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Study Russian in St. Petersburg

A Former Student Reconnects with the Language

After reading a newspaper article on the colossal effort undertaken to spruce up St. Petersburg, Russia for her 300th birthday, memories of the city I’d visited in the mid-nineties came to mind. Eager to see the city after a good scrubbing, I began plotting my return. Having studied Russian in college, a language study trip seemed to offer a practical way to re-connect with the language, as well as provide a more meaningful experience than just a vacation. So I researched options on the Internet and ultimately selected Liden & Denz, a well-regarded private school that counted diplomats and numerous large Western corporations among its clientele.

The school’s informative website answered most of my questions, such as how soon I could start (about six weeks after applying), costs involved (currently about $520 per week including a homestay with a Russian family), size of classes (six to 10 students), excursions offered, airport transfers, safety, visas, etc. Tatiana, the school’s administrative director, quickly answered additional questions via e-mail.

I emailed the school a completed application and after getting back a letter of invitation, dropped off my visa application at the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C. I then made my flight reservations and counted the weeks until departure. During that time, the school emailed more detailed information on my homestay family (an older couple), as well as useful tips on what to expect during my month-long stay.

On a cold, rainy Saturday afternoon in May I arrived at Pulkovo Airport. After clearing customs, I found a cheerful young woman holding a “Liden & Denz” sign. She introduced herself as Larissa, a program assistant. We were soon joined by another student and then herded by van to our new homes; we both chose the school’s homestay option over private apartments or hotels as we wanted closer contact with daily life in Russia. Larissa filled us in on many practical and pertinent details including where best to exchange money, what to do about laundry, and how to make phone calls.

We pulled up to the first apartment building and my heart skipped a beat. The rubble-strewn courtyard and crumbling facade suggested the building had just barely survived the siege of Leningrad. The other student and I exchanged nervous “what were we thinking?” glances. Although the school’s website warned that most buildings’ public areas were rundown, the interiors would be clean and comfortable. Still, my mind wandered frantically to the other possible housing options. Larissa called out the other student’s name and I breathed a sigh of relief. Several minutes later we pulled up at my building; it was in slightly better shape, although the Stalinist sensibilities were evident. I gathered my luggage and my nerves. Larissa wished me well.

\My new host mother, Tanya, greeted me at the apartment door with a cup of tea and a stream of excited, rapid Russian. She showed me around the surprisingly spacious 2-bedroom apartment, which was comfortable and clean. She was warm and helpful and soon pushed sladkii (sweets) on me every day after school, just like mom did in elementary school. The homestay option included non-stop language practice, breakfast and dinner most days (lots of tasty pierogi, hotdogs, and kasha, a cooked grain), and a glimpse of how Russians really live.

I was fortunate that my apartment was a 10-minute walk to vibrant Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s premier boulevard lined with stylish cafes, restaurants and fashionable shops. Also nearby were a bakery and a market selling groceries. Many students were further out in the suburbs, a long metro ride from the center and school.

On the first day of class, Tanya brought me to school. We waited patiently as three expensive private buses (triple the price of the public bus) drove by. I nervously glanced at my watch, but 10 minutes later the public bus stopped and we hopped on for the 10-minute ride. At 8:45 a.m., we arrived at Liden & Denz’s facility—a modern complex complete with a small library; computer lab; receptionist selling postcards, stamps, and phonecards; and a cantina serving tasty and inexpensive lunches, snacks, and of course tea. Tanya and I exchanged dosvidaniyas (goodbyes), then I grabbed a quick coffee and was shown to a room with other new students.

After a written placement exam and oral discussion, I was assigned to a class. We quickly began introducing ourselves adhering to the “Russian only” policy in the classroom. My classmates included a Polish travel writer, a recent American MBA grad living in Russia with his Russian wife, a German masseuse treating Russian soccer players at a sports clinic back home, a French businesswoman, and two college-aged Swiss students.

Our teacher, Viktoria, was professional, patient and organized, with a wry sense of humor. It quickly became clear there would be no avoiding discussions—the students would do most of the talking, with the occasional stoppage only to discuss a point of grammar. Though little formal homework was assigned, I was discouraged by how much I’d forgotten since my college days. So I pored over my books and dictionary every night, and practiced with Tanya; soon, my “deer in the headlights” look gave way to renewed enthusiasm and comprehension.

We spent four hours in class from 9 a.m. until about 1:45 p.m., Monday through Friday with a brief mid-morning break and a lunch break. After classes finished, the enthusiastic events coordinator, Aleksei, led optional excursions (most involved a modest fee) to places such as the Hermitage, the Vodka Museum, and on a walking tour of Dostoyevsky’s haunts. The first afternoon trip was a free walking tour of the city. We strolled to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Church on Spilled Blood (modeled on St. Basil’s in Moscow), the Winter Palace and the Hermitage, and the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Aleksei also led a couple Saturday daytrips. One was to the spectacular Catherine Palace in the lovely town of Pushkin, a short train ride away. We marveled at the recently reopened “Amber Room,” a chamber covered with panels of intricately carved amber. Reputedly plundered by the Nazis in World War II, it was painstakingly reconstructed from black and white photographs with magnificent results.

The following Saturday brought us to both Russia’s oldest city, Novgorod, and its oldest church, the striking white and silver Cathedral of St. Sophia, built in 1045. We dined in a nearby restaurant serving historic meals set partly inside the town’s ancient fortress wall, then visited an open-air museum of wooden churches on Novgorod’s outskirts.

Most of us finished class in the early afternoon and were then free to wander the city. (Our stay coincided with the northern latitude’s “white nights,” so no matter how late we stayed out we rarely walked home in the dark.) When not on a school-sponsored trip, many of us met to practice our new language skills at cafes, pubs, museums, and world famous theaters like the Mariinsky. A few lucky students were invited to their host families’ dachas (summer homes) on weekends.

While the $2 billion spent renovating and restoring St. Petersburg left the big sights literally sparkling, and would’ve impressed even Peter the Great, the campaign was controversial as it produced few benefits for ordinary Russian citizens for whom daily life remains a struggle. Bleak apartment blocks, decrepit infrastructure, and pollution-spewing factories hover just beyond the historic attractions. Walking past adolescents drinking beer on the way to school every morning and babushkas hawking handfuls of scraggly vegetables and the odd household item outside the metro was to witness firsthand Russia’s often harsh economic realities.

Toward the end of my stay, I could understand much, if not everything, Tanya said as we discussed life in Russia over sladkii and tea. The program fully met and often exceeded expectations. Superior language instruction, well-planned cultural activities, and a pleasant, efficient staff combined for a uniquely rewarding experience in this intriguing country.

For More Info

Liden & Denz, Transportny per. 11, 5. floor, 191119 St. Petersburg, Russian Federation; Tel./fax.: +7-812-334-07-88; www.lidenz.ru. There is also a branch in Moscow, and it is possible to combine the two cities, depending on length of stay.

Cost per week of instruction (4 hours per day group course, five days a week): currently about $520 including homestay; add $80/week in high season. There is also a one-time registration fee of $80. Specials are occasionally offered and are listed on the website, as are options such as one-on-one lessons, and further information on housing choices.

Useful links regarding studying and traveling in Russia:

  • www.sras.org (Listings of study and research opportunities in Russia).
  • St. Petersburg International Hostel: www.ryh.ru.