City as Showcase: National Identity and Visual Culture in St. Petersburg

Summer 2017 | St. Petersburg, Russia


Gilded in the eye-popping opulence of a vanished aristocracy, St. Petersburg is both the imperial city of the tsars and the cultural capital of modern Russia. Palaces, gardens, museums, canals, cathedrals, public squares of dazzling grandeur: tourists (understandably) flock here. But just as St. Petersburg’s many name changes reflect historic power shifts, so too is its rich visual culture refashioned to suit current ideals about Russia past and present. Tour this metropolis with a critical eye, seeing not only beauty but a changing national identity.


Cultural History of St. Petersburg
Learn about the city’s three major historical periods—tsarist times, the Soviet period and the current Russian Federation era—and understand how this history is reflected in the city’s cultural layers: art, architecture, artifacts, and public and private spaces. Recognize the ways this tourist city presents its past to visitors. The timing is fortuitous, with special events and exhibits commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Visual Culture and National Identity
From a peripatetic statue of Alexander III to the clandestine posting of underground art, consider how and why the visual culture of St. Petersburg is manipulated to conform to (or confront) notions of Russian identity. Learn, too, how city space—public squares, private mansions, communal apartments—has been re-used and re-contextualized with successive political upheavals, whether the fall of the tsars or the fall of the Soviet Union.


Site Visits and Cultural Immersion
Visit iconic sites of Russian history and culture. Explore world-class museums: the Hermitage, Russian Museum and Kunstkamera. Step into the Usupov Palace, where Rasputin was murdered, and the Winter Palace, where Tsar Nicholas’s ministers hid from the Bolsheviks in the dining room. Visit magnificent squares commemorating Russia’s victories and a somber cemetery memorializing Stalin’s victims. Take in a theatrical production (a ballet or opera) and visit with a Russian cultural figure (a writer or artist) in a private setting.

Academic Readings and Lectures
Develop an intellectual context for your site visits through background readings and formal lectures. The readings, in English, provide both Russian and Western perspectives on St. Petersburg and its visual culture. The lectures, in classroom and on-site settings, are delivered by Russian academics and museum specialists and are followed by group discussions. Synthesize your immersive and academic learning for a multidimensional understanding of the course theme.

Writing and Reflection
Keep a travel journal, writing daily about your experiences with and observations of Russian culture, and contribute reflections, photos and videos to the course’s social media page. With the guidance of the faculty director, choose three writings to develop into short papers, one per week, reflecting on visual culture and city space as well as the differences in Russian and American patterns.