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Russia: Where Bigger Is Still Better

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When my wife suggested we go to Russia for a two-week trip on a luxury boat down the Volga river to Moscow, I momentarily envisaged sunny autumn days lounging on the deck, admiring scenery and leisurely sipping vodka or pivo (beer) with snacks of caviar.

Dream on, buster.

While the Volga Dream was a fine boat, food terrific, staff helpful, cabins small but serviceable, the "sunny autumn days" were mostly overcast, and the boat's progress mostly at night.

Daytimes were spent scurrying through churches, museums, graveyards, seeing endless icons, and then moving on to the next site, by bus or on foot.

When I was a little boy, I couldn't wait to go to museums and bugged my parents to take me. But the minute I entered one I became instantly exhausted.

That characteristic has never changed.

I still like museums, but find various exhibits immensely tiring -- mentally, if not physically. Especially if they are church icons -- see one and you've seen them all.

On the second day of our 1,800 km boat trip from St. Petersburg through rivers and waterways to Moscow, we tackled the Hermitage in the morning -- one of the largest museums in the world with 1,000 rooms in some six connected palaces, filled with treasures -- and Catherine's Palace in the afternoon.

Even for hardy museum-ophiles, that's overdosing.

Russians are obsessed with size. If something is big, it's good. If it's oversized, it's better. Buildings in St. Petersburg and Moscow are huge and tend to the baroque. Visually impressive, albeit much the same. One finds oneself longing for something small and private.

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Russia: Where Bigger Is Still Better
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While the Hermitage is, well, the Hermitage and replete with paintings by virtually every famous artist in history (even two Leonardo da Vinci paintings, when only 15 known Leonardo paintings exist).

The piece de resistance of museums in Russia is the re-creation of the Amber Room in the baroque palace of Catherine the Great in Tsarkoe Selo (Tsar's Village). As might be expected, Tsarkoe Selo and its gardens are huge and sprawling, with Catherine's palace gorgeous to look at -- pale blue and white with gold trimmings, and gold onion domes atop -- but exhausting to walk through. More Russian gigantism.

The original amber room was dismantled and purloined by the Germans in WWII, it's fate unknown to this day. But Russians, being Russians, created a revised Amber Room -- small amber pieces meticulously fitted and blended together in workshops attached to the museum.

And it really is spectacular and worth seeing. But for the small boy, now an old gaffer, it was still exhausting.

As far as I'm concerned, the most spectacular moment of our trip was not the Hermitage, not the Kremlin, not Red Square, but the wooden Cathedral of Transfiguration on Kizhi Island in the middle of nowhere. First built in 1583 and then restored, the cathedral is all wood (shingles of the dome are hard aspen wood), with the whole thing built without using nails. Beautiful, it's like a huge Lego construction, with all parts fitting perfectly.

Another unusual building is Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The original church was torn down by the Bolsheviks, to be replaced by a huge Palace of the Soviets. Construction was stopped with the approach of WWII, leaving a huge hole in the ground. In 1958 the excavation pit was turned into the largest outdoor, heated swimming pool in the world.

When I lived in Moscow in the mid-1960s as a journalist, I'd occasionally swim in the pool in winter -- fog from the warm water making visibility impossible. At the time I was warned by Russians not to go there alone, because a serial killer, hidden by the perpetual fog, had already cut the throats of some eight bathers and left their bodies on an island in the middle of the pool.

Not a word of this ever appeared in the Soviet media -- only good news and anti-Western propaganda was acceptable in those days. But the rumour was rampant on the street. Maybe there was a serial killer, maybe there wasn't. We'll never know. In 1995 the Cathedral replaced the swimming pool. Today it's a cultural attraction for tourists.

Times have changed. In one issue of today's English language Moscow Times there was a report that a Russian agent in Turkey had murdered three suspect Chechen terrorists. Such a story would never have been published in Soviet times.

Another report told of a fishing vessel colliding with a Russian nuclear submarine -- whose the captain was off the bridge and the whole crew drunk. This on a nuclear sub!

Three separate terrorist bomb attacks in the Black Sea republic of Dagestan killed four and wounded 44 policemen -- something that would have been hushed-up in the past.

So Russia is changing, is opening up, is evolving. And the process is speeding up. Anyone interested in learning more can Google "Volga Dream" and get prices and itinerary.

When I commented earlier about being exhausted by museums, and racing to keep up with guides who have encyclopedic knowledge and move on faster than you can take photographs, perhaps I'm not alone.

On the last day of our Russian adventure, it was announced that one of the participants had died during the night. He was my age. One museum too many, perhaps.

I think I know how he felt.