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4 posts from April 2014


Getting out of the city…

This post is by Benjamin Rogers, an International Relations First Major and  Economics Second Major at Pennsylvania State University. During the Spring 2014 semester he is participating in the CIEE Russian Area Studies Program.

Привет ребята…

Finally, the Leviathan is over and I’m able to continue talking about what’s been going on in Russia and my new adventures here. The past two weeks have been filled with some true Russian adventures and delving into some of the great cultural experiences St. Petersburg has to offer.

First, I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence, winter is finally over! The sun has been out for nearly two weeks straight, the grass has gone from an awkward shade of greenish yellowish brown to a full-fledged green, buds are beginning to form on trees, and I can start walking around with a t-shirt (yet sometimes I still need to wear a light jacket). With al of this springtime happiness, the city also has taken upon itself to clean the streets, power wash the sidewalks and sides of buildings, and begin making this city presentable for the summer. How amazing it is! With that said, everyone I speak with who is Russian is convinced that it’s going to snow during the first week of May. I pray that doesn’t happen. But for now, I’m enjoying the warmth and loving spring.

Enough about the weather, let’s talk about adventures. Nearly two weeks ago, I had my first banya experience. It was interesting to say the least. In essence, banya is Russia’s version of the sauna, but slightly more intense. The heat gets cranked up, you stay in there longer, and you go in four or five times. I went with the group of American missionaries I know here and some Russian friends, and we made a whole event out of it. We brought salamis and cheese, bagel ring crackers, mors, kvass, and other snacks. While in there, a local Russian introduced us to a little trick by adding a dab of kvass into the water which we poured over the rocks. It filled the room with a sweet smell and aromatic sensation which was entirely enjoyable. Overall, I truly enjoyed my time having a guys-night at the banya. It took a little time to get used to it, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The next day, I set off for my solo adventure to Vyborg, an old town with a castle fortress 15 miles from the Finnish border. Initially, I was slightly upset over the overcast that day, but when I approached the island castle covered by low clouds and fog, it was totally surreal. It was a scene straight from the movies. I enjoyed my time there, explored the little island, climbed the tower, and checked out the museum.

10277594_10203575214485409_4366419396013234391_nThe Gulf of Finland

Vyborg itself has an interesting history. For much of its history, it was apart of the Swedish empire, and most of the town’s legacy and culture date back from that period. Yet, the town reverted to Russian control when Peter the Great carried out his northern campaigns. However, once the entirety of Finland became apart of Russia receiving with it special semi-autonomous rights, Vyborg reverted back to the Russian-controled Grand Duchy of Finland. Up until WWII, Finnish culture thrived in Vyborg, becoming Finland’s second largest city. Therefore, many ties still exist between the town and Finland, and that relationship was apartment in the Vyborg Museum. Throughout the museum, there were certain exhibits that were jointly created by Finnish and Russian curators, and ones solely created by Russian ones. And how apparent the differences! The mere physical quality of the Finnish exhibits really over shadowed the rest of the museum. Over than that, my trip there was splendid. I love castles, and checking out another is just a dream come true. The little town itself was fun. It was a quiet little place that’s trying to rebuild itself after post-industrialization, so checking out the ruins and old areas was both sad and exciting. Overall, my trip to Vyborg was a fun day. I got to check out a castle, explore a cute town, and adventure outside the city.

10296729_10203575213485384_769752218844740539_nВыборгская Крепость (Vyborg Castle)

Yet my adventures are not done. Last weekend, a friend and I traveled slightly closer to the city, to the suburb of Pavlovsk. Pavlovsk is about a 30 minute regional rail ride away from center city St. Pete, and is most famous for Paul I’s enormous palace and gardens. I had never really checked out a real royal palace and estate, and this thing was impressive. The gardens, I learned were designed in English style, which means a whole lot of fields and forests which actually looks like the natural surroundings in stead of the trimmed shrubs and flower beds of more traditional European estates. Even though we might have been only a few minutes outside the bustling city, it was nice to lose ourselves in nature and enjoy the sensory relaxation of our surroundings.

