10/05/2011 01:31 EDT | Updated 12/05/2011 05:12 EST

The New Russia Is Much Like the Old Russia

In this first of a four-part series, veteran journalist Peter Worthington -- former Moscow Bureau Chief for the Toronto Telegram in the 1960 -- recounts his first journey back to post-Communist Russia, from which he returned last month.

It was sort of a voyage of discovery of the "new" Russia -- a Russia that has abandoned communism, is entrepreneurial, is free(d) from ideology, is outspoken and increasingly western oriented.

That was the intent.

This trip -- 1,800 km down the Neva river from St. Petersburg, across Lake Ladoga and down the Volga and ending at Moscow -- started off more mindful or the "old" Russia than the new.

The Russian cruise ship, Volga Dream, pride of the fleet, built in 1959 and completely refurbished in 2007, advertised Internet service. Sadly, for me, it rejected the Apple computer products to which I am addicted..

My wife, Yvonne, had the same trouble with Apple in China, which for some inexplicable reason is product-non-grata in either country.

Rogers' vaunted cell phone service didn't work either.

"Typically Soviet," I grumbled to someone, more in resignation than anger. Then, it turned out, our boat's electrical outlets were recessed and wouldn't accept the converter to allow access to North American plugs. Panicked visits to St. Petersburg's version of the Gum department store eased that situation, but had no effect on the Apple impasse.

As someone who lived in the USSR in the mid-1960s, this feeling of deju vu blotted out (temporarily, at least) the positive changes in Russia. Even the ship's public computer was an exercise in frustration; it didn't work either. More Soviet era déjà vu -- advertising something that doesn't exist.

Otherwise, the trip was well-organized.

It was sponsored by various university alumnae associations -- mainly Carleton and Duke universities. The Waterways of Russia firm specializes in taking passengers from St Petersburg through Russia's rivers and lake system down to Moscow, and then down the mighty Volga to visit towns, churches, historic sites en route -- with occasion lectures by experts.

(Blog continues after slideshow)

The New Russia Is Much Like the Old Russia-from-mt-192544

Each city or village en route has its own guide, and our St. Petersburg guide -- Natasha -- was a gem who, unlike the old Intourist guides, never tried to sugarcoat anything and spoke her mind - which was candid, wise and often irreverent.

When you get into the historic central part of St. Petersburg (which used to be Leningrad, and before that, Petrograd), it's truly is one of the magnificent cities of the world, largely because of its architecture and massive buildings and endless churches with golden onion-shaped domes.

Each side of the river Neva offers entrancing views of the city -- no skyscrapers, green and pink-painted buildings, a horrendous history.

To those familiar with "Soviet" Russia, it's startling to see the billboards advertising Western cars, Samsung electronics, Subway fast food, Italian clothes, Paris fashions. Quite a change from the Moscow I remember where billboards advertised "Glory to Soviet cement."

Churches which once were museums of atheism, are now bustling with believers and worshippers who blend happily (one hopes) with photograph-snapping tourists. Orthodox priests who once were suspect KGB informers, are now advocates of Jesus.

In Peter and Paul Cathedral, a group of harmonizing folk singers dressed as priests or noviates, sang (beautifully) in hopes you'd buy their CDs. This, next to the tombs of the Romanovs, once revered in Russia, then turned into un-persons by the Bolsheviks, and today rehabilitated.

In a special alcove are the remains of the last Romanovs -- Tsar Nicholas II, Tsaritsa Alexandra, and their five children, all rehabilitated in 1998 from their massacre by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

In several golden-domed churches and cathedrals, more quartets of folk-singers would materialize near the icons, to sing and (hopefully) to sell CDs of their renditions. Theological entrepreneurship, one suspects.

St. Isaac's Cathedral (billed as the world's largest) has been re-converted from a museum under the Soviets, back to being a functioning church. One side is devoted to selling souvenirs, complete with an ATM machine, and electronic protectors at the door against possible theft.

A strange statue of Peter the Great, done long after his death and iconization by the Soviets, shows this driven man as having a huge body and a pinhead. They'd have never dared this when he lived (1672-1725) -- the guy who dragged Russia into the then-modern age, founded the navy, and got rid of beards by cutting off heads.

St. Petersburg is a windy, rainy, with only 60 days a year of sunshine. As Natasha quipped: "St. Petersburg's weather is nine months of expectation followed by three months of disappointment."

It now plays second fiddle to Moscow.