Waterways of the Tzars

Margaret Turton | VOLUME 24, ISSUE 3
Ancient church, Kizhi Island.
A system of lakes, rivers and locks, rich in history and culture, provides a nautical highway through Russia’s heartland.

In 1703, Tzar Peter the Great shocked his royal court. “I’m done with Moscow,” he said of the ancient capital. As if to underscore Russia’s role of upcoming superpower on the Baltic Sea coast, he shifted his court to territory won from Sweden in the Great Northern War. Canals were dug to drain the marshland on the shore of the Gulf of Finland and St Petersburg subsequently rose in the estuary of the River Neva.

As the new capital grew into a beautiful city of bridges and waterways, Peter’s interest in hydro-technology increased. He marked his victory over Sweden with a statue of Samson as the centerpiece of a system of waterworks in the gardens of his Summer Palace, Peterhof.

The project was an amazing feat for its time. The reservoirs, distribution sluices, gravity-fed cascades and fountains convey water 20km along the Samson Sea Canal down to the Gulf of Finland without the assistance of pumps. It is fascinating to see Peter’s works today, especially before making a journey through Russia by waterway.

Peter could only dream of navigating the rivers and lakes that lie between his capital and Moscow. Throughout the centuries, many attempts were made to harness their waters. But nothing of permanence was fully realised until the 1930s, when Soviet leader, Josef Stalin constructed a canal connecting Moscow to the River Volga.

Stalin’s work was prompted by a shortage of water in his capital, Moscow. The scale of his project was massive – larger, it is claimed, than the building of the Suez or Panama canals. The result is a reliable navigation route between Moscow and St Petersburg.


We start our journey in St Petersburg, setting off along the River Neva on board Viking Surkov, a 130m luxury river cruiser. The sun is dipping low as Schlusselburg Fortress begins to form on the horizon, dominating the access to Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest freshwater lake and the River Neva’s source. Peter used Schlusselburg Fortress as a prison for unruly aristocrats when its military significance declined. It served that role until the Russian Revolution.

Canals skirt the southern shore of Lake Ladoga. They bustle with vessels transporting cargoes of timber, iron and granite. By morning we are on the River Svir. We pass through the first of its two ship locks before disembarking at a ‘model’ village community, Mandrogy. It’s a picturesque spot, revived in 1996, after being burnt to the ground during WWII. Earlier economies – small scale ship building, iron production and the quarrying of granite – have given way to overt demonstrations of a rustic way of life in traditional wooden houses, with folk art, folk music and a vodka museum exhibiting 2740 varieties.

A source of the River Svir is Lake Onega, Europe’s second-largest freshwater lake. It has more than 1600 islands and we make a stop at Kizhi Island, known for its UNESCO-listed open-air museum of ancient wooden buildings and multi-domed wooden churches, among them Russia’s oldest wooden church. Hence a glimpse of medieval rural Russia is the highlight of another day’s voyage.


More scenic cruising takes us by isolated summerhouses, small hamlets, timber dockyards and purple lupins growing wild beside the shore. In the evening we approach the first of a series of locks on the Volga-Baltic Canal and, while we sleep, they raise our vessel higher and higher until, by morning, we are floating across the White Lake, which once formed part of the Tzar’s fishing grounds.

The White Lake was also strategically important for trade between the north and south of Russia from as early as the eigth century. A millennium later, it formed a section of the Mariinsk Waterway connecting the River Volga to the Tzar’s new capital and the Baltic Sea. In the Soviet era, the Mariinsk system was rebuilt, finally opening as the 1000km-long Volga-Baltic Waterway in 1964.

This new work involved the damming of the Volga and Sheksna rivers, which deepened the waterways and facilitated shipping. It also influenced the natural currents of the White Lake, causing parts of the shoreline to collapse, threatening marine ecosystems, flooding forests and submerging historic buildings. An Ecology Centre at Belozersk now monitors the effects of the Volga-Baltic Waterway on the White Lake.