10257130_10153998918945142_4389953744939357244_oPavlovsk Palace

The palace itself was extravagant. Paul’s wife, Maria Feodrovna, took control of the interior design of the palace, and what an amazing job she did. Obviously, money was no object. Each room had something painted in gold, something covered in marble, or fantastic paintings adorning the walls or ceiling, or everything combined. Truly spectacular, and most impressive. Additionally, our tour was all in Russian, and though I tuned out half-way through, I did actually understand a gross majority of what was said prior to that. Overall, Pavlovsk was a day of relaxation. The weather was so nice, the park so beautiful, and overall not too taxing. It was a different excursion than Vyborg. It was a pleasant change to travel to somewhere closer, enjoy the day with a good friend, and get back not totally exhausted.

10272741_10153998936040142_5962580813119689502_oSpring in Pavlovsk

Well, those are the major adventures over the past week. It’s weird that I’ll be coming home in a month! So, there’s a whole lot to due in my limited time here. Though I totally enjoyed my time here, I am starting to get ready to come home. I truly miss some my friends, my community, and some of the luxuries we have in the States. I’ll be sure to make these last few weeks count and experience as much of Russia as I can. With that said, that’s all that I have for you this week. See you all soon.



Maslenitsa is the Best Holiday, and Nothing You Say Can Change my Mind

This post is by Lauren McGarry, a Linguistics Major at Georgetown University. During the Spring 2014 semester she is participating in the CIEE Russian language Program.

February 24-March 2 was a Russian holiday called Maslenitsa, which is typically translated as Butter Week or Pancake Week (have I convinced you yet?). It’s the last week before Lent—sort of like Carnaval or a week-long Mardi Gras, but set on the Orthodox calendar and much more influenced by pagan and old Russian culture (no parades or beads, just noms and dancing and accordions and arson (I will explain)). Although it is meant to introduce the Christian period of fasting, its roots are in the pagan holiday welcoming spring. There are two major items associated with this holiday, and they are symbols of the changing seasons: The first is blini (like crepes, but not? The traditional toppings are different: condensed milk, sour cream, butter, mushrooms, red caviar…). They are round and golden, like the sun that is finally making regular appearances; the second is an effigy in the shape of a woman that represents Winter, and it is burned to make way for spring.

Each day has a few different traditions associated with it, although every day involves pancakes: One day men eat blini at their mother-in-law’s house, later women eat at their son-in-law’s…basically they just came up with as many reasons as possible for people to eat blini. Caitie and I were very disappointed that we missed out on Thursday’s tradition: fist-fighting. (Come on. This is so much better than our holidays.) And appropriately enough for a week dedicated to visiting family and punching people, Sunday’s tradition (besides eating blini) is asking forgiveness. It’s apparently not uncommon for people to ask total strangers.

On Sunday March 2, the last day of Maslenitsa, we went to a big festival on Krestovsky Ostrov (Island). I had wonderful time! The park was full of booths selling blini, kebabs, and honey beer; stages with various performances; miniature ponies giving kids carriage rides; bright colors and general merriment. Tumblr_inline_n2dh9h75ob1r9lrz7Things I did:

Made friends with cool British people who also study at Smolny—not part of the tradition, but I’m glad I did this!

Folk dancing—there was a giant circle of people, and my friends and I decided to join! It was a good choice: I had actually learned one of the dances when I was here four years ago, and it was a nice bit of nostalgia.

Tug-of-war in the mud—At first they had a men-only one, and I stood off to the side whining “But I wanna play!” After the men finished their 3 rounds, they asked women to come up. I quickly abandoned the Nutella blini line (My friends saved my spot. I’m competitive, not stupid.) and joined in. My sneakers are not in great shape, but my team won and I had fun.

