Lifting the veil on complex, beautiful Russia

QE’s Sixth-Formers quite literally saw the dead hand of communism on a trip to Moscow and St Petersburg – but also savoured the architectural splendour of Russia’s imperial past. The trip involved historians from Years 12 and 13, who study Russia from the Communist takeover in 1917 to the death of Stalin in 1953.

Head of History Helen MacGregor recalled the striking start of their first full day in Moscow: “We got to see Lenin – who died in 1924! – in his mausoleum. It was amazing to see someone preserved who was so instrumental in world history, creating the first communist country. They paint Lenin with a secret formula once a week to stop him rotting, except that one hand wasn’t done in time and he therefore has black fingers.”

""“We went into his mausoleum with a group of Chinese tourists, who bowed down as they passed his glass coffin,” she added.

The 27 boys also visited the Kremlin – an historic fortress as well as the base of the current president, Vladimir Putin – and the nearby grave of Stalin. Miss MacGregor noted that the group’s Russian tour guides were great admirers of Putin.

""The final afternoon’s sightseeing in Moscow included opportunities to see the ornate Metro and the tombs of two more recent Russian leaders – Khrushchev and Yeltsin – at Novodevichy cemetery.

After two full days in Moscow, the pupils, accompanied by Miss MacGregor, Head of Year 12 Charlotte Coleman and Head of Year 13 Liam Hargadon, then took the famous night train to St Petersburg, which boasted four-berth cabins, toasted sandwiches and even wi-fi!

There they saw the magnificence of Tsarist Russia, with its huge palaces, beautiful gold decorations – including an entire room made out of amber in the Summer Palace – which formed a sharp contrast with the Soviet-era architecture of Moscow.

“It was very cold and it even snowed in St Petersburg, so we saw the Summer Palace just how it was built to be seen – with the blue outside walls contrasting spectacularly with the white of the snow,” said Miss MacGregor.

""Pupil Conor Mellon said: “The trip enriched the perspective of the country that I had from my History lessons: walking through the Winter Palace 99 years to the day from the October Revolution was particularly cool.”

They went to a series of evening entertainments, with the most memorable being the ice hockey. “This was more like a disco, with music pumping out and cheerleaders dancing away every time play stopped,” said Miss MacGregor. “We cheered on the St Petersburg term and they got a resounding victory, which was good because the massive stadium was full of their supporters. We also went to a Russian circus in Moscow and saw some very bendy people and watched acrobats perform death-defying stunts.”

The group eagerly entered into the spirit of the country, tucking into plenty of beetroot, Stroganoff and savoury pancakes – although some also took in a trip to the local McDonald’s.

""Sixth-Former Adrian Burbie said: “This was by far the best School trip I have ever been on. We threw ourselves head-first into experiencing true Russian culture – and the Soviet hat I bought more than made up for the cold.”

On their return, the boys reflected on a trip that was enjoyable and, at times, sobering too:

  • Gregory Wong: “From the State University of Moscow to the Winter and Summer palaces of St Petersburg, never have I ever seen such amazing architecture that was so grand and wonderful.”
  • ""Rufus Carruthers: “The diversity that was presented by visiting both Moscow and St Petersburg was particularly intriguing, due to their striking juxtaposition.”
  • Erik Lam recalled the “breathtaking and inexplicably beautiful landmarks” and the “deathly silence of Lenin’s mausoleum”. He added: “For me, the guided tour of the Gulag museum was one of great value as not only were we confronted by the dark and unfortunate history of the Gulags in Russia, but also we were given an insight into the life and opinion of a person living in modern Russia; it lifted the veil on the mysterious and biased portrayal of Russia by Western media.”