Emily in Moscow

Emily is a senior majoring in Markets and Cultures, with a Russian minor, in Dedman College. During summer 2009, she participated in SMU-in-Moscow, an intensive five-week study of the language and culture of Russia. Emily received support for her travel and studies in Moscow from the Alexander V. Mamantov Memorial Scholarship and Kay Wiley Memorial Fund.

St. Petersburg’s lasting impression

We woke up today and it was raining! Such a bummer considering the weather thus far has been almost too perfect.

We were hoping to get to visit the famous Hermitage Museum today, where Catherine the Great once resided, but unfortunately the line outside (even despite the rain) stretched for ages, and we’d have to wait approximately three hours to gain entry. This would have put a huge kink in our plans to visit Peterhof, so we made an executive decision and made our way to the boats that would take us across the Gulf of Finland to Peter the Great’s former palace.

The boat ride itself was very relaxing, and Laura and I shared some hot cinnamon almonds they were selling on the dock while we watched the ships and other tour boats go about their business.

IMG_0985-2.jpg Peterhof, the “Russian Versailles”

The grounds surrounding the palace were immense and had been turned into a tourist attraction, with souvenir stands and rustic restaurants tucked inside the wooded areas. Despite the effects of modernization, one could still imagine what Peterhof looked like in the 18th century, with its immaculate gold fountains leading up to a gorgeous white and gold facade. I can’t even properly describe how beautiful and awe-inspiring the gardens, stairways, and cascading fountains were that adorned the front of the palace that faced the gulf.

What’s amazing to think about it is that much of the grounds and palace itself were destroyed during WWII when the Germans used it as a headquarters during their siege of St. Petersburg. The Russians have done an amazing job of restoring and maintaining the authenticity of Peterhof. Although it is a modern-day tourist attraction, one feels transplanted into a different time while on the grounds.

A ballet unlike the others

After the trip to Peterhof we had an amazing, excitement-filled evening. We went to the Pushkin Russian Academic Theater of Drama, former Alexandrinsky Theater, one of the most beautifully ornate theatres I have ever laid eyes on to see Boris Eifman’s ballet, Onegin. This ballet was a hundred times better than the ones we saw at the Sumer Ballet Seasons in Moscow…especially in terms of the technical skill and ability of the dancers, and the story itself was just heart-wrenchingly thought-provoking.

The story was a tragedy in which a man fails to realize how his own hubris and egotistical tendencies rob him of the love of his life. What made the St. Petersburg version of Onegin so powerful was its modern twist on the otherwise traditional ballet. The set design, costumes and dancing itself was deliciously avante garde, and caused the audience to relate to a more realistic and progressive version of Onegin’s story.

To me, the dancers brought forth a sense of raw passion for life and all of its experiences that was not visible in the rigid, formal, almost monotonous dancing found in pieces like “Swan Lake.”

The ballet was definitely my favorite part of the St. Petersburg trip. I was totally entranced by the talent and dedication that were on display in front of me in one of the oldest theatres in Russia. It was a surreal experience…

St. Petersburg, one for the books

I am officially in love with St. Petersburg. It has such an amazing cultural history, and the baroque style of the buildings, such as the Hermitage, give the city a romantic flair that is unique to Russia. Peterhof and the city of St. Petersburg itself are a testament to the determination and hard work that Peter the Great put into creating a city that the entire world would admire and deem brilliantly designed and constructed.

I sound like a travel guide. But it really did make an impression on me. If I return to Russia for graduate school, it will be without a doubt to St. Petersburg. I love it.

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Feeling Russian

IMG_2895.jpg St. Petersburg truly does look like a “Northern Venice”, as it is nicknamed, with canals running through the heart of the city and beautifully colorful 18th-century buildings lining the banks of the water.

We went on a boat tour of the Neva River and its canals today and saw the city from the water. In the evening, we went to the beautiful Nikolaevsky Palace to see a folk show, “Feel Yourself Russian.”

We had a late dinner at the Literary Cafe on the corner of Nevsky Prospect and the Moika and enjoyed live classic music as well as old, sad Russian romances. This cafe is known as the last cafe called in by the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin just before his fatal duel. Another famous Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky, composed some of his works here while sipping coffee and eating cakes. I really felt myself Russian today.

Tomorrow we get to go see Peterhof, the summer residence of Peter the Great. It is called Russia’s Versailles. I am so excited! I also cannot get over how sweet the people are. Everything about St. Petersburg is different, from the aesthetic, to the fashions, to the pace of life. It is much more European and westernized.

It’s interesting to observe first-hand how people of the same ethnicity can have such different outlooks on life. Before this trip I thought all Russians would be the same, with the same attitudes, same demeanors and similar desires. It would be as if someone from a different country came to Texas expecting us all to ride around on horses, obnoxiously praising the social benefits of gun rights and free market capitalism.

If anything, this trip has opened my eyes to how naive I am; I’m too quick to accept and believe widely circulated cultural stereotypes. On a lighter note, I can’t wait for our excursion to Peterhof tomorrow. It’s supposed to be spectacular.

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Understanding Tolstoy

We just got back from Leo Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana estate, about a three-hour drive out of Moscow.

