a little free time near the River Port which is not far from shopping. Before dinner back on the ship we had a chamber music recital by members of the RNO. The concert master (1st Violinist), principal cello and pianist played a piano trio by Rachmaninov. After that the the concert master played several virtuoso solo pieces. Then it was our turn to perform. We, the visitors on the ship, had been practicing “Kalinka” and “Katyusha” and we sang them in Russian for members of the orchestra with the accompaniment of Illona and Volodya. The Japanese tourists sang the first verse of “Kalinka” in Japanese! Then we were treated to several dances by one member of the Japanese group.

    Truly an international program!

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Our ship docked in Cheboksary

    Sunset over the Volga River

  • Nizhniy Novgorod

    May 13, 2008

    We arrived at Nizhniy Novgorod around 8:00 a.m. After breakfast we began our city tour. We would not be back on the boat until late in the evening. Once again the Tchaikovsky had to leave while we were about our business on shore because of the time needed to travel and the lock schedules.

    We saw the small, brown, wooden childhood home of activist Maxim Gorky. The placard read: “In this house in early childhood in the years 1871 – 1872 lived Alyosha Peshkov (M. Gorky)” His birth name was Alyosha Peshkov.

    I sat at a table with some people from our group and a young trombonist from the orchestra joined us. Aha! A good opportunity to practice speaking Russian. My fellow travelers were kind and patient while I tried to carry on a conversation with him. Among the things we asked him was what he would be doing after this tour. He said he had other engagements and soon would be playing in the opera “May Night.” Well! This is one (only one) of my favorite operas by Rimsky-Korsakov. He was pleasantly surprised when I started to sing the beginning of Levko’s aria from Act III (without words, of course). He said, “Ah, you know that opera!” It’s not one of the more well-known operas by Russian composers but I bought a recording of it many, many years ago! The part of Levko on my first recording of “May Night” is sung by Sergei Lemeshev. Russians will know this singer. He was one of the leading tenors at the Bolshoi Opera during the “Golden Years.”

    The program for the concert today was three pieces by Prokofiev, “Piano Concerto No. 1” (soloist Andrei Korobeinikov. He was WONDERFUL!!!!!), “Suite from Romeo & Juliet” and “Symphony No. 7.”

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Photo credit: Moonyeen Albrecht

    Touring Nizhniy Novgorod

    Photo: Moonyeen Albrecht

    Touring Nizhniy Novgorod

    Touring Nizhniy Novgorod

    Touring Nizhniy Novgorod

  • Kostroma, Yaroslav and Uglich

    May 14-15, 2008

    Until today our weather was wonderful! But . . . EEEES Rosha! This morning when we woke up it was . . . SNOWING! Most of us were prepared with layers of clothing. It was no problem.

    Photo: Moonyeen Albrecht

    Touring Yaroslavl

    Our first shore stop was in the city of Kostroma which was founded in 1152 by Yuri Dolgoruky. Unfortunately, this time I did not take any photos in Kostroma. I have some from a previous Golden Ring tour in 2000 with my friend June.

    By the time we disembarked the snow was more like rain and we finally were able to use our umbrellas. We went to the Ipatiev Monastery which was founded in the 14th century. It was at this monastery that Michael Romanov was elected as the first Romanov Tsar in 1613 and it was from here that he left to be crowned in the Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral in Moscow.

    Our group gathered in an entrance portico to hear a small group of men sing for us. They sang “Our Father” by Nikolai Kedrov and the folk song “The Volga Boatmen.” Of course, CDs were available for purchase.

    Then we went to a shop which is known for its fine linens and we had some time for shopping. Kostroma is famous for linen articles.

    After our shopping frenzy we went back to the bus and drove to Yaroslavl where we met the Tchaikovsky again.

    Photo: Moonyeen Albrecht

    Yaroslavl concert

    At 4:00 p.m. we began our tour of Yaroslavl. Yaroslavl was founded in 1010 by Yaroslavl the Wise. The city was named the temporary capital of Russia during the Time of Troubles from 1598 to 1613 until Michael Romanov was crowned the first Romanov Tsar in 1613.

    A few words about “The Golden Ring.” The ancient towns of the Golden Ring were founded between the 11th and 17th centuries and are considered the cradle of Russian culture. These towns (Fedoskino, Sergiev Posad, Pereslavl-Zalesky, Rostov (Veliky – the Great), Uglich, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Plyos, Ivanovo, Palekh, Vladimir, Suzdal) that lay in a circle to the northeast of Moscow became known as the Golden Ring and each town is a living chronicle documenting many centuries in the history of old Russia. They say it’s called the Golden Ring because of the many churches with golden cupolas in the cities and countryside. There are special Golden Ring tours and if you come to Russia I highly recommend this itinerary.

    Our first stop in Yaroslavl was at the Church of Elijah the Prophet. After the tour of the church we went into a side chapel where another small men’s choir sang for us. They sang: “Our Father” by Nikolai Kedrov and the folk song “The Volga Boatmen.” Hmmmm, deja vu . . . do you think it is a conspiracy? Again CDs were for sale.

