Student Life: A Russian Summer

American Course at GITIS Spring 2013 Alumna Eliana Sigel-Epstein gives us an inside look at her time abroad after classes ended this spring. Read more about Eliana’s summer on her personal blog here.


Eliana in front of Peter and Paul Fortress
Eliana in front of Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg


Classes at GITIS ended on June 4. The last week was spent learning from the Dean of the Directing Faculty who specializes in Michael Chekhov’s theories and taught alongside the assistant teacher to Michael Chekhov, himself. Ever since high school, I have been particularly interested in M. Chekhov, so it was sort of a long-time dream come true to work with a teacher who is so close to directly studying with M. Chekhov. I think one of my favorite exercises we worked on the last week explored four different ways of conceptualizing characters: as Earth, Water, Air, or Fire. It involved exploring the physicality and the emotional effect of that physicality when, essentially, “stuck” in that element. So, for Earth, we imagined that we were each stuck in a pile of rocks and were trying to break free. For Water, we imagined that we were at the bottom of the ocean trying to run as fast as we could. I then loved imagining which element was strongest in myself, my classmates, characters in plays I had read, etc.

This fall, I will be enrolling directly in GITIS in a post-graduate program called “Stajerovka.” I will be studying with Russian GITIS students in the Acting/Directing program, learning from many of the same teachers I had this semester. This is all, of course, without a translator of any sort, meaning my knowledge of the Russian language needs to be awesome if I want to understand anything that the teachers are saying.

Because of this, and a general desire to improve my language skills, I enrolled in a Russian language school, called the Pushkin Institute, for the summer. I had Russian language class for four days a week for about 4 ½ hours each day.  It was definitely exhausting to spend the majority of my days studying such a complicated language. But it provided the kick-start I needed to prepare for the fall. Also, I can now order in restaurants much better and even answer people when they ask me questions on the street!

However, before my time at the Pushkin Institute started, I also took a two week long trip with my parents. We had a whirlwind of a time, starting in St. Petersburg, then moving on to Moscow, and finishing in Kyiv, spending about 5 days in each city.

St. Petersburg

Daniel, Jackie and Eliana with guide Igor
Daniel, Jackie and Eliana with guide Igor

The adventure started from the moment my parents landed at the St. Petersburg airport and we finagled a reasonable price for their taxi to the hotel. As soon as they dropped their suitcases off, we hit Nevsky Prospect, stopping almost every twenty steps for my mom to read to us from her guide book and for my dad to take pictures. Though jet lagged, my parents powered through a full day – we didn’t return to the hotel until midnight. Which continued to be the trend for all of our St. Petersburg days. Thanks to the Summer Solsitce, St. Petersburg was experiencing what they call “White Nights,” meaning that it did not get dark until about 11:30. And even after then you could still see a bit of twilight in the sky.

We took a free walking tour with a great St. Petersburgian named Igor, did the cornerstone tourist activity of taking a boat ride on the Nevsky River at night to watch the bridges open, and of course visited the Hermitage Museum. We also went to Catherine’s Palace just outside the city. All of St. Petersburg was crawling with tourists, both international and Russian. White Nights is a very popular time for tourists. However, Catherine’s Palace was probably the most crowded, tourist-ridden place of them all. The palace and the grounds around the palace were gorgeous and well worth the trip, but the crowds getting inside the palace were worse than the Moscow Metro at rush hour.

Another highlight was seeing Cinderella at the new Mari’insky Theatre. I was really excited to see the new theatre with all the press that it’s been getting. The dancers were truly terrific, and the orchestra, conducted by Russia’s most famed conductor Valery Gergiev, sounded beautiful. The acoustics really were fantastic.

But for me personally, the highlight was going to the Museum of Political History, which featured two awesome exhibits. The first was an overview of the last two centuries in Russia. The second exhibit focused mostly on how the leaders of the Soviet Union from Lenin to Yeltsin used and maintained their power. There was a large focus on Stalin and the tactics he used to maintain power, through propaganda and total control of Soviet life. It really clarified a lot of things about 20th century Russian history for me. It was also really incredible to see artifacts like documents signed prohibiting certain artists’ works or pictures of landowners rioting.


Eliana at St. Basil's Cathedral
Eliana at St. Basil’s Cathedral

After five days of exploring St. Pete, we took an overnight train to Moscow. We had scheduled a driving tour of the city for our first day, and somehow managed to survive and enjoy it through our total exhaustion.  The next day we got a tour of the Kremlin and enjoyed some more historical education. We of course also saw Lenin, St. Basil’s, some art museums, Gorky Park, Kolomenskoye Park, the All Russian Exhibition Center, the Space Museum. And I insisted on taking them to my favorite Moscow Metro stations, which they really enjoyed seeing. I even learned some trivia about the metro stations from my mom’s guidebook.

Unfortunately, however, there was no way for my parents to see my favorite part of living in Moscow – incredible Russian theatre. Most theaters’ seasons were closed for the summer, and if I were going to take them to a show, I would want it to be something that they could enjoy despite the language barrier. One of Krymov’s shows would have been perfect to take them to, because of the limited amount of dialogue he uses, but none were playing. We did, however, wind up going to the Bolshoi Theatre – now that the Mari’insky had whetted our appetites for ballet. The Bolshoi Ballet experience was as different as night and day. Unlike the Mari’insky, everything from the building, a recently finished reconstruction, to the ballet itself was traditional and grand and beautiful for the sake of beauty. We really enjoyed both ballets each for different reasons, and I’m really glad that we got to compare the two.



