Tag Archives: St. Petersburg

We Shall Meet Again, in St. Petersburg

This J-Term I traveled to Saint Petersburg, Russia — a trip that, in large part, left me with more questions than answers. I thought before departing for this trip that I would return not only with a variety of new experiences, but also with new understandings about Saint Petersburg and Russia. While to some extent, this is very true, I have also returned with many more questions and the feeling that I can no longer rely on many of my previous ideas about the world. The questions this trip has raised for me concern not only my ideas about the world, but also ideas about myself and about what “home” means. I found that many of my ideas about invisible boundaries between different countries were just that — ideas of a contrived difference.

Ultimately, spending this month in Russia made me realize that many of the ideas we have about other nations or countries or people are quite arbitrary. Many of the people I met in Russia quickly began to feel like family and Saint Petersburg itself became very much like another home. In this way, I could no longer maintain the feeling of distinction and difference that I had originally arrived with. I began to wonder — what truly distinguishes one country from another? What purpose does creating such distinctions serve? How can we see past this world of difference, both to find a shared humanity and to create meaningful connections with people? These are some of the many questions I now pose to myself and hope to reflect on further.

If there is one main takeaway I have had from this trip, however, it has not been these questions. Rather, it has been the fact that being in Saint Petersburg was, for me, not just a learning experience, but also a very personal and emotional experience. Reflecting upon my time in the city, I found that, oddly enough, nothing touched me so deeply as all these otherwise insignificant moments — spending time with our buddies laughing over silly jokes; bonding over a common love of music; doing bad song impressions during karaoke and dancing late nights at clubs; exploring back streets and metros and parks; having lunch in the HSE dining hall and sitting down with a plate of hot food; walking outside in the fresh, cold air and feeling the wind in our faces; enjoying quiet moments over dinner in hotel restaurants; talking about our lives and politics over tea and cards in underground hookah bars; learning new words in Russian and communicating successfully during impromptu trips to Georgian cafes; hearing about Uzbekistan and the other home countries of people who moved to St Petersburg; taking late walks at night and getting ice cream from grocery stores; watching as the pale sun would rise every morning on the walk to school; writing poems in hotel lobbies; feeling free and welcome and at home in a place so far from everything we know; finding that some things, like love, exist everywhere; finding that some things are common, are human.

Yet, in some ways, Saint Petersburg remains a contradiction, an enigma. I can hardly say I know this city, and even less so Russia. Perhaps the only thing I can say then is this– I am so glad to have had this small glimpse into a world that exists outside of what I previously knew.

I am glad to have found that, for a time, this city was also ours.


Enas Jahangir is a junior here at Smith college, working toward a major in Religion and a minor in Middle East Studies.  The second of three sisters, Enas was born in Islamabad, Pakistan, and hasn’t been able to stay in one place since then. With a focus on fostering new experiences, she hopes to use art and poetry as a way to connect with others and build community. As a result of her many interests, she likes to describe herself as both lit and literate. She has never taken Physics.

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From the Archives: Fighting for Russia

In the spring of 1917, Bessie Boies Cotton ’03, as a representative of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), was invited by the Provisional Government of Russia, which had replaced the tsarist government in February, to “establish clubs for working girls” and teach them how use the civil rights they had recently gained (Leighton, 10) . Bessie responded enthusiastically, believing that it was essential to show women how to “use [emphasis added] their democracy” instead simply giving it to them and hoping for the best (Leighton, 58). During her time in Russia, Bessie successfully started clubs in Moscow and Petrograd and organized an agricultural exhibition for peasant communities that travelled up and down the Volga River on a boat. Although this effort did not last long – the YWCA was forced to leave Russia in 1921 after being labeled an “American interest” by the Bolshevik government – Bessie was completely devoted to her task (Leighton, 57;60;67). After being evacuated from Russia once, Bessie returned via Finland and aided American troops stationed in Archangel, hoping to eventually return south (Leighton, 59).

The Bessie Boies Cotton Papers in the Sophia Smith collection at Smith College contain many of Bessie’s personal documents from her time in Russia – diaries, correspondence, reports to the YWCA – as well many images from her personal photo album. Some of these pictures seem to suggest that she was fairly close to, and possibly even involved in, the events of the October Revolution and the ensuing struggle for power; there are more than a few incredible shots of marches, barricades, and the aftereffects of street fighting. And in a certain sense, Bessie was near the events – near enough that one night she “[heard] twelve shots in front of [her] house” (Bessie Boies Cotton Papers Box III, Folder 2).

But these images do not shed as much light on revolutionary Russia as one might hope. One reason for this is the simple reality of revolution – the October Revolution was “in fact such a small action … that it passed unnoticed by the vast majority of the inhabitants of Petrograd” (Figes, 96). Bessie, an outsider and not a member of any Russian political party, would likely have found it incredibly difficult to distinguish between “important” events and day-to-day fighting.  More importantly, however, Bessie just simply did not care about the revolution, or any revolution for that matter. She told an American newspaper reporter that she and the other YWCA workers “[were] as callous to [the political and social crises] as [New Yorkers were] to traffic on Fifth Avenue” (Bessie Boies Cotton Papers Box I, Folder 7). Because of this attitude, almost none of Bessie’s other personal documents contain any significant references to or reflections on the revolutionary activity she saw.  Instead, her papers are wholly devoted to describing her efforts to help Russian women. Bessie’s most cherished goal was to create an “international fellowship of women” – work she considered even more important during an unstable revolutionary time (Leighton 26;35). So while the photographs she collected are indeed astounding, they are only the backdrop to the story of an even more impressive woman who risked her personal safety to try to guarantee a better future for Russian women.



