I was one of 50 mostly "seasoned" travelers who signed up with Smithsonian Journeys for a trip from Moscow to Saint Petersburg on the Sergei Kirov (named for a well-liked Communist Party leader) that is now run by Viking River Cruises under a joint venture between a Russian and a Swiss firm. Its sister ship, the Viking Pakhomov, was recently rated by Richard Loehn, who pretty well covered the itinerary, so I will focus more on the voyage itself.
The ship, like so many of those now plying the same route (Moscow Canal, Volga River, Lake Rybinsk, Lake Onega, Svir River, Lake Ladoga, and Neva River), was designed and built in East Germany in the late 1980s. It has been refurbished a few times since, and both it and the Pakhomov are marketed solely to the English-speaking market. (The other 150 passengers on our ship were either Brits, or Americans who'd booked their trip directly with the line). All personnel who had contact with passengers spoke at least enough English to handle their jobs. The cruise manager, Michael Bordokoff, is an American of Russian descent, with an ideal personality for that function. The waitresses and female bartenders looked really young, with flawless complexions and most of them with natural blond hair.
The ship has three passenger decks, a library, two dining rooms (open seating but you are assigned to either one or the other, and there's just one sitting, with the exact timing adapted to the tour schedule), two bars, a sun deck, and a few other deck areas for sitting or fitness walking. There are NO elevators, which means that people who have trouble climbing stairs should probably not take this trip - also the means of exiting the ship can pose minor hazards - Smithsonian made sure to warn us of all this in advance. The gift shop is barely worth mentioning. There is NO source of between-meal snacks and NO availability at all of news bulletins or even weather forecasts. The satellite phone for outbound calls didn't work. One is truly incommunicado.
Most of the cabins are 90 sq. ft., with narrow twin beds covered with a blanket in a spotless white duvet. Many in our group regarded these accommodations as very small - some had tried to obtain larger ones but there are relatively few of them. All cabins are outside, have plenty of storage space, and a small refrigerator. Cabins are immaculately clean, used towels replaced twice daily, and the temperature is individually controlled (the a/c can be deafening, though). The shower system is unique, clever and a source of jokes, and hard for people accustomed to paying for more luxurious quarters to adapt to.
It's important to remember that this is a river cruise through a part of the world that has only recently opened up to tourists, and one should not expect a traditional "cruise ship." And, by the way, we almost never felt the motion of the boat. The ship has a draft of only 10 feet, and the waterways were not deep. We truly "glided!"
The food was excellent. The executive chef is Swiss, as is the hotel manager. Early continental breakfast in the forward bar, slightly later full breakfast buffet and to-order fare in the dining rooms. Four-course lunches and dinners (salad or salad buffet, soup, entree, dessert). Always two choices of entree and dessert. Portions modest but satisfying, and everything very artistically arranged on the plates. I suppose the only criticism might be that there isn't enough "typically Russian" food. Most passengers get all their meals on board or in a snack box taken on the tours, so there's not much chance to eat a meal in a Russian venue.
All passengers go out on shore excursions on buses with good guides provided by the line - often substituted at intervals by guides that must by law be hired locally or at specific sites. The Smithsonian Journeys group had a slightly different itinerary that included three lunches in typical Russian restaurants that cater to tour groups. There is also an on-board lecturer (Russian woman) who was very well liked by all the passengers - a dynamic speaker, covering both history and current Russian politics. Group lessons in Russian were also given. There are a few days "sailing" when no land tours are taken, so these events are welcome. There's some interest in watching the ship go through many locks.
In the evenings (except in St. Petersburg when there were tours to ballet, a canal cruise and a folklore show) a combo or pianist played in the bar, or there was a "crew show" and a "passenger talent show" plus a good folklore show. We also had - at extra cost, a caviar tasting and a vodka tasting, on separate nights. The vodka tasting especially was a lot of fun, as a lot of Russian jokes were told (in English). On caviar night - actually held before dinner - we learned a lot about the various types and why they're so expensive.
Daily handouts gave full information about the stops we'd make, a detailed schedule for every day.
It seemed to me that there should have been more announcements about places of interest that the ship was passing - I can recall only two or three landmarks that were pointed out. We did not see much wildlife at all, and of course we were traveling in some very lightly populated areas so the scenery did not vary much.
We stopped at Uglich (home of the famous watch factory - sold for $20 each), Yaroslavl and Kostroma, and Kizhi. The first three are thriving towns/cities in which I'd liked to have lingered a bit to observe the locals after the obligatory visits to churches and monasteries. Kizhi is more of a "museum" and not inhabited except during the tourist season.
This was a great way to see some of Russia - I'd recommend a post-cruise or pre-cruise day or two in either Moscow or Saint Petersburg if you really want to see either place more thoroughly. The cruise that starts in Moscow really gives it short shrift, focusing more on three days in Saint Petersburg. The cruise that starts in Saint Petersburg gives two days there and, I heard, a bit more time in Moscow. Always work with a travel agent because of the need to obtain visas that specify EXACTLY the days you will arrive in Russia and leave Russia - also you may have to obtain an "invitation" from a hotel that you plan to stay in before or after your cruise. The "invitation" from the cruise line won't cover those days. Reports I heard indicate this takes some time and effort.
Shopping: People seemed to be particularly interested in amber jewelry. There certainly were a lot of beautiful items at varying prices. I bought mainly nesting dolls and Christmas ornaments, plus two watches. Russians haven't yet caught on to Americans' interest in t-shirts and coffee mugs. I also bought the tourist books, beautifully illustrated w/photos of buildings and interiors that one could never take on one's own.
Dress: Smithsonian guests, female, were advised to take a skirt and also a head covering in order to visit certain of the churches. The skirts are not really necessary, we found. Pants are OK, as Russians have become resigned to the outfits favored by tourists. The main prohibition is against shorts and short dresses/skirts. Head coverings are needed from time to time.
Photography: A modest fee - no more than US$3 and usually less - may be charged for use of your camera in certain churches or museums - your guide will tell you. Make your decision when you enter because it's hard to go back and find the permit-seller after your group has passed through the ticket takers. A higher fee may be charged for videotaping. Just remember these churches need to spend a lot on reconstruction and preservation and the extra money presumably will help.