Russia Trip 2014 – by Jack Clarke and Harrison Costi
3am. Mr Dickens opens his eyes and starts working out how he will shepherd a herd of sleep-deprived teenage zombies onto a bus, through customs (having to drag Lucas Crump from the Gucci shop), onto a plane to Mother Russia, onto another bus and finally into the Cosmos Hotel.
Moscow – Jack Clarke
Our first glimpses of Russia came at night-time towards the end of a long day travelling. After having taken the trip to Red Square on the most spectacular metro system in the world we were standing just outside one of the most historically rich square kilometres in the world. As we wandered through the large gates into Red Square we immediately realised the paracetamol and ibuprofen on the packing lists would be for the aching necks we would soon have, after staring up at such massive and amazing buildings. On one side the Gum department store was illuminated by thousands of Christmas lights, turning around you would see the almighty Kremlin with its gold topped domes and enormous red walls and looking straight ahead we saw St Basils, one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world (in fact it was said the architect was blinded by Ivan the Terrible after its completion to prevent another wonder similar to it from being built). It was easy to see why the Russians named it “Beautiful Square”. After listening to Mr Dickens give a speech about all of the history (and more recent protests involving testicle nailing that had happened where we were standing), we headed back to our hotel to sleep and get ready for a week of excitement in Russia.
Day 1 started with an excited crowd gathered outside Lenin’s Mausoleum and with such questions as “Is he still squishy?” “Will he be naked?” and “I thought Lenin was still alive?” being thrown around, we entered the red marble tomb. The Cossack soldiers who guarded the glass case were not typical tourist police; even having your hands in your pockets ran the risk of breaking down international relations between Britain and Russia. Stopping was also not allowed so as we turned the corner and saw the Bolshevik shrine with Lenin atop, everyone tried to take in as much of this influential man, whom almost the entire trip revolved around, as possible. After the few seconds we were allowed to see him, everyone met outside to discuss the controversy surrounding his body and whether it was actually him or not. Quite frankly, he would have fitted in comfortably at Madame Tussauds.
Afterwards, we were allowed into the world famous Gum shopping centre which was celebrating its 120th anniversary. Everyone very quickly realised wads of roubles would be needed to actually buy anything there but the inside looked fantastic, with the Olympic rings suspended over a large fountain with coloured banners crossing the entire space, surrounded in blossom trees. Later we had lunch at Old Arbat Street where many communist era style Russian hats were available and an old woman dressed as flowers bobbed up and down the pathway. It was surprising how “American” the whole place was with Russian Wendy`s offering her communist burgers and Dunkin` Donuts selling their “Soviet rings”, not to mention the clusters of MacPutins everywhere. After the tourist business had been done, we headed to the Novodevichy Convent and cemetery with its many tombstones of heroic military personal looking off into the distance, to see the grave of Khrushchev, a man of a debatable life who both carried out purges as well as preaching anti-Stalinist ideals. His gravestone comprising half-black half-white marble allows you to make up your mind for yourself whether he was a good or bad man. With debate still in our minds we headed off to the circus in the afternoon, which certainly did not disappoint. The amazing array of acrobats, performing dogs and world renowned Russian gymnasts seemed only to be the build-up to the main event. Tigers... and Lions… and even bigger albino lions… It appeared the phrase “health and safety” didn’t translate well over to Russian as the tiny string fish net was raised around the centre circle to protect the snack-sized Russian children in the first few rows. Many (admittedly dopey from their pre-performance drugging) tigers then appeared, alongside the three lions, our jaws dropping a little further each time another came out from their pen. It was then one of the performers mounted the largest albino lion outside of Africa and casually jumped it across a 5 meter gap before climbing on top of a tiger and flying over the audience on a trapeze. After the surreal experience we boarded the coach where Mr Dickens was ready, face freshly painted from the circus, proposing questions about whether this kind of animal treatment was allowable but, regardless of viewpoint, everyone could agree it was certainly an unforgettable night.
It was incredible to think we had only spent one day in Russia. Day two held even more history and culture, starting in the Museum of the Revolution. Wandering the rooms with our guide, Natalia, at the helm, we learnt about the rise and steady decline of Communism, the largest tool in sculpting modern Russian history, as well as having the chance to see original posters of much of the propaganda we had encountered in the classroom back in England.
After experiencing the awesome magnitude of the glimmering Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and viewing Stalin’s Skyscrapers from its roof, we took a tour of the equally magnificent metro system. Every station was encrusted with gold and the collages of Russian successes only served to break up the gorgeous white marble interior. It was also very apparent that Russians did not mess about on their tube system, for example, if one’s body did not fully make it over the threshold of the carriage as the doors closed, said body part/s would be left at that station as the doors sliced shut and the train accelerated off like a rollercoaster. After escaping the underground system, we ventured into the Park of Economic Achievement, and were all too familiar by now with the many statues of Lenin that stood in the park. The park had been opened and closed throughout its lifetime, undergoing renovations of its many large exhibition halls, each of which was dedicated to its own area or Russian development. It was here we experienced the part of the trip that was the one reason many of the group had even come to Russia; the speech of Dr. Coke-Woods. A soviet Vostok rocket towering behind the doctor, his grand gestures as he explained the significance of space flight in Russian history, his lads holiday to Russia, all that was needed was a red wash camera filter and we could have been looking at a communist leader making a speech to his people.
