Russia: Yo heave ho on the Volga

What can a man do when his love is unrequited? Take a boat down the Volga. After all, what is a Russian river for but escaping heartache?

It was fleeting summertime by the Volga river, and I was in love with Maria. I was also in Kostroma.

It was fleeting summertime by the Volga river, and I was in love with Maria. I was also in Kostroma. It was hard to believe that I had spent a whole week in this old Tsarist town, traipsing overgrown pavements, perspiring under giant skies. And wasn't all this grass growing at a preternatural rate? Perhaps speed was in the nature of Russian herbage, given the certainty that frosts would kill it all within weeks.

The whole of Kostroma, with its ancient, off-colour trading arcades, seemed to have exploded in undergrowth. There beside the brown waters of the Volga, I expected to find horses being saddled up for journeys into Tartary.

Instead, here was Maria, pale and serious. "Of course, I am not planning to spend the rest of my life in this dull little place," she told me. Nor, apparently, was she impressed by the fact that the dynasty of the Romanov Tsars had originated here.

Later she pointed at a low concrete wall overlooking the river. "This is where we usually sit," she sighed. And we sat. There was nothing else to do. So what now? Where could this possibly lead, beyond days, and more days, waking up in an old hotel room with peeling wallpaper, while receptionists downstairs knitted socks and waitresses in the breakfast hall looked affronted when asked to bring coffee? I was in Kostroma. I was in love. But right now I could only hold my head in my hands, listening to thunder and incessant rain, beside a dank skyline of unkempt trees and storm-stained tower blocks.

Maria, too, was losing heart. When I called her the next morning, she gave me several plausible reasons why we could not meet that day. "The Ipatevsky monastery?" she yawned. "Isn't that your kind of thing? Can't you go by yourself? The frescoes are startling." I imagined her hands dropping effortlessly at her side. Her eyes would close in a sceptical smile. She was the most startling thing in Kostroma. Other than suicide. In other words, I only had one choice: to get on to that river, and out of this town, fast.

What was a Russian river for, after all, if not for escaping hopeless loves?

According to Chekhov, the Volga put gloom into people's souls. "Whoever is born on the Volga carries her image through life," added Trotsky. Perhaps, then, the Volga would continue to lash me with images of the beautiful, unobtainable Maria, no matter how far down its length I travelled. I hoped so.

Every day, one saw the boats drifting past, southbound for Astrakhan and Rostov, or northbound for Moscow. And at Kostroma's dilapidated boat station, one afternoon, I found a vessel for Kazan.

"You do whatever you want," said Maria with a fixed smile, her lashes glittering in the sun. "Yes, I'll do whatever I want," I replied, handing my fare to a drunken sailor, securing for myself a private cabin, with a sink and a window. After all: what more than this (I now asked myself) could a man want from life? I would travel to the south, down Europe's longest river. I would submerge my emotional heart within that of Russia itself. Turgenev or Pushkin would have done the same. Probably.

Only later, on deck – after I had watched Maria, clutching her skirts, disappear in a shimmer of gold up the bank and into the trees – did I realise that the atmosphere on the Yakov Sverdlov might be stretching my penance a little too far. Turning round, I got the feeling that I had blundered into a Soviet sanatorium.

Here we were, floating away from the station with a sinister, disembodied voice crackling from the bridge. A mournful silence was about to descend. Just a few old men and women with sandals on their feet and mushrooms of silver hair on their heads were shuffling about. One minute we were in farmland scattered with shacks and rickety wooden houses; the next we would be in forest-choked wilderness stretching to distant green horizons.

Only the safety instructions, pinned to a wall below deck, featuring a man with tousled hair and a stiff upturned collar like a romantic poet, looked interesting. Otherwise, there was nothing to do, except pace the narrow decks, or gloomy corridors occupied by cleaners in turquoise aprons and peroxided hair.

Even the bar was closed, which shocked me. At dinner a polite waitress asked if I wanted tea or coffee with my meal. It was as though we were here to escape, not into drunkenness, but from it. "Please," I begged. "Give me vodka."

So I ate and drank alone, while oil-smooth waters fanned out in silence behind us. The white cupolas of a lonely monastery came gliding by. A tiny rowing boat passed in front. I saw those sandy banks turn golden in the evening sunlight.

Were we, or were we not, sailing through the ruins of a dead empire? From time to time, empty factories came in and out of view, surrounded by cranes rusted into immobility. And yet here on board, pedantic old rules still operated. One announcement spluttered at 8am, telling us to get up. Then came another at 11pm, when the sky was still streaked with polar light, telling us to go to bed.

