As soon as we stepped outside of the airport and into Russia, I was surprised by just how different from anything I had ever seen it was. Everything is built and maintained so grandly here. I’m from around New York City, where we build upwards and sleek and fast, with NO attention to color or matching. Every building or bridge there seems to be an entry in a contest, always competitive, just like life there. Here it all seems to work together. Each building and element is given its space to exist and be noticed, and everything looks built to last, not because of what it is made of, but because it is wide-set and sturdy and standing its ground. And so I wonder if this city, St. Petersburg, resembles its structures as much as New York City does. Is it a city built to last, built on agreement and structure and foundation where every element has its place and room to breathe?
The Hermitage is striking in appearance, even before you see what is inside. The winter palace is probably most responsible for my coming to Russia. I studied late Russian history for a year in middle school and I was fascinated by the palaces, especially the Winter Palace. The treasure collections, especially the Scythian gold, were the most personally inspiring things that I saw. I am going into the jewelry and metals department next year and it was fascination to see the ancient gold that is more creative, intricate, and playful than most of the jewelry made today. I find these characteristics to be desirable, because jewelry is after all, a somewhat frivolous thing. It should have a lighthearted side to it, while still having emotional significance. The Scythian gold collection, as they told us on our tour, traveled to France in the early 1900s, where it inspired the designers of the time and many of the modern trends in jewelry. I happen to know that Coco Chanel’s jewelry work was inspired by this very exhibit because last fall I spent an entire semester researching and recreating her jewelry. I saw these gold pieces with a full understanding of how influential they have been in the field of jewelry. Seeing these pieces validated and completed the work that I did last year, and inspired me for my future in metalworking.
The impression that I got when learning about and observing St. Petersburg is that it was somewhat of a whirlwind of advancements and influences. The visible influence of Russian ways, European styles and trends, and the characteristics of the terrain make St. Petersburg really unique. One of the most interesting things that we saw was the Chinese Palace in Oranienbaum. Catherine the Great’s beautiful summer home, which was designed by Rinaldi in the rococo style, is an example of Eastern styles as seen through Western trends located in Russia, the very place caught between the East and the West. Interestingly, when Russia went looking for Europe to follow instead of staying purely Russian or turning to the East, they found a Europe in the middle of an Eastern craze. St. Petersburg is a sort of curious melting pot, which draws another interesting parallel between New York City and St. Petersburg. Both are places built on the inflow of ideas from different places and built to be powerful world cities. Both are major cultural centers and are relatively young. Yet the two cities could not be more different.
The trip to Novgorod felt very surreal, especially when we walked through the area with all of the churches, past beautiful lawns and gardens and old archways to the bridge that would take us over the water and into the Novgorod Kremlin. This part of Novgorod seemed to be the town that all of the fairytales that I had heard as a child had taken place. Novgorod was just as new and different to me as St. Petersburg was, but it lacked the world pop culture influence and rushing nature of all cities that make St. Petersburg confusing and overwhelming at times. Instead it was just quietly mysterious and foreign to me, which made me want to spend time exploring and learning about the city.
I have been very inspired by what I have seen and learned about this summer. I wish you could see the notebooks that I filled on this trip, not only with facts and notes from tours and class, but with sketches and observations and lists of differences and similarities that I noticed. And I wish you could see all of the work that I will be doing in the years to come that will involve what I have discovered on this trip. I have never been so saturated with information and inspiration. So few people have a chance like we did to go somewhere new and fascinating and really submerge themselves in it. We absolutely packed our time with seeing everything that we could and while I know there is so much more, I also know that we could not have better spent our time. I am so glad that I went on this trip, and so appreciative of everything that went into making it possible for us to have this experience. I never expected that every little thing that we did would be as new and eye opening as it was. There is no way that I can let go of what I have seen, I know it will be in everything that I do.
The author of this analysis, Melissa Tyson, attended The Arts in Russia in the summer of 2005 (before SRAS became a program partner) through the Rhode Island School of Design. Below is a synopsis of the paper she wrote at the end of that program to describe her impressions of the program, the city, and what she learned. All photographs courtesy Melissa Tyson.