Another overnight train later, and we began the third leg of our trip in Kyiv (one of the many things I learned about Kyiv/Ukraine/Ukrainian is that “Kiev” is the transliteration of the Russian word for the city and “Kyiv” is the transliteration of the Ukrainian word for the city).  It was the perfect place to end our adventures because Kyiv is a much more laid back city than the previous two we visited, and by that point we were exhausted.  I knew very little about Kyiv and the Ukraine, so I really loved learning about its history. We took another free walking tour lead by a young Kyivan who talked freely about his opinions of Kyiv and his home country. It was very interesting to get a glimpse into the life of someone my age in Kyiv. We also went to the Chernobyl museum, which turned out to be one of our favorite museums of the entire trip. The English audio tour was very informative, and the memorial to honor the victims within the museum was beautiful and interesting.

Kyiv has a long history of Jewish influence; for instance, Sholem Aleichem (author of “Tevye and His Daughters,” on which Fiddler on the Roof was based) lived in Kyiv, and the town that inspired Anatevka is located nearby. As for the more unfortunate moments of Jewish history, Babi Yar is located in current Kyiv (it was just outside of city limits in 1930). There were several memorials scattered around the field, including one for the Ukrainian Nationalists who were killed at Babi Yar, gypsies who were killed at Babi Yar, a memorial for a woman who had served in the resistance, and the memorial erected in the 1970s that had absolutely no mention of the disproportionate number of Jews killed. The memorial for the children who died was particularly moving. It was of three dolls that look like children from afar but as you get closer you see subtle details symbolically linking them to the tragedy at Babi Yar. Small holes in the statue symbolize bullet holes, their heads have been partially torn off, and the boy wears a Yamaka on his head. It was very beautifully done.

My parents left early in the morning the next day but my train to Moscow was later in the day, so I had one extra day there. I walked through a beautiful park to the main square of Kyiv called Independence Square, the sight of both their October Revolution in 1917 and the Orange Revolution in 1991. The day before was actually their Constitution Day and around the Square were remnants of a parade that I guess took place that morning. I picked up a “Kyiv Cake” to take back to Jackie and Daniel – vanilla cake with nuts and wafers and chocolate frosting. It’s really sweet but also quite light. I had been told that it is a Russian tradition to bring a Kyiv Cake back to Moscow after a trip to Kyiv. Sure enough, nearly everyone on the train had a Kyiv Cake with them too.


Another highlight of the summer was a trip to the dacha of the family we stayed with when we visited Yaroslavl. The word dacha usually gets translated to “summer cottage,” but it is really so much more. It is an experience. It is very common for Russian city dwellers to have one of these “dachas” in a small village that they frequent as soon as the snow melts enough to drive on the narrow gravel streets that leads to the dacha. And dacha season lasts until the first snow of the winter. Until coming to Russia, I had never heard of a dacha, but apparently they are a Russian tradition dating back to the 1700s, that became even more popular during Soviet times throughout the entire Soviet Union. According to Wikipedia, up to 50% of Russian families have dachas.

Our experience at the dacha was really lovely. We woke up late, played cards, walked to the small pond, ate outside, just really relaxing. I kept thinking how nice it must be that they could frequent this second country home whenever they had a free weekend, especially because their dacha was only about 40 minutes away from their home in Yaroslavl. Their dacha, and from what I can tell most dachas, consisted of one floor split into two rooms, and an attic which they converted into a third room. They had an outhouse (the nicest outhouse I had ever seen), berry bushes, herb bushes, and (the piece de resistance) a banya. Now, I had thought that a banya – usually translated to “bathhouse” – referred primarily to the large bathhouses that you can visit in Moscow and other Russian cities. However, their banya was a separate wooden house in which you use chopped wood  to crank up the heat in one of the banya’s small rooms to 90+ degrees Celsius. You hang out in the hot room for about fifteen minutes, then you can retire to the other small room to snack and chat and cool off, or go outside to cool off a bit more. Then back into the hot room and do it all over again. So, it’s not just about going into the hot room – which was like a sauna except it was entirely dry heat – it’s more about the whole experience of relaxing together. Apparently the extreme dry heat is good for you, especially your skin, but I more enjoyed the whole ritual of the thing, and the opportunity for bonding with your fellow bannya-mates.

One night, we made pelmeni, which are small dumplings that seem to be a staple of any Russian’s diet. Again, the experience was not just about the physical making of the pelmeni – which was fairly easy and I feel that I could repeat it – but about the time that you spend together. We also bought milk from a lady’s truck that looked straight out of Fiddler on the Roof – minus the horse. I think it was my first time drinking milk that had come straight from a cow.

We returned to Yaroslavl late on Sunday, showered (finally), and went bowling, Which was not something I expected to do while in Russia, but there you have it. But seriously, I could sit and watch the grass grow with these people. They are just so ridiculously warm and generous. The true embodiment of Russian hospitality.