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More Than Just Studies: American Students on Their January Term in Russia

From January 3 to 20, 23 students from three American universities took part in a special winter programme held for the third time at HSE University – St Petersburg. We asked them many questions, including what they thought about Russia before coming here, what they would take back home, and one of the eternal questions – Moscow or St Petersburg?

More Than Just Studies: American Students on Their January Term in Russia

© Robin Kerr

The students’ journey began in the capital of Russia, Moscow, where they came to visit must-see places such as Kremlin, the Tretyakov Gallery, and the Museum of Cosmonautics just before wrapping up in studying.

St Petersburg embraced them with mild winter weather. The temperature never fell below -10°С during the day, which by Russian standards is really nothing to complain about. The students had the opportunity to experience the intellectual gems of Russian culture and architecture in the city – the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Hermitage Museum, Tsarskoe Selo, ‘The Nutcracker’ ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre and others.

Designed as a mix of lectures and seminars, their J-Term was intended to engage the students in a profound conversation about Russia past and present and the contemporary world. The curriculum included modules on History, Politics and Culture of Saint Petersburg (by Professor Jeanne Kormina), the Russian Empire: Sovereignty, Nationalism, and Politics of Diversity (by Senior Lecturer Alexander Reznik), and International Relations (by Professor Sergei Akopov), which were delivered over a number of classes that were held both indoors and outside.


Elizabeth Powell (Smith College)

I read a book called ‘Saint Petersburg’ by Andrey Bely, and that made me interested in the city. I have always had a little fascination with Russia, because in the United States it is kind of mysterious place. 

I wanted to get the day-to-day perspective of what Russian people are like. In general, I didn’t really know what to expect, so I came with an open mind, eyes and ears to take everything in.

I thought that Russians would not like Americans, but every time we went out and people overheard us speaking English, they approached us very friendly. I’ve gotten new people on Facebook and Instagram.

They say Saint Petersburg is the cultural city and I definitely understand that. I saw the plaques like ‘this important person lived here’, and I think it’s really amazing to be in a place like that.

Moscow also was very interesting. It does feel like slightly different from Saint Petersburg, especially in architecture. Some of my friends prefer Moscow but I really like Saint Petersburg, because I am a big fan of literature, history, parks and rivers, and there are so much of such things. It is kind of checks of all the things of my list of interests.

I really enjoyed the excursions with the professors who brought us to different places. That really helped solidify the learning and it was easier to soak up.

Juliet Cheng (Smith College)

Russia has always been the country we hear about a lot in the US but very few people actually go there. 

It was that sense of curiosity and that sense of ‘it is not quite Europe and not quite Asia’, that made me want to come here.

I had thought of Russians as of one generic group of people but then I noticed that Russians, just like Americans, are very diverse in their opinions and what they think. I also thought that Russia would be really cold, but the temperature is about the same as where I am from. It has been snowing a lot and I really enjoy the snow.

Catherine the Great is my favourite historical person. There are series of children’s books called ‘The Royal Diaries’, the fake diaries of the famous royal women. The one of Catherine the Great tells how she was originally German, and then became a well-known Russian empress. I found it very interesting that she was basically a migrant to Russia and became very successful. It’s great to be able to come to Saint Petersburg and see what she has built! 

Sheilena Downey (Smith College)

People back home thought I was kind of crazy – who is coming to Russia not knowing the language? I didn’t really have any stereotypes except that Russian people don’t smile and aren’t very friendly but that’s not true.
I do like Saint Petersburg where all the museums and the historical palaces are amazing. But we didn’t have to study in Moscow so I’m leaning toward it. I loved the night life there!

 If I could package the Hermitage with Georgian food restaurant and banya attached and take it home, I would! 

I’m really glad I came and got to learn from Sergei Akopov. All the classes were informative but his class was engaging and mind-blowing. He is so intelligent, and I would love to take a class from him again.

Sydney Hoversten (Smith College)

When I was in school I became obsessed with European royal families and history. I always wanted to come and see some of the palaces in Saint Petersburg including the Catherine Palace in Pushkin and Peterhof. 

It's been a lot of that ‘European royal families’ stuff in Saint Petersburg, but architecture in Moscow is very diverse. 

I really enjoyed Moscow, and I loved looking at architecture there which is much different from the one in Saint Petersburg. I have learnt something new from each course. All professors were very friendly and made effort to make sure that we understood what they were talking about even if sometimes there was a language barrier. I didn’t think that international relations course was going to be my favourite but Sergei Akopov is just a wealth of knowledge. He has challenged my own thoughts and perceptions about American and Russian relations, and world politics.

Robin Kerr (Mount Holyoke College) 

I feel very comfortable in Saint Petersburg. The history of the city is so intertwined with buildings. We were studying at the class, but we also studying when we walked or had dinner. I think I have taken away a completely different perspective on Russian as a whole as well as Saint Petersburg.

 Many metro stations have to do with the history. If only I could I would take back home the metro.

Everybody was very helpful and friendly. Having conversations with the Russian students was fun and knowledgeable. They understood a lot about American culture and were also very open talking about Russian culture and exploring comparisons.

January Term 2019 was delivered under the academic supervision of Irina Shchemeleva, the Dean of St Petersburg School of Arts and Humanities, and Evgeny Dengub, a 5 College Lecturer of Russian and co-Director of the 3 College Russian Initiative (Smith College, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Mount Holyoke College) with the support of the International Office of HSE Campus in St Petersburg.  The J-Term was co-organised by the programme in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Smith College (Associate  Professor Sergey Glebov, the Director of the programme) and the Lewis Global Studies Centre at Smith College.

Banya is a traditional Russian steam bath.