Cotton, Bessie Boies. Papers. Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA

Figes, Orlando. Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991: A History. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014. Print.

Leighton, Elizabeth. “A Women’s Mission to Revolutionary Russia: Bessie Boies Cotton and the Young Christian Women’s Association.” Thesis. Mount Holyoke College, 1983. Bessie Boies Cotton Papers (Box I, Folder 6). Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA.


EEmily Paruolo Author Photomily Paruolo is a Comparative Literature major, her primary interest being the intersection of Western European ideas and Russian culture. She has studied both French and Russian for eight years and began studying German this fall. She hopes to study abroad in both St. Petersburg, Russia and Geneva, Switzerland next year.


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Two St. Petersburgs

Central St. Petersburg has always impressed me because of the large number of remarkable sites concentrated in a relatively small area. For instance, from the eastern tip of Vasilievsky Island, I could see all at once the gleaming cupola of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the towering steeple of the Peter and Paul Fortress, and the resplendent facade of the Winter Palace. During my two month trip in St. Petersburg this summer, I lived with a host family on the opposite side of Vasilievsky, in an area called Primorskaya due to our proximity to the Primorskaya metro station. The city center is only 20 minutes away by metro, including walk time to the station, and slightly more by bus. When I first arrived in Primorskaya from a two-day orientation session in the center, however, I felt as if I wasn’t even in the same city. Compared to the brilliance of the center, Primorskaya seemed to me like just a bunch of ugly apartment buildings.

I had been to St. Petersburg for a short time in April 2012 on an exchange through my high school, but this trip had given me a fairly narrow view of the city. I was chaperoned everywhere, so I only paid attention to my surroundings when I was told to, i.e. at famous tourist sites. These places were particularly impressive to me, as I had never really strayed too far from my home town – a pristine Connecticut suburb – before this trip. Colonial houses with well-tended lawns were simply not comparable to the Russian Emperors’ residences. Thus, my mental image of St. Petersburg was only slightly better than a tourist guide, and my predictable first reaction on seeing Primorskaya was, “Well, that’s pretty ugly.”

Primorskaya apartments
Apartment buildings on the corner of Nalichnaya Ulitsa and Ulitsa Korablestroitelyey on Vasilievsky Island.

And it’s true that Primorskaya is not, at first, all that visually appealing. This district features almost exclusively hulking concrete constructions with prominent stains that reveal their age. Some buildings, including the one I lived in, are covered with blue and white tiles, but their frequently damaged and dirtied state adds to the sense of dilapidation instead of providing the area with a refreshing splash of color. The buildings in Primorskaya are only about ten to fifteen stories tall, due to a law that prohibits any structure from being above a certain height, but they are tall enough to effectively block the horizon. Even though I lived not two minutes from the Gulf of Finland, the view from my window showed only a sea of asphalt and cement.

The interiors of Primorskaya apartments are actually quite nice, nicer than some apartments closer to the center of the city. (Because the rent is lower, families have more money to maintain the inside of their homes.) My host family’s apartment was no exception. However, in order to get there, every day I had to walk past street after street of Primorskaya’s dreary apartment buildings. In the first few weeks of my stay, this never failed to set off in my head a constant refrain of “This is ugly, this is ugly, this is ugly.

After a while, though, Primorskaya’s lack of visual appeal stopped bothering me, and I began to appreciate my little part of St. Petersburg. The dvor (in this context, a courtyard) in my apartment complex was essentially a small park, whereas in the city center a dvor can be simply a small patch of concrete. And because the dvor was not an official park, the greenery was allowed to grow and to thrive without human interference. It also had a small playground, and after school I would often see families with young children playing together, in a city where young children are fairly rare. Walking around Primorskaya, I found out the inhabitants of my neighborhood had a propensity for large dogs, even though St. Petersburg tends to be a cat city. One day I even thought I saw someone walking a Newfoundland, a breed big enough to be mistaken for bears. I often saw people carrying groceries home; five minutes down the street was Lenta, the closest Russian equivalent to an American supermarket.

The come and go of Primorskaya’s residents seemed to be regulated by the work day. In the morning on weekdays, there was a constant crowd of people waiting at the bus/ trolleybus/ tram stop two blocks from my house. If they were late, they might hail a marshrutka – a kind of private bus that is usually faster and runs more varied routes than normal buses, but is more expensive. On the weekends, however, the bus stop was surprisingly empty, with buses running less often and sometimes with modified routes, and even the constant flow of marshrutki was noticeably diminished.

Primorskaya became an anchor for me in a place that was fast-paced and often unpredictable. There was a certain comfort knowing that when I came home at the end of the day, no matter where I had gone or what had happened, these buildings would be standing completely unchanged. So no, it didn’t have any gilded domes or marble columns, and not even one well-trimmed bush, but I discovered that chipped blue tile and stained concrete were more than enough to make a home.


Photo © Emily Paruolo. All rights reserved.

Emily Paruolo Author PhotoEmily is a Comparative Literature major, her primary interest being the influence of Western European ideas on Russian culture. She has studied both French and Russian for eight years and began studying German this fall. She hopes to return to St. Petersburg next fall.

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