Students take trip to Russia

Among the Friends School students who took a two-week trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, are, from left, seniors Anson Sidle, Nathan Leach, Adrienne Jankowski, Ebi Causey and Ashley Applefeld. (Photo by Heidi Blalock / April 4, 2014)

Jet-lagged and culture-shocked, Friends School students returned April 3 from a two-week class trip to St. Petersburg, Russia at a time of geopolitical turmoil over the country's annexation of the Ukraine's Crimea region — and in the midst of a Lufthansa pilot strike that delayed their departure for a day and a half.

"It was really a shock to be back in my neighborhood with green lawns," said senior Nathan Leach, of Guilford, back with his classmates in Russian class at Friends School on Friday morning. "There isn't a lot of green in St. Petersburg."

Junior Maggie Matsui, of The Orchards, was glad to be home after uncertainty over when they would be able to fly out and on what airline.

"We must have had like five last meals," she said.

The trip was an education for 19 juniors and seniors, who learned important lessons about what the Russian people think about the government's crackdown on the Ukraine and differences in news coverage between the Western and Russian media.

The students, who traveled in pairs, stayed with host families and were accompanied by Russian teachers as well as two teachers from Friends.

They said most of the Russians they talked to believe last month's Crimea vote for annexation was fair, counter to reaction in the West that the election results were disputed.

"The Russian opinion is so different than the Western media," said junior Katrina Keegan, of Rodgers Forge.

Students also said they sensed that the Russian people were fairly Westernized and largely unconcerned about the annexation of Crimea.

"People weren't really stirred up about it," said senior Andrew Kirkpatrick, of Lake Walker.

"The Russians weren't that passionate about it," said Keegan.

"It was like, 'Sigh, politics,'" said senior Anson Sidle, of Pikesville. "We as a nation and a culture are much more up in a dander about it."

But the students sensed concern too about geopolitical fallout and how it would affect perceptions of Russia.

Senior Adrienne Jankowski, of Towson, who was paired with senior Ebi Causey, of Anneslie, said the Russian teacher who accompanied them was worried Russian President Vladimir Putin would be seen in the West as trying to grab power.

"She was really worried about how Americans would view it," Jankowski said. "She loved America."

"The U.S. sees Putin as a modern dictator, but no one seems to remember that it was put to a vote of the people," said Kirkpatrick. He said the people he spoke with seemed satisfied with the process, but not with the reaction of the West.

"That's the sense I personally got," he said.

"The Russian people support self-determination," said Lee Roby, Friends upper school teacher, who accompanied students on the trip with middle school Russian teacher Shannon Johnson.

Upper school students take trips every other year to Russia and France, said school spokeswoman Heidi Blalock. Students pay their own way, but a fund established by a past senior class at the school defrays the costs, she said.

Students said they enjoyed the trip as an opportunity to learn more about Russian culture and speak better Russian. They said they took a vow not to speak English during the trip and were able to carry on conversations in Russian, although understanding Russian newscasts was more difficult.

They spent most of their time in St. Petersburg and took in a lot of museums, including the Museum of Political History, where they saw an exhibit called "Between Utopia and Reality," which showed how the "official culture" of Russia, as one student put it, has changed over the years.

The otherwise routine trip March 15 to April 3 took an unusual turn the day they were supposed to leave, as pilots at the German airline Lufthansa went on strike and thousands of flights were canceled, including the ones they were scheduled on, from St. Petersburg to Frankfort, Germany to Dulles Airport in the Washington area. To complicate matters, the visas of students and faculty on the trip were about to expire the next night.

With Friends School administrators interceding, the contingent was rebooked on Emirates Airline through Dubai.

"There was a level of tension as administrators worked through that problem," Roby said.

But all was well that ended well.

"We had a great time," said Roby, who came back with laryngitis.