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(September 7, 2000, Gazette)

Memorial’s St. Petersburg connection

Dr. Terry Murphy, dean of arts, Dr. David Stewart, Business Administration, and Canadian Consul General Linda McDonald.

By Dr. Stuart Durrant
Special to the Gazette

When St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great it was meant to be an experiment – the dream of the imperious autocrat to break with the traditions of the Muscovite past and to initiate a new era in Russian history by constructing “a window to the West.”

It became known as “the splendid gateway to Europe,” “the Venice of the North,” inextricably associated with the gradual modernization and Europeanization of Russia over the following centuries. The city’s soul generated intellectual ferment and a thriving distinctive and highly cosmopolitan culture in every field of art: the writers – Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Akhmatova, Nabokov and Brodsky; avant-garde artists – Chagal and Malevich; musicians and composers – Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shastakovich, and dancers, actors, artists, directors and critics, whose influences are part of the fabric of world culture. Now protected by the United Nations as a world heritage site, St. Petersburg is one of the most mystically beautiful and alluring cities in the world.

In the tradition of the Petrine experiment to introduce foreign influence into Russia, professors from a variety of faculties at Memorial participated in a unique 10-day professional development program in St. Petersburg in May, lead by Dr. Terry Murphy, the dean of arts, in collaboration with the Academic and Management Training Centre in Tsarskoe Selo, the Russian Embassy in Ottawa, the Canadian Consulate in St. Petersburg and various universities, governmental and non-governmental bodies in Russia. At the inaugural reception at the Canadian Consulate in St. Petersburg, Linda McDonald, Canadian Consul General, proudly deemed this project the first academic-professional project of its kind initiated by a Canadian university.

After several inquiries from colleagues, the idea was conceived to match faculty members from Memorial with Russian specialists in their fields of interest, with whom they could consult or initiate independent or collaborative research projects.

In certain instances an academic acquaintanceship already existed. On a Friday afternoon Dr. S. Chittal, Faculty of Medicine, was introduced to present his lecture at the Medical Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, and several of the 60 specialists in attendance applauded prematurely and exclaimed that they already knew his publications. As a footnote, the presentation evoked a formal letter of thanks and recognition from the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation.

For the arts faculty, the goal of the project was to demonstrate how a small modern language program can further the short and long term goals of the university. Dr. Murphy, Dr. S. Durrant, German and Russian, Dr. J. Adler, Sociology, Dr. Bill McGrath, Political Science, Dr. E. Church, Women’s Studies and Student Affairs, and Dr. W. Barker, English, either initiated or continued research projects. Just a few tangible achievements include the formal establishment of internships for students, the conditions of an exchange with the A.I. Herzen University, and links with at least 10 research institutes.

Our delegation, like many delegations of foreigners in the 18th century, lived the suburb of St. Petersburg Tsarskoye Selo, one of the summer residences of Russian tsars, where majestic classical and baroque palaces separated by tranquil parks and shady pathways created an ode to imperial history.

But then as now, there is a connection with business administration – just as Petersburg was conceived as the channel to initiate a new era in Russia’s economic transformation, the Academic Management Training Centre, which hosted our delegation in the former palace of Prince Vasilij Kochubej, is a multifunctional body. One of its purposes is to act as an executive facility of the Russian government, to promote the economic transformation of the country initiated by Gorbachev. As such it has a very broad network of contacts throughout Russia, but specifically in the area of business management and the implementation of a market economy in the “new Russia.” In this connection, faculty members from the School of Business Administration,
Dr. David Stewart and Dr. Sudhir Saha, initiated projects and were invited to explore possibilities to develop cooperative links with the new schools of management and business administration and the St. Petersburg International Business Association.

Our Russian organizers of the project perceive Memorial’s initiative and the program’s significance in the larger context of St. Petersburg’s cultural tradition. Hence they framed our business and professional meetings within a cultural context, meticulously designed and timed to include tours with distinguished scholars at the Hermitage, the Yusoupoff Palace (site of Rasputin’s murder), the Russian State Museum, the State Russian Library, trips to the ancient city of Novgorod, and Moscow, evening performances of Borodin’s Prince Igor at the Bolshoi Theatre, and the memorable concert featuring Russia’s virtuoso, Maxim Fedotov, the present Paganini of the European circuit. The pace of the professional program was coordinated with Russian discipline, and sustained with much flare by precisely timed rests at comfortable quiet restaurants for Russian specialties.

Memorial forged valuable links with five state universities and 41 academies of higher learning in St. Petersburg.

Memorial’s students were the pathbreakers. For several years successful summer programs in St. Petersburg have been organized for students from Memorial University. Since their inception, approximately 250 students have participated in our Russian Summer Programs in St. Petersburg and Pushkin. In July and August, 18 students followed in the footsteps of their professors in May and spent over a month studying the language, culture and literature of Russia and lived with a Russian family or individual.

The experience is just as unique for the Russian hosts, who apply to adopt our students. This year from almost 50 applicants the hosts were selected to accommodate students from various disciplines (for example, history, political science, women’s studies). For them the city and its surrounding towns are both an inspiration and insight – in addition to St. Petersburg’s splendour and artistic creativity, for almost three centuries, the myth of the city has incorporated the notion of conflict – St. Petersburg survived the most extreme attempts to extinguish it, from natural disasters, described by Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman, to famine, civil war, revolutions, Stalin’s purges, the epic 900 day siege by during the Second World War and Soviet attempts to destroy or pervert its cultural identity. The city was renamed twice and regained its original name in 1991.

As our Russian organizers stated, Memorial’s programs enhance the cosmopolitan traditions of the St. Petersburg and students and professors are welcome now well known guests in the city and participants in its history.

Stuart Durrant is an associate professor in the Department of German and Russian.