LINCOLN PARK — Tensions in Russia in the wake of the crisis in Crimea became up close and personal for a group of students from Lincoln Park.
Just five days after Crimeans voted to break away from Ukraine and join Russia last month, 18 students from Francis W. Parker School landed in St. Petersburg for a previously scheduled youth summit.
They found themselves flying into a tense situation, made even more tense by being the only U.S. group to attend the annual Saint Petersburg International Model United Nations Conference, which drew students from 15 nations.
DNAinfo's Paul Biasco chats about Francis Parker students' unique trip to Russia during tense political times:
The tension between the Westerners and the Russians was palpable, the students said. But by the end of the conference, the students from all over the world were hanging out, swapping stories and just being teenagers.
"We did come in during the Ukrainian crisis, so we were pretty much solely responsible for representing the Western views," said Matt Finkel, an 18-year-old Parker senior. "There were times where it actually got sort of tense, but our delegates handled themselves very well."
The issue of Crimea and the unrest in greater Ukraine came up immediately during the opening ceremony of the conference.
In the building where the former parliament used to meet, where Vladimir Lenin preached about communism, the student representatives from Russia spoke of their rights to Crimea, according to Andrew Sacks, captain of the Model UN team.
Officials running the conference also made some very pro-Russian remarks that were inflammatory to westerners, according to Finkel.
"Russian kids couldn't hold themselves back and would stand up and clap," Sacks said.
Finkel said the situation had the potential "to escalate very quickly," but the conference turned the corner and was a peaceful success.
The majority of the conference's 400 student attendees were Russians, along with one Ukrainian school.
Most of the Ukrainians took a "very" Western stance, with the exception of a few Crimeans, according to Finkel, who plans on studying government and international relations in college next year.
"The biggest thing I took away was that these kids from around the world are not too different than we are," Sacks said. "I met some really cool kids; intellectual, open-minded students from Saudi Arabia, from Egypt, from Dubai."
The students from Francis Parker spent four months preparing for the trip to the conference, which focused on topics such as the future of atomic energy, the conflict in Syria and worldwide education.
The first two days involved student delegates arguing their points in debates. The conference ended with an award ceremony.
During the debates, Parker students said they expected the Russians to have a more balanced view of world topics.
"We heard some things that we didn't expect that were shocking," Finkel said. "We heard people of all ages say Russia doesn't need a good leader, Russia needs a strong leader. That was really, really surprising to us."
Leading up to the trip, there were concerns from both parents who were sending their children and the school community, according to Jeanne Barr, a history teacher who accompanied the students.
Barr said the school was in touch with the State Department, parents had reached out to U.S. senators, and there was even contact with the White House ahead of the trip.
"There was definitely a question of should we go," Barr said. "Everybody was telling us it's fine here, it will be OK. Caution is for sure the nature of the game."
The reality was, the conference was held more than 1,000 miles away from Crimea and citizens in Russia were not nearly as concerned as those in the U.S., according to Barr.
After the three-day conference, the students spent time visiting historic sites in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, including the Hermitage, The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, Catherine's Place, St. Isaac's, St. Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin.
It's the 10th year Francis Parker has sent a delegation to a Model UN conference.
Past years have included trips to Berlin, Paris, Rose, Lisbon and Istanbul, but this was the furthest destination and first time they were heading to a country during an international conflict.
"The truth was we saw zero unrest the whole time were were there," Barr said. "The only time it came up was if we brought it up."
Seven Francis Parker students received "Best Delegate" awards during the conference: Avery Bedows ’15; Rachel Brown ’14, Matt Finkel ’14, Jack Friend ’14; Josh Kaufman ’17; and Andrew Sacks ’15 and Sam Smith ’15. Allie Bensinger '16 and Sampson Ohringer '14 received honorable mentions.