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Exploring Political and Cultural Space of St Petersburg through the Summer School 'Topography of Imperial Power'

On a grey autumn day, it is always nice to warm up by reliving memories of summer adventures. This year, the balmy weather did not leave our city till mid-October, and a summer mood also lingered at HSE University – St Petersburg with the IV International Summer School 'The Topography of Imperial Power: Political and Cultural Space of Saint Petersburg' which ran from September 11 till October 2, 2018.

The Boat trip
© Jonas Gehrke

Held by Department of History, the Summer School 'The Topography of Imperial Power: Political and Cultural Space of Saint Petersburg' brought together 19 master’s and bachelor’s students from 13 German universities who study Humanities and Social Sciences back home. 

During the Summer School, participants learned about the history of Russia and Saint Petersburg through historical transport systems, religious and administrative buildings and offices, and the cultural spaces of Saint Petersburg.

What attracts German students most is the combination of a Russian language course, seminars on history, and excursions

Dr Dietmar Wulff
Long-term DAAD lecturer, Associate professor at the Department of History, the Programme Director

Although some of the participants already had ties to Russia (i.e. Russian parents or grandparents) most of them were visiting our country for the first time. 

We spoke to several students, including Jonas Gehrke, Georg Stahlmann, Jennifer Frank, Julia Prem and Klara Latz, to discover what in Saint Petersburg fascinated them, and what experiences of the Summer School would live in their memories for a long time.

'I’d always wanted to go to Saint Petersburg (not to Moscow but to Saint Petersburg). So I was checking for summer schools. When I found this one I immediately thought 'I’m going to apply for it!'', said Jonas.

The Russian language courses organized by the Department of Foreign Languages were very helpful, and the participants emphasized how much they had improved their Russian language level after only 3 weeks of studies.

'I like the language course – it’s a very intensive class: we’ve only been here for about 2 weeks and already I feel that I can read the alphabet, and say some words, I can order food or a coffee – so, I can really use it! And I’m motivated to continue learning Russian in Germany when I go back', Jonas added.  

A few students were already learning Russian language at home. So they were glad to have the chance to practice their skills, and even shared their impressions with us in Russian.

Jennifer told us that it is very different to learn Russian in Germany or in Russia. 'Our teacher clearly understands what we don’t know, and what we need to study. But I liked the seminars too, because I study history', she said. 

The students appreciated the quality of the seminar classes taught by Dietmar WulffAleksandra BekasovaAnton KotenkoNikita BalagurovTatiana BorisovaMarina LoskutovaJeanne Kormina – professors from Department of History, and Department of Sociology. In order to show the spirit of the city, seminars were held not only in classrooms but in public areas.

'For instance, I liked Anton Kotenko’s class because he teaches the Imperial context, and I’m very interested in that: comparison of imperial capitals, what makes a city imperial – it was exactly what I’m doing in my studies in Germany', Jennifer said.

Georg found his class interesting as well. 'That’s because of his approach of collaborating  with us, cooperating, asking questions and using our answers in his class'.  

'Apart from the language class, I liked the class of Prof Jeanne Kormina because she has such an interesting way of talking to us and when she talks about the Saints and the history, it’s as if we’re being told a fairy tale!', commented Julia.

In additon to the education programme, summer school participants were impressed by the city, its weather, the citizens, and local cuisine. But what else did the students like?

Georg was amazed by the architecture of the town. 'Walking through the streets, the city and just getting an impression of all the buildings –  the culmulative effect was extraordinary. Saint Petersburg is a European city; you note the difference, yet it’s not too stark'.

Jennifer mentioned the Russian people: 'For me it’s a bit like coming home – I can’t describe it: it’s foreign but it’s also not, so I really like it. So many important people have been here, and so many things have happened here – the city is just incredible!'. 

Klara had a lot of positive impressions of going out every evening, improving her Russian, and visiting museums. 'It was a really diverse experience'.

Julia was impressed by the weather in Saint Petersburg, 'We visited Saint Isaac's Cathedral. We went up [to the colonnade], and it was spectacular. We had grey sky and a rainbow, and then sunny sky, and we even saw that far away it was raining, it was really amazing!'.

'There was another significant summer school outcome. German students who were used to an individual approach during their studies left the city as a united team', commented Dr Dietmar Wulff, the Programme Director.

Jennifer agreed, 'I like that the summer school has so many people of different backgrounds: there are people like us (who sort of have this [Russian] background already), but there are people who are in Russia for the first time or who are learning Russian for the first time – so, I like the people!'.

Although she also mentioned she had been hesitating about coming because she was scared, she definitely recommended the Summer School to those who are considering applying for it next year. 'I can simply say that it is such an incredible experience, I’m so happy to be here, and everybody in our group is happy to be here – no matter if they had previously had anything to do with Russia or not. And I can only emphasise that you just should go for it'.

About the students

Georg Stahlmann

Jonas Gehrke

Jennifer Frank

Julia Prem

Klara Latz