September 2013 issue

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Enigmatic Russia

Cultural and scenic highlights abound in Russia. It has a landscape that changes from mountain wilderness and sandy beaches to frozen tundra; large cities made up of both old and new architecture; towns steeped in history; and a cultural legacy that includes a treasure trove of internationally famous composers, artists, writers and dancers. Gillian Evans takes us on a journey.

Russia is, without a doubt, one of the most mysterious, enigmatic and attractive countries in the world,” asserts Alexander Mokhov, Director of the Derzhavin Institute in St Petersburg. He puts its appeal down to its rich and contradictory history, eminent state leaders – from “Peter I through Lenin and Stalin and up to Vladimir Putin” – and its sheer size.
At just over 17 million square kilometres, Russia is the largest country in the world. It occupies one-seventh of the world’s landmass, and borders more countries than any other single nation. Its landscape incorporates frozen tundra, dense forests, deep lakes, semi-arid steppes, snow-capped mountains and sun-drenched beaches. The experiences that Russia has to offer are truly endless.

While the country is immense in size, 80 per cent of its 145 million population live in western Russia and two-thirds of these live in cities. The capital, Moscow, dating from the 11th century when the Kremlin was founded by the Prince of Suzdal, is huge; with eleven million residents, it is the largest city in Europe. It also boasts the most billionaires and has long been famous for culture and arts. “There is an endless amount of things to see and do here,” says Peter Brauer at Globus Worldwide Language Centre, which has centres in Moscow and St Petersburg. “It is a city of contrasts, where old, crumbling, Soviet architecture and ultra-modern monoliths stand side by side. The Soviet Union may have long gone, but evidence of its existence is literally everywhere, from hammer and sickles to iconic statues of Stalin and Zhukov.”

Moscow has many iconic landmarks, such as Red Square, known as the heart and soul of Russia, and home to the 16th century St Basil’s Cathedral with its intricately decorated onion-topped towers, and the Kremlin surrounded by massive red-brick walls, a symbol of Russian political power. For those students wanting to be in the heart of the city, Globus is ideal. “Our Moscow language centre is conveniently located in one of Moscow’s most attractive and historical areas, Chistye Prudy, close to the metro station and just 15 minutes’ walking distance from the Red Square and the Kremlin,” says Brauer. “The local area also offers a wide range of pubs, clubs and international restaurants, as well as museums and art galleries.”

A cultural hotbed, Moscow is world-famous for its ballet, opera, music and circus. It has numerous cultural venues, such as the Bolshoi Theatre, which dates from 1776; the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, one of the largest concert halls in the world, which plays host to the Russian Symphony Orchestra every month; and the Pushkin Art Gallery, with its impressive permanent collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art and outstanding temporary exhibitions.

Russia’s second largest city, St Petersburg, lies around 650 kilometres north of Moscow at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea. The city has a decidedly European flavour with its network of canals and baroque and neoclassical architecture. “St Petersburg is the most western Russian city – it’s almost in Scandinavia – and being the Cultural Capital of Russia it has always incorporated Russia’s European identity,” relates Stanislav Chernyshov at Extra Class Language Centre in St Petersburg.

“St Petersburg today is a European metropolis of five million inhabitants with an intact historical centre of unprecedented scale,” adds Walter Denz of Liden & Denz Language Centres, which has schools in St Petersburg, Moscow and, new for 2014, Riga, Latvia. “If something stands out in St Petersburg, it is the harmony of its architecture – baroque, classicist, eclectic and art nouveau, all enhanced magnificently by the ever-present water.”

Mokhov recommends visiting at least one of the imperial residences, adding that “your impressions from visiting the city won’t be full if you do not”. He highlights Tsarskoe Selo with its famous amber room or Peterhof with its abundance of fountains and baroque palaces. He adds, “If you are coming to St Petersburg in summer you should do a boat tour. You would be surprised how different the city looks from the water, how magnificent the palaces are.”

Like Moscow, St Petersburg is also a cultural hub with 221 museums, 80 theatres, 100 concert halls, 45 art galleries, 62 cinemas and 80 nightclubs.

The Hermitage Art Gallery is one of the most famous and significant museums in Russia. It has the third biggest collection of fine arts after the Louvre in Paris and El Prado in Madrid, and consists of five buildings situated along the River Neva, one of which is the Winter Palace, a former residence of the Russian Tsars. “It might sound a bit too conventional, but I really love the Hermitage which has accumulated chef d’oeuvres of all times and cultures, not just the famous impressionists, but also great Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Asian, Medieval and other departments,” says Chernyshov.

“Lovers of theatre, ballet [and] art galleries will be spoiled,” confirms Denz. “But St Petersburg is also a city that never sleeps. Shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs are all open till dawn – well, in summer, past dawn; the sun never really sets,” he adds.

For quieter times, Chernyshov recommends the city’s Central Park. “Our Central Park can be called a hidden treasure as, despite being very popular with locals, it is hardly known to tourists,” he says. “Located on Elagin Island on the Neva [River] near the sea, this green park offers various attractions and the earliest architectural masterpiece by Rossi; [it’s] a great place for skating in winter and rollerblading in summer.”

From late May to early July, St Petersburg enters a magical phase known as the White Nights, when the sun never fully sets. In addition, all the drawbridges along the Neva open during the small hours of the night, and the city is enveloped in a festival atmosphere. Denz, who is originally from Switzerland, says, “Walking along the canals during the White Night period in summer still feels special, even after having spent more than 20 years in the city.” To help students get to know the culture and history of the city, Liden & Denz organise themed walking tours on Dostoevsky, the infamous Rasputin or the October Revolution, and have recently introduced an underground tour, discovering the St Petersburg metro, through which students are given “background information and [are shown] some of the architectonical gems of the metro system”, explains Denz.

