Hoots from the Archive - Guest Hoot: The 1967 Russian Trip - Revisited!

Posted by Rachel Kneale on 23 Nov 2023

Modified by Rachel Kneale on 12 Dec 2023

Russia 1967

This is a guest post from David Nott, Emeritus Professor of French Language Studies, Lancaster University MGS teaching staff 1963-1980

Most of the 33 boys who went on this trip are probably now retired, so perhaps it is time to share reminiscences before it’s too late!

The 33 boys were aged 13-17, the three staff were aged 36, 28 and 28:

PFM - Rev Patrick Miller (Divinity and Russian) – leader and Russian interpreter

GSH - Gordon (Tweedy) Harris (Maths) – medic

DON - David Nott (French and German) – languages and treasurer (but see below, Prague!)

The 33 boys were divided into three sub-groups of 11, each reporting to one of the three staff, with a rollcall at each change of scene, for example when boarding or leaving a train or a venue. This system worked well on all but one occasion (see below: Moscow).

Cost

The 3-week trip was arranged and organised by a small-scale travel agency in Brighton which, one has to report, went bust shortly after we all returned safely to Manchester. This may have something to do with the fact that the cost to each boy for the trip was just £66, which seemed good value at the time (the equivalent of £1000 today).

Context

The trip had been planned for months, but just a few weeks before we were due to depart, the ‘6-day war’ took place, in which the West stood by Israel, while the Soviet Union and its allies supported Israel’s enemies. The war had an electrifying effect on all MGS boys from a Jewish background, not least those who had booked to go on the Russian trip; at a pre-trip meeting for boys and their parents in the Sieff Theatre, much anxiety was expressed concerning their safety. In the event, there were no cancellations.

The trip

The first 48 hours were the longest: Manchester to London by coach, then London to Berlin by train and ferry, with no overnight sleeping accommodation.

East Berlin

Our first step out of the train was into a bleak East Berlin for a few hours sightseeing - not that there seemed very much in the way of sights, as the only buildings of note were the ‘Haus des Lehrers’ (a 1960s cultural and educational centre on the Alexanderstraße) and the impressive 1920s ‘Funkturm Berlin’ radio tower (today still a prominent feature of the cityscape in reunified Berlin).

Soon we boarded our train for Prague and awaited the visit of the border guards. Just seeing them on the platform made us uneasy; when they came through the train, they checked that every last pfennig was accounted for. (This was the only time during the whole trip that we experienced ‘officialdom’ as intimidating.)

Prague

We arrived in Prague in the early evening and transferred to our hotel/hostel. But inside, the walls of all the corridors were plastered with anti-Israel material – was this an ominous sign?

Soon after our arrival, the group treasurer had an anxious moment when he realised that the bag containing passports and banknotes in the various currencies (to be given out to each boy as and when required) had been left on the pavement along with the rest of our luggage while we sat down to eat the splendid cold supper (with Czech beer for the staff) which awaited us. I rushed back outside, and fortunately, all was intact – a good omen in terms of security for the rest of the trip.

The breath of fresh political air in Czechoslovakia which became known as the ‘Prague Spring’ was just a few months old, and our guide for our stay in Prague was a young woman whose outlook was in tune with the new spirit. With her, we felt immediately relaxed and secure.

Prague did not disappoint. We enjoyed the main tourist attractions around the Charles Bridge and the Castle (no crowds of Western tourists in 1967!), the bustling main streets and shops, Wenceslas Square, the memorial plaque to Kafka, the Jewish cemetery...

After Prague, we wondered what awaited us in the Soviet Union and our next stop, Kiev/Kyiv. On the train from Prague, talking to young people living behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ revealed that their number one complaint was that they could not travel freely to the West.