The famous Russian writer was an incredibly influential part of Russian literary history, and to see the sprawling estate where he created most of his work was extremely moving. We went on a private tour of the grounds, including a garden, the main house, a school, and his grave.

The tour guide was acutely knowledgeable, and I learned so much in just a few short hours about the man behind such works as War and Peace. He was a very religious and sensible man. Toward the end of his life, he became more and more disillusioned by the things of this world and found it admirable to live frugally and do one’s best to facilitate the moral integrity of mankind.

He died in the early 19th century, but his philosophy that values peace and piety has had a major impact on the Russian people, like many other Russian writers and poets of his day. As the saying goes, “A Russian poet is more than a poet.”

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Night of opera

2009_0708New_File0086.jpg (Photo right: in front of Moscow State University)

Last night Laura, Drew and I went to the Bolshoi Theatre to see the tragic opera The Tsar’s Bride.

It was my first time to the opera, and although it was difficult to understand what they were singing (it was entirely in Russian), I loved it. They had big screens next to the stage that displayed the lyrics in English, but I did not want to take my eyes off the opera singers, there was so much feeling and emotion in their faces.

It is amazing to me how much pride Russians take in their artists, whether they are painters, actors, singers or anything in between. I could tell that the people around me knew who each person performing in the opera was, while there is no way I could name a single American opera singer.

I think that on my return to the U.S. I will try to submerge myself in the art world more. Art does more than I realize to shape and influence a culture like Russia’s.

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History in dance

We just got back from our first “formal” event (at least the first one we knew we were supposed to dress up for) – the National Dance Show of Russia.

It was held in the concert hall of the Hotel Cosmos, and quite honestly was not what I was expecting. I thought that since Russians are known for their ballet, this would be a ballet-centered or at least ballet-inspired show.

On the contrary, the entire performance was a story of Russia’s history, from the beginning, when St. Cyril developed the Russian alphabet, to the more recent Soviet Era. All of the history in between was illustrated through the art of Russian folk dancing. It was so much fun.

The men in the show were performing some of the most amazing acrobatics I have ever seen, and the women spun and stomped their feet quicker than I thought possible. The costumes were all in tune with Russian clothing trends throughout the years, and the show itself was historically accurate and extremely informative. I loved it.

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Fashion exhibits and autographs

IMG_0699.jpg (In photo: St. Basil’s Cathedral on the Red Square in Moscow)

After class today we went on an excursion to what we thought would be an “ordinary” fashion exhibit at a gallery in the arts district in Moscow.

When we got there people were waiting outside in black and white attire, clearly anxious to view the exhibition that awaited them. We were a little bit embarrassed because we were extremely underdressed compared to our fellow exhibition-seekers, and were almost denied entry.

But of course, our professor, Tatiana Zimakova, used her charms and never-ending cache of connections to convince the powers that be that these “very important” international students should be allowed inside despite their shabby appearances.

One-of-a-kind exhibit

The fashion exhibit, “Art Deco and Fashion: Golden 20s!” was stunning, with an array of intricately beaded dresses, fur-trimmed coats and handmade shoes and purses all dating from the 1920s. The clothes were obviously very expensive and on display behind glass encasements (perhaps so that the cocktails and hors’ devours that were being served would not find their way onto the one-of-a-kind fabrics).

While we were taking in the sights, Tatiana was extremely excited, for we were surrounded by Russian film stars, directors, and famous fashion designers. A TV film crew was meandering through the crowd, interviewing various authorities in the Russian arts. Honestly, it was a bit surreal. Although we didn’t know who any famous person was, the aura of the room was electric, and you could feel that this was a very special occasion.

As we would later realize, we were pretty lucky to be able to attend such an elite, invitation-only event, all the while experiencing a kind of fashionable art that we were all rarely (if ever) exposed to. Unbelievably, the best part of the whole experience had not yet begun.

The artist behind the art

2009_0701New_File0022.jpg Once we finished viewing the beautiful costume pieces, we found our way to the main part of the Art Gallery of Zurab Tsereteli, in which exquisitely colorful paintings and intricate bronze sculptures were housed. The whole group was standing in front of statues of the last reigning Romanov family, taking pictures, when the man who owned the entire gallery and was the artist behind all of its work, and the President of the Russian Academy of Art, Zurab Tsereteli, came walking into the enormous room with his entourage of assistants. I sincerely believed Tatiana would have a heart attack. (Photo right: Mr. Tsereteli with our group.)

Once she regained her composure, she eagerly walked up to him and introduced her group of American students. Mr. Tsereteli was extremely warm and kind, and mentioned many times how much he enjoyed the United States and that some of his work was there.

After a few minutes of chatting, one of Mr. Tsereteli’s assistants came into the room with an armful of huge books, both in Russian and in English. We were all told to pick one (I chose English) and Mr. Tsereteli autographed them for us. We were shocked. This man was famous and wealthy beyond imagination, and here he was giving away free copies of his autobiography to a group of scraggly American students.

Eventually he was told by his assistants that he must leave and return to the opening of the fashion exhibit and party he was hosting, but he did so reluctantly. I was under the impression that speaking to more “normal” people was what interested him, which only added to his intrigue.

After leaving the gallery, we went to the nearest swanky artists’ cafe and marveled over what an amazing experience we just had. I doubt if I will ever experience anything like it again.

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