A VOLGA River cruise offers a most luxurious and unhurried opportunity to get acquainted with the Soviet Union, past and present. The river is a ribbon that acts as the cultural, as well as physical, boundary between Europe and Asia. The Russian revolutionary tradition was born along its shores along with Lenin, whose birthplace, Ulyanovsk, is beside the river. His statues and billboard-sized portraits dwarf the central squares of every town and city we encountered.
Like the Chinese, the Russians make sure tourists see as much as possible. Typical bus tours for Volga cruise-boat passengers include visits to youth camps, circuses, hospitals, day-care centers, museums, and monuments - especially monuments. Commemorative markers tend to dominate the country's parks and highways.
Shifting scenes of the Volga
The Volga itself has a singular beauty, yet an enormous variety of scenery. Unlike the Mississippi, the Nile, the Rhine, or the Amazon, it rarely narrows, except for access to 13 locks and the place where it diverges from the Don into a narrow canal. Most traffic on the river consists of hydrofoils, boats hauling logs, and freighters marked with the ubiquitous red hammer and sickle.
In some stretches, the Volga is so wide that its vague, distant shores appear as mirages over large, silver expanses of water. Fishermen and swimmers use its sloping concrete embankments for their pleasures. In some places, craggy yellow cliffs, similar to those along the Yugoslav coast, mark its edges.
But sometimes one sees verdant hills, birch forests, and small ``Doctor Zhivago''-like villages, with their clusters of colored ``gingerbread'' houses. Farmhouses and barns of unpainted, weather-washed gray wood make one think of the sets for ``Fiddler on the Roof.''
In contrast, ornate two- and three-storied Victorian boathouses of mint green, electric blue, and garish pink with white gingerbread-trimmed windows resemble frosted cakes.
Most of the locks are very elegant, with walls bordered by gilded Parisian-like street lamps. The approach at twilight can be a memorable experience. After the boat arrives between towering walls in the lock, the water slowly rises. Then - as if they were scrolling downward on a television screen - flowers, trees, and houses suddenly appear, with rooftops last. When the lock opens, the boat sails out into the widened river, whose shores are lit with twinkling lights, and sudden cool breezes fill the decks.
Ten days on the S.S. Alexander Pushkin is considered the highlight of the International Cruise Company's three-week ``Lands of the Golden Horde'' tour of Russia. And this traveler would agree that the charms of the floating hotel win out over the exotic attractions of Leningrad, Moscow, Armenia, and Georgia.
The 1,100-mile Volga cruise is not a typical fun-and-sun voyage, of course. Activities are controlled by Intourist, the national tourist agency, with set hours for relaxing, swimming, and entertainment.
Our group was enchanted from the start. That was when Clavdia, the diminutive entertainment director for our cruise, clad in a folk costume, welcomed everyone aboard with the traditional cakelike bread and salt. Spirited music by a three-piece combo accompanied passengers up the gangplank of the white, Austrian-built vessel.
Once on board, we discovered identical picture-windowed staterooms, decorated in cheerful prismatic colors. There was ample room for storage, plus showers and makeup tables. A complete inspection of the ship revealed that all public rooms were equally spotless and attractive.
Service in the dining room was good, but passengers sometimes had to cling to dishes to prevent an over-zealous waitress from whisking them away. The fish, salad, and soup courses, as well as cakes intended for dessert were frequently put upon the table all at one time.
The food was delicate and fresh, featuring such Russian specialties as stuffed cabbage, borsch, blinis, stroganoff, and Siberian stew, as well as vegetarian dishes. Caviar appeared several times, in mounds of red, black, and gray.
Promptly at 7 a.m., a broadcast through cabin loudspeakers opened with recorded sea gulls and folk music, then the tour program for the day, selected news, and an invitation to exercise on the sun deck.
Breakfast, where the starched linen napkins stood at attention, was served promptly at 8.
