Two wire-sculptured fishermen's gift to Petrozavodsk from sister city Duluth, Minn.

Two wire-sculptured fishermen's gift to Petrozavodsk from sister city Duluth, Minn. (Milton J. Nieuwsma, Chicago Tribune)

SVIRSTROY, Russia — On the bank of the Svir River, about 160 miles northeast of St. Petersburg, lies a remote village that symbolizes this vast nation's struggle to reinvent itself after communism.

An 8-year-old named Peter, maybe after the great Russian czar who made this river navigable from the outside world, greeted passengers from the MS Rossia with bicycle tricks, a kitten clinging to his shoulder.

When he finished his routine, he held out a crocheted egg warmer to his audience of bystanders. "You buy?" he said in broken English. "My mother make it."

"How much?" I asked.

"A hundred rubles," Peter replied.

Forgetting to bargain, I paid the boy his asking price: a little more than $3. The transaction drew stares from adult vendors hawking goods of their own.

"This ship and its sister, the MS Tikhi Don, support the economy of this town," said Jenia Beralinova, our tour director with Grand Circle Travel. "There aren't many jobs here, so they need all the help they can get."

Every other week between May and October, the two ships pass each other on the Russian waterways, a 1,143-mile stretch between St. Petersburg and Moscow, making Svirstroy their first or last port of call, depending on which direction they're going. The route covers four rivers, three lakes (including the two largest in Europe, Ladoga and Onega), two canals, a reservoir and 16 locks.

It's a different view than you would get on a deep-water cruise that stops in St. Petersburg. Besides Russia's two major cities, the cruise includes stopovers in Petrozavodsk, a city on Lake Onega; a visit to a 14th-century monastery in Goritsy; and a walking tour of the ancient town of Uglich.

It also takes in what may be the most isolated UNESCO World Heritage site in the world, the centuries-old wood-domed Church of the Transfiguration on Kizhi Island, 300 miles from the Arctic Circle. Off-season, the island's 20 residents depend on weekly helicopter drops for provisions.

Petrozavodsk (population 260,000), on Lake Onega's western shore, appears frozen in a Soviet time warp. A statue of Lenin presides over the town square. A rusted-out trolley stops to pick up passengers. On the lakefront, two wire-sculptured fishermen cast their nets toward the water, a gift from a sister city, Duluth, Minn.

It's a nice touch. But when it comes to economic help, there's only so much a sister can do.

"Unemployment here is 30 percent," complained Andrei Rysakov, an English teacher. "All the young people go to Moscow or St. Petersburg because that's where the jobs are. In the rural areas, unemployment is more like 60 percent."

Which brings us back to Svirstroy. With 600 inhabitants, the town is a shadow of what it used to be. Abandoned buildings dot the landscape. A tiny Russian Orthodox church, with room for about 10 worshipers, stands a few hundred feet from the riverbank.

Jenia, our tour director, led a group from the MS Rossia to a modest frame house next to a garden patch. At the front door she introduced us to Elena, a 60-something who invited us in for tea and stuffed pastries called piroshki, a specialty of the region.

I studied Elena's face as she poured the tea from her samovar, a Russian contraption that seemed a bit complicated for the task. Though wearing a smile, she talked about better times.

"I lost my life savings when everything in Russia changed," she said, Jenia interpreting for her. "My government pension is 6,000 rubles a month ($198), so I live here with my daughter and her husband to keep expenses down."

Jenia added that Elena, like other pensioners in Svirstroy, was "paid by the company" for entertaining her American visitors.

Later, I asked Jenia what Elena meant when she said "everything in Russia changed."

She explained that former President Boris Yeltsin devalued the ruble, forcing many banks to close. "It wiped out millions of people's savings," she said.