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4 posts from July 2012


CIEE Spring Ball!

This post is by Gabrielle Cornish (University of Rochester). Spring 2012, Russian Language Program, CIEE  Saint Petersburg.

I know it’s only been a few days since my last post, but I figured that, since I have the time tonight, I’d write another — it will be short, don’t worry! Anyways, it will help make up for some of the time when I didn’t post anything.

Last night, CIEE (my study abroad program) hosted their fourth annual Smolny Spring Ball, which was tons of fun and a great way to get the entire group together. The ball was an eighteenth century themed dance, where we all got to dress up in period costumes, attend an “authentic” ball, and learn different Russian dances and ball etiquette. For girls, we learned how to flirt and talk with men using our fans (there are actually several different ways of communicating via fan, surprisingly enough) which provided for some great laughs (especially when the guys had a go of it). Additionally, we learned the “language of beauty marks” (those little black dots on women’s faces). Basically, women in the eighteenth century would have a small black piece of fabric on their face, and depending on what they wanted to convey to a man, they would move it around accordingly — we learned close to twenty different beauty mark positions, but ended up not using them during the ball (which was fine with me — I wasn’t crazy about the idea to begin with!)

Prior to the ball, we all went to a costume shop by the Ulitsa Dybenko metro station (at the end of the orange line) and picked out our dresses (and, for men, outfits ranging from military garb to court jester-esque) for the ball. Though none of us were super pleased with our dresses (it was like choosing a prom dress all over again, except this time one that had an inconveniently puffy skirt and a lacy collar!) we had to admit that we looked pretty “fresh” in spite of everything. It was even better to see the men’s outfits; I was especially a fan of my friend Zack’s unfortunately awkward wig.

There's nothing like being nestled between Napoleon and someone who I'm assuming was supposed to be Judge Hathorne from "The Crucible"

Once the night actually began and we got over our initial aversions to waltzing around in hoop skirts, it was really enjoyable! We were served champagne and hors d’oeuvres by waiters, while listening to classical music and waltzing (or at least attempting to…) My friend Chris and I had a bit of trouble with the polka, but managed to hold everything together (or at least pretended to).

It may not have been pretty, but at least I didn't fall!

As the night progressed, we were surprised with student performers, the CIEE choir, and even a duel between two guys over a girl — gasp! Towards the end of the night, we switched from period-appropriate classical music to modern dance music; I certainly never expected to see a bunch of people in large ball gowns jumping up and down to dubstep, but it happened! Tired from our night of dancing and drama, the night wrapped up and we headed home. Overall, it was a really fun experience — both for the historical significance and the group bonding.

This weekend, we’re going to Pskov and Pushkinskie Gory — an ancient town and the place where Pushkin is buried, respectively. Though, admittedly, I don’t know too much about either town, it should be a great trip, and I’ll make sure to post something when I return!

Until then,



I’m reading Laurel Fay’s “Shostakovich: A Life” right now, which is a fantastic account of Shostakovich’s upbringing, compositions, and experiences (especially those with Soviet censorship). I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Shostakovich — it’s detailed in its musical accounts, but isn’t strongly based upon music theory, so it’s a good read for both musicians and non-musicians. Regardless, here’s Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, Mvmt. IV, conducted by Leonard Bernstein (though I suggest you listen to the entire symphony — Fay writes that, at the premiere, nearly the entire audience was in tears during the third movement, only to be roused by the triumphant fourth movement). This symphony was the first major work Shostakovich premiered after his opera, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” was denounced publicly by Soviet authorities and the composer disgraced. At the end of the symphony’s premiere, the audience applauded so vigorously and for so long that, in fear of repercussions from the Communist Party, Shostakovich had to be escorted out of the theater safely before it could be considered a riot or a challenge to the party! The symphony went on to be one of Shostakovich’s most successful, and is still a standard in orchestral repertoire today — take a listen!

It’s been a while…

This post is by Gabrielle Cornish (University of Rochester). Spring 2012, Russian Language Program, CIEE  Saint Petersburg.

