Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation
St. Petersburg, Russia

St. Petersburg: Imagining a City, Building a City

Main content start

BOSP has cancelled the Summer Quarter 2021-22 Russia short-term program due to program disruptions given the COVID-19 global pandemic and potential challenges associated with the student visa application process.

Program Quick Facts

General Description

This seminar introduces the students to St. Petersburg, one of the world’s great planned cities.  

The course explores the tension between St. Petersburg as it was imagined – by rulers, planners, inhabitants and visitors – and as it was built and experienced over more than three centuries. Dostoevsky called Petersburg the most abstract and intentional city on the entire globe. Yet the intentions of the city’s rulers were frequently subverted by a variety of forces, both natural and human. We will explore maps of the city as expressions of planners’ intentions, but we will also study the impact of floods, fires, migrations, wars, revolutions, and everyday acts of resistance in transforming and thwarting those intentions.

In St. Petersburg, we will explore these themes by giving students on-site visits preceded by expert lectures. We will tour the city’s streets, parks, subways, and shops, and visit museums and palaces. As much as possible, we will meet local students and explore the city with them. In the Peterhof palace and the city’s famed art museums – such as the Hermitage – we will focus on how art and the built environment display the authority of the state. In the two ethnographic museums we will help students understand the roots of Russia’s multi-cultural history and its striking similarities to and differences from the multi-cultural history of the United States. In the Museum of the Siege of Leningrad, the Museum of the History of Religion, and the house museums of writers including Fedor Dostoevsky and Anna Akhmatova, we reflect on the individual’s ability to negotiate city space, especially in times of war and repression. In shopping spaces, we try to understand how goods reach urban consumers, and how consumption patterns shape urban culture. During a few days in Tallinn, Estonia, we observe the ways that in literary texts and in the built environment, a different city and a different culture negotiate the cold, watery Baltic landscape and the histories of empire, coexistence, and violence.

Academic requirements

Students must participate in a two-unit class in Spring Quarter, where they will receive an orientation to our themes and prepare a topic that they will continue to investigate in St. Petersburg and Tallinn. They will select topics that can be pursued experientially and that require no more language skills than they possess.


During the seminar students will post 3 blog entries. Topics that would work include:

  • A literary text and the city;
  • maps and representations of space;
  • an architectural feature (courtyards, statues, canals, bridges, facades, etc.)
  • representations of a specific historical event or person;
  • consumer goods or foods in stores;
  • behavior in public;
  • global exchange reflected in museums or in street advertisements;
  • oral history with a (pre-selected) resident.

Learning outcomes

  • Students will gain an understanding of the history, culture, and literature of St. Petersburg and Tallinn; they will gain some understanding of Russian and Estonian history, culture, and literature more broadly.
  • Students will learn basic concepts of Urban Studies, and be able to apply them to St. Petersburg, Tallinn, and other cities.
  • Students will improve their skills in formulating a research question in the humanities or social sciences, gathering (primarily qualitative) data, analyzing and synthesizing information, and communicating their findings in written and visual formats.  


Built at the edge of an enormous empire by Peter the Great at the start of the 18th century, St. Petersburg was designed to display the autocrat’s power to his subjects and to the world. Called “The Venice of the North,” its straight, wide streets, reflected in the canals, are lined with beautiful pastel-colored palaces, built by nobles whom Peter forced to move there. Its writers, including Dostoevsky, Gogol, and Akhmatova, birthed a world-famous literary tradition, the “Petersburg myth.” The city has survived many traumas: devastating floods, three revolutions in the first two decades of the 20th century, and a deadly siege during World War II. In the 21st century, it is an epicenter of the cultural and political struggles in Putin’s Russia. Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is only a few hours away along the Baltic Sea. For a time, Estonia belonged to the Russian Empire, and to the Soviet Union, but it has distinctive histories in the medieval period and in the 20th century, and a fascinating post-Soviet present. 

Living and Travel Conditions

Students will live in a small hotel in the center of the city. They will share double and triple bedrooms.

St. Petersburg and Tallinn are wonderful cities for walking. Expect to walk 2-5 miles per day (on mostly flat ground), as well as exploring museums and palaces.


Gabriella Safran and Michael Kahan

Professor Safran is a specialist in pre-revolutionary Russian literature who writes about issues of religion, ethnicity, and the history of listening. She teaches courses on Russian and Yiddish literatures, folklore, and sound studies; she currently also serves as the Senior Associate Dean of Humanities and Arts. Dr. Kahan is an urban historian who writes about American cities in the Gilded Age and the more recent past. He teaches courses on gentrification, San Francisco history, and urban studies more generally. They have both taught at Stanford for over fifteen years. They have both lived in St. Petersburg; they love the city and have a network of friends and colleagues there. As long-term Stanford faculty, they have both taken students to cultural events off campus; this will be the second BOSP trip that they are leading to St. Petersburg.

Prerequisites and Expectations

Students are required to participate in a two-unit class in Spring Quarter, SLAVIC 155 / URBANST 156, “St. Petersburg: Imagining a City, Building a City.”  The primary purpose of this class will be to have each student prepare a topic that they will continue to investigate in St. Petersburg. Students who will be off-campus during Spring Quarter should communicate with the Faculty Leaders in advance to make arrangements to complete the course remotely.

Grading Basis

Satisfactory/No Credit