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Learning by the Light of St. Petersburg’s White Nights

Students Explore Literary and Scientific St. Petersburg on Summer Honors Courses

It’s the birthplace of some of the world’s most celebrated works of literature and significant scientific discoveries—but has also witnessed the rise and fall of one of its most powerful empires in recent history.  Understanding the nuanced history of Russia’s second-largest city, Saint Petersburg, is critical to understanding the remarkable impact its natives have made in fields ranging from art to physics. This summer, two courses in the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program at Yeshiva University decided to ground students in the city’s rich, complicated context by making all of Saint Petersburg their classroom.

st petersburg students at political repression memorial Members of the course with Dr. Gabriel Cwilich (fourth from right) at the Memorial to Victims of Political Repression along the Neva River

“Saint Petersburg is such a unique city, and not only for its extraordinary collection of some of the top art museums, art theaters and great palaces of the world,” said Dr. Gabriel Cwilich, director of the Honors program. “It was conceived by its founder Peter the Great as a window to the west but at the same time it is so rooted in the history of Russia, an example of the rationalist mind that created it in the eve of the 18th century, but also steeped in tradition. Where else can you find a city in which every single square or corner remembers and celebrates their prodigal sons or daughters, almost all musicians, painters, writers, scientists or engineers?”

He added, “Studying the city is studying its arts and sciences, and understanding them is a way to get to the soul of the city.”

The courses, “Literary Petersburg: The Mind of a City in a City of the Mind” and “Russia in Science and Technology: From the Atom to the Cosmos,” explored great Russian thinkers in the arts and sciences during three weeks of study on YU’s Wilf Campus, then gave students the opportunity to see the city of Saint Petersburg through those thinkers’ eyes over the course of a 13-day visit. Most of the 15 students and two alumni were enrolled in both courses, gaining equal exposure on any given day to how the landscape and architecture of Saint Petersburg influenced Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famed Notes from the Underground, as well as the role it played in the life of scientist Dmitry Mendeleev, whose development of the Periodic Table of Elements became a defining contribution to the field of chemistry.

Hannah Rozenblat, a Stern College for Women alum who participated on the trip, with a statue of Fyodor Dostoevsky Hannah Rozenblat, a Stern College for Women alumna who participated on the trip, with a statue of Fyodor Dostoevsky

“These courses enabled our students to conduct an in-depth examination of the intersections of art and science, East and West, and past and present,” said Dr. Fredy Zypman, professor and chair of physics, who led “Russia in Science and Technology.” That course framed the work of Russian scientists like Mikhail Lomonosov, George Gamow and Alexander Freedman in their context within both the changing currents of Russian politics and social life and in relation to the global scientific communities of their times.

In Russia, students toured the Twelve Collegia, which features statues of some of Russia’s most famed scientists, as well as Mendeleev’s former home near what is now Saint Petersburg State University. They also traveled to iconic Saint Petersburg landmarks like the Imperial Palace, the Hermitage Museum and the Alexandrinskiy Theater for “Literary Petersburg,” taught by Dr. Val Vinokur, chair of Russian studies and Judaic studies at The New School of Social Research, which analyzed how the character of the city shaped the Russian classics—Dostoevsky, Nikolai Gogol, Alexander Pushkin—which in turn shape the way Russia is viewed today.

“I walked away from the summer courses and trips with much more than textbook knowledge,” said Eli Balsam, a junior majoring in mathematics who found the vast collections of the Hermitage Museum especially fascinating. “We had studied some of Russia’s great literature with Professor Vinokur and the stories of many of Russia’s great scientists with Professor Zypman, which primed us for absorbing the heartbeat and the unique set of emotions that comes with being Russian: the pride and terror, joy and ennui, ambitions and futility. The Honors Program gave us the opportunity to truly understand a culture, developing new impressions that will last forever because of the experiential aspects of the trip.”

He added, “I have come to appreciate the complexity and subtlety of Russia and her people, and I have extrapolated that other locales and cultures similarly comprise many dimensions and influences which are often ignored.”

Shayna Abramson, a Stern College for Women alum auditing the course, found herself awed by the architectural beauty of the Peterhof Palace, sometimes referred to as “the Russian Versailles,” and the new Marinskiy Theater. “Additionally, we were there during the White Nights—a special period of time in June and July where it pretty much never gets dark,” she said. “Saint Petersburg is so far north that the sun doesn't really set in this brief month-long period in the summer; sometimes it will dip below the horizon for a small amount of time, leaving the sky in a sort of twilight-zone. This means walking outside at 10:30 p.m. and needing sunglasses!”

For Ben Rozenshteyn, a junior majoring in economics, the two courses also provided insight into his own history and nationality. “For many generations, my ancestors lived in Russia, but I moved to the United States as a teen,” he said. “These courses helped fill the cultural gap left by my immigration. I was amazed at the contrast between the Russian Empire and the modern Russian Federation—this modern Russian state is an artificial byproduct of a revolution and two wars. When you learn about and see the shards of one of the greatest empires since the 17th century, you begin understanding the effects of a totalitarian regime on a nation struggling to get off its knees after its collapse.”