Oops. Clearly I need to work on my blogging work ethic, because I’ve really fallen behind in my posting. Two months behind, as a matter of fact. Though, I must admit, it’s difficult to find time to blog about one’s experiences when there are things to be experienced nearly every waking hour! Nevertheless, I’ll try to keep this blog more up to date for my remaining few weeks in Russia, though I’m making no promises that I’ll be able to follow through…

Which brings me to an important (and horrifying) point: I have less than a month left in Russia, a fact that makes me feel terribly sad! So much has happened this semester, and there’s still so much more for me to see and to do — why can’t my time here last forever?! They warn study abroad students about “phase two,” the phase that follows the initial “honeymoon phase,” where the cultural shock and differences starts to wear on students, as they miss home, American culture, and grow weary of a difficult-to-navigate foreign society. Fortunately for me, I never experienced this phase (and, knock on wood, won’t!). I don’t know if it’s because I’ve never felt an explicit connection to American culture, because I’ve had overwhelmingly good experiences here, or because I’ve kept busy, but whatever the reason for it, I’m glad that I’ve been able to maintain my initial infatuation with Saint Petersburg! But now, for a quick recap of some of the major events in the past two months:


My study abroad program went to Moscow at the end of March for three days, and I absolutely LOVED the city. We took the overnight train from Petersburg to Moscow (which was, in itself, an experience) and spent the first day touring various sites in the city. Moscow reminded me a lot of New York City — larger than Petersburg, busier, lots of traffic and things to do — and made Petersburg seem like a “quaint village” in comparison (though, of course, don’t tell any Petersburger that I said that!) I must say, however, that after finally reading “Master and Margarita,” I was definitely wary of the tram cars… The first night in Moscow, I met up with one of my professors from my summer at Middlebury who lives there, and she showed me around, offering fun facts and personal anecdotes, before we met up with a student assistant from the Middlebury program for dinner and good conversation — it was a really fantastic time, and it was great to see both of them again!

The next day, we went to see Lenin’s body (though, of course, the truth of the display is disputed), toured Saint Basil’s, and got to go inside and tour the Kremlin. It was incredible to, after studying Russian language and culture in America, be able to finally step foot in Red Square — though I did imagine it would be a bit, well, redder. Once there, it was really easy to imagine the victory parades, the propaganda marches, and the political speeches that were made in the square.

In front of Saint Basil's! It was rainy, but warm!

Of course, eventually my time in Moscow had to end, as our designated “Travel Week” vacation began, and from there I went to Florence, Italy.

So, after a restful week in Florence (frankly, after Russia’s weather, I found Florence to be a bit warm — this summer in Upstate New York should be interesting!) I returned to Petersburg, my love for the city reaffirmed from my time away.

Since I’ve been back in Petersburg (just over two weeks) I’ve been fortunate enough to, in addition to teaching English regularly, be able to sit in and help out with my U of R Russian Professor’s American Studies class (she teaches at U of R in the fall and in Saint Petersburg in the spring) which was a really interesting and illuminating experience. It was fascinating to experience how American history was taught from a Russian perspective, as well as students’ responses and feelings on race, the civil rights movement, and the American university system. Furthermore, I was able to help out at an English writing class (taught by the T.A.) which was equally interesting — I hope to do more of this in the future!

The final experience that I’ll detail here actually occurred last night, when I was fortunate enough to go to the Mariinsky Ballet to see Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka” and “The Firebird” performed live. Wow, it was simply AMAZING! For me, I have a soft spot for “The Firebird,” because I was able to play it in NYSSMA All-State Orchestra my senior year of high school. To see it finally performed by a professional ensemble, as well as by one of the top ballet companies in the world, was astonishing! (My favorite three movements — The Infernal Dance, Berecuese, and Finale — can be found here!)

Overall, classes are still going well. The electives can, at times, be a bit dry, but the actual information is really interesting. Though I don’t want to leave, I am looking forward to my classes next semester: all Russian and music — what more could you want?! This summer, I’ll be interning at Senator Schumer’s office in Rochester, working, and trying to find ways to use my Russian; it will be nice to be able to experience Rochester in the summer!

This weekend we go to Pskov, an ancient city about five hours south of Petersburg. We’ll also head to the small town where Pushkin was once exiled and is now buried. Additionally, I’m heading back to Moscow (this time with a friend, not the entire program) for four days in May — I’m looking forward to having more time to see the city, and I’ll also be there for Putin’s inauguration, which will, without a doubt, be interesting!

Poka for now,


Just a summary so far…

This post is by Gabrielle Cornish (University of Rochester). Spring 2012, Russian Language Program, CIEE  Saint Petersburg.

February 21 – February 29

Со своим уставом, в чужой монастырь не ходит – When in Rome, do as the Romans do

I am really doing badly at keeping this blog up to date; it was so easy at first, but now there seems to be too much to adequately write about — a daunting task!

I can’t believe I’ve already been in Russia for a month!! The time seems to have flown by, and yet I feel like I’ve already seen and experienced so much. Just as a recap, here are somethings I’ve seen, done, or experienced.

