Earlier this month, Russian modern language students presented a photographic exhibition showcasing the variety of memories students experienced whilst studying in Russia. The bilingual project, which first began in September 2016, captures “different aspects of everyday life in Russia, portraying the distinctive, bizarre, and beautiful memories of living in an incredibly diverse country.” As a result, St Andrews students had the opportunity to share their experiences from abroad, delving past any assumptions or ideas presumed because of the media or popular opinion. Led by a group of third and fourth year Russian students, The Saint sat down with a handful of them to discuss the project’s conception, and the results that unfurled thanks to their passion and hard work.
Devon Lee said, “Our professor, Svetlana Booth, was really blown away by how thrilled we were about our time in Russia, and wanted to create a project where we could show our experiences beyond just those in the language department.” While she was impressed with the lasting impression evident in her students, Professor Booth also hoped to use the showcase as a chance to provide more insight for current second years thinking about going abroad themselves.
Kate Petty added, “It’s been a very collaborative project, because while we’ve been able to give more information to prospective abroad students, we’ve had photo submissions from lots of people.” Indeed, in the early days of the project, Andrew Williams, Ms Lee, and Ms Petty called for submissions via the Facebook group for all Russian students who had been or were currently abroad in Russia. “Almost all the photos are from people who have gone abroad,” admitted Ms Petty.
As for the criteria for determining which 20 photos to accept, the students knew more about what they did not want, rather than what they did. Mr Williams said, “The photos needed to be authentic…personally I imagined that the only way you could take the photo was if you were there in that moment and you took it. There was no way that you could recreate the photo, you just had to be in the right place at the right time.” With such individual experiences, it was difficult for the students to expect a specific idea of what exactly they wanted.
“We knew we didn’t want a generic photo of the Winter Palace. We wanted to highlight that individualised experience and have the photos show that each would have a different story behind them,” added Ms Petty. With a total of nearly 50 photo submissions, the students found it difficult to select the final 20, consequently extending the deadline several times before finalising the choices. “It took months to finally decide, but we chose the 20 which we thought encapsulated Russia beyond the headlines,” said Ms Lee. Most of the photos exhibited require an anecdote or personal story to explain them, and this is exactly what the students had hoped to achieve.
In addition to providing insight for students interested in going abroad, and an opportunity for those who did to share their experiences, the students hope that the photos can help change a general stigma and mentality they feel is still quite prevalent. Ms Petty remembers all the stereotypical and repetitive questions she received when first returning, “You realise how much people have such a set idea of what living in Russia involves. ‘Was it cold? Did you drink a lot of vodka? Did you see a bear?’ But it’s more nuanced than that.” Individually faced with many of the same questions, the students hoped to show people what day-to-day life was like.
Mr Williams said, “We want people to start questioning themselves about Russia, take notice and change those exact stereotypical questions.” In the exhibition, the photos are displayed and loosely based on the themes of the military, city, countryside, and the further eastern portions of Russia. The photos also display a candid reality, revealing the legacy of the Soviet era. “In a very real way, the photos show that for the majority, life in Russia is not easy…it’s very brutalist and raw, and it isn’t like what you see in tourism,” admitted Ms Petty. For the students in charge, compiling the photos was a very nostalgic and rewarding experience as they looked back on snapshots of courtyards and statues once present in their daily lives. Ms Petty laughs, “My bedroom had a big statue of Lenin in the corner, and at first you’re like ‘oh God!’ but then you realise it doesn’t spell the end for a good experience!”
The exhibition opened to the general public on the 2 May, with a Q&A session providing insight into the collaboration. Guests included fellow language students, professor and project mentor Svetlana Booth, and Russian representatives from organisations around the country. Most notably, the Russian consulate from Edinburgh paid a visit, while the project itself was featured in several Scottish-Russian partnership websites, including that of the Scotland Russia Forum.
“There are so many other sides to Russia, and we want to start changing perceptions and help people realise that it might actually be a viable place to visit, because it is such a fantastic country,” said Mr Williams.
Another huge aspect of the project was emphasising how different their time abroad has been, as they noted the small number of Russian speakers in comparison to other languages. “It’s not like going on your year abroad to Paris,” said Ms Petty, “There is a need to communicate your experiences because how different it is, is such a huge thing.”
Several other departments within the School of Modern Languages now hope to follow suit and begin similar projects, featuring their own respective exchange destinations. The project has sparked a creative flow of ideas on how they might be able to better inform prospective year abroad students, while simultaneously providing an outlet for those returning to St Andrews where they may share their genuine experiences and emotions about their time, and continue the partnership and bonds formed with their host countries and individuals with similar interests.
My Russia: A Year Abroad in Photos is free of charge, and will run until 28 May in the Byre Theatre.