It has been almost two months since the city of St. Petersburg welcomed the spring 2017 CIEE students with its snowy streets, frozen rivers, foggy mornings, dignified imperial palaces and grandiose Soviet-era edifices. The whirlwind of events and activities definitely factored into how fast the city enchanted its most curious observers, the CIEE study abroad students, with all the hidden wonders that Russia has to offer.
Jacob Levitan (Washington University in St Louis) has presented his first impressions and observations after a few short weeks into the semester:
“Before I arrived here, I thought Saint Petersburg is not truly Russian. Now I can see that perhaps, Saint Petersburg is quintessentially Russian. Everyone says that Saint Petersburg is Russia’s European city, and that might be true on the surface. But, if one bothers to look even a little closely, one can see through the veil, one can see a heart that is neither European nor Asiatic, but Russian.”
The first weekend in the city took us on the excursion around the State Hermitage, walking us through the renowned Jordan staircase, Da Vinci and Michelangelo bearing halls, and gilded ballrooms of the Winter Palace, the grand residence of the Tsars. The overview excursion creates a perfect learning platform for the first-time visitors. The tour discusses the history and the art, encouraging the students to come back and explore the museum further.
Luckily, the CIEE students receive Russian student ID, which guarantees free entrance to state museums!
Trying traditional Petersburg-style pyshki (deep fried doughnuts), riding a Russian tram, and tasting Russian kvass (fermented beverage made from rye bread): these all are not scenes from a Russian movie, they are various CIEE Scavenger Hunt tasks! The students successfully completed the trials of two-hour long challenging Scavenger Hunt, enjoying their findings (gastronomical and otherwise) and keeping up the spirit of friendly competition. The ‘initiation’ was completed with some real-life, practical missions: now every student in the program knows where the CIEE partner medical clinic is located!
The winners received a unique opportunity to admire ‘Boris Godunov’ opera at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. Opened in 1860, it became the pre-eminent music theater of late 19th century Russia.
CIEE Academic Program Highlights
What distinguishes a study abroad endeavor from a touristic adventure? In addition to the opportunity for deeper learning the language, studies at CIEE allow the students to take a thorough look at different aspects of history, culture and socio-political life of the foreign country through a variety of site-specific courses and case studies, discussions and local field trips to thematic museums and expositions.
Courses Russian civilization: popular stereotypes and social behavior and Mentality, Social Behavior and the Representations of Russia involve visits to several St. Petersburg historic locations, including the Sergey Kirov Memorial museum. Located in Kirov’s former apartment on the Petrogradskaia side, the museum provides a glimpse into the living conditions of upper-class families soon before the Revolution of 1917 and the everyday life of Soviet Party elite in the 1920s – early 1930s, attesting to the complex character of Soviet modernization and urbanism. Objects on display present a curious combination of the burgeoning Soviet and old bourgeois lifestyles: portraits of Soviet leaders of the time exist side-by-side with posh furniture, gifts sent by industrial workers as their reports of achievements, hunting equipment and trophies coexist with expensive appliances, such as a GE refrigerator, specially delivered for Kirov from the US.
A Century of Russian Cinema
This semester, CIEE Study Center welcomed Dr. Lyubov (Dmitrievna) Bugaeva to the CIEE faculty team. Dr. Bugaeva is an associate professor at St. Petersburg State University, who has taught in Russia and abroad (Europe, the US and UAE). Her academic interests include Russian literature, film studies and philosophy, as she published extensively on narrative theory in film, on Russian literature and cinema of the 1920s and 1930s and philosophical anthropology.
Dr. Bugaeva is facilitating discussion of Valery Todorkovsky's Stilyagi (2008)
The course A Century of Russian Cinema explores the relationship between cinema and society by looking at the evolving film industry and film schools. It explores film experimentations of the 1920s, propaganda in Stalin cinema of the 1930s, representations of the enemy in war films, art-house and mainstream cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, the collapse of the state-run film industry in the times of Perestroika, and Post-Soviet cinema. The course examines trends as well as specific films and filmmakers such as Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, Andrei Tarkovsky, Aleksei Balabanov, Aleksander Sokurov, and many others.
Matthew Schwimmer (University of California) shares his reflections on the Russian Cinema class experience:
“Learning about Russian society through cinema is an intriguing and effective way of getting insight into this country. Just as Russia has undergone multiple changes in the past 100 years, so have the people living in it. The evolution of film and the differences of themes during this time give a valuable insight to how people lived, what they valued, and when their mores changed.”
“Political Topography of Petrograd and Russian Revolution of 1917:” guest talk by Boris Kolonitsky
As CIEE continues its series of guest talks by Russia's well-known scholars in this country and abroad, the Center hosted a lecture by Dr. Boris Kolonitsky, a professor of European University at St. Petersburg and a leading expert in the history of the Russian Revolution of 1917. This year marks one century since the Revolution of 1917, and it was St. Petersburg—at that time called Petrograd—where the events of the February Revolution took place. According to Dr. Kolonitsky, Petrograd was more than a backdrop to the mass demonstrations and the clashes between the insurgent workers and the police. The city itself became the key actor in the unfolding drama of the revolution, shaping the policies and actions of other players: the government, the military and the working class.
On March 3, Professor Boris Kolonitsky (European University at St. Petersburg) gave a lecture for the CIEE students and guests
Gabriel Carrasquillo (Brandeis University):
“It was interesting to learn of the multitude of scattered revolts and uprisings throughout the city of Петроград (Petrograd)! What struck me as most interesting was how various uprisings used the frozen river in order to successfully amass large groups to spark what would be the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution.”
