Frank Bernheisel: The View From Here
Frank Bernheisel
Frank Bernheisel
Posted 12.23.16
Just Outside Washington

All photos courtesy the author and Kathy Cavanaugh

Cruising North

The Viking Akun cruised north on the Moscow Canal through the newer parts of Moscow heading for the Volga River. All along this part of the route were new apartment buildings, cranes where apartments would be soon, green park areas and many recreational facilities, including amusement parks. What I read in the newspapers and magazines indicates that the Russian economy is in bad shape. However, that was not what I observed.

The construction cranes were not just seen near new apartment buildings but all over Moscow. Also, the number of new cars and stylishly dressed people belied the economic problems. There has been a real drop in the Russian economy, which was illustrated graphically by one of our guides in his talk on Russian history. He attributed the decline in GDP in the last five years to the U.S. sanctions; I was forced to remind him of the decline in oil prices. Be that as it may, the economic problems were not visible.


Outside of Moscow the apartments disappeared; and the Moscow Canal widened, allowing for even more recreational facilities and pleasure boats. It was Saturday and a warm sunny day, which would account for the thousands of people out on and near the water. We saw large day cruise boats that came from Moscow and docked at fanciful recreational facilities; some were new and some traditional.


Also there were many small craft, both sail and motor. The craze for personal watercraft was also in evidence, but I will not glorify them with a picture. At one point we passed a motor launch towing over 20 small sail boats. They were about 16 feet long, and I assumed that they were going to a sailing school or regatta.


The Moscow Canal is part of a network of waterways, natural and manmade, that connect Moscow with St. Petersburg. The system was conceived by Peter the Great in the 18th century to connect his new capital with Moscow. It was completed by Stalin in 1932 using several million prisoners from the Gulag -- the forced labor camps. The entire construction project consisted of 11 locks, 8 power stations and 15 bridges and was completed in five years.


On our 80-mile Moscow Canal trip, we went through only six locks; but we missed seeing some due to our night passage. The elevation of Moscow, measured at the All-Russia Exhibition Center, is 512 feet (Moscow also has some hills, the highest of which is 837 feet). Each lock has a drop of about 40 feet, so after the Moscow Canal we still had more than 200 feet to go down to reach sea level in St. Petersburg.

We cruised through the night, and those that slept missed several locks. Also, the Akun had entered the Volga River, "Mother Volga," which flows north at this point but soon turns south to empty into the Caspian Sea, about 1000 miles as the crow flies. The trip by river is much longer and was traveled regularly by the Vikings in the 8th century.

About noon on Sunday we entered the Uglich Lock, which is named for the nearby town, Uglich, our destination for the afternoon. This lock was larger than those I had been through on previous cruises. In entering the lock, the Akun had to get positioned and wait until two other boats were in position. I noticed that this lock and much of the other infrastructure in Russia was showing its age. I guess that in Russia, like the U.S., the politicians can always find time to show up for the cameras when something new is completed;, but repairs have no glamor.

We docked at Uglich and walked into the town. The hydropower station associated with the lock and dam is the structure on the right in the right picture.


Uglich is most famous for the death of the Tsarevich Dimitry and the Church of St. Dimitry on the Blood, which commemorates his death. The church, shown in the center of the picture above, was built in 1692 on the site of his death. The Tsarevich Dimitry was the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible, who was 10 years old in 1591 when he was found dead with his throat cut. As our guide explained he fell on his sword -- twice. The tsar's chief advisor, Boris Godunov, was suspected but the official investigators concluded it was an accident.

Uglich is a pleasant small city of about 30,000, which has a steadily declining population. It is a destination for tourists, both foreign and domestic. We left the boat with a local guide for a tour of the Uglich kremlin and to see the church. First, we ran a gauntlet of stalls selling local clothing, crafts and paintings. Julie and Kathy each bought a painting from a student who said he would now be able to eat this winter. The walk through the arcade brought us out to the main street, which had businesses on one side, and a large park, which had been the grounds of Dimitry's palace on the other. The park had a memorial to the soldiers killed during the Great War (WWII) and a large statue of Lenin.


The main square was pleasant with pastel colored buildings; this seems to be a thing in Russia maybe because of the long winters. Like Moscow, the streets and park were litter free. The town once had a famous watch manufacturing plant, now closed. The Nexans cable mill is still operating. Uglich serves as the administrative center of Uglichsky District, but because it is an independent town, not part of the district.



In addition to visiting the Church of St. Dimitry on the Blood, we visited the Uglich kremlin. We walked by the Resurrection Monastery, which was built in the 1670s. It was not one of the monasteries and convents that were blown up from during Stalin's declared five-year plans of atheism. We visited the Transfiguration Cathedral and its separate bell tower. The cathedral is shown in the left picture and its walkway to the town square on the right. We did not go to several other churches, including the Church of the Theotokos of Kazan, Church of the Nativity of John the Baptist on the Volga, and the St Nicholas' Church. One famous Ulrich church was submerged, all but the spire, when the Moscow -- St. Petersburg waterway was constructed. We saw it on our way to Ulrich.


After all these churches, I needed a drink. Fortunately, our program included a visit to a local family for a traditional vodka social; and the vodka was to be homemade – "moonshine". We were divided into groups of 12 so no family was overwhelmed; we were hosted by Vladimir (no, not Putin) and his family. To get to Vladimir's house we left the park and were met by a bus – not a coach because coaches have restrooms - to take us there.


This house across the street in front of Vladimir's house. As can be seen the streets in this section of Uglich were macadam, compacted crushed stone, and had many trees. Each house had its own vegetable and fruit garden.

Our group was invited into Vladimir's house, which was small and rustic, to meet his wife and daughter. Vladimir spoke English well; his wife, not as well. We were shown into a room with book shelves, filled with books, along one wall and seated at a long table; we just barely fit. Vladimir instructed us in the vodka ritual; the vodka in a special glass is raised, then a toast is said vashe zdorovi, (meaning, to your health), inhale, drink the vodka in one gulp, and then have a bite of dark bread or cucumber salad. And repeat. Twice.

Vladimir's wife made an apple sponge cake to top things off. In the conversation, lubricated by the vodka, we learned that she worked in an icon workshop making the elaborate frames made from silver wire. We also learned that Vladimir's daughter was an artist and saw many of her works on the walls. Politics were not discussed.

Although the house was small and rustic, the family had a flat screen TV and cell phones. What we saw would, in the United States, qualify as a "blue collar" lifestyle. The exception was the books; clearly one or more avid readers. My take-away was that the Vladimir family had balanced and happy life.


We went out of the house to visit Vladimir's garden.The picture also shows the houses of a couple of neighbors. The clouds from earlier had dissipated, and we enjoyed the sunny afternoon. Everyone in Uglich seemed to have a garden with fruit trees and grow much of their food. It reminded me of small town America in the 1950s.

Our bus took us back to the center of Uglich, and we walked back to the Akun. We were just in time for the 6 o'clock cocktail hour as the Akun pulled away from the dock to continue our northern cruise.