At the border

At the border, while the wheels of our train were changed to fit the wider Soviet gauge, we met our official Soviet Intourist guide, who would be with us 24/7 until we entered Poland 10 days or so later. Liena (Helen) was young, diminutive, energetic and indefatigable, and would, for overnight journeys, share a 4-berth sleeping compartment with the three members of staff (en tout bien tout honneur, as the French say). Liena turned out to be Jewish – a further boost to our confidence that all would be well for everyone in our group, despite international politics. (See also below, Moscow.)

However, before reaching Kiev, our peace of mind was broken by the news that one of the boys was suffering from a worrying swelling of the jaw – a medical emergency that, said Gordon Harris, would need speedy treatment. Liena must have telephoned ahead, as medical assistance was forthcoming from the moment we arrived in Kiev for breakfast in a new, small-scale tourist hostel.

Kiev

Sightseeing in Kiev was a different experience from Prague: fewer crowds in the main streets, but magnificent Orthodox churches. We were impressed by an historic site above the Dnieper, commemorating the Christianisation in 987 of Kievan Rus’ (modern-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus).

On the second morning, as we stood in a courtyard admiring the Saint Sophia cathedral, we saw coming purposefully towards our group two men in white coats… What could this mean? – yes, it was time for the next injection for the suffering jaw! The treatment proved to be effective, and we could all relax again.

Moscow

And so to Moscow! – where we were accommodated in a drab red-brick hotel north of the centre, close to the sprawling site of the ‘Exhibition of Soviet Economic Achievements’.

1967 was the 50th anniversary of the USSR, and posters, floral displays and the like were constant reminders of this. We were perhaps aware that what we were allowed to see of Soviet life and society were specially selected features that were not representative of the rest of society. For example, in Kiev, we visited a delightful, airy, cheerful kindergarten.

But the food! We were in a country under a regime that, 50 years after the October Revolution, and 22 years after the victory over nazism, had still not solved the problem of securing the production, distribution and availability of varied and nutritious foodstuffs for all – not even for tourists from the West. One day, from our hotel room I looked down at a deserted street and saw that a lone woman was offering apricots for sale.

In short, the meals we ate in Kiev, Moscow and Leningrad were best forgotten. I sometimes think that it was the samovar in each train carriage, serving unlimited hot tea, that kept us going for these 10 days…

One afternoon, the boys enjoyed a trip to the vast circular open-air heated Moskva swimming pool. Many years later, I learned that it had been built in 1958 on the site of the Christ the Saviour cathedral, demolished in 1931 to make way for a gigantic Palace of the Soviets which was never completed. From 1995, the cathedral was rebuilt on that spot.

We visited the usual sights in Red Square – Lenin’s tomb, St Basil’s – and Gum, the ‘General Universal Store’, a Russian version of a fashionable Parisian department store. Except that it was more of a gilded museum, with few visitors and many empty spaces on both floors. 

It was also in Red Square that our guide Liena introduced us to her sister Gala, who lived in Moscow, and who would not have looked out of place in Didsbury; our Leader took up the invitation to him to visit Gala’s flat – the only time in the whole trip that any of us got to see the living space of a Soviet citizen.

Like any visitor, we were impressed by the Moscow metro, with its cathedral-like station interiors. We took the Metro one evening to visit Gorky Park, a vast, sprawling urban lung, thronged with Muscovites – and, as at every visitor attraction we saw in the USSR, with huge numbers of uniformed servicemen on leave.

Cue for an illuminating anecdote: the August evening was warm, and we three group leaders looked longingly at a beer stall – with a queue consisting entirely of servicemen. How long would we have to wait? No problem: Liena promptly marched to the head of the queue, pronounced the magic word ‘Intourist’, and we had our beers! Later, back at the hotel, one boy was missing! And one of the youngest, to boot. And in my group… But before we had had time to panic, the boy turned up safe and well – having taken a bus (no. 48) from Gorky Park back to our hotel. Only an MGS boy could do this…

