At times today I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland–as though I’d suddenly gone through a warp in reality and was in another place and time.
Getting off the modern Scenic Tsar at a deserted dock, I passed through a gateway and found myself walking an idyllic dirt path lined with birch trees whose falling leaves were turning the ground into a golden carpet.
It’s the main route from shore to the town of Vytegra (pronounced witty-graw), whose population numbers tell a story. Population in 1989: 12,900. Population today: 10,400. And even though it’s Sunday afternoon, I’m the only person on Lenin Street, the main drag in town.
It was a stop that wasn’t on the original itinerary of Scenic Tsar on its river voyage from Moscow to St. Petersburg. We had to skip a previous port and now we were running ahead of our scheduled time to enter a lock that would take us from the Volga River onto the huge Lake Onega.
So Scenic Tsar pulled into an available dock and passengers got the chance to go ashore for a few hours to see a place that rarely gets visited by Russians even from neighboring cities, let alone foreign tourists.
It proved to be a fascinating glimpse at a town that remains little changed since the days of the Tsars a century ago. Its residential side streets are still unpaved and so rutted you couldn’t easily get a horse cart, let alone a car to many of the homes built of hand hewn logs and decorated with merry carvings.
Those that are still occupied are immaculately kept and have almost-obligatory dogs in their gardens keeping watch on cabbage patches and lines of laundry hung out to dry.
If these quaint log homes were picked up and moved to a resort community somewhere else they might bring a fortune, but sadly half of them have been long ago abandoned and are near collapse. Their gardens have become overgrown with weeds and remarkably pretty patches of wild flowers.
Bicycles outnumber cars and those cars that are on the road tend to be Communist-era relics like Ladas, Moskovichs and Zaporozhets. If you don’t know what they are, think knock-offs of designs popular in U.S. and European cars in the 1950s and 60s.
There are reasons Vytegra is becoming a ghost town. A shipyard that made the place famous in the days of Peter the Great closed a century and a half ago. Then the railroad bypassed the town and the local logging industry fell into decline. To top it off, an iconic onion domed church that was the city’s landmark was destroyed by fire in 1963. So even today, the road from the highway into town is only partially paved.
I enjoyed the time-capsule quality of wandering the back lanes and trying out with local residents the few phrases of Russian that I’d learned on the ship on our first week. I wish I actually had enough Russian or they enough English to explain what life must be like here in the winter, especially since the homes don’t seem to have insulation and only single panes of glass on their windows.
The vast stacks of fire wood and the rough woolly long johns hanging on some of the clothes lines give some hint of how they try to stay warm when temperatures dip to minus 40.
Vytegra does have one claim to fame these days and I’d saved it for last. In an attempt to try to kick start some tourist interest in the town, the local government set up a relic from the Cold War alongside the dock. And it’s an eye catcher.
The jet black hull of submarine B-440 makes it look like some sort of exotic whale that washed up on shore. But it’s a real Russian Navy submarine that had just gone through three years of renovation before it was declared surplus in the 1990s and kept in perfect repair until it was sailed here. It’s appropriate to visit in now too because it was October and it recalled the Sean Connery film The Hunt for Red October.
Tours are free—but be warned it’s not for the claustrophobic.
The B in its name stands for bolshaya (large) but it feels anything but large inside. One of more than 50 Foxtrot class submarines powered by diesel-electric engines built in the Cold War era, this one did service in the Mediterranean and Baltic and unbelievably carried a crew of 80. Where did they put them all?
The space inside is more like passageways than rooms and the sailors must have been very slender to be able to pass each other between all the dials and valves that seem to cover every wall. Even the toilets sit amid jumbles of pipes and cables
There are the classic red stars with their hammer and sickle logos on the ends of each of the torpedo tubes. A crew photo shows stern cadets and a jut-jawed captain with a bushy mustache and in one small side room a mannequin sits in the place where the radar officer must have had lonely eight hour shifts watching a tiny screen.
This was definitely not a pleasure ship. I found it spooky, but fascinating.
And it made me appreciate all the more getting back on the Scenic Tsar and sitting in a lounge with big picture windows as we sailed off to more adventures on our Russian river cruise.