Catherine Palace was a gift from Peter the Great to his low-born mistress, the "Russian Cinderella," who became his wife and, after his death in 1725, Empress Catherine I (not to be confused with Catherine the Great, whose reign began 37 years later). They produced six illegitimate children, then married and had five more. A daughter, one of only two children to survive childhood, became Empress Elizabeth I.
Vodka and Bolsheviks
BACK in St. Petersburg, we drove past a nondescript former city hall. Outside was a statue of Vladimir Lenin, one of several still standing in the city. His right hand points the way to Communism. "Today," Natasha said, "we say he's signaling for a taxi."
In the cathedral at the Peter and Paul Fortress, we saw the tombs of the ill-fated Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra and three of their five children. Their remains were reinterred here in 1998, 80 years after the family was slain by Bolshevik revolutionaries.
Despite DNA tests that left little doubt, some Russians are not convinced that these are the Romanov remains. Others dispute the identity of one of the two children whose remains have never been found. One is the 13-year-old heir to the throne, Alexei; the other is thought to be Grand Duchess Maria.
But some people prefer to believe that it is Maria who's interred here, that her fabled sister Anastasia escaped the assassins.
"Forget about all the fairy tales," Natasha said. "Anastasia is buried here."
The next day, I joined the optional excursion to Peterhof, the summer palace built by Peter the Great to rival France's Versailles and rebuilt after the war. I'd visited before and remembered it as grander; it seemed to need a bit of sprucing up. But the Great Cascade of dazzling water effects and the gilded bronze figures in the gardens are something to behold.
There were no disappointments at the Winter Palace, which houses the State Hermitage Museum. It was stunning, from the minute we ascended the sweeping state staircase. Inside, we feasted on Old Masters and French Impressionists. Outside, hawkers were selling "McLenin" T-shirts emblazoned with golden arches.
As we set sail from St. Petersburg on our third day, life onboard settled into a pleasant routine. There were bountiful buffet breakfasts, lectures about the imperfect democracy that is modern-day Russia, optional vodka and caviar tastings.
The two Thomases, our German executive chef and our Austrian sous chef, turned out good continental meals with Russian touches. (One night we had dark, gamey Siberian reindeer.) "With what they have to work with, they do an outstanding job," passenger Charles Walter Boise, former manager of L.A.'s Jonathan Club, said after touring the archaic galley.
As we glided along heavily forested riverbanks, we passed through locks and saw small villages of wooden houses. Our first stop was Mandrogy, which isn't a village as much as a shopping opportunity. The main attraction? A vodka museum.
Of our four port calls during six days on the waterways, I most enjoyed the cold and windy island of Kizhi in Lake Onega. It's an open-air museum of wooden buildings, most relocated from other villages. The remarkable Church of Transfiguration, built here in 1714, has 22 cupolas faced with silvery aspen.
On our fifth day of sailing, we reached Yaroslavl, a city of 600,000 on the Volga. First stop was the icon-rich 1650 Church of Elijah the Prophet, where we were treated to an a cappella rendition of "Song of the Volga Boatmen" by six black-clad conservatory students. It was a lovely moment.
We saw several newlywed couples emerging from flower-decked cars, the brides in long white gowns. Larissa explained that, after saying their vows, newlyweds walk to the Park of Peace to place flowers at the eternal flame honoring the city's World War II dead. "Every family in Russia was affected," she said.
One day, we disembarked at Uglich, population 37,000, known to historians as the city where Dmitri, the young epileptic son of Ivan the Terrible, died. In one of those intrigues with which Russian history abounds, the 2-year-old prince was banished with his mother to Uglich after Ivan's death in 1584. At age 9, the boy was found with his throat cut, perhaps on orders from Boris Godunov, de facto czar during the reign of Dmitri's brother, Feodor. This started Russia's "Time of Troubles," and things didn't settle down until the first Romanov czar came to power in 1613.
Not far from the Church of St. Demetrius on the Blood, which sits on the site where the body of Dmitri (who was canonized) was found, stood a booth where, for 100 rubles (about $3.50), tourists could dress as a czar or empress and be photographed.
Osama and Bush dolls