By the time we had reached Moscow, evenings at our hotel had become more convivial, as for example when several of us gathered in one room to chat, sing, and play MGS Owls’ Nest games such as ‘You’ll never go to Heaven…’ When it came to my turn, I contributed the following:

Oh you’ll never go to Heaven [repeat] … with MGS [repeat]…                                                     

‘Cos the Lord don’t have [repeat]… No intelligence tests [repeat]

Leningrad

This was the city I was personally most eager to see – St Petersburg, the Imperial capital of Tsarist Russia, with its fabulous palaces within and outside the city, and its tumultuous history: the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917, the city’s heroic endurance of the 3-year Nazi siege in WW2…

It did not disappoint.

Where to begin? The views of the city from the banks of the Neva: the University, the Peter Paul fortress - and the Winter Palace, where we visited the Hermitage Museum with its huge collection of Impressionist paintings (now housed in their own museum nearby). (Today, the interior of the palace has been restored to its former glory, but for the art-lover it is now well-nigh impossible to study the Raphaels, the Rembrandts (etc), over the heads of tightly packed tourists from Europe, America and Asia…)

A highlight was the rapid 30-minute trip by hydrofoil from the city to the summer palace at Petrodvorets/Peterhof, delivering us almost to the foot of the fabulous fountains and gilded statues of the cascade in front of the palace. Inside, however, was the sad sight of empty, undecorated palace rooms, stripped and looted by the nazis. (Today, these rooms have been fully restored, with breathtaking results.) As in Gorky Park, Moscow, the many servicemen in uniform outnumbered civilian visitors to the palace grounds.

We were given a glimpse of the structure of Soviet society when Liena showed the three of us a ‘Beriozhka’ shop in a prime site on the Nevsky Prospekt, near the Neva: such shops, we were told, are open to (1) Intourist tourists such as ourselves, and (2) members of the Soviet ‘nomenklatura’. Fortunately, we had just had the chance to browse in a well-stocked bookshop, further up the Nevsky Prospekt, where I bought a huge poster celebrating the cruiser Aurora, from which was fired the blank shot that served as the signal to storm the Winter Palace during the October Revolution.

In the Smolny Institute (Lenin’s HQ in 1917), we were shown a harrowing film about the 3-year nazi siege of Leningrad in WW2. The commentary in English was given for us by a young woman who had probably been born after the end of the siege; at times her voice trembled or faltered, bringing home to us the depths of suffering endured by the city’s remaining inhabitants.

Too soon, it was time for our group to turn back westwards. Need I say that taking leave from Liena when our train reached the Polish border was emotional, even tearful, on both sides: she had watched over our wellbeing like a hawk, indefatigably ensuring that we did what there was to do and saw what there was to see, in the best possible conditions. Spasiba, Liena!

Warsaw

Perhaps we were tired, or even overwhelmed, by our triple dose of cities of the Soviet Union; at all events, we found little to admire, and a lot to ponder during our stay in Warsaw. Nowhere else, even in Berlin, were the wounds of WW2 more starkly brought home to us than in Warsaw. On our first day, as our coach drove along an avenue of characterless flats, we noticed that the base of the building was considerably higher than the roadway: how come? Because, our Polish guide told us, the flats were among the first to be built after 1945 and had been built on top of the rubble of destroyed buildings.

We visited the 1955 ‘Palace of Culture and Science’, a ‘gift of the Soviet people for the Poles’, but the view over the devastated city from the top of this lofty wedding-cake did little to uplift us. The reality for Varsovians in 1967 was that there was nothing to see of Warsaw’s celebrated Old Town, except for one half of one side of a street, which was all that had so far been reconstructed. (Now, the heart of the capital city has been restored to what it had been.) What faith and strength of will it takes to re-erect painstakingly a heritage of centuries that had been viciously flattened!

Outside the city, we visited the Lazienki Palace and Park. The Palace was empty of furniture apart from an antique mantlepiece clock; in the Park there were pretty flower gardens where, every day at 1.00, a grand piano was set up and pieces of Chopin’s works were played – one of the most moving moments of our whole trip.