Russia and the U.S.: Are We Doing Gender Differently?
CIEE Discussion Club meetings always stay on top of the current matters and events. A part of CIEE’s mission is students’ exposure to the host culture offering them a view that goes beyond the headlines, to create a genuine dialogue between the two cultures that may have vastly different approaches to the same issue. The topic for this semester’s inaugural gathering was Russia and the U.S.: Are We Doing Gender Differently?
The topic was inspired by 2017 Women’s March in the US and around the world, as well as by the International Women’s Day celebration in Russia. The U.S. students and their Russian peers shared their experience of dealing with diverse gender norms, at home and abroad.
The discussion merged into a broader question of cultural stereotypes, and there was a surprising consensus about the important issues that women face in both countries. While several Russian students mentioned that Russian does not often have the discursive resources to handle the discussions of gender construction and gender equality and therefore such discussions are very often difficult to have in Russia, the atmosphere of mutual understanding and respect in the audience was very rewarding.
Russia’s Winter Holidays
Spring semester calendar is always rich with traditional Russian holidays and festivals. The start of this semester coincided with a few important dates: the Defender of the Fatherland Day and Maslenitsa Week Festival!
Maslenitsa week has several meanings and serves a few different purposes. It signals the termination of winter and heralds the beginning of spring. Maslenitsa week is also a pre-Lenten strike, which basically explains why it becomes a preemptive measure before the coming prolonged fast. Russians consider Maslenitsa to be the time for feasting happily, and Russian crepes, or blini, are the featured treat!
CIEE students and their Russian buddies attended the public mass celebration on Sunday, the culmination of the Malsenitsa week. At the festival, blini, pyshki, and kvass were plentiful; in addition to delicious treats, there were multiple opportunities to dance, play traditional folk games, and enjoy the final spectacle: burning of the Maslenitsa effigy!
Defender of the Fatherland Day
Kelly Morris of George Washington University featured her experience celebrating one of Russia’s key national holidays in her study abroad blog:
“To celebrate properly, my friends and I went to a military reenactment/festival in a giant park. As we were walking up, we could hear cannons, gunshots (all blanks, of course), and patriotic Russian music playing. When we finally arrived, it was unlike anything I have ever seen. There were men dressed in old Soviet military wear, some costumes and some I’m sure were real. There were “army camps” set up, horses, and lots and lots of guns. I truly felt as though I was thrusted back 40 years in time, and the whole celebration was an experience I will never forget.”
Juana Granados (Claremont McKenna College) is pictured with actors and props at the War Reenactment event
Multiple Layers of Cultural Immersion
An introductory part of CIEE’s intercultural curriculum helps study abroad students properly define culture and make valuable conclusions rather than simply observe. At the seminar on intercultural awareness, the students study various metaphors for culture; one of them depicts culture as an onion: something multilayered and complex, tough to get through at first glance, but rewarding once you pass the initial difficulties. At times students joke that first encounter with a foreign culture may make you cry, just like onions do!
Kevin Yi (University of Rochester) provides a valuable insight into his first weeks in Russia and his meaningful interactions with the locals:
“Between my discussions with my homestay mom, my conversation partner, and other Russian people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting during my time here, I’ve come to understand that Russians are just regular people. Before arriving in Russia, my perceptions of Russians were almost entirely shaped by everything from worried friends and family members to internet memes. Now I am happy to say with confidence that Russians are some of the warmest and most welcoming people I’ve ever met. Though inherently they are different in some ways than Americans, in the end we’re all just people.”
Learning new cultures is fun, and CIEE students experience its various layers firsthand, by being engaged in CIEE extracurricular activities. Together with Russian Buddies, we cook Russian dishes, explore Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg, paint traditional Russian matryoshka dolls, enjoy playing board games and this is only a small part of it!
Anticafés: Perfect Study Spaces
Unlike typical American university campuses, SPSU’s infrastructure includes mostly classrooms and large auditorium halls. There are virtually no open spaces for studying after hours, meeting with peers and study groups and simply socializing. CIEE students are usually surprised to learn that this does not create a problem at all; on the contrary, this inspires young students to become more creative and discover new opportunities available off-campus.
To spend their time productively, Russian students resort to anticafés, places that offer their guests to pay not for the food and beverages they order, but for the time they spend there. In turn, there are plenty of tea, coffee, cocoa, cookies and small snacks available to all guests free of charge. St. Petersburg anticafés have their own unmatched cozy ambience, which makes them a perfect place for studying or simply enjoying some quite time with friends.
The CIEE spring semester is still in full swing, and we have a lot of new adventures on the way! Stay tuned for the update on CIEE trip to Moscow, CIEE Alternative Break in Rostov-on-Don and Kirov, and CIEE annual Spring Ball!
S nailuchshimi pozhelaniyami (Wishing all the best),
CIEE St. Petersburg Team
Katya Kavchenko, Student Services Assistant
Ira Vasilyeva, Student Services Coordinator
Anton Stepanov, Program Officer
Aleksei Zarnitsyn, Program Coordinator
Svetlana Mantsvetova, Housing Coordinator
Julia Semibratova, Excursions Coordinator
Dr. Natalia Chernyaeva, Academic Coordinator
Dr. Irina Makoveeva, Center Director