Exploring the History and Culture of Russia
Sixth Form Trip to St Petersburg and Moscow
30 October 2012
25 sixth form students and four staff visited St Petersburg and Moscow in the first week of half-term to explore the history and culture of Russia. Our hotel in St Petersburg was the Park Inn situated on ‘Victory Square’. Here is the main memorial in the city to the sacrifices of the city in the 900-day siege of WWII. After settling in we went out to explore the impressive memorial. Further down Moscow Street is the City Hall built by Stalin after the war and with its powerful statue of Lenin outside.
On our first morning we toured the city, beginning at the beautiful St. Nicholas church, which survived as an active church through the Communist period. It has two storeys and there was a service going on at both levels, with a stunning choir in full voice on the second. From there we crossed one arm of the River Neva to the tip where it divides for a spectacular view of some of the great palaces and fortresses of the historic city.
Then we drove round to St.Isaac’s Cathedral, with its great golden dome and massive marble pillars, while inside no expense was spared to make those who enter marvel at the greatness of Russia, its state and church.
Our feast of Russian religious architecture was finished with the traditional style ‘Church on the Spilled Blood’, with its colourful tiles and onion shaped towers. It was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.
On our second day we travelled out to Catherine’s Palace, 30km south of St. Petersburg, where Peter the Great built the Tsar’s Village (Tsarskoe Selo), now the town of Pushkin, named after the famous writer who spent most of his life here.
Catherine’s Palace was built by Peter’s daughter Elizabeth and named after her mother. It is a fantastic Baroque palace built to rival Versailles and inside it dazzles with a series of rooms decorated with gold and mirrors. In addition there are spectacular ceramic stoves to combat Russian weather and then a series of rooms showing the finest eighteenth century style and then some historic rooms commemorating the Tsars of the nineteenth century from Alexander I to Nicholas II.
On our return to the city we went to the Peter and Paul fortress and to its Cathedral to pay our respects to the Tsars from Peter the Great to Nicholas II, whose remains were moved here from their Siberian burial place 15 years ago.
Then into the heart of the fortress – and it was it in one part of this fortress the Tsars kept some of their most troublesome political prisoners. Our next stop was only a brief one - at the cruiser Aurora, which took part in the disastrous war with Japan in 1904-5 and whose guns launched the October Revolution.
We finished our day at the Nikolayevsky Theatre and an evening of Russian folk-dance. This was a stunning show, combining some beautiful male voice singing and folk dancing. The dancers mixed romance, humour and spectacular athletic ability in a show that held us spell-bound. We had a special moment of excitement when our very own Ben Edwards was specially selected by an attractive young dancer to partner her on stage. He impressed the theatre with his confident footwork.
Now we headed for the railway station to catch our overnight train to Moscow. After the excitement of travelling across Russia by train we were met in Moscow by our local guide Galina who took us straightaway on a tour with our first stop at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral. This is one of the features of Moscow, recently rebuilt to replace the one destroyed by Stalin. No expense was spared to finish this impressive building inside with marble and gold. First we took the lift up to the viewing platform, from where, despite grey weather we could see the major buildings of Central Moscow.
After continuing our tour to the Moscow State University with its impressive ‘wedding cake’ building overlooking the city, we returned by way of the Novodivechny Convent, whose lake inspired Tchaikovsky to write his famous ballet.
After lunch in the centre we were taken into the Kremlin. We walked past Tsar’s Palace, later taken over by the Communist Party leaders and the smart glass and steel Palace of Congresses, built in the Soviet era, to admire two symbols of Russia’s power as it established its empire: the Tsar’s gun and the Tsar’s Bell. These huge pieces of cast bronze are each the largest of their kind in the world, and reinforce the sense of great power exhibited by the Kremlin.
The Kremlin was the heart of the Tsarism. We were shown its three cathedrals – all dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: the Cathedral of the Dormition, where all the Tsars were crowned, then its neighbour, the Cathedral of the Assumption, where all the Tsars were baptised and married and finally the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael, where all the Tsars before Peter the Great were buried.
After our evening meal we set out across the road from our hotel, the Cosmos, to the Soviet Cosmonaut memorial. This spectacular monument reaches 110m high showing a rocket going into space. Behind it is the Park of Economic Achievements built in Soviet times, with a huge arch at its entrance and pavilions for each republic of the Soviet Union. Again all the Soviet symbolism we could admire was fascinating.
In the afternoon of our last full day, after our lunch in the Arbat shopping and cultural district, Galina took us on a tour of the Metro to show us some of the notable stations in the system that was built under Stalin in the later 1930s. We learnt why the Metro became so famous – for its rapid and efficient service as we moved from line to line, and the remarkable decorations of each station. Our journey ended at the preRevolutionary English Club, an eighteenth century building that now houses the Contemporary Political History Museum, that uses surviving materials to explain the end of the Tsarist period, the two revolutions in 1917, and Communist rule to 1989.
In the evening we returned by metro to the city centre to see Moscow by night to marvel at St Basil’s, Red Square and the Christmas-like decorations of the GUM shopping centre.
On our final morning we headed for the New Tretyakov gallery of modern art, which has an outstanding collection of early 20th century Russian avant-garde art, when Russian artists like Malevich & Serov were developing new styles. Our art students had time to take photographs and make sketches which they will be able to use in their studies. Outside the museum is a statue park where various communist leaders who have been removed from public places have found a home.