Hit a stranger with a sack of straw to knock her off of a block of wood in order to win free blini. I won. And I did not ask forgiveness.

Ate blini, duh. Also had a really good pork kebab. Tumblr_inline_n2dhb52MHB1r9lrz7Things I saw:

A babushka chorus singing traditional songs

A weird play that I didn’t understand that seemed to be the story of Maslenitsa (Some guy was dressed as the sun, but he looked super-drunk. Some other guy was dressed in drag?). This odd event actually turned into a really good accordion concert.

Folk dancing groups with pretty costumes

Weight-lifting contest—a guy lifted a 16kg kettle-bell over his head, one-handed, 90 times. Smashed the former festival record of 48. He got free blini.

Jousting—There were bottles sitting on posts and hats on the ground. Each rider had either a spear or a sword; as they galloped past, they tried to spear/chop in half the bottle or sort of rotate down out of the saddle to pick up the hat with their weapon. It was really cool.

People setting mini-effigies on fire—I didn’t stay late enough to watch them burn the big one, as I had a test the next morning. I also bought a little effigy, but it was actually really pretty so I decided not to burn it. Apparently, that’s bad luck, but whatever I guess.

A bear—festivals used to include actual dancing bears. I don’t know whether it was because they realized it was potentially cruel, dangerous, or expensive, but this isn’t really a thing anymore. Instead, they went all Nicolas Cage and put a guy in a bear suit on stage.


I had high hopes for Maslenitsa when I first realized I would be here for it, and this festival did not disappoint. I had a great time hanging out with friends, competing for pancakes, eating said pancakes, watching cultural performances, and participating in a few Russian traditions. I feel like I got to see a different, much more vibrant and colorful side of Russian people and culture.

Meandering the Motherland

This post is by Benjamin Rogers, an International Relations First Major and  Economics Second Major at Pennsylvania State University. During the Spring 2014 semester he is participating in the CIEE Russian Area Studies Program.

This week was all about adventuring. Though I have been in St. Petersburg for over a month now, I realized that I haven’t explored as much as I would have hoped. So, I set off to change that, mostly by getting all of the major “tourist” attractions out of the way. My excursions have led me to most of the main cathedrals of St. Pete (and atop their belfries/cupolas) and to plenty of artistic events.

Churches on churches. St. Petersburg has, in my opinion, four major cathedrals in the city center: St. Isаac’s, Church on the Spilt Blood, Kazansky Cathedral, and Smolny. There is also St. Nicholas and Troika cathedrals (but I haven’t been inside of them yet, so I’m not counting them) and the St. Peter and Paul’s (but that is in Peter and Paul Fortress not exactly in the city center). Nonetheless, I have finally explored all aforementioned four, including going inside, which is slightly more difficult than you would presume, as you do need to get tickets just to enter. And, all of these churches have their own style. The Church on the Spilt Blood is a classic Russian church with the onion-domes, spires, etc, etc. It does not try to be Western, it’s solely Russian. There’s Kazansky, which tries its very best to be a Western-style Orthodox church, and I think it does both poorly. Instead of melting the Western art and architecture with Orthodox religion, they literally try to superimpose one on the other. The result is awkward Western-styled icons, a cathedral that is way too dark, and a loss of all Russianness. Lastly, is St. Isaac’s which is a seamless blend between the two. Instead of the Byzantine mosaics of Spilt Blood, St. Isaac’s creates their mosaics in a Western fashion, but respecting the religious-themes of Orthodoxy. They cover the wall in art, and bring in light to expose that art instead of covering the church in darkness. Overall, well done and truly St. Petersburgian. Personally, I’m a sucker for Spilt Blood. There is just nothing like it in the West. Perfectly unique, and perfectly done.

