Category Archives: St. Petersburg

SPB Palace Sqaure Lock

Passionate Educators, Dedicated Learners

Moscow newsroom PHILMoscow Uni Girl CROP BWNOTE: Today is April 8, and I have been back in San Diego for a week. The Russians left San Diego Sunday after a full week of debriefing and the Student Television Network Convention.2015-03-30 15.24.27

My trip, the travels, the events, the people have all been coming too fast for me to keep up with. I’ve been meeting people, seeing programs, shooting photos and video for 12 hours a day. So please forgive me for the past-tense of the blogs from here on out.

I hope to revisit elements of my trip in a retrospective approach that, although removed from that here-and-now immediacy, may actually prove more interesting for the reflective time I get by looking back. But before I begin that retrospective approach, I offer this blog post that I started but did not get around to publishing.

March 20, 2015

I must take you back in time to St. Petersburg, back to last week, back to my first looks at the educational system in Russia.

First, structure.SPB SPIRES

From what I gather, Russian youth are primarily educated in state schools, just as American students are educated in the public school systems run by our individual states, under the recommendations and dictates of the federal government.

And like American schools, youth in Russia may choose to augment their education with “after-school” activities. But, in the U.S., many of those programs are directly funded and run by the public school system using public school facilities, such as after-school programs in sports, music, the arts, etc. And of course American private companies offer all sorts of enrichment programs for a fee.

In Russia, there are also many after-school enrichments programs — some that receive funding from the state and from local city governments. In St. Petersburg and in Petrozavodsk, that support may include the outright gift of a building, or access to it. Petrozavodsk Auction 3But…these buildings are often old and run down, requiring a huge commitment in money for materials and an army of dedicated volunteers effort to make them habitable. I’m talking about the basics we in America take for granted — flooring, walls, bathrooms, wiring, lights, Internet connections, etc. In short, they need it all, and if they want it, they must do it all.

I’ve now met the directors of three such educational centers, and their armies of paid and unpaid educators who design activities, create materials, teach — and swing a hammer, paint, sweep and generally devote their lives to building programs from scratch.
IMG_9752Perhaps you remember a previous post when I talked about my glimpse at the Russian heart? I have now seen its depth.

Mikhail Epstein, a professor of math at St. Petersburg State University, welcomed me to the World of Math, Technology and Entrepreneurship when I landed in St. Petersburg on March 12. IMG_9805NANO2The educational center, which has already been retrofitted, was one of several locations around the city to host activities during High Tech Week, a five-day series of classes for any high-school aged youth who wanted to partake. The offerings ranged from non-fiction production to robotics and nanotechnology to cybernetics.

SCEINCE DETECTIVES 2Students from several state schools converged on a modern school in St. Petersburg on March 13 for a document sleuthing competition. Each team selected an information packet containing personal letters, drawings, and photographs. Their jobs: discover the identity of the famous Russian scientist using only the documents included in the kit.

Petersburg Fountain of YouI also visited a night school for Russian speakers who want to learn English called “Don’t Speak” English School. Again, the teaching approach was active and experiential. Teacher Anastasia Lurchagina’s students ranged in age from 12 to 40, and she kept things moving with a variety of fast activities and lessons.

Across town, middle and high students populated a state-funded school and club called Rescuer that teaches mountain rescue skills Rescuers 3and techniques to youth aged 12 and up. The facility includes a climbing gym. Last year they added video production to the operation, and now have a small stage, a green screen and various video production gear. The kids enthusiastically showed me videos they created, and great photos of a recent backpacking trip to practice rescue protocols in the wilderness. The place felt more like a home away from home for these kids, who call themselves “The Moss.” ODqaQ657qDIAnd like the lichen from which their name comes, they are completely connected to each other, to the Earth, to the program, to the center, and to their growth.

MossI can tell you they sure made it feel like home to me. Again I felt that immediate and genuine warmth, that sense of belonging, of community at Rescuer that I’ve experienced in nearly every stop on my fellowship.

I walked in a stranger. We talked about video, backpacking and climbing, families and babies, we drank tea and ate sandwiches, we laughed, and we overcame the language. I walked out a “Moss” devotee.

Next up, a look at the educational opportunities inPetrozavodsk downtown snow Petrozavodsk.


