Last month I wrote the first part of the story of my 2002 school trip to Russia and I left it at the last night in Moscow, just as we were about to board the sleeper train to St Petersburg.
This was the part the teachers and adults had been most worried about. I was under the impression that we were on the westernmost section of the Trans Siberian Railway but it turns out that terminates at Moscow and doesn’t go near St Petersburg. There are certainly plenty of trains between Russia’s two biggest cities, some of them quite shiny and expensive. It was fifteen years ago; I don’t know what we were on. I do know that the adults were worried, though. Assorted gadgets for securing cabin doors were recommended and bought. We were to lock ourselves in overnight and not leave our cabins. It was all very serious. Does a sleeper train in Russia still require this level of concern or was it just because who we were – namely a group of fifteen to seventeen-year-old schoolkids, none of whom spoke any Russian and few of whom had much sense so I suppose it wasn’t beyond our abilities to get into trouble. Now I’m older, I’ve experienced other people’s similar panic over things as relatively harmless as “going to Lithuania” (seriously, my boss gave me a speech on how they could rescue me if I got sold into sex slavery) so I’m inclined to think people overreact. That said, I’m still not sure I’d go on a Russian sleeper on my own today.
I remember next to nothing of the night. I know from this picture that I shared a cabin with two sets of bunkbeds with Jo, Lucinda and Jilly. And I remember we were woken, much to our terror, by someone banging on our door and trying to break in – fortunately, it was only Sebastian from Year Eleven. Yes, I was at school with a Sebastian.
We were taken straight to our hotel the next morning to drop off our bags and then we went straight out. Our St Petersburg guide had a sufficiently strong accent that we had no idea what the “church of the speelbluh” was – when I see the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, I still can’t quite believe that’s its real name.
There are a lot of churches in St Petersburg and I’m sure I remember being shown one with its own pool – converted to or from a hotel or leisure centre? Is this ringing any bells with anyone more familiar with St Petersburg?
I know for certain we visited the battleship Aurora because, being the only non-history student on the trip, I had no idea what it was and even less idea what Martyn meant when he asked “Is this the cannon, sir?” My history is appalling (I’m ok on Icelandic history and shaky on certain periods of English history, like Ethelred and co) but I understand that a shot from Aurora signalled the beginning of the October Revolution in 1917, which was the Bolsheviks vs the government of the time. I’ve read the Wikipedia article on the subject, I don’t understand any of it but Aurora was significant and is now a branch of the Central Naval Museum.
I also know for certain that we went to the Winter Palace. We saw marble pillars in a church at Peter & Paul’s Fortress that were nothing more than marble-painted concrete and we spent a lot of time confirming my belief (conceived in the Louvre on a school trip to Paris) that I will never enjoy art galleries, no matter how famous and influential the art.
And until I got out the photo album, I’d completely forgotten we went to a folk show! How could I forget that? Someone played the saw. There was cossack dancing and most importantly, there was the infamous chicken dance. One of the teachers made a video of the trip – I have a copy but it’s on VHS and I don’t have the facility to turn that digital – but Christy danced the chicken dance at the airport on that video. How could I forget that?
The hotel, in contrast to the Moscow megalith, was long and low and had a curve rather than a corner and was pretty unglamorous compared to the hotel we’d just come from. It was opposite the biggest, most famous and most illustrious cemetery in Russia. If they were Russian and you’ve heard of them, they’re in there (except Peter & Catherine, Rasputin and the Romanovs). I didn’t go and visit although some of my group did – looking at pictures of it, I kind of wish I had bothered.
What else did we do? Some souvenir shopping, I think. I dimly remember vodka sampling – teeny-tiny samples for the underage schoolkids. I bought a few sets of Russian dolls for people at home and a tiny model of St Basil’s. I think my little group had surprisingly expensive pizza.
And I definitely finished off Byron’s box of “vegetarian brings own food to survive Russia” Weetos. I know this because it’s very difficult to forget the consequences, on a plane, of eating half a box of Weetos in one morning. I also remember the consequences, on the coach back from the airport, of some of the boys sitting at the back downing multiple Red Bulls. And was that the trip when Pete and I were convinced the coach was on fire or was that the Year Thirteen French trip? (Spoiler: there were no coaches on fire at my school. We saved the fires for the school itself. Arson the first time, lightning the second, if you’re interested)