St. Isaac's CathedralSt. Isaac's Cathedral
The main dome of the Church on the Spilt Blood
The main dome of the Church on the Spilt Blood

All of the arts. Being that St. Petersburg is the cultural capital of Russia, I decided to make my way out to see some of the arts this country has to offer. I was first invited to a photography gallery in this old apartment building that has been converted into an artist studio and gallery space. My sobesednik (conversation partner) brought me there, and we were able to look at some pretty amazing photography of nature and fauna. The building was tucked away, so it was pretty cool getting there and exploring (I realize that all of the cool places in this city are in sketchy courtyards and alleys). They had this big mural on the side of the building, and apparently everyone is amazed by it. It was cool, but being from Philadelphia where murals are literally everyone, I guess I thought it was just normal.

I also further explored the Russian Museum. I’d been there before with a class, but we only saw pieces of portraiture, classicism, and romanticism. Though I have respect for those old Russian masters, I must say that after exploring the whole museum, that was by far the most mediocre part. Russian modern art (late 19th, 20th, 21st century) was by far the best. I made the mistake of going through the exhibit backwards, so it was like going back in time, but it was a really cool experience. I was quite happy that the Russian Museum was not like the Hermitage, in that I could see the entire museum (literally all of it) in only 3-4 hours.

Русский Государственный музей

Русский Государственный музей (Russian State Museum)

Finding this new-found passion for modern art, I ventured off to St. Petersburg’s version of the MoMA, called ERARTA, which the museum of contemporary art. Erarta pretty much solely kept its collection to 20th cen. onwards, so I was a little nervous about those “interesting” pieces of art that nobody understands, but Erarta did an amazing job. It wasn’t too big, probably 2-3 hours worth, but they really encouraged you to make this your own artistic experience. They really encourage you to be apart of the artistic expression, take photos, and even (sometimes) touch the art. This was by far my favorite museum. Slightly pricey (200rubs. for students!) and a little far away. But definitely worth it and a must see!

AngelsAngels in Erarta 

Lastly, my experience with the arts ventured outside the visual arts. This past week, I went to the opera, twice. The first time was with our study abroad program (we had won a scavenger hunt at the beginning of the semester), and we saw “Traviata” at the Mikhailovsky Theatre. It was a very classical opera, had a “Moulin Rouge-like” storyline and thoroughly enjoyable. the language barrier was quite bizarre. The opera was sung in Italian, subtitles were in Russian, but I was trying to understand in English. Weird experience. The second was called “Igrok,” meaning “gambler” in Russian. It was written by Dostoevsky and composed by Prokofiev. It was a modern opera, so it was a very different experience. It was sung in Russian (subtitles in both Russian and English), did not have a huge chorus, and had a very Dostoevsky-like storyline (aka not a classic love tragedy). A friend and I saw it at the new Mariinsky Theater, which is the new modern concert hall behind the old Mariinsky. The place was stunning. In total, though the opera was enjoyable, I think that I like the ballet better. Sometimes it just feels like the opera is too over-the-top (and slightly more expensive). Hopefully, I can get to another ballet before I leave.

Mariinsky - 2Mariinsky - 2

Lastly, I’ve just been doing some more exploring the city in general, especially when it comes to food/nightlife/bars/cafes. I’ve realized that putting the research into a cool place the night before really pays off. But, you should always look it up on Google Maps prior (so you actually know what you’re looking for) and have a safe backup (so if you can’t find it or wasn’t what you were expecting, you can still salvage the night). I’m looking to head out of the city soon too. I learned that there are some pretty cool castles in the surrounding region, so I might be boarding a couple trains in the coming weeks to head to check them out.

I know this post was pretty focused on arts and churches, so I hope I didn’t bore you too much. I’ll make sure to post some pictures of what I’ve been talking about, so you can understand this all. Hope you’re all doing well in the States, and let me know how life has been!


International Women’s Day! March 8th

This post is by Abigail West, a Government First Major and  Russian Language and Literature Second Major at Georgetown University. During the Spring 2014 semester she is participating in the CIEE Russian language Program.

