Over the last few weeks, I’ve been on the move. The lease on my Soviet-era flat in Primorskaya ran out, and I’ve moved into a new studio apartment right in the centre of historic St. Petersburg. The availability didn’t quite match, so I had to spend a couple of weeks living out of my suitcases in a temporary apartment in Dekabrovista Ulitsa, just around the corner from St. Isaac’s Cathedral. This is one reason why I haven’t posted any updates for a while – but not the only one! I’ve been setting up some online learning systems, and listening to what my students would like the world to know about their country…
My new apartment is in a building right next to the Griboyedev Canal, and a literal stone’s throw from the Church on Spilt Blood – built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. It’s the terracotta-coloured building in the photo below.
This is the view both ways as I leave the building:
The view from my apartment window, showing the Church’s onion domes:
Like so much of St. Petersburg, it’s a building with cultural associations: it was once home to Mikhail Zoschenko, and to Boris Kornilov. The former was a war hero (in the First World War), and later a well-known satirical writer. He fell out of official favour late in life, but has been rehabilitated, and his apartment is now a museum. The latter was a poet, who also fell out of favour and was purged.
It’s great to be living right in the heart of the city, only minutes away from work, and close to some of the city’s most important locations. I’ve now got the place looking more or less the way I want it, and I’m looking forward to being based here.
This is the period of the White Nights, the summer season when the sun barely sets, and it’s light at midnight. My temporary home in Dekabrovista was only a couple of streets away from the Neva, and I took the opportunity to watch the river bridges being raised to allow shipping to go down the river and into the Gulf of Finland. This happens at around 01:30, and it’s a popular event; the quays along the river were lined with crowds and opportunistic vendors. It’s the fashion this year to buy a cloth Chinese lantern, and send it rising into the darkness.
Remember, this is at 01:36 in the morning! Facing downriver, it’s still very light…
Whereas, in the other direction, upriver, it’s… ermmm… well, as black as night…
I suppose most of us think of St. Petersburg in terms of its role as the old imperial capital, a centre of the arts and education, or of its history as Leningrad. It was a bit of a surprise to me to understand that it’s also an important working port. A little south down the Neva there are all kinds of cranes on the skyline, but even a few blocks away from the Hermitage there’s a working military shipyard, with an immense dry dock. Stroll down the river, and you’ll see all kinds of freighters moored yards away from churches and apartment buildings.
I watched for over an hour as ships of ever-increasing size moved silently past the old Customs House, and out towards the sea….
It took me some time to settle in after I arrived in St. Petersburg; the first few months here were all about trying to understand life in Russia, as well as getting up to speed in a new career. Since the summer solstice, though, I’ve had a burst of energy and creativity, and I’ve got a lot of work done in preparing for the next step in my career: freelance work. I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last ten days or so in installing Moodle, the online learning environment which I introduced to China Agricultural University when I was working there. I’m now putting together my material for training courses, and I’ll soon start beta-testing with some volunteer students. More on this in a future post.
Out of interest, I asked my students in various classes what they would like the rest of the word to know about Russia. Some of the responses were:
- Ordinary Russians want peace, and friendship with the rest of the world;
- Russia has a rich culture, with a great tradition of music and literature, and they are very proud of it;
- You can’t understand the Russians without understanding the Great Patriotic War (WWII) – the losses and suffering of that time affected every Russian family deeply. It saddens Russians that Westerners don’t know how terrible the war was in Russia;
- Russians love the natural beauty and diversity of their country, from the pastel avenues of St. Petersburg on the Baltic, to the snow-capped mountains of the Caucasus, to the volcanoes of Kamchatka on the Pacific;
- It isn’t just Vladimir Putin who regrets the end of the Soviet Union. Many of my students regard the time when “a husband could be from Uzbekistan, his wife from Ukraine, and they lived in Moscow” as a great achievement. Most have family connections with the old Soviet Republics (now independent countries) – and particularly with Ukraine;
- Soviet-era education, in which every student was examined orally by a panel of professors, is very highly regarded. The system is changing now, but a number of my students are studying at university, and most of them have gone through an evaluation process which in the West is usually only experienced by doctoral candidates in their viva voce.