Bolton School's links with Russia, and more specifically Russian, extend back to the late 1950s, when the subject first appeared tentatively on the curriculum. During this period, the British government had embarked on a concerted campaign to increase the number of Russian speakers in its ranks; as a consequence, many young men and women would be thrown into the world of aspect, be asked to master case inflection and wrestle with the vagaries of verbs of motion. Some would spend summers, usually in a remote part of Scotland, doing battle with irregular genitive plural endings in a bid to help give Britain and the West some sort of advantage over their Soviet rivals in the East.
Set against this backdrop, the powers that be at Bolton School offered Russian to their charges. Gradually the subject grew in size and stature, and today the School can proudly lay claim to possessing the biggest secondary school Russian department in the UK. At present over 230 boys are studying the subject – testament both to the appeal of the subject and the tireless efforts of all the teachers over the years.
There is no question that the trips to the Motherland that the department offers are important aspects in keeping the subject alive and making it appeal to Bolton School boys. Although there had been the odd visit to the Soviet Union in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was not until the 1980s that trips to the Soviet Union started to occur with greater regularity. One of the earliest 'big' trips took place in 1983 and involved stays in both Moscow and Leningrad, as St Petersburg was then known. That was at a time when the exchange rate was 1 rouble to £1 (it is now 60 roubles to the pound), the policies of Glasnost and Perestroika were a mere pipedream and the then imminent Olympic Games in Los Angeles were to take place without the participation of the boycotting Soviet Union. Flights to Russia were an adventure in themselves as boys and staff would pile on to Aeroflot's creaking Tupolev jets and travel eastwards. While the accommodation on this particular trip was rather grand – in that year the party stayed at the illustrious Hotel Ukraina, now a des-res apartment block in Moscow – the food was, by all accounts, as tasteless and bland as reports would have you believe. Nonetheless, the allure of the country lay in the chance to go behind the 'Iron Curtain', to see for oneself Red Square, to experience what 'shopping' was like at GUM and to pause for thought in front of the myriad of objects and paintings on display at the Hermitage. After queuing up for over two hours, the group even had the privilege of seeing Lenin lying in his mausoleum – something that today depends very much on the former Communist leader's availability; he is often away having his regular 'embalming bath' when we visit now! Back then, everyday Soviet people were not permitted to have in their possession western hard currency – how different it is today! – and most of the party bought their souvenirs at the obligatory Beryozhka – a chain of state-run stores that operated exclusively for foreigners and the Soviet elite.
In the chaotic Yeltsin years of the 1990s, when bartering was rife, inflation sky-high and the green shoots of capitalism began to wipe away the communist cobwebs of a faltering economy, Bolton School still continued its regular trips. Many boys remark with fondness upon the friendliness of the guides, who would chaperone them around Russia and speak English with that captivating Russian inflection. The guides would often have a catchphrase that became a leitmotif of the visit. Perhaps the most famous is the guide who responded to most questions with a shrug of her shoulders and a resigned 'This is the way how it is in Russia'.
Over fifty years after Russian became a part of the Bolton School curriculum, it is heartening to see how strong the position of the subject remains here and how it has become a unique selling point. While there is no question that the country which inspired the subject has changed markedly in that time, what has not changed is the fact that the Russian department still offers boys the chance to go to that 'riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma'. Now, however, there are ex-gratia payments that need to be factored in to budgeting – the 'on-the-spot fine' for running on the grass verge in a park stood at £50 on a recent trip; express parking at certain attractions can be costly and medical insurance does not cover the payments needed to expedite your visit to the doctor. That said, the vast majority of the Russian people we meet are friendly, polite, articulate and intelligent. They are very keen to speak to the boys and are always impressed by the boys' Russian language skills. We have a successful link with school 416 in Moscow and visit them on each of our biennial trips. Some great tales emerge from those meetings – international one-legged wrestling competitions stand up well alongside basketball games and poetry recitals. Yes, much has happened to this part of the world since the mid-1980s, but the magic of Russia lives on. In 2013 eighty boys and eight staff went to Russia and, in addition to the obvious sights, we were able to look around the Space Museum, to take in an opera, to strut our stuff at a folk show and to squeeze into the small train compartments for the overnight adventure to St Petersburg.
Today, in addition to the wider biennial School visit, we can boast of the annual Sixth Form residential visit to the Pushkin Institute. There, each Easter, boys have (undergo?) lessons taught by Russians with limited English and more traditionally inclined views on pupil learning. What seems initially to be a daunting experience, quickly transforms into a memorable one that results in increased fluency in the language and a much sharper, broader understanding of the culture. These memories are not the only ones that live on long after we leave Russian shores. The rooms in the youth hostel in particular are unforgettable, with each containing a welcoming broken fridge in the small hallway and a heater that cannot be turned off. Where else in the world can you find yourself lying in bed at night with the radiator on full blast and your bedroom window wide open? It is memories and experiences such as these that have made visits to Russia the highlight for many Bolton School boys. Long may this wonderful nation continue to offer such unforgettable adventures!
P G Davidson