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Voyage up the Volga. Costume-clad hosts enchant passengers on cruise packed with folklore and national history

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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.

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