Waking up fresh from our communist rally the night before, we marched on to the Kremlin. Before being allowed into the Kremlin visitors would take tours of the monumental towers of jewellery and trinkets amassed by various past rulers of Russia, notably the Fabergé eggs which were as beautiful as their worldwide reputation would suggest they were. We then entered the Kremlin itself and saw the Tsar Bell, the largest bell known to exist currently at 216 tonnes as well as the largest cannon ever used. “I suppose second best will have to do” did not seem to be a real sentence in Moscow. After leaving Putin`s golden topped lair, we boarded the coach to the New Tretyakov art gallery where we saw how history and art had clashed in Russia. The distinctly pleasant pictures of bowls of fruit and summer days during the Tsarist regime were replaced by dark paintings and sculptures of suffering and anguish after the revolution had freed artists to express themselves publicly for the first time in their lives.
Boarding the overnight train from Moscow was also another experience that would be highly memorable. An estate agent would describe our cabins as “cosy and character-building” but Elliot Ward would disagree with them whilst his head and feet hung over the ends of his bunk. The girls boasted their rooms were more spacious but the truth is we will never know. After waking up, brushing our teeth in the airplane sized cubicle and spraying enough deodorant on to counteract the effects of 30 teenage boys packed into a small space for a night, we stepped out of the train and into St Petersburg.
St Petersburg – Harrison Costi
Having had a good sleep on the overnight train, we were all ready and excited to see what St Petersburg had to offer. We met our tour guide Olesya outside the railway station and boarded the coach for breakfast in a nearby restaurant. After breakfast we headed off for a full day of sightseeing in St Petersburg. First stop was the Smolny Institute - this was the building chosen by Lenin to be the Bolshevik headquarters during the October Revolution, after this we visited the Church on Spilt Blood and St Nicholas’ Church. Finally we had a guided tour of St Isaacs Cathedral. After a long day of sightseeing we headed back for the hotel for diner and rest but not for long as we were off the see Don Quixote at the Russian ballet. At dinner time everyone was in much higher spirits after a brief rest and the chance to shower (our first wash for 48 hours) and change into smart clothing for the evening performance. Many of us did not know whether to be excited at what was to come in the next 3 hours – or whether to see it as an opportunity for an extended nap. To everyone’s surprise (well those who remained awake as the majority of the group snoozed off at one point) the ballet was actually very enjoyable. In particular for Harrison Costi who become very good friends with the German man sitting next to him. After a long day and with very little sleep we headed back to the hotel looking forward to some rest but with pirouettes, pliés and pas de deux dancing through our dreams.
On the second day in St Petersburg we split in two groups with the first visiting the Political History museum which is a very important as it was the Bolshevik headquarters for a short period in 1917. Inside we saw the offices of Lenin and the balcony from which he gave speeches. Dr Coke-Woods managed to set off the ‘do not touch' alarm several times when talking to us much to the amusement of the group. The second group visited the Aurora Cruiser which has high significance in Russian history as it was one of the only battleships to survive the Russo-Japanese war and it also fired the shot that signalled the beginning of the Bolsheviks takeover of the Winter Palace. Finally we visited the Yusupov Palace which is where Rasputin was killed. In the evening we took a historical walk down Nevsky Prospekt and the highlight of this was Dr Coke-Woods speech in which he shouted “all power to the soviets” several times and many of us were convinced that he was Lenin in disguise. The climax of the walk was arriving at the winter palace and many of us were taken aback by this amazing building and history that surrounds it over many centuries.
Our final full day started off with a stop at Finland Station to see the sealed train carriage that Lenin arrived in, when he returned to Russia 1917 from Switzerland. We then headed to the Piskarevskoe cemetery where those who died in the 900 day German siege of St Petersburg in WWII were buried. Mr Dickens gave a very moving speech and many of us were stunned at the size of cemetery especially when we saw the kilometre wide park of mass graves full of just some of the 670,000 that died during the two and half years in which the city was cut off from the rest of the world. After some time for reflection we boarded the coach and headed for The Winter Palace and the Hermitage museum that is inside it and three other buildings (according to our tour guide it would take seven years to look at every exhibit in the museum).
To end our last evening in St Petersburg we headed for a Russian folklore show at the Nikholaevsky Palace. Before heading inside, our tour guide Olesya told us not to take the vodka on offer inside the palace because she would go to jail, this produced several laughs on the coach. Once in our seats for the show Mr Dickens told us that 3 members of the audience would get picked to go on stage and much to the delight of everyone Harrison Costi, Elliot Ward and Lucas Crumb were picked to take part in the show – all successfully charming their Russian partners. This raised sprits amongst everyone before we headed to the dining room of the palace for a five course meal. The food wasn't quite to everyone's taste but it was the experience that counted. Everyone had really enjoyed an entertaining evening and the spirits were high with chants of ‘One Pint Wardy’ on the coach home. The day was finished off with drinks back at the hotel and one final performance with Rob Parker, Jacob Sparrow, Ethan Stacey and Sam Grant performing their own version of the Russian ballet.
On the final day there were mixed emotions amongst everyone as we were excited to go home and see our families but upset that we would be leaving Russia for good. Before heading for the airport we visited Peter the great’s log cabin, The Peter and Paul Fortress and in particular the prisons there which held several important figures in Russian history. The last palace we visited was Tsarskoye Selo and on the way back to coach Dr Coke-Woods got hit by several snowballs and Mr Dickens got his own revenge on a few people who had annoyed him over the trip. With all of us through customs we bid our final farewells to Russia and boarded the plane home for England.
It was an unforgettable experience and many thanks to Mr Dickens, Dr Coke-Woods, Mrs Panayotiou and Miss Morris for accompanying the trip – as well as to Mrs Kitching and Mrs Mulholland for all their work back in England preparing for the visits.