When Mount Sentinel teacher Mike Malakoff takes a half dozen students to Russia this week, it will be his seventh such trip to the country, spanning four decades.
The first was in 1984, when the Soviet Union still existed. On subsequent visits, he observed firsthand the communist state’s sometimes difficult adjustment to capitalism.
“In 1992, when we were in Leningrad, the citizens were so excited to change the name back to St. Petersburg,” he recalls. “That was the year the coup happened.”
Many Russians, however, are ambivalent about whether life has improved.
“During the communist time, they had more stability,” he says. “Even though it was ruled by one, everybody was working, and there was no extreme poverty. But now you do have the lower, middle, and upper classes.”
On the other hand, individual effort is better rewarded.
“The young people have realized if you work hard, you will get your riches much quicker. There was no incentive before, but now there is. The harder you work, the more you get.”
The ruble is also making a comeback. Where once American dollars would make a merchant’s eyes light up, that’s not necessarily the case anymore.
“They’re trying to make foreign currency not as exciting,” Malakoff says. “On our last couple of trips, we’ve been exchanging for rubles nearly every other day because now most stores prefer them.”
The latest trip involves six students in the senior Russian class — three Grade 10s, two Grade 11s, and one Grade 12 — who depart tomorrow and will be gone for 12 days over spring break.
“It’s primarily to show the kids the culture they’re studying,” he says. “All the kids I’ve taken so far have been in my Russian program.”
Malakoff also sees the trip as a way of encouraging students to continue taking the subject. Enrollment at the higher grades has dwindled in recent years, “but I’m hoping the occasional trip maintains a core group studying Russian.”
The itinerary includes Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as stops in Estonia and Finland.
“We’re true tourists primarily,” he says. “In the past we were billeted with families, but we’re in hotels this time.”
They expect to visit Red Square, the Kremlin, Lenin’s Tomb, and the giant GUM department store. Malakoff encourages students to speak the language as much as possible and has asked them to each find someone their own age to interview.
“Even if it’s ‘What’s your name? My name is …’ Simple things. That’s one of their tasks.”
They’ll also be taking photos, keeping diaries, and compiling a Powerpoint presentation for the benefit of their peers as well as a Russian class at Brent Kennedy elementary.
Jasmine Negreiff, a Grade 11 student, says she’s both excited and nervous about going.
She’s wanted to ever since her sister Haley came back from the last trip in 2008.
“Because I’m Russian, I think it will be cool to see my background and the difference in lifestyle,” she says.
“We did a project last semester when we had to pick ten buildings in Russia. I picked some that we’re actually going to visit, to get to know their background.”
They included the Assumption Cathedral, St. Basil Cathedral, Hermitage museum, and Summer and Winter palaces.