Well, today is Russia’s “Mezhdunarodnii Zhenskii Den”- International Women’s Day. “The 8th of March- a day of solidarity for women around the world!” Tumblr_inline_n25wtilbzh1sadk41

On this day, you’ll find almost every woman on the metro in Russia carrying flowers and chocolates, among other gifts from their loved ones and even colleagues. Flowers are being sold everywhere- not just in the ubiquitous 24 hr flower shops but even on the street next to almost every metro stop. Just yesterday in class, my conversation teacher advised us against buying flowers for our host moms. Stating that they are too expensive, she claimed that a simple “happy International Women’s day” would suffice. Taking her advice, I returned home last night just after midnight (empty-handed) to find 5 flowers waiting for me on the kitchen table and a gift- a floral-decorated little pot where I can “save and store jewelry and other mementos,” according to Olga Petrovna, my host mom.

I thanked her profusely and began brainstorming what a poor college student like me could do for her to show her my appreciation. Alas, having not baked or cooked really since leaving the states, I decided that baking her something would be both delicious and special, and also allow me to practice my Russian by translating the recipe. Deciding on a strawberry cheesecake, I made a grocery list and booked it to the grocery store, where I struggled to find all of the ingredients I needed. (What is “cream cheese” in Russian, anyway?) I asked for help from a store employee and then spent the next hour modifying the recipe and brainstorming the cake’s aesthetic. Returning home, I then got to work. At first, Olga was pretty reluctant to relinquish her kitchen to me- she wanted to help, wanted to see what I was doing, asking me if I’ve ever “done this before.” After a while, I assured her that all was in order and encouraged her to relax. (This proved a moderate success, though she kept returning periodically to check on the cheesecake’s status, undoubtedly skeptical of what was going down in her kitchen.) But alas, after hard work and confusion over the Russian recipe, I arrived at this. Tumblr_inline_n25vqbKm8h1sadk41

I’d say it was a success but then again I have yet to try it (it now sits in the fridge, cooling down.)

Olga, however, now seems to think I’m not as incompetent as she originally thought, and couldn’t stop telling me how beautiful it was. It was nice to hear, for sure. I had forgotten how rewarding it is to create beautiful things!
Olga’s boyfriend, Vladimir, has recently come over- giving flowers to Olga, he turned to me with a small box of chocolate, wishing me “happiness, success, and, more than anything, love” with a chuckle. Olga then made a joke “well, gifts are nice, but real men cook on the 8th of March.” Can’t argue with that one. Olga and I may end up getting a manicure later (I’m still looking for that host mom bonding experience), but with Vladimir’s arrival, I think they’ll want to spend the rest of the day together. I should be studying for all my exams next week, anyway.


Olga and Vladimir went to dinner so I did some yoga and caught up on some reading. Vladimir, however, had to go back to work (on a Saturday!) so Olga and I set the table, grabbed the Argentine wine I’d gotten for her a couple weeks ago and decided to, as Olga described it, “dine at our own restaurant.” She got out her fancy wine glasses (she rarely drinks) and we then struggled over opening the bottle. After huffing and puffing, Olga finally succeeded and we took a few self-timer photos at Olga’s request - Tumblr_inline_n25w8dIxG41sadk41

I’ll be honest, I’d never made this kind of cheesecake before and definitely took a few liberties, having been a bit put off by the Russian recipe I found. It was a “New York Cheesecake” recipe but called for tvorog (a Russian, cottage-cheese like substance.) Nonetheless, it really ended up being the best cheesecake I’d ever made (or had…Olga even asked for the recipe!) We of course, made our toasts- her to me, I to her, to us, happiness, and love. After not even half a glass (Olga is very petite), she confessed to being a bit tipsy and we cheerfully watched “Golos Deti”- a tv show kind of like American idol, except with kids. Occasionally, we tuned in to the Russian travel channel, which had a feature on Crete- Olga loved it, having traveled there just last year. I played host mom for the rest of the night, cleaning the dishes, etc. and around midnight we went our separate ways after a nice, festive day.