Student Journals: AIFS in St. Petersburg, Russia

Brooks Willet
University of South Carolina, Honor's College
St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University, Russia


One of our first cultural excursions was a weekend trip to the dacha. The place where we went had a small cabin with few of the modern amenities, but so many things that can't be found under the category of luxuries. It was a wonderful time to relax after a long flight and the first adjustment to a different country. It also provided the time and location to get to know the other guys in our group as well as our resident director.

There wasn't any definite schedule for our weekend. When we wanted to go to the lake or walk through the woods, we did. The only thing that was regimented at all was the need to collect firewood, maintain the fire and cooking. Granted, a lot of our weekend was more rustic than it had to be, but that was by our choice. By choosing to cook over the fire we were able to slow down and take the time to get to know one another and where we all were coming from.

We also took set some time aside to swim in the lake. The water was, shall we say, refreshing. It was perfectly clean and it was almost a surreal experience when we would think that we were swimming in a lake in Russia and there was no one else in the water. That night, things only got better. After a few minutes in a piping hot banya (sauna, more or less) we would douse ourselves with frigid well water and then warm back up by the fire until we went into the banya again. Midway through the night, when gazing upon the stars we started to see a flickering beam of light. Curious as to what it might be, we kept watching and witnessed the best light show that I have ever seen. The Northern Lights are a fitting example of the unexpected beauty that I found at the dacha and the unexpected joy that it can bring.



One of our day trips that we have taken this semester was out to one of the summer palaces in Peterhof, a suburb of Petersburg. It all started with a hydrofoil ride down the Gulf of Finland. Even though we didn't have the best weather for the trip – it was one of the first cold days and was overcast – it was still fun to stand out on the observation deck and watch many of the familiar Petersburg landmarks go flying by.

On arriving to the dock at Peterhof and walking up to the palace, I was struck by the sheer number of fountains there were and how even from such a distance and with no sun in the sky, the whole building seemed to be glittering with gold. When Nick, our Resident Director, started talking to us some about the palace and told us that all the fountains were powered by nothing other than gravity and that they were the same piping and same original design, which is three hundred years old.

The inside was of course exquisite and decked out as all true palaces should be. It is kind of a shame though because the Nazis sacked it during the Second World War and it had to be completely redone, and although they did a magnificent job, you can tell that the Communists just didn't have as good a taste or the willingness and the ability to put as much effort and money into the palace as the tsars did.

Even though we went toward the second half of September, there were still many flowers to be seen and all the fountains were still turned on. It was amazing to think that a tsar saw Versailles and wanted to come back and build a palace more gorgeous. I guess when you are that rich you don't have anything better to do. An interesting side thought, as we were walking through, one of the two elaborate dining rooms had no flatware. Our guide told us that was because they were so exquisite they were under special lock and key at the Hermitage museum. I guess if the poor have no bread and no money, then they should just have cake, whether they be in France or Russia.

The Hermitage

The Hermitage was a splendid experience. During our first week of classes in St. Petersburg we were given a guided tour of one of the most beautiful museums in the world. There are five buildings that compose the Hermitage, of which we only were in three. Of those three, we barely covered any of the exhibits, or so it seemed.

This said, we still found the time to see works by Leonardo da Vinci, Rafael, Michelangelo. I have seen what I would claim to be a decent amount of art in my days, most in books or on the internet, but never had I been in a place where everything is art, the floors, the walls, the ceilings, the doors, the lights. Everywhere you look, beauty and grace surround you. It was odd to think how someone could live in such an environment all the time.

Upon a second trip to the Hermitage, I began to realize how much I hadn't seen and how big the museum was when I walked around for another four hours, most of which was filled by new halls and exhibits, but even then I was mainly walking quickly through the museum and could not absorb all that I wanted.


Our weekend trip to Tallinn, Estonia, was one of the best weekends of the semester. I often wondered how two cities that were separated only by an eight hour bus ride could be so different. There are many stylistic cues that are similar between Tallinn and St. Petersburg. Many parts of Russian life have been imposed on Estonia through generations of Russian influence .

There were no major activities planned for the weekend. We went on a city tour, we ate in several cafes, we walked around, and we relaxed. One of the highlights for much of the group was go-kart racing on a track that was covered in ice. 40 miles per hour on ice going through S turns, 180's, and right angle turns is more than a little exciting.

Other highlights of the trip for me were walking around the Tallinn zoo for an afternoon and also taking night photos of the old town and old city wall. Our RD described Tallinn as a fairy tale city before we departed. He was correct. We did not travel to Tallinn. We experienced it. I had almost forgotten what it was like to breathe clean air and have clean shoes.

Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University