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The Siege of Leningrad

By Meghan Cooper

Thanks to the funding of the Evalyn Clark Fellowship, I spent my summer participating in an academic program through Yale University’s summer session that allowed me to improve my Russian language skills as well as giving me the opportunity to spend five weeks in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The program began with three weeks of intensive language study in New Haven to prepare us for the experience of living abroad. While this was less exciting than traveling to Russia, I really appreciated having the language drilled into me with an extensive review of grammatical topics before I was in Russia. These three weeks were followed by five weeks where we lived, studied, and fully experienced the Russian culture and language.

When I applied for the Clark Fellowship, I hoped to use my experience to help me find a topic for my senior thesis. Before this summer, I had not even considered the topic of Leningrad or the Siege. I knew I wanted to write about Russia during World War II, but my thoughts and goals were still only roughly formed. By the end of the summer, I knew I wanted to write about the Siege of Leningrad. The legacy of the Siege was all around me in St. Petersburg. Memorials, big and small, are all around the city. I was able to visit several landmarks and museums related to the Siege: one museum solely devoted to the Siege, another about the history of the city with a large exhibit dedicated to the Siege, the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, and the Piskaryovskoye Cemetery, where many of the victims of World War II are buried. I took approximately 750 photos of Siege-related artifacts, memorials, and information in museums for future reference while writing my thesis. Almost everyone, it seems, either has or knows someone who has a relative who experienced the Siege. The memory of Leningrad’s trauma and victory in World War II is a source of lingering pain and pride that I came to realize is an essential part of the character of the city and its citizens.

The classes I took as part of this program were excellent. The combination of intensive language study for eight weeks and the experience of living in the city with a host family and interacting with native Russian speakers on a daily basis dramatically improved my Russian. I was also exposed to a huge amount of cultural experiences, though still just a tiny fraction of the city’s (and a tinier fraction of the country’s) offerings. I visited museums of history, museums of art, biographical museums, palaces, the ballet at the Mariinsky Theater, and many churches and other spiritual and religious sites of the city. When I read Russian literature set in Saint Petersburg, I can recognize the place names and say to myself as I look back with fond memories, “I’ve been there! I know that place!”

Before this summer, I knew that I wanted to improve my Russian language skills. Being in Saint Petersburg strengthened this desire, as well as helping me to think about what I want to explore in my thesis. I loved the city of Saint Petersburg, and I loved the experience of being in Russia. My experience also made me think about the way St. Petersburg’s identity is shaped and influenced by the legacy of the Siege, and what that means for the citizens of the city and Russia, then and now.

Paid by Cornelisen Fellowship ($8,000)
Tuition: $6,600
Summer housing: $828
Summer board: $660
Actual cost: $8,088

Paid by Clark Fellowship ($4,379)
International room and board: $1,500
Program fee: $200 + $1,300
Plane ticket: $1,213.64
Visa: $230
Actual cost: $4,443.64

Actual total program cost: $12,531.64