And Quiet Flows the Volga
On land and water Northwestern alumni learn much about Russia, a fascinating and rapidly changing country.
BY JEFF BADDELEY
Last spring 15 of us traveled by boat on the Volga-Baltic Waterway from Moscow to St. Petersburg with the Northwestern Alumni Association, exploring a tiny but history-packed slice of a country that covers over 6 million square miles and spans 11 time zones.
As our bus from the airport approached Moscow, we got our first glimpse of the towering Kremlin looming before us, sitting on a bluff on the far bank of the wide Moskva River. The golden onion domes of the Russian Orthodox churches pierced the gray heaven, gleaming fresh and white in the dank morning.
At the State Armory Chamber in the Kremlin, the treasure house of a thousand years of Russian history, we wandered through the countless collections of historic artifacts: sable-fringed crowns, thrones, weapons, armor, pearl-seeded gowns, and antique carriages and sleds.
Later, as we stood in Red Square at Lobnoe Mesto, the platform from which the czar traditionally spoke, we shivered as the rain, snow and sleet swirled around us in mid-May.
An evening at the Great Moscow State Circus afforded us an opportunity to view one of the most incredible “wildcat” acts any of us had ever seen and provided a chance for Mary Lou Caldwell (G60) to demonstrate her skills as a camel rider.
In Moscow armed with copies of the Cyrillic alphabet and maps of the city and the Metro, the “Gang of Five” — Caldwell, Carol Barr, Sue Cain (SESP55), Ruth Schnell (Mu60) and Susan Hammond — took on the challenge of finding the Arbat shopping area. Others got around town by waving down any taxi driver and offering him a dollar to take them in the general direction he was driving.
After a few days in Moscow we set sail on the MS Litvinov, a cruise ship built in 1991 exclusively to navigate the rivers, canals and lakes of the 685-mile Volga-Baltic Waterway to the Gulf of Finland. We stopped at several ports of call, including Uglich, one of Russia’s oldest towns. In Uglich, amid aspen seeds swirling like snow, we explored the Transfiguration Cathedral with its distinct pyramidal roof and the Church of Prince Dimitri-on-the-Blood, built on the site where Ivan the Terrible’s young son was murdered. Five monks intoned medieval chants for the group.
On board we attended Russian classes and soon became adept at spotting such words as bar, stop, Metro, Baskin-Robbins, Kentucky Fried Chicken and, of course, McDonald’s. We enjoyed vodka-tasting parties several times a day, which suited several of us to a “V.”
As our waterways journey approached St. Petersburg, the Northwestern group joined other passengers in staging a talent show. While Waa-Mu it was not, the cast included Schnell on the accordion, Charlie Hammond as the drunken captain, Peggy Barr (formerly Northwestern’s vice president of student affairs) as the ship gossip and Caldwell as the ship’s temptress.
Peter the Great’s city of canals is built on more than 40 islands, inspiring many to call it the Venice of the North. In Western-oriented St. Petersburg we were frequently serenaded by a wide assortment of strolling street musicians and enjoyed performances of Giselle, a ballet fantasy and a last-minute boat ride on the canals.
The many beautiful images of our trip are forever painted in our mind: Russia’s double-headed eagle, lavender lilacs, lillies of the valley, the Russian bear, brightly painted matryoshka dolls and Byzantine Empire–era lacquer boxes. One of our guides told us that when we left the country, we would be asked what we learned. If we didn’t know enough, we would fail the test and have to remain behind. But if we knew too much, the end result would be the same: We would never want to leave.
Jeff Baddeley (EB59, L62) of Chicago was a corporate attorney and business executive until he retired three years ago.
For information about Northwestern’s travel programs log on to www.alumni.northwestern.edu/travel or call 847-491-7987.