Major Places I’ve Seen or Visited

  • The Hermitage (and Victory Square)
  • Pavlovsk
  • Church on Spilt Blood
  • Tikhvin Cemetery (where some of my musical idols are buried)
  • Novgorod (where I saw an AWESOME statue of Rachmaninoff)
  • Gostiny Dvor
  • Petrovsky Stadium
  • Kazan Cathedral
  • The Siege of Leningrad Museum
  • Saint Isaac’s Cathedral
  • The Russian Vodka Museum (this one was, well, interesting…)
  • The Bronze Horseman
  • The Great Hall of the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic (where I saw Danse Macabre, by Saint-Saëns, and The Bells, by Rachmaninoff)

A Few Things I’ve Seen or Experienced:

  • Being part of an arranged marriage: I was on the trolley one morning speaking with an older Russian woman, who, after learning I was American, asked me if I a) was married, and b) if I had ever been to Moscow (both answers, of course, are no). After finding this out, she promptly and sincerely told me she was taking me to Moscow that weekend to marry her son. I respectfully declined.
  • A Russian soccer game — drunk spectators and riot police included!
  • Being spat on for being an American, as well as told that I “killed Lenin”
  • SHAVERMA. Aka possibly the greatest culinary invention ever. I’m not really sure what’s in it, besides some sort of meat, cucumbers, and a life-changing sauce. Just make sure you don’t get it from a hut on the street, because chances are that those places make it with stray dogs, or worse…
  • Teaching English, which I do at two places weekly, and has thus far been a great experience!
  • Public Transportation — both successes and failures. Successes include successfully navigating and memorizing (more or less) the metro system, while some failures include getting lost on a trolley for three hours, having trolleys never show up, and seeing my trolley driver drinking beer… While driving… (Trolleys seem to be the root of most of my problems…)
  • Elections — hearing my host mother’s explanation as to why she’s voting for Putin (a compelling argument, on her part), different campaign ads and protests in the city, and a frighteningly nationalistic (and anti-western) speech by Zhirinovsky.
  • Bruises from a few well-aimed elbows to the ribs, courtesy of a few babushkas boarding the metro.
  • Becoming a regular at the produkti (small grocery store) next to my apartment, and becoming friends with the owners. They like to share their English vocabulary with me (they’re excellent counters), test my Russian skills by asking me to name things in the store, and asking me (regularly) if I had cried that day because Michael Jackson and/or Whitney Houston was dead.
  • Stumbling through the process of buying a cell phone (a replacement one, after losing my first) at an electronics store, speaking only Russian
  • Gloriously being able to converse with Russians, ask for directions, and even give directions to a few places.

Both good and bad, easy and difficult, I wouldn’t change a thing that’s happened so far in “ze muzzaland.” In this month, I feel like I’ve grown and expanded my horizons more than I ever have before, and when one of my professors told me that this trip “would be the making of me,” I don’t think he could have been any more correct! If the next few months are as amazing as this one, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to return to my old self — the Gabby who had barely ever left the northeast, let alone the country.

Well, I’d better get back to looking at summer internships and programs, as well as researching grad schools (SO daunting, though I am looking at one in Saint Petersburg and one that involves a year in Moscow!) This weekend I’m going to the Philharmonic again (to see Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, which will probably be the most surreal and amazing thing yet!) and visiting the Pushkin Museum, so in honor of Pushkin himself, I figured I’d change up my “sign-off” message a bit for this blog.

But all at once for good withdrew,

As I from my wordpress blog do.


(The original line from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin: “but all at once for good withdrew / as I from my Onegin do.)

Trains, Names, and Soccer Games

This post is by Gabrielle Cornish (University of Rochester). Spring 2012, Russian Language Program, CIEE  Saint Petersburg.