The pleasures of strolling along the shore, whether through a birch wood or a busy terminal dock, awaited early-risers. In Rostov-on-Don, we found people on the quay to be friendly and smiling and not averse to posing for pictures. Perhaps because it was the holiday season, many of them were indulging in ice cream before 9 a.m.!
As a large pleasure boat docked, a troupe of young ballerinas dressed in tutus performed a welcoming dance for us to an accordionist's music. It was an idyllic scene that diminished the specter of arms races and nuclear tests.
On-board activities included a Russian tea party, where costumed waitresses served the tea from an impressive samovar and passed around chocolate bears and cookies.
Also featured were a blini-tasting party, a passengers' amateur night of entertainment, daily Russian-language lessons, Intourist movies on art and travel in the USSR, and three lectures by Prof. Jonathan Sanders of the Russian Institute of Columbia University.
Mr. Sanders's topics included ``Cossacks and Cowboys'' and ``NATO and Plato,'' and he was always available to answer questions on any facet of Soviet life.
Islands, memorials along the way
The day spent at Don Cossack Island turned out to be a distinctly Russian swimming experience and an opportunity to watch citizens at play. Half-hour troika rides operated by thatch-haired, costumed boys provided a bit of Chekhovian atmosphere.
A distinctive Russian bouillabaisse was served, and everyone got to keep their wooden spoons, painted with folklore figures.
Another island day, this one set aside for relaxation, included a shish kebab picnic as well as swimming. But the highlight was a hilarious King Neptune musical, presented by several of the passengers, under Clavdia's direction. Clavdia didn't speak a word of English, except for the command ``Applowse!'' - to which everyone responded with vigor. Otherwise, she managed to communicate with place cards and her expressive eyes.
Of all the excursions that focused on war memorials and Lenin monuments, the most impressive was Mamayev Hill in Volgograd, the scene of fierce fighting in World War II. Today the hillside is covered with awesome statues, particularly ``Victory,'' a torch-bearing woman who seems to dwarf New York's Statue of Liberty.
Lenin's house in Ulyanovsk contains intriguing artifacts, such as an oil lamp attached to two globes. When lit, the lamp shows the rotation of the moon around the earth. Ulyanovsk is a highlight for the aesthete because of the charming gingerbread houses on the surrounding streets.
The kremlin (walled city) in Kazan, the 700-year-old capital of the Tatar Soviet Socialist Republic, is also filled with architecturally striking buildings, though some might think its star-filled blue onion domes are straight out of Disneyland.
Personal visits, unhurried pace
In addition to sightseeing, there were people-to-people encounters like the Friendship Society party we attended in Togliatti, the visit we made to a youth camp in the birch-forested outskirts of Kazan, and our trip to a day-care center in Ulyanovsk.
These offered enjoyable and valuable opportunities for firsthand knowledge and understanding.
The frequent tours from the ship seemed tranquil in comparison to the pace of sightseeing elsewhere in the world. No one can complain about missing any highlights in the cities we visited, except for the houses of worship.
Among the other sights were Leningrad's Hermitage Museum and Peterhof palace; Moscow's Red Square, Kremlin, and Novo-Devichiy convent; stupendous views of Mt. Ararat; the superb monastery at Garni outside of Yerevan; and the city of Tbilisi, Russia's answer to New Orleans, with its balconied houses interspersed with magnificent baroque palaces, art galleries, and an opera house.
The overwhelming encounters with people and their customs and culture make this a particularly worthy trip. Its chief side benefits were the fostering of a better understanding and a heightened personal awareness of the visitors' more privileged lives at home.
If you go
The International Cruise Center is sponsoring two 20-day Volga River cruises this year aboard the 160-passenger Alexander Pushkin or Maxim Gorky. These tours depart the US on July 18 and Sept. 1. Fares, including all land costs, range from $2,460 to $2,835. Air fare is additional. For reservations, contact your travel agent or the International Cruise Center, 185 Willis Ave., Mineola, New York 11501; 800-221-3254.