This post is by Gabrielle Cornish (University of Rochester). Spring 2012, Russian Language Program, CIEE Saint Petersburg.
The past few days, while largely uneventful, have been instrumental in my becoming more and more acclimated to living in Saint Petersburg. I began classes on Tuesday, and they have thus far been both challenging and rewarding; challenging because they are entirely conducted in Russian, and rewarding when I understand much of what is being said. I’m taking two electives: a politics course comparing the USA and Russia, and a culture course. Additionally, I’ve got a wide spread of language classes: grammar, conversation, lexicon, current events, and phonetics. My grammar class, while mostly review thus far, has been the most challenging; while I’m usually fairly solid when it comes to grammar — thanks to a great foundation from my university and my summer program, as well as some outside study on my own — my vocabulary is severely lacking in comparison to other students in my group, students who have studied for much longer than I have. After a brief panic that I wouldn’t be able to keep up, I’ve calmed down and decided that, even if it means I have to work even harder, it’s beneficial to be in a higher group and struggling some than to be in a lower group and less challenged (and I’m grateful to Meri Doubleday, for helping quell my fears and doubts). That’s the funny thing about programs like this — being around students of all different backgrounds and skill levels is both comforting, as being around people with similar interests reaffirms our own, and yet disarming, as they represent another unknown in an already mysterious equation.
But, in a sense, one of the only things of which we can be certain of in life (besides death and taxes) is that there will be encounters with the unknown. My phonetics professor offered some interesting insight the other day when a student asked her why Dostoevsky was her favorite writer, and she responded that it’s because he, more so than any other writer, offers insight into the Russian soul, because Russians always like to think “who am I? Why me?” I thought about her comment as I rode the metro home later that night, watching Russians around me as they crowded into metro cars and escalators, wondering if they were simply trying to figure that out about themselves, as my professor suggested. People watching on the metro — difficult, as it is prudent not to be caught doing so — is extremely interesting. Was the babushka, shoving me out of her way as she stepped off the train, pondering her existence? Or the young boy next to me, with DJ Timati blasting from his headphones, wondering about his place in the world? What did the war veteran, missing both legs and without prosthesis, sliding across the floor of the station, think of his life’s meaning? These, of course, are questions I could not answer — but perhaps, neither could they.
Today, I had a day off from classes — one of my professors was out of town at a conference — so, after meeting with a woman at an educational exchange center about giving a lecture to Russian students about music education in America, I decided to explore the area around the Alexander Nevsky metro station. My main goal, however, was to visit the Tikhvin Cemetery at the Nevsky Monastery, where some of my favorite composers are buried. With a slight twinge from the obvious platitude of it, I walked around the cemetery listening to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth (and final) Symphony, looking for the composer’s gravestone.
Tchaikovsky was, in many ways, a man full of contrasts and unknowns. Though he was trained as a lawyer from the age of twelve, his true passion was music and composition. Despite being having been born, raised, and lived in Russia his entire life, he represented a bridge between the Russian musical stylings of Glinka or Borodin and Europe, preferring a thoroughly western approach to composition and teaching that his Russian contemporaries did not share. Though I’d argue that Rachmaninoff, not Tchaikovsky, more adequately captures the essence of the Russian soul like Dostoevsky does with literature, Tchaikovsky is, perhaps, the Russian composer with the most insight into the unknown element. In closing, I’d like to share my favorite quote by Tchaikovsky, which may be his closest attempt to surmising an answer to the unknown.
“I am made up of contradictions, and I have reached a very mature age without resting upon anything positive, without having calmed my restless spirit either by religion or philosophy. Undoubtedly I should have gone mad but for music. Music is indeed the most beautiful of all Heaven’s gifts to humanity wandering in the darkness. Alone it calms, enlightens, and stills our souls.”
Ну ладно, до свидания,