A cruise ship sank in the Volga River in heavy weather a few weeks back, with more than 100 lives lost. On the radio I heard President Medvedev vow to banish the antiquated boats that ply Russia’s waterways. A commentator called them “rust buckets,” and a shiver went down my spine.
Eight years ago I went out on the Volga in just such a rust bucket. Looking back, I realize that our excursion to the historic island of Sviyazhsk was memorable not just for the sights we saw but also for the nagging unease I felt about that rickety boat.
On the surface, we were an enthusiastic group—several score Americans and Tatars out for a picnic lunch, followed by Frisbee and volleyball or, for the less energetic, a walking tour of the sparsely populated island. The outing was part of a Tatar-American festival organized by some Americans teaching English in Kazan, capital of Tatarstan, one of the Muslim republics of the Russian Federation.
The festival was intended as a meeting of two cultures. We Americans stayed with Tatar families, and we were each assigned an English-speaking student as our personal interpreter. Our hosts and interpreters joined in some of the festival activities—performances of country music and Tatar folk dancing, a banquet and fashion show, a visit to an English-immersion school, a tour of Old Kazan, and the day trip to Sviyazhsk.
As soon as we boarded, I noticed the absence of the emergency-preparedness overkill that’s standard at home. Most of the Tatars I spoke with had never been out on the river before. But we got caught up in conversations. I remember telling one young man about learning to play the “Song of the Volga Boatmen” on the piano as a kid. He was shortly to leave for Indiana University, and he had clearly done some homework. He asked me whether Indiana was one of the 33 states with Indian reservations.
By the time we docked at the island and climbed a grassy hill, we were hungry. Barbecue, happily, is something the two cultures share, and the local shashlik didn’t disappoint. After lunch I opted for the tour.
The guide explained that Sviyazhsk was settled by Ivan the Terrible in 1551. He arrived with his army and assembled a prefab town made of wooden components as the headquarters from which to prepare his third and successful assault on Kazan. To mark this victory, along with his capture of Astrakhan, Ivan built one of Moscow’s most famous churches: the extravagantly colorful St. Basil’s, now observing its 450th anniversary.
We went into churches with onion domes in various states of disrepair. In one, we saw marks on the inlaid floor made by farm machinery when the building was used as a storage shed in officially atheist Soviet days.
Toward the far end of the island, we rounded a bend and almost bumped into a tall young priest swanning along in full ankle-length black cassock—Alyosha Karamazov come to life. The Assumption Monastery, founded in 1555, was returned to the Orthodox church only in 1997 after a bitter interlude. The guide told us the Bolsheviks used it as a prison. Just now, to check my memory, I looked at a Kazan city website and found this:
Repressions in Sviyazhsk began after 1917. Since 1920s Sviyazhsk became the place of isolation of the prisoners, branch of GULAG. The town became desolated, church relics, historical and cultural monuments were destroyed. Mental hospital was established in the monastery on the island. Only in 1960 Sviyazhsk was named historical and cultural monument of Russia.
Alyosha was the only sign of life near the overgrown monastery, but hardly the prize curiosity of the day. That came in the monastery church, whose brilliant 16th-century frescoes survive. The guide singled out one as “extremely rare in Christian art.” I’ll say: a life-sized robed figure with the head of a dog.
After we trudged back and rejoined the group at the pier, a chance to relax on the boat seemed positively inviting. The return trip left two vivid memories. We’ll pass quickly over the unspeakable condition of the only available restroom aboard and pause rather in the bar, where a spontaneous jam session was going on. In my mind, it’s a golden blur, with a suggestion of smoke in the air and laughter and warm camaraderie. In sharp focus, a dark-haired beauty from South Carolina sits, one leg in a cast propped up on a chair, belting out an earthy “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.”
We steamed back to Kazan without incident; my jitters were for naught—and my web browsing suggests all such may soon be a thing of the past. A causeway now connects Sviyazhsk to the riverbank, and massive renovations are under way at the monastery and churches, designed to make the island a major tourist attraction. Who knows, maybe President Medvedev, moved by those deaths on the Volga, will spur this work, and the rust buckets in turn will pass into history.