A group of students from Langley High School is giving an international spin to spring break, heading out Tuesday for a 10-day trip to Russia.
This year marks the 23rd student trip in 25 years organized by Valentin Cukierman, the Russian language teacher at the school in McLean.
The first two trips, in 1990 and 1991, took place when Russia was still considered the Soviet Union. Now, in the midst of more turmoil in Russia-United States relations, the trip remains as important as ever, said Cukierman, who was born in Russia and immigrated to the United States in 1970.
“I’m trying to create a bond, an understanding between young people, that will hopefully grow and grow,” Cukierman said. “This doesn’t have to do with politics. It’s people.”
In his first year teaching at Langley, Cukierman worked with the principal of a high school in St. Petersburg to organize the inaugural trip.
“There were five students on the first trip,” Cukierman said. “Everyone was afraid. But we touched history.”
Since then, though, the Russian language program and the trip have blossomed. In 25 years, the program has grown from 22 students to more than 200, and this year’s group of 20 students is par for the course for the spring break trip, according to Cukierman.
The 20 students and four chaperones will spend two nights at a hotel in Moscow, then travel by train to St. Petersburg to stay with Russian students and their families. The Russian students will then return the favor, staying with Langley students and their families from April 23-30.
“Moscow is like a tourist experience - Russia from the outside,” Cukierman said. “But not St. Petersburg. Students from both sides can gain so much from the exchange.”
This year, the Langley group, including Cukierman, heads out under a travel alert for Russia issued by the U.S. State Department. Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in March, making relations rocky between Russia and the United States.
The alert, which came out in March and remains in effect through June 13, advises American travelers to the country of “the potential for increased public demonstrations and anti-American actions” due to the situation in Crimea.
“That’s what has made people around us kind of nervous,” said Sarah Salem, a junior at Langley going on the trip. “But I’m still excited.”
Safety is always a top priority, Cukierman said while readying students for departure at Dulles International Airport. He also noted the cultural education students receive will be invaluable, even in the strained political climate.
“The mentality is us versus them, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” Cukierman said. “I hope that this will help alleviate those tensions between our people.”
The trip has been skipped twice in 25 years, once as a result of organization issues and most recently in the spring after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when Fairfax County school administration called off the journey.
Since then, the trip has been organized privately by Cukierman and parents. Though the school system did offer to reinstate the program, Cukierman said he enjoys a level of independence in planning the travels.
Still, Cukierman regularly recruits his fellow faculty members to serve as chaperones. Matthew Ragone, the principal at Langley, went on the trip in 2009, and the journey has become an expected part of the school calendar.
Cukierman sees each trip as a way to experience his home country anew.
“I thrive on their faces,” Cukierman said. “I look through their eyes. I get to see it new every time.”