You could actually get from St Petersburg to Moscow by water. Stalin arranged the 900-mile route in the 1930s, to make the capital a port and provide a source of drinking water and hydroelectricity. Rivers, canals and reservoirs were linked up, along with Europe's two biggest lakes, Ladoga and Onega. Naturally, nothing stood in Uncle Joe's way.
Crime and punishment is a rough old business in Russia. Take the case of the cathedral bell in Uglich, on the Volga. It rang out in 1591 to warn the people that the tsar's son Dmitri, who lived in the town, was being murdered. Once the suspected killer, Boris Godunov, became tsar himself he ripped its tongue out, had it flogged, and sent it into exile in Siberia for centuries. At least it missed the episode when Peter the Great had all the town's bells melted down for cannons to fight the Swedes.
But respect for the church has returned to the new Russia, as you can find on the cruise along its inland waterways. Uglich's bell has long been back in town in honourable retirement, its clapper restored.
The revival of religion was apparent all along the rivers. Some churches have gone forever - half of Uglich's are said to have been destroyed in the Soviet era - and others are still derelict, turned into museums or just abandoned; but many have been restored or refurbished, their onion domes gleaming in green, blue and gold.
The real focus of stops is usually the religious buildings. As well as Uglich and its hero bell, you can see the Prophet Elijah church in Yaroslavl, whose interior is almost completely covered with frescoes, and the Kostroma monastery where Tsar Mikhail was crowned in 1613, the first of the Romanov dynasty that clung to power until the revolution. In the naves, beneath icons of static saints in gold leaf, black-robed choirs sang pious music, their voices resonating off the stone walls, before taking up a collection and selling us their CDs. The standout, though, was Kizhi. In flowery meadows on an island in Lake Onega, its Transfiguration church was built entirely of wood in 1714 (the few nails have been added during restoration). Legend says the carpenter, Nestor, threw his axe into the lake when he had finished, proclaiming that no one would ever build a church like this again.
He was probably right. The bare wood, and the 22 cupolas of silvery aspen that cascade down its walls, give it a natural austerity far from the flamboyant gold domes of other Russian churches. A smaller church, easier to heat in winter, and bell tower joined the ensemble, and other salvaged wooden buildings have been scattered around nearby to create an open-air museum of vernacular architecture. The whole island is on Unesco's world heritage list.
From the vantage point of an armchair in the panorama lounge, Russia doesn't seem like an economic superpower. St Petersburg is elegant, Moscow imposing; both look more or less like other western cities. Between them, though, you sail through landscapes that appear untouched by the upheavals of the last 20 years: industrial towns choked with smog, where locals lay on concrete embankments forlornly trying to acquire a tan under steel-grey skies; shabby farm settlements with people working in the fields (female) or fishing (male).
From time to time the ship ties up at a town and you can go exploring. Some of the local guides hadn't changed much since Soviet times either, they still say "nyet" to everything. In Kostroma there are plenty of gingerbread wooden houses through a grubby coach window as you are rushed back to the wharf.
The market economy hadn't always done much for the markets. Though some stalls were piled high with fruit and veg, the headscarved women in others had only a handful of weedy turnips or pot-plants to offer. Souvenir stands had expanded beyond the traditional Russian dolls and lacquerware to include communist memorabilia - party membership books, medals and the like, some of them probably genuine - but tourism isn't big business in small towns.
A lot is to be said for seeing Russia this way: gliding up to remote tourist attractions in our hotel, then waving goodbye again from the boat deck. You don't meet a lot of Russians, but unless you speak their language you're going to be cut off from them anyway, because they don't speak yours.
The ships themselves are not the 20-storey eyesores that loom over the Mediterranean and Caribbean, but long, low and comparatively discreet. Travelling on them will always be more comfortable than on a coach. Our meals were a mixture of Russian and international, and of a high standard. The one downside to being in a small community with a shared air-conditioning system is that when one person gets a cold, everyone gets it.
Finally, the forest gave way to a more manicured landscape and tidier towns, with roads and cars. We were approaching Moscow, a sharp contrast to everything we'd seen in the previous week. Streets of solid office blocks were clogged with traffic jams. Glitzy designer shops had taken over GUM, once famous as a Soviet "department store" consisting of dozens of identical boutiques with empty shelves. A proper underground shopping mall, useful in Russia's bitter winters, was right outside the Kremlin's red walls.Inside the Kremlin we visited an array of cathedrals. They are all splendid, freshly painted, historically important. You can just bet not one of their bells has ever sounded a note out of place.