By Jack Alscher
Sorry for the late upload, we’ve been having trouble with the WI-FI as well as Newington Spaces.
A number of shoutouts should head this post: Jonah Holmes for his title of this post which passed even Mr Fisher’s high pun expectations (Jonah’s puns in general are pretty incredible), Raymond Huang’s consistent tricks and photobombs, and Mr Ruddock’s amazing call when we entered into an old Russian internment cell- “welcome to Mr Canning’s dream.”
After an early start the previous morning, and another tomorrow morning, we were all ready for a sleep in and a good hot breakfast. However, at the Nevsky Breeze Hotel (!!), it was classic European flair: continental, and with the call for the group to meet at 8:45AM, the sleep in had to wait for another day.
Despite these setbacks, the same feverish excitement still ran through the group, as we sought to take advantage of the most beautiful day so far in our tour: the leafy trees surrounding each street were dappled in gentle sunlight, and the canals of St Peterburg glistened deep blue with the Nordic sky above. This was, as many boys discussed, the Russia they had been expecting: a political and economic culture profoundly different to Western society, but socially and physically very much European.
Meeting our very chirpy guide Anna on the dot at 9, we embarked on a walking tour of some of St Petersburg’s historical sites. After making a quick stop in a boutique shop for many of us to make purchases of (expensive) Babushka dolls, we made stops overlooking the Winter Palace and St Issacs Cathedral. What fascinated me the most about these stops was the significance of commemoration and need for acknowledgement. In almost stark contrast to Moscow, Anna told us that such was the significance of Tsar Alexander II’s death, that St Petersburg had extended the Winter Palace to cover the exact spot where he died, such was the importance for the need for commemoration.
We continued onto the beautiful Cathedral of St Petersburg: where we witnessed over a hundred people worshipping for the 11AM service. The sincerity of the moment as well as the dedication of the Russian people was startling: as Mr Kenny and a few of us discussed, the fact that these people came every day, at precisely 11, in the middle of the work week, to pray and worship showed the extent that religion is important to Russian cultural society, to a degree that I hadn’t thought previously. The reverence of the occasion struck many of the boys, and in my opinion, I was incredibly glad to have had the experience.
There was something memorable about our next stop, a definite highlight of the tour to date: visiting the Hermitage Museum, previously the Tsar’s Winter Palace. This was the same palace which the Tsar’s lived in until the early 20th century, the same palace which housed the Provisional Government on the night when the Bolsheviks stormed the palace in 1917: it stands today as the symbol of Russian revolution, the manifestation of political change in Russia which shaped the entire 20th century. Simply standing there was a gift: knowing that where we stood, and what we were looking at, symbolised much more than simple royalty: as the overturning of political structure and Russian leadership changed the way the world operated then, and operates now: impacting our lives, and many generations before us.
The best way to describe the Winter Palace, in my opinion, is opulent. The sheer number of frescos and colours, intricate designs and delicate sculptures was astounding. To us, many of us coming into Russia thinking of the harshness that we hear on the news, the contrast with the fine art displayed in the Winter Palace was immense. I was shocked with the breadth of the Palace: high ceilings, innumerable rooms, incredible views over St Petersburg. Mr Fisher perhaps raised the most thought provoking idea of the day, and asked us to imagine what it would have been like for a peasant with no education to enter into the Palace: the same feelings of reverence, amazement and beauty would have forged the sentiment of praising God and the Tsar’s strength; whereas a peasant with little education would have realised the injustice of it all - an idea, which I felt, summarised just how the trickle of reformist ideology that people had felt in the mid to late 20th century, suddenly turned into a torrent of revolutionary activity in the 20th century, and how a people could be mobilised with such immediacy and ferocity.
After a quick lunch in the café of Coke, cake and chicken, we turned our attention to visiting Peter and Paul’s Fortress, the jail there, the Arms Museum and the battleship Aurora.
Peter and Paul’s Cathedral & Fortress was fascinating for a number of reasons. There was the photo bombing, Mr Verco’s puns, alongside the beautiful architecture, intricate shapes, and the dark and dingy prison: as we walked along the corridor of cells, Mr Ruddock filled us in on crazy stories of how Trotsky managed to escape a number of times from different prisons. We stopped for a minute to bask in the sunshine on the foreshore, and watch the beautiful (sub-Artic tempertautred) river, and were joined by many Russians doing the same.
The Arms Museum allowed for a “Hands on History” approach to understanding Russian history. We walked around and on the huge weapons, and begun to understand the need for arms limitations, and the terrible cost of warfare. The same rang true for the battleship Aurora, a figurehead of Russian revolution, of where the first shot of the revolution was fired. At each site, each history class took group photos, and many boys took selfies. Whilst I did the same, in hindsight, I’m not sure whether such sites of devastation and of human suffering which lasted for the great part of a century should be commemorated with a “Slav Squat” or a quick smile. Food for thought.
After a jam packed day, we were all glad to return to the hotel early, eat the best meal we had in Russia, engage in some quality conversations, and pack ready for our 2AM wake up call the following morning for our fight to Paris.
I’ll now just summarise briefly my thoughts on visiting Russia, as well as the thoughts from us on the experience.
The more I felt I understood Russian society, the less I felt I knew the country; constantly in a state of flux, a case of a mistaken identity. It’s true that many Russians live drastically different lives to our own, that the economy is background and internationally backward (how else could we have afforded $8 lunches and Adidas gear?), and the international actions of the Russian Government and Putin have been extremely questionable. However, the more I was immersed in the country, interacted with locals, the more I understood that Russia is just like any other country, with a fierce sense of nationalism encasing it – Russian people aren’t inherently ‘bad’ or ‘good’, in the same way that people in Australia aren’t ‘bad’ or ‘good’: people are willing to hope, to worship, to believe in a better future.
Whilst I had initially understood Russia to be this hostile, different, second world society, I began to understand there exists great complexity not only from international perception and criticism, but because of perceptions of Russian people: the lives people lead have been subjected to immeasurable difficulty and enormous challenge, and the best thing that we can do, as tourists and as people, is to understand this, and to have empathy in how we think and react.
Perhaps the best conclusion of this segment of this tour is to provide a final word on Russia. Russia is an unfiltered and vivid example of just how the past has influenced the present, and serves a fierce reminder of the way that history has developed, even very recently. The ideas of orthodoxy, of nationalism, run through the veins of Russian society, provide focus to Russian identity, found themselves in Russian society to an extent that I have never seen. From seeing U2 rockets in Moscow, to watching the dedication of Russian people praying, to the beauty of the Winter Palace, Russia has been for all of us an incredible opportunity.
Thanks for following on. Daniel and Tom will be writing tomorrow.