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Saint Petersburg’s People


“If you smile at me, I will understand, because that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language.”   “Wooden Ships,” David Crosby, 1969


Tanya IvashinaSaturday was a day of rest, although nobody mentioned that fact to my fleet-footed fact-filled and ever-watchful benefactor Tanya Ivashina, an engineer for the state railway by day and an able and knowledgeable weekend guide.

She talked about the idea of a weekend guide service for English-speaking visitors to St. Petersburg during our walk. Her next step is to assign a name to her new business.

I like “Tanya’s Tours.” Maybe you have an idea? There is no end to the reach of human creativity when we put our heads and hearts together.What is Russia

SpireShe arrived promptly at 11, helped me change dollars to rubles, and we off went. My mission: to experience St. Petersburg and make photographs and video for the U.S-Russia Social Expertise Exchange. I respect the power of local knowledge, so I left the details and route to her. Twelve hours and about eight miles later, my head swimming in half-remembered Russian words, and sated by borsch, beer, many images and more memories, she delivered me back to the Demitov Bridge Hotel.

In between, we posted an epic walk through the cultural heart of Saint Petersburg, a city most guidebooks recommend as the cultural heart of all of Russia.

Our first stop was the Russian Museum, a massive collection of Russian art and artists from the fifteenth century to the present. 950 rubles (about $12 USD) bought us both entrance and permitted me to make photos with available light.

“No flash,” a severe matronly attendant at the gate warned us.

IMG_9961Underlying the images of war, the toil of peasants, and the unyielding power of nature, I found a proud grim resolve in the faces of the people. To my uneducated Scuptureeye, Russian art seems dark Iconand brooding. I’ve read a few Russian writers, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and listened to Russian composers, but this was my first look at Russian art, and this visual art echoes themes in those other media.

We strolled three wings of the museum, through massive oils of the 18th century – some more than 30 feet x 20 feet, through religious iconography of the 15th century to modern interpretations of 20th-century life.



Red Square

We shared a laugh over this minimalist piece.

“I did not know I would get to visit Red Square here in St. Petersburg,” I told Tanya. She looked at me quizzically, but then cracked a smile.

A bad joke is better than no joke at all. My friend Hayne may disagree, but he’s an old goat, and we’re all working on him. :)



Laughter is a universal language, as evidenced by this short film, one of my all time favorites. At only seven minutes, you will be forever enriched by taking your time to watch it. I guarantee it. I will refund your time should you decide otherwise.

We left the museum and crossed the Troitskiy Most, a bridge across the Neva River, amid a Saturday afternoon throng of tourists, lovers, mothers pushing prams, and families out to enjoy the unlikely sunshine in mid-March.

Peter the Great


On the far side, we walked the grounds of Peter and Paul’s Fortress. Constructed in 1703, these were  first buildings in St. Petersburg, and around which the rest Spire through trees 2of the city arose.

Strolling the NevaThe Fortress backs up to the Neva River. The walking trail there is a popular place for tourists and locals alike.




We strolled the banks of the Neva, busy with people of all ages enjoying themselves in the sun.

Neva Sun Bathers

“We have 50 days of sun each year, Tanya said, “and you have had two of them. You are very lucky.”


Bikes on The Neva

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I am Irish, St. Patrick’s Day is just a few days away, I am standing on the banks of a beautiful blue Neva in one of the world’s great cities, accompanied by Tanya, and the sun is warm. Who can argue her logic?

IMG_0262We crossed back over the river to Palace Square where a lone musician collected a crowd of appreciative listeners.







As we approached, I assumed the show was an organized event. But as we walked on through dusk and into our Saturday night, we came on more performers and I realized this kind of impromptu street performance meant a great deal to the throngs of Russians who crowded around these talented street musicians in various plazas on Nevsky Prospekt.

Russian Street Performer“Russian rock,” Tanya said as she and those around us lipped the lyrics, sang and danced along, punching up the choruses in unison.

It seemed everyone knew the words. Their voices filled the night.

Warmed by this simple shared joy, I felt connected by song to these people here on this grand boulevard 6,000 miles from my home. Standing in the crowd, our collected breath rising into the cold night, I understood the music, if not the lyrics.

It was then, watching Tanya and her people sing, that I first glimpsed the Russian heart.


Philip K.Ireland

Fellow, 2015 US-Russia Social Expertise Exchange

DISCLAIMER: “The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SEE or Eurasia Foundation.”