    Photo: Moonyeen Albrecht

    Bells at the Transfiguration of Our Savior Monastery

    Then we went to the Transfiguration of Our Savior Monastery. I was hoping that we would see and hear a demonstration of Russian bell ringing while we were there. I had heard this on previous trips to Yaroslavl and I wanted to buy a CD of bell ringing. There is good news and bad news. The bad news is that the main bell tower is now under renovation and could not be used for a performance. Two years ago a young bell ringer gave us a fabulous short concert on the bells in this bell tower. However, now we could not hear these wonderful bells.

    The good news is that they have another set of bells behind the church to demonstrate Russian bell ringing to visitors. We were able to see that and I finally bought a CD of bell ringing from that place.

    A few words about Russian bell ringing: In western churches bells are pulled on ropes and moved back and forth so the clapper can strike the side of the bell. However, in Russia, the bells are stationary and ropes are attached to the clappers. The ropes are all connected in an intricate web and then pulled so the clappers can hit the sides of the stationary bells. With this method a ringer “plays” the bells by using his fingers, hands – and even feet for large bells – to pull the many ropes. With this method he can play many bells quickly at the same time. It is fascinating to watch a Russian bell ringer.

    Piroshki party

    We went into the adjacent “former” church which has been converted into a concert hall where we heard a wonderful concert of chamber music by three members of the string section of the RNO. They played music of Rachmaninov, Borodin and Tanyev.

    The next day, we were in Uglich and had some free time to sight-see. I opted to spend all my time (less than an hour) at the nearby shopping stalls since I’d been to Uglich already several times.

    At 11:00 a.m. as we began sailing back toward Moscow, a piroshki party was scheduled. We would not be hungry between breakfast and lunch! During the party, we passed through the beautiful Uglich lock. Someone came to get me as I photographed from a forward deck and I spent much of the time going back and forth between the mid-morning treat and watching the Uglich lock.

    Cruising down the Volga River

    Uglich lock

  • Moscow

    May 16-18, 2008

    We arrived at the Moscow River Terminal around 11:00 a.m. After lunch on the ship we had a short city tour of Moscow. I did not take many photos, but I could not resist the beautiful view of Novodevichy Monastery. This is the important, historical monastery to which Sophia, Regent of Russia and half sister of Peter the Great, was sent after the young Peter I claimed his rightful throne.

    Cruising into Moscow

    A tour of Moscow always includes the view from Sparrow Hills where you will usually find a wedding party taking photos.

    Later in the afternoon we had some free time around Red Square. Rosemary and I went to GUM and bought chocolate and ice cream and then watched the changing of the guard at the memorial to the unknown soldier outside the Kremlin wall.

    Then it was off to a Moscow apartment at the other end of town for dinner with a Russian family. A young couple, Liudmila and Maxim, were our hosts. Liudmila prepared a magnificent dinner for us – more delicious food than you can ever imagine. We were all amazed at the array of food which the 7 months-pregnant Mila had made just for us! If only we had had doggie bags! Then it was back to the ship.


    Cruising into Moscow

    The next day was free. Our small MIR group went to the Kremlin grounds and the Tolstoy home in the Kamovnikakh district in Moscow. I needed to be up at 1:45 a.m. to be ready to leave the ship at 2:15 a.m. for the trip to Domodedovo airport, which is a great distance from the river terminal. It took almost 1 1/2 hours to drive to the airport at 2:15 a.m. but it gave me my last chance at a Russian conversation with our wonderful MIR driver, Rashid.

    Sheremetevo airport is under reconstruction and this was my first experience leaving from Domodedovo. It was much easier. Absolutely no waiting at ticket check-in and just a short line at Passport Control. And, of course, at 4:00 a.m. it’s not too busy!

    My trip home was as pleasant as a 13 hr. trip in Economy can be. (Are you reading between the lines?) However, all the flights were not only on-time but actually arrived a little early. Lucky this time.



    This tour was wonderful and everything I expected it to be. I was especially happy to be able to hear “Aleko” . . . twice! I never expected to hear an opera on this orchestra tour. What a fabulous surprise! My biggest regret was that I did not engage the singers and talk with them personally. I didn’t want to intrude on their privacy but now I wish that I had spoken with them. They were all so wonderful. Perhaps next time I will not be so reticent to speak in my faulty, stammering American-Russian. But, then again…

    Kudos to MIR Corporation in Seattle for the planning and execution of another great Russian adventure. They were the first company to arrange a trip on the ship with the RNO back in 1997. I was lucky to be able to be on that trip with my friend Jim Lombard. We had a wonderful time . . . all FIVE of us American tourists. We were the only non orchestra people on the ship that year. It was very interesting to compare some of these cities to how they appeared eleven years ago. Our MIR guide, Katya, was fabulous! Couldn’t be better. No need to be afraid to travel to Russia. It is a great experience!