While Moscow and St Petersburg may well be Russia’s top city destinations for visitors, a stay in Yaroslavl offers an experience of the real Russia, asserts Irina Kaznyshkina, Head of the Russian Department at the International Academy of Business and New Technologies in Yaroslavl. Located on the bank of the Volga River, Yaroslavl lies around 260 kilometres northeast of Moscow, and is one of the Golden Ring cities, a circle of ancient cities with architecture and churches that date back to pre-Mongol rule times. “Yaroslavl is a historical and cultural centre,” relates Kaznyshkina. “I often visit the ancient Russian cities of the Yaroslavl region with my students: the ancient town of Uglich, where a small son of Ivan the Terrible was killed; the town of Rostov the Great with its magnificent architectural ensemble; and the city of Kostroma, where the Romanov dynasty of tsars began.”

Yaroslavl itself is a thriving student city, steeped in history and culture: it is home to the first Russian theatre, built in 1750, a local symphony orchestra and a circus, as well as 18th century cathedrals and churches, and plenty of museums, cafés and restaurants. The International Academy of Business and New Technologies offers a range of excursions for its students including a trip along the Volga River to Svyato-Vvedenskij-Tolgskij Monastery and an excursion to the town of Rostov the Great, with a tour of Rostov’s Kremlin, a concert of bell music, and a trip round the Enamel Museum. It also organises trips further afield to, for example, Moscow, St Petersburg, Suzdal and Vladimir.

Shrouded in mystery for decades, Russia is still viewed as an exotic destination for many, although as Chernyshov at Extra Class Language Centre reports, the standard of living in Russia today is similar to that in Western Europe. And while there are lots of cultural differences to make a student’s experience particularly enriching, Chernyshov asserts that it is still very accessible to its visitors. “Russia’s great culture has a distinct character but is not too strange to be felt and understood,” he says. “The same, by the way, is true for the language which, despite using a different alphabet, belongs to the same Indo-European language family as most languages in Europe.”

Of course, mastering the language is the only way to really get to know Russia, and if your clients want to do business there, it’s a real must, says Denz. “Because Russia was isolated for so long from the rest of the world, relatively few people speak English even today. You really need Russian to survive there.” To this end, Liden & Denz offers “special survival lessons” for beginner-level Russian speakers, which usually involve “taking the students out to street level and encouraging them to engage into real conversations with the locals”.

Denz reports that the majority of their students study Russian to enhance their chances on the job market or because they need the language in their professional life. “Russia’s recent accession to the WTO [World Trade Organisation] will further facilitate Russia’s integration in the global economy and we are witnessing a growing interest from students from non-traditional markets outside Europe,” he asserts.

But, given Russia’s rich cultural heritage, it is also a language of literature, music and dance. The Derzhavin Institute was established in 2003, together with the All-Russia Pushkin Museum, Russia’s largest literary museum. Mokhov explains, “Our main aim was to establish a school where the students would not simply master the language but could also penetrate our culture, have a closer look at the history and art and thus understand the people and our mentality better.” As well as intensive, business and 50+ language courses, the Derzhavin Institute also offers courses in Russian literature and Russian folk culture, which includes Russian song and folk instruments, and folk art lessons.

For a bit of relaxation away from the classroom, Brauer recommends the truly Russian experience of banya (a type of sauna). “There is no better way to get rid of that city smut than to have it steamed, sweated and beaten out of you,” he says. “First of all, you sweat. In fact you get so hot that you can barely stand up. Then comes the beating – traditionally with birch tree branches, which apparently opens the pores and intensifies stage three, which involves running out of the banya and plunging into a barrel of icy-cold water. Throw in a few vodkas mid-circuit and you’re got yourself the perfect Friday afternoon’s entertainment!”

Agent viewpoint

“Students are surprised by the size of the cities, especially Moscow, which is spread out over a huge area so you need a good map and a good sense of orientation! A highlight is to visit the Kremlin and have a look at the Lenin-Mausoleum – very spooky! I was impressed by the high-speed trains that connect St Petersburg and Moscow (duration 3.5 hours) – built with German technology! I went to a Champions League [football] game in November (Zenit-Malaga) which was very special! Watching Zenit fans singing songs with a naked upper part of the body proved to me that I was in Russia and that Russian people have a different sense of feeling when we speak about ‘cold’ temperatures!”
Torsten Pankok, Travelworks, Germany.

“Students like, in general, Russian’s long history – being neighbours Finland and Russia have also common history for more than 100 years up to 1917. We send students to St Petersburg. The reason for this is that it is very close, it is extremely beautiful and it is easy to live in. You can find everything in St Petersburg. And of course the school we work with – Extra Class Language Centre – offers very good-quality courses, small groups and very good accommodation choices. To learn Russian properly means that teachers understand what customers are looking for and so far all our customers have been extremely happy. I think the most surprising thing is that St Petersburg offers so many things nowadays: culture, music, sightseeing, excellent food, clubs, friendly people, shopping and of course quality learning. I have been to Russia many times during the years and my favourite highlight is the people. They make you feel welcome and whatever you need they will help you to find it!”
Riitta Tiainen, TR-KIELIMATKAT International Education Travel, Finland
“We send students to Moscow and St Petersburg, and far eastern cities: Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. But many choose Moscow or St Petersburg. I think it’s because they think they are the centre of Russian art and have direct or convenient air flights from Japan. Many students go to study Russian in the summer and they are surprised that outside is still bright at 10pm and that it is dark almost all day in winter! They are also surprised that the admission fee for famous museums and ballet tickets are very cheap. I can strongly say, from my own experience, that Russian people appear very surly at first, but actually they are warm and very nosey in a good sense!”
Akiko Konishi, Japan International Center (JIC) & JIC Travel Center, Japan

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