One morning, from a wooden chair on deck, I tried asking a man in a tracksuit and plastic sandals if he had done this trip before. "Seventeen times," he mumbled, as the boat pulled into one of the locks built along the river. Huge machinery began towering up around us, including weed-clogged ladders and slabs of concrete so mighty that only Soviet Man could have built them. On shore, men stood beside motorcycles with sidecars of Second World War vintage. One old woman in a headscarf with a sickle over one shoulder was walking along the towpath. She was so close she could have stepped on to the boat. "Morning," she said. The old man beside me suddenly sprang into life. "What's the name of this place?" he burst out from his deck chair. "It's been a pleasure!" we all called out, when the lock doors finally opened and the boat began to inch forward.

Kazan, a few hours later, was quietly frying in the sun when the Yakov Sverdlov arrived. I seemed to be the only passenger disembarking. The sultriness of Kostroma, here, had been replaced by a desert heat. I no longer knew where I was. Could a city, 500 miles east of Moscow, be considered a part of Europe? But perhaps it was. Grand 19th-century buildings, with towers and slate roofs, stood on street corners. At night, young people began walking the streets, listening to live music and drinking beer – but the Russian winter would smother even these slight pleasures in a few weeks' time.

Five more days on a boat, or two on a train: that was the choice I faced when considering the next leg of my journey down the river, to Volgograd. Thinking back to the sanatorium, I chose the train.

On board, the next day, I promptly found myself in a compartment with a huge, blond, military man, who was only 23 years old, but wore a loaded gun in a halter strapped round his shoulders.

"Don't worry, I'm an off-duty body-guard," he told me. He was from Ulyanovsk, of all places, now renamed Simbirsk: Lenin's home town, a few more stops down the river. He had been in special forces in the Russian army. "How can I help you?" he kept asking. "You want the window open? You need tea?"

But when the window stuck in its frame, and when the movement of the train had slowed to a gentle bounce, his blond features sagged grey with anxiety. "You see, I was born in Lenin's home town," he kept sighing. "And what can I do about that?" It was as if he were talking about a wayward uncle who had taken to crime. Lenin, for him, was still slightly bigger than Russia. And now, whether Lenin stayed in Red Square, or got buried, or suffered anything else, was a great worry and a responsibility.

No matter. The next day, a family from Dagestan moved in. There was dad (friendly), his 17-year-old daughter Fareeda (attractive) and 15-year-old son Tamerlane (smart). There was also a swarthy man from Azerbaijan who had fallen in love with Fareeda, and who later explained to me how he felt about her. "What do you reckon about that empty compartment down there?" he asked.

"Are you crazy?"

Everyone, it transpired, had spent the previous eight months working in the frozen oilfields of northern Siberia, and now wanted to enjoy a hot summer in the Caucasus. "My sister has set fire to him," Tamerlane explained, as if in sympathy for the Azerbaijani's condition.

We sat around for hours, drinking tea. People kept buying me pieces of cake. We picnicked on strawberries. Tamerlane gave me old Soviet coins in exchange for English ones. Fareeda spent three hours making up her eyelashes and looking dark and beautiful. This was the Russian south.

Rolling across the steppe into Volgograd at dusk, I glimpsed the gigantic statue of Mother Russia from the train, marking the point of the German surrender at Stalingrad on 31 January 1943. We seemed to have entered another, stranger, world. I disembarked under a hot night sky and soon found myself in a magnificent hotel room, a Stalinist palace, with parquet flooring, a ceiling 6m high, and a balcony overlooking the city's central square.

But the strangest thing was to have the place completely to myself. Walking the corridors I met no one. All I could hear from the square, far below, were outbreaks of funereal music. Events unspeakably terrible had once happened in this city. Now it felt as though the Soviet regime lived on; as if this whole hotel ­ or maybe this whole city ­ was no more than a ghost. One could only suppose that my journey down the Volga was coming to some kind of meaningful conclusion.

To Astrakhan there remained another 24 hours, by boat. From deck, on that last day, I would see wide sandbanks and cliffs of loamy soil crumbling into the water. In this heat, it would not have surprised me to see water buffalo breaking the surface. Surely I was coming to the end of Europe now? So it seemed. Astrakhan, to judge by its name and proximity to the Caucasus, promised oriental costumes and a mêlée of peoples and tongues. And on my first night in town, I could almost believe it, to judge by the people carousing, late, by the shores of the Volga. A Middle-Eastern spin had entered the pop music. The local mobsters sat over shashlik and tea under trellises.

From my room, I called Maria in Kostroma, to tell her that I had reached the end of the Volga. "You mean you are still in Russia?" She sounded very far away.

"Of course."

"What have you been doing?"

I told her how I had come 2,000 miles along the river that protected Muscovy, that nourished and inspired the nation, that saved it from fascism...

"I'm glad you are enjoying it," interrupted Maria, with the voice of one who did not intend to be so easily defined. And suddenly, on that hot night, a presentiment of Russian winter came blowing through my heart.

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