Meanwhile, we step ashore at a White Lake village, Goritzy, which dates from the time of Ivan the Terrible. Our destination is Kirillo-Belozersky monastery, founded by Moscow monks in the 14th century. It later acquired a military function, repulsing a Polish attack in 1612. The monastery’s arms – helmets, swords and spiked metal balls once used to deter cavalry attacks – are displayed along with the monks’ vestments and icons.

After the Russian Revolution, Kirillo-Belozersky’s monks sided with the White Guards. Red Guards shot their bishop dead and the monastery was placed under state control in 1923. Today, its buildings are being restored using funds acquired during Vladimir Putin’s presidency. It’s an astonishing sight, with its scaffolded cloisters, dazzling churches, bastions and towers. Around the Water Gate, which is entered from the White Lake, tourists mingle with the locals, who swim and paddle around in little boats at the edge of the lake.

Lots of small sandy beaches are dotted around its shore, with locals enjoying the Russian summer as we make our way around the Lake of Rybinsk – more precisely called Rybinsk Reservoir, since it was created under Stalin’s ‘Great Volga Plan’. In earlier times, summer navigation between St Petersburg and Rybinsk took as long as three months, as rivers dried up and ships were hauled from lock to lock by rope. We’ve reached Rybinsk in less than five days, cruising at a leisurely pace. The downside of Stalin’s grand plan is that 700 villages were deliberately flooded, their inhabitants moved to unknown destinations.

For us, however, a true highlight is today’s shore excursion to Yaroslavl, an important port city founded in the 11th century by a prince from Kiev. Here, the multi-domed churches are so beautiful they outshine the Stalin-era parade grounds surrounding them. In turn, a memorial in the central plaza reminds us of Russia’s great losses during WWII.

Indeed, Russia’s capacity for suffering is well-documented and, even against the most pious of backdrops, bloodcurdling scenes are explicitly recorded, as in the Church of St Dimitri on the Blood at Uglich on the River Volga. Here, frescoes depict the murder of Ivan the Terrible’s nine-year-old son and the mayhem that quickly followed. Otherwise, the scenes in this provincial town resemble a Russian fairytale, complete with babushkas offering bunches of flowers.

By this, our sixth day on the waterways, Matushka – Little Mother Volga, as the Russians like to call her – has carried us to the territory of ancient Moscow. It’s a busy river, the more so since being linked via canals to Russia’s five seas. Stalin’s plan succeeded in bringing water to his capital, Moscow. Volga waters now irrigate the steppe regions of the south and reservoirs, such as at Rybinsk, facilitate hydroelectricity production.


That said, the scale of the damming is now generally considered to be hugely detrimental to the environment. There has also been the cultural loss. And, as if to emphasise this point, the bell tower of yet another flooded church gives the scene an extra edge as it takes form, surrounded by swirling waters.

From an economic perspective, too, the amount of electricity generated is considered insufficient to warrant the level of damage caused by Stalin’s ambitious projects. The works involved seven concrete and eight earthen dams, plus eight hydroelectric power stations, as well as new locks, bridges and pump stations.

As we approach Moscow’s Northern River Passenger Terminal, we gain an impression of Stalin’s monumental style. This sprawling terminal must have been very grand in its time – a showcase structure to mark the completion of the Moscow Canal in 1937. Today, though, its neo-classical grandeur is fading, along with the dictator’s reputation.

Our voyage on Viking Surkov has transported us in luxury from St Petersburg to Moscow, the capital of New Russia and a centre of many modern-day excesses. The stimulating talks on board Viking Surkov helped fill any gaps in our knowledge about events that took place throughout these extraordinary eras. We’ve been well-prepared for the sights of the Old Moscow, too. And so the monuments belonging to the ancient capital conjure up a sense of the 16th century, when Ivan the Terrible ruled as Tzar, and Moscow was one of the largest cities in the world.

Viking River Cruises offers Russian cruise/tour itineraries with stopovers in St Petersburg and Moscow at each end. Its 13-day ‘Waterways of the Tzars’ itinerary is described here.