February 10 – February 20

Sorry it’s been such a long time since I posted – it’s been a pretty busy ten days, and the time I haven’t spent doing homework, traveling, or sight-seeing has been spent sleeping (which, sadly, hasn’t quite amounted to enough). Things are still going as great as — if not better — than my first ten days in Russia. I’m really starting to feel less like a tourist and more like a resident (though, of course, the cultural and linguistic differences are still abundant and noticeable) which is encouraging. Classes are going well — not as difficult as I was afraid they’d be; my terrible pronunciation in phonetics class seems to be the biggest struggle thus far. Fortunately, we’re learning intonation patterns — something I’ve never covered before — and I’m so interested, I can brush off my phonetic missteps. Grammar is both exciting and frightening — exciting because we’re starting to learn new, interesting things, and frightening because the professor, while sweet, is rather intimidating. I’ve been really pleased with how the study abroad program has been run so far, and think that the organization of everything has really added to a swift acclimation to Piter. The only thing I’m a bit disappointed in is that American students, with whom I spend the most time with, don’t speak Russian with each other. While this is great in the sense that I’m really getting to know some amazing people, I’m a bit concerned my language skills won’t progress as much as I had hoped. I spent this past summer at Middlebury, where there was an extremely strict Russian-only language pledge observed, and I really felt my conversational skills progress drastically. That being said, I’m certainly not missing the stress that went along with such a pledge, but I feel like if there were a strict language pledge in place, students might be able to progress more. Regardless, there are plenty of other opportunities (not to mention the obvious advantage of living in Russia with a Russian family) to speak Russian, and I hope to take advantage of as many as possible!

Last Saturday (February 11) our group went to Pavlovsk, a former palace with extensive grounds and gardens surrounding it. Though quite cold (I think it was around -10° F) it was really beautiful — outside and inside. We took an Elektrichka (a suburban train) there from Petersburg, and the ride itself was even a lot of fun — there were a few random musicians who walked from car to car, and I got to know some other students better. Hopefully I can remember everyone’s names – I’m usually so bad with remembering, and the program is pretty large (about sixty students). Once there, we walked around the grounds (SO beautiful) and took a tour of the palace, which was also beautiful.

The PalaceJust a sample of the beautiful grounds!

Wednesday, I went to an FC Zenit game with my friend from Middlebury, Eva, who is studying on a different program in Petersburg. FC Zenit is the local professional soccer team here, and, though the lack some of the name recognition of bigger European teams, they’re a really talented club with a fantastic manager. They’ve done fairly well in recent years in both the Russian league (where they usually win the league cup) and in international play — the climax being when they won the UEFA Super Cup in 2008, defeating Manchester United. This game was an important one in the UEFA Champions league against the Portugese side Benfica. To say I was excited for this game would be an understatement; I absolutely love soccer — playing it, watching it, reading about it, talking about it, etc. Sporting my newly purchased Zenit scarf, Eva and I went to the match, perhaps a little unsure of what to expect. There must have been a hundred police officers, most of whom were in full riot gear, at the match — both to protect Zenit spectators (who, like most soccer fans, have been known to get a little out of hand from time to time) and the few, but brave, Benfica supporters. The game was a ton of fun, but it was definitely the coldest I have ever been — the stadium was not enclosed, and later in the match it dropped down to about -20° F. I definitely will go to another match, just maybe in April…

So much fun, so much cold!

This past weekend, the group travelled to Novgorod, a small city about three hours away from Saint Petersburg. Novgorod is actually a “sister city” of Rochester, which was a fun connection to discover! I absolutely LOVED Novgorod. There were beautiful churches and cathedrals on nearly every street corner, not to mention an extensive Kremlin (fortress) and beautiful river. However, my wildest music geek fantasies were fulfilled due to the fact that Novgorod is actually the birthplace of Sergei Rachmaninoff — my favorite composer and, for all intents and purposes, the reason I got into music. As a quick backstory: I didn’t play an instrument until seventh grade. That year, my grandparents took me to a Rochester Philharmonic Concert, where Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto was being performed. Though I hadn’t been fully interested in music by that point (though always intrigued and exposed to it) I was inexplicably moved by Rachmaninoff’s piece, and, in the most intangible way possible. It affected me in a fashion that I can’t explain, and after it I signed up for band, listened to it, and other Russian classical music, and then years later decided to major in music in college — it having become my passion. Furthermore, I started learning Russian because of my love for Rachmaninoff, and quickly became engrossed with Russian culture and language in a similar fashion. Thus, I owe a lot of who I am today to Rachmaninoff’s music, so to be in his hometown and visit his monument was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. During the weekend, we went on a tour of the city and Kremlin, toured an active monastery, and got to hang out in the town and do some individual sight seeing, and it was fantastic!

This monument was amazing! It details the history of Russia!

Rachmaninoff's Statue!

Well, that’s it for now. I promise to keep up with these blog posts better, so that I don’t have to rush through describing everything I do in the future! This week, I’m teaching English some more, going to an outdoor shopping area with my friend Zack, and going on a “Siege of Leningrad” tour which should be really interesting and powerful, so I’ll make sure to post again soon!

I think I’m in love with this country!