This summer, a group of U.S. high school students from Richmond, Virginia, went on a three-week trip to Russia to explore the country’s history, culture, and way of life. The trip was supported by the Institute of Modern Russia. Michael White, a teacher of Russian at the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies and the leader of the group, recorded the trip’s highlights.

 

 

With generous financial support from the Institute of Modern Russia, thirteen of my students and I spent three weeks this summer exploring western Russia. Combining travel and study with the development of personal relationships with peers from Rostov-na-Donu, the trip represented a unique opportunity for young Americans who had studied Russian for one or two years to become deeply familiar with the Russian people and their history, culture, and way of life.

I have taught Russian for 15 years at the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies, a public high school for gifted students living in and around Richmond, Virginia. In that time, I’ve led six student trips to Russia, drawing on long-standing professional relationships with educators in Rostov-na-Donu, where, in the early 1990s, Aleksandr Pavlovich Uvarovsky, a mathematics teacher and administrator at Municipal High School #45, established the Nadezhda Summer School for Gifted Students. My students and I, along with a Maggie Walker graduate (and 2004 trip alumna), were met by Mr. Uvarovsky’s students and their teachers when we arrived in St. Petersburg on June 25. Our energetic and enthusiastic blended group of young people and educators spent the ensuing weeks visiting some of Russia’s most historic and beautiful sights, studying the Russian language and culture, and enjoying homestays with Mr. Uvarovsky’s students in Rostov-na-Donu.

Before the trip, I led lecture and discussion sessions on Russian history, literature, culture, religion, and church architecture. With background knowledge from these meetings and from their first- and second-year language classes, my students were able to grasp what it means to stand in the room in the Winter Palace where the Bolsheviks seized the Provisional Government, to stroll beneath Pushkin’s beloved lime trees at Mikhailovskoe, and to marvel at the astounding mosaics of the Church of Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg.

In St. Petersburg, we toured the Hermitage, the Yusupov Palace, the Peter-Paul Fortress, the Church of the Spilled Blood, the Mikhailovsky Castle, and other sites. We also took a day trip to Ust-Izhora and to Shlisselburg Fortress, where we learned how history was shaped by Aleksandr Nevsky’s triumph over the Swedes and the Soviet soldiers’ defense of the Road of Life during the blockade of Leningrad. My students gained an appreciation of Russians’ perseverance through suffering and their undaunted achievements in the arts and sciences. Amidst our exploration of history and culture, the Russian and American students began to form close bonds through outings to a movie theater and a bowling alley, as well as impromptu Frisbee competitions, soccer matches, and card games.

Our tour of Russia’s ancient heartland culminated in an excursion to Pskov, where we marveled at the sturdy Kremlin, were dwarfed by the grandiose Trinity Cathedral and its seven-level iconostasis, and stood in the spot where Princess Olga saw pillars of light indicating the place where the cathedral was to be built.

After a brief stop in Staraya Ladoga, where we explored an ancient fortress, examined Neolithic artifacts, and indulged in fresh black bread at the Café Riurik, we continued to Novgorod. The city’s lovingly preserved and restored churches and fortress gave my students a tangible lesson in Russian history and culture that would have been impossible to convey in a classroom. As one traveler wrote, “What I loved most about the trip was that it sparked a desire inside of me that had been confined to classrooms and textbooks. Being in Russia made me realize how much I want to know the rest of the world, experience other cultures and see how the rest of the world spends its days.” Though my students delighted in Novgorod’s beauty, their most indelible memory might be of our after-dinner stroll to the banks of the Volkhov River, where we swam in the clay-tinged water and played beach volleyball with our Rostov friends and scores of locals. Like the late-setting northern sun, we were in no hurry to call it a night, as the laughter and happy shouts of young people echoed off the fortress walls and across the water.

Next we visited Mikhailovskoe and Trigorskoe, two historic estates where Aleksandr Pushkin spent long stretches with family and friends. Having seen the great poet’s death mask, writing chair, and original sketches—as well as his grave at the nearby Svyatogorsky Monastery—our students got a strong sense of Pushkin’s prominence and value in Russian culture. In the ensuing days, we drank from the consecrated natural spring at Old Izborsk and were anointed with oil at the Pechersk Monastery of the Holy Assumption. It’s hard to describe the relief provided by that crisp, cold spring water or the tranquility of the priest’s whispered prayers as he blessed our humbled students.