West Berlin

We stopped again in Berlin for a brief visit to the Western half of this divided city. The streets and avenues were somehow reassuring in their noise and bustle - a sign that we were geographically and culturally nearer to home.

By the time our train reached Cologne station, these feelings were growing – not least for one of the boys, Ted Molyneaux, who had saved up the money for the trip by doing Saturday jobs for several months: as our train set off again, he declared, ‘My mam’ll have a chip butty waiting for me in the oven!’ It is painful to know that this ‘boy’ died long before reaching retirement age.

Conclusion

‘La bêtise consiste à vouloir conclure.’ (Flaubert)

David Nott

Emeritus Professor of French Language Studies, Lancaster University

MGS teaching staff 1963-1980

[We do not hold any photographs of this trip in the archive and would be delighted to receive any material relating to it. Contact archives@mgs.org]

Comments

John Hargreaves

1 Like Posted 7 months ago

I wasn't on the trip but remember the three teachers well.  David Nott taught me. I wondered whether you could publish or let me know which boys were on the trip.

Super article.

Thank you.

Jonathan Diggines

1 Like Posted 7 months ago

David 

Thank you so much. I have very happy memories of the Russia trip in 1967 (and also playing MGS football in the team you ran so diligently).

Three weeks behind the Iron Curtain; the Russia trip was for me, at fourteen, one of the most remarkable experiences of my time at MGS, and, even now, looking back, of my life. 
 

I was in 3U, taking Russian to O Level, taught by our wonderful Form Master, the Reverend Patrick “Figgis” Miller. I got the chance to try my Russian on the journey, notably when I somehow got detached from the party in Moscow. I can remember to this day asking for directions and getting the 48 (sorok vosyem) bus (not the metro) back to the group, at our hotel. 
 

You describe how bleak East Germany was. The comparison was so stark, particularly compared to Prague, which I recall was lively and beautiful in the midst of the Prague Spring, one year before the Russians invaded. When we re-entered West Germany at the end of our trip suddenly we saw bright lights and bustle once again. There I can recall hearing the summer of 1967 anthem “A Whiter Shade of Pale” for the first time, then over and over again as we made our way back home to England 
 

I have a box of slides that I took on the trip on my Halina 35mm camera, bought specially. I am very happy to share these with the School, but, from memory, unfortunately I seemed to avoid taking pictures of people. i also still have a Russian fur hat, with peak and ear muffs (“shapka”) I bought in Moscow and a Czech cut glass dish brought home, intact, for my mother as a thank you for finding the £66 that the trip cost  

Is there a list of those who went? Ted - was that Teddy Molyneux?

David - thank you once again  

Jonathan Diggines (1964-71)

Rachel Kneale

1 Like Posted 7 months ago

Hi Jonathan,

Thank you so much for sharing your memories of the trip, really interesting to read. We'd be delighted to see the slides, when you have a spare moment. I will send the link with the comments to David Nott so that he can reply to you himself,

Best wishes,

Rachel

Mike Cowking

2 Likes Posted 7 months ago

Thank you for the excellent article. I wasn't on this trip, but it must have been an eye-opener at the time for all involved. I do remember Tweedy Harris (did he go on the Borrowdale camp, I wonder?). I spent quite a bit of time in Russia in the 1990's, by which time it had marginally improved on the 1960's - and then I worked in Moscow in the late 2000's, which was probably the best time to be in Russia. I won't be travelling there now.

Mike Cowking (1966-1973)

Visitor

1 Like Posted 7 months ago

A great article, David. Not aware of this trip having taken  place, but I was doing A-leveis at the time. Hope you got my recent  email to your Lancaster University email address. Best wishes, Chris Beswick. Must tell you my Olivier Todd story if I get the chance  to see you again.

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