Despite political pressures that have created one of the chilliest travel climates in Russia since the Cold War, Viking Truvor's regular "Waterways of the Tsars" river cruises between St. Petersburg and Moscow give Western passengers an in-depth, exceedingly comfortable introduction to the world's largest country.
Built in the former East Germany in 1987 for Soviet vacationers (think bare-bones cabins and bathrooms so small the sink doubled as a shower), the 204-passenger Truvor was renovated from stem to stern in 2013. Like its sister Viking ships sailing in Russia -- Akun, Ingvar and Sineus -- Truvor merges a muted Scandinavian sensibility with a nod to its Russian surroundings. Light woods combine with blue and beige upholstery, and walls are hung with reproductions of vintage Russian maps and posters.
As a pioneer in Russian cruising -- the company owns its ships, rather than leasing them, and has operated there since 1997 -- Viking holds an edge in staff and programming. In addition to local guides, Truvor sails with three Russian tour escorts who provide expert -- and, at times, surprisingly candid -- commentary on the country's rich history and fascinating, complicated present.
Truvor's itinerary includes three days each in St. Petersburg and Moscow, with complimentary guided excursions. The ship docks about an hour's drive outside the city centers, but Viking offers free bus transportation for passengers who want to explore on their own, as well as detailed instructions on how to access the cities' excellent subway systems.
In between the major cities, Truvor winds through a web of rivers, canals and lakes (including Ladoga and Onega, Europe's largest), with scenery that ranges from wild to suburban. Highlights include a stop at remote Kizhi Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its wooden, onion-domed churches built without nails, and the "Golden Ring" city of Uglich, where passengers stop for homemade moonshine and conversation at the home of a local resident.