Our tour of Russia’s ancient heartland culminated in an excursion to Pskov, where we marveled at the sturdy Kremlin, were dwarfed by the grandiose Trinity Cathedral and its seven-level iconostasis, and stood in the spot where Princess Olga saw pillars of light indicating the place where the cathedral was to be built. In Pskov, our immersion in Russian and Orthodox history was leavened by a modern, secular, cross-cultural ritual of observing the Fourth of July with the Rostovites. In our hotel that evening, Americans and Russians reveled deep into the night in a multilingual celebration of our most patriotic day, as we gorged on treats, exchanged gifts, played Frisbee, sang our respective national anthems, and even traded folk songs. Only the fireworks were missing.

The next day, our festive group boarded a train to head for our homestays, hosted by the Rostovites. I could go on and on about the joys of long-distance train travel—fields of sunflowers glowing in the sun; delicious fruit pies purchased from babushki on rural train platforms; improvised, multilingual card games; and the enriching, educational activities in Rostov-na-Donu, including visits to sublime Starocherkassk and the remarkable public library and classes in Russian language and culture at School #45. But the highlight of those days—and of the entire trip—was the homestay experience itself and the unique opportunity to make meaningful, lasting connections with our hosts and their families.

 

 

Another of my students wrote, “What truly set this journey apart was meeting kids our age there. We bonded over movies, dance and music. Looking through photo albums of my host sister’s family united us in a bond that I hope remains for a long time. As we grew to learn more about one another we realized the only true thing that separated us were miles; we all were still teenagers with that same sense of youth, rebelliousness, tenderness and budding wisdom.” The homestay played an integral role in forging these bonds. “They shared their homes with us and brought us in as family, not foreigners,” the student continued, “which is something I will try to do for anyone who steps into my life from now on.”

After a tearful farewell at the train station, we sadly left behind our friends. Aleksandr Pavlovich accompanied us to Moscow, where we toured the Kremlin, St. Basil’s, the GUM department store, the Ostankino television tower, the city’s most lavishly decorated metro stations, and the Arbat. We also found time in our exploration of Russia’s capital to sing karaoke at a street café, patronize the world’s worst haunted house, dine on the planet’s most divine donuts, and haggle for souvenirs at Izmailovsky Park’s Vernisazh Market.

The experience made an enormous impact on my students’ linguistic skills, cultural fluency, global awareness, and self-confidence. One student wrote, “The trip to Russia was, in short, the best experience of my life so far. Living in Russia for three weeks really gave me a better appreciation for communication. It’s amazing what sort of things you can remember from Russian class when you actually need to use them in order to communicate with all of the people around you!”

In addition, the voyage shaped my students’ perspective on life in the United States and on their place in the world. One parent wrote, “The big pay-off, the ‘bam’ of the trip, was the opportunity for our daughter to understand how we (the U.S., Americans) are members of a global community. The trip gave her an appreciation of the fact that, regardless of where you are in the world, we do share basic human similarities, but we have a global responsibility to be open-minded and to respect that each of us has a unique perspective based upon our life experiences. All of the visits to the various museums, historical sites, malls, and the home stays, gave her insight to the things that shaped the hows and whys of the ways of Russia and Russians. She walked away appreciating the richness of our differences and how, if respected, it will make the world better today and tomorrow.”

The experience made an enormous impact on my students’ linguistic skills, cultural fluency, global awareness, and self-confidence. One student wrote, “The trip to Russia was, in short, the best experience of my life so far.”

The trip also inspired my students to continue learning more about Russia—and about themselves—in the future. Another said, “I felt extremely emotional leaving the country, not just because of the sense of home I felt there, but also the people I was leaving behind. Surely now I want to come back and visit the amazing places I went, and go experience more things that Russia has to offer to the world, yet reconnecting with these individuals remains extremely important. The sensation I got from walking into the Church of the Spilled Blood or the Kremlin continues to resonate within me, but hugging my friends good-bye on our last night is the overall lasting feeling I have. Watching the sun go down one last time in Moscow made me realize, I would do anything to see that happen again.”

Several of our travelers are already continuing those relationships. One parent wrote, “Our son’s favorite part was making friends with the Russian students, to learn the many things they had in common and how to communicate despite a language handicap. It was special for us too, when he returned home, to Skype with his Russian family hosts and note how warm, friendly, and kind they were. He wants our family to go with him to Russia next summer so he can show us the country for which he has such a great appreciation.”

Along with our friends from Rostov-na-Donu, my students and I are immensely grateful to the Institute of Modern Russia, whose generous contribution made this unforgettable experience possible and affordable. We look forward to working with the Institute in the future to expand opportunities for young Americans to nurture meaningful relationships with their Russian peers.

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