For the past few weeks, I’ve been in St. Petersburg, attending the SRAS program for Art and Museums in Russia. In this brief time abroad, I have improved my Russian conversational skills; learned about Russian history, culture, art, architecture, literature, and music; about world art history, cross-cultural influences, and the incredible collections of St. Petersburg’s plethora of museums, including the world-famous Hermitage; about current Russian artists and their techniques, styles, influences, and ideas; about the archaeological collections and restoration laboratory of the Hermitage and the techniques and procedures used by Russian experts in museum work; and certainly also about myself. This program offered me the chance to spend the better part of a month absolutely steeped in new experiences and learning, and it has more than delivered. The amazing flexibility, knowledge, and support of the program directors has given me opportunities far above and beyond what I expected–literally, dreams have come true in my time in St. Petersburg.
Although I came to the program, academically, as an anthropology student heading toward a career in archaeology, I had a wide array of interests in coming to Russia. My love of Russian literature, the fact that I’m minoring in Russian studies, my interest in Russian history–especially the strange mix of incredible beauty and bloody history of St. Petersburg–the fact that this city has more museums than (I think) anywhere else in the world, and honestly just a chance to see somewhere really different…all of these were factors in my decision to choose this program.
The fact that our art history lessons have taken place in the physical presence of the artworks discussed has given the information a whole new impact. It’s one thing to see a Rembrandt in a book…it’s quite another to stand so close to one that you can see every brushstroke. The same goes for lessons in architecture–looking at a photograph of a building in a textbook and reading about it is a whole world away from standing so close to the fountains of Peterhof that you’re getting splashed while hearing your lesson, staring up into the dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral while learning about its construction and the symbolism of its murals, or walking through the formal gardens of Tsarskoe Selo while discussing the shift in Russian architectural tastes from the Baroque to the Classical under Catherine II’s influence in the 18th century.
I visited the Pushkin Apartment Museum, partly to see a working literary museum and partly as a pilgrimage of sorts. The historic preservation was beautiful, and the design of the museum is nothing short of brilliant in terms of making the experience moving. The documents included in the displays are arranged so that, rather than detracting from the feeling of being in Pushkin’s home, they add to the sense of the Pushkin family’s presence, so that it always felt like they could just be in the next room. Seeing his sketches in person, hearing his poetry through the audio tour, and the museum’s very personal presentation of the materials was an intensely emotional experience for me.
Later, on a walking tour arranged by SRAS, I got to see some of the sites associated with my other favorite St. Petersburg author–the author who first sparked my interest in Russia and its literature–Fyodor Dostoevsky. Since he based his settings on real places around the city, it has been possible for historians to figure out, based on clues in his stories and novels as well as his notes, where certain events in his works were supposed to have played out. When I mentioned dreams coming true on this trip, I’d have to say that this was the longest-standing and most far-fetched of those dreams: to stand in the streets that inspired Dostoevsky’s imagination, to see the places he saw and understand why he was driven to write about them. This week, it happened.
I was warned a lot, prior to my departure for Russia, about culture shock. I don’t know if it’s because St. Petersburg is a relatively European city, or because I’m less susceptible to the culture shock phenomenon than others, but I feel like–other than jetlag–I’ve had little trouble adjusting. I’ve fallen in love with Russian a cappella singing and Russian cuisine–I think my favorite souvenirs may be the album of Russian folk songs bought at the Yusupov Palace and the Russian cookbook (in English) I found at Dom Knigi on Nevsky Prospekt. I find that, even when it’s a struggle to communicate and even when my usual expectations for myself and others are thrown off by cultural differences (Russians can seem brusque, for example), there are enough plain old human commonalities to comfortably bridge the gaps in the language barrier, ideas of politeness, and so on. My home-stay hostess speaks only a few words of English, and my Russian is far from fluent, but we’ve bonded nonetheless. Where we can’t communicate in Russian, sometimes my Spanish and her French have a word in common to help out, and sharing photos of our families, friends, and vacations has been a way to connect in which language isn’t a barrier at all.
I’ve even gotten to participate in two sessions of SRAS studio classes, learning the methods of traditional Russian wood painting in the first and the methods of relief printmaking in the second. Drawing has always been one of my favorite things to do, but I haven’t made time for it much in the past few years, and these classes have reminded me how much I miss the process–and the outcome–of creating visual art. I hope to carry forward the inspiration I’ve found here and do more with my own artwork when I return to the States.
Last, but certainly not least, as an aspiring archaeologist, my experiences here will be a great addition to my education. Aside from the fact that, for an archaeologist, any and all knowledge is potentially useful (which is part of what drew me to the field), I have had a chance to really get behind the scenes of one of the best museums in the world and talk to members of its staff about their areas of expertise. I visited the storage facilities, where painting restoration expert Alexei Nicholski explained the process and methods of his work, and the work that goes into ensuring the preservation of art. I’ve gotten to see the archaeological collections of the Hermitage on more than just a tourist level–for one thing, I had multiple days to photograph and study the artifacts, and for another, because I got, through my program with SRAS, a personal interview with one of the curators, Maria Menshikova. Learning from her about the similarities in method but the differences in structure of curation work in Russia versus in the United States was enlightening, and she is, as a person, inspiring to a student like myself.
One of the most interesting aspects of the study of material culture through archaeology, to me, has always been gaining understanding about how innovations develop and how cultures influence one another–the way symbolism, technology, and ideas spread. What better place in the world to experience this phenomenon than Russia, at the threshold between Europe and Asia, always at the crossroads–and always so aware of itself being at the crossroads? This sense of cross-cultural influence is omnipresent in St. Petersburg, from the oldest archaeological collections in the Hermitage to the studios of current artists I’ve visited. It’s the theme in Russian paintings from the 18th century to the Avant Garde movement. It’s in Dostoevsky’s novels and Pushkin’s poetry. It’s in the Czars’ collections of world art and treasures. It’s in the architecture of buildings from the time of Peter I to Catherine II to post-revolutionary times. Perhaps why I love Russia–and particularly St. Petersburg–so much is that it is, like me, always curious, always learning and adapting and searching for new ways to incorporate old ideas into itself. It’s a place that jubilantly and passionately celebrates the human mind and spirit. Whatever stereotypes American students may have about Russia being depressing, an SRAS trip to St. Petersburg will thoroughly shatter.