Russia 2002 part 1: Moscow

Today’s blog is – finally – on the subject of a school trip I went on when I was sixteen – to Russia.

How I got on it, I don’t know because it was an A Level History trip and I dropped History before GCSE (had it been less to do with modern warfare and more to do with invaders and settlers, I might have been more interested). But off we flew, a big mixed group of schoolchildren on a plane from London to Moscow.

My first memory of the trip is sitting in a huge crowd on some steps in the terminal at Moscow Domodedovo Airport, waiting for visas or passports or some such bureaucracy. I think there was 70s-style orange or brown carpet.

My next memory is of being on a coach, being taken to our hotel in central Moscow. Our tour guide pointed out the huts alongside the road and told us how much better off so many people were under Communism. I didn’t know much about Communism and I still don’t but I’m inclined to think better of it when I think about what the guide said.

Our hotel was the Hotel Ukraine, one of the Seven Sisters, seven huge Stalinist skyscrapers in Moscow, of which this particular one is the second tallest. I thought it was vaguely Gothic and I was right – Wikipedia says Stalinist is “an elaborate combination of Russian Baroque and Gothic styles”. To this day, it’s still by far the most opulent hotel I’ve ever stayed in. I was aware that there were multiple restaurants because we ate in at least two of them; it’s now the Royal Radisson Hotel Moscow and looking at their website, they have five restaurants plus three other things I would also describe as restaurants, to say nothing of the wellness suite and 50m pool. I have a vague memory of a grand piano or maybe a gold harp being played in the lobby. I know that I had to hand over my passport for the duration of my stay – a passport particularly valuable for the one and only visa I’ve ever had in my life, which had my name spelled out in Cyrillic letters.

The room itself was pretty ordinary, up in the central tower about two thirds of the way up and I shared it with Katie from the year below, who I knew a little bit. My friends on that particular trip were Martyn, Matt, Pete, Byron and Ben and no teacher in their right mind was going to let teenage girls and boys share rooms on a school trip. I spent the evenings with the boys and then went back to my own room at bedtime.

I don’t remember how long we stayed in Moscow. I remember we went to Red Square, St Basil’s and the Kremlin. St Basil’s was covered in scaffolding, to Mr Warbis’s disgust and the interior was dark and maze-like – except Google Images tells me that while I was sort of right about the maze-likeness, it’s actually decorated in the most incredibly colourful and detailed work. We went up to the Kremlin and saw the Tsar Bell, with the piece broken out of it. I was surprised because my limited knowledge of all things Russian – oh, I didn’t do any reading, I knew nothing! – was that Russia was secretive and the Kremlin was top security and we… were allowed inside? Wikipedia says yes, since about 1955.

What else did we do? We went out on our own at least one evening. Martyn had made an effort with the Cyrillic and took our little group on the metro. You don’t know Martyn. He’s incredibly clever – he’s got a PhD in some kind of wave physics but languages have always been his weak spot so the fact that it was him, of all our group, who could at least work out how to read his way around the Moscow metro is incredible. Of course, we also messed up the Cyrillic between us – we attempted to order some lemonade in a bar or cafe, possibly inside the hotel, and ended up sharing a single cup of tea. Maybe it was at least lemon tea. We had pizza just off a famous shopping street – at least, I think we did. Maybe that was in St Petersburg later in the trip.

On our last night, some of us went to the circus. Some boycotted it because it includes animals but I went. I’d never been to a circus before; I’ve never been since. I enjoyed it. But then we met up with the rest of our group for the next leg of the trip: a night on the Trans Siberian railway to St Petersburg. But that’s another story.