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Literary Seminars in Russia

By Margaret Piton

Last spring a friend gave me a handout about a summer literary seminar in St. Petersburg, Russia.  I had recently written a play about Lenin.  It seemed like a good fit, especially once I found out that two weeks there, with housing and writing workshops, cost just $2,000 plus air fare.

St. Petersburg, which celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2003, has long been Russia’s cultural and literary capital.  It is an amazingly beautiful city, built on canals and with many exquisite gardens, palaces and golden domes dating from its past as the Imperial Capital.  This was my third visit, but the first since the fall of Communism.  

This time I tried to enter the city as Lenin did in 1917, taking a train to the Finland Station.  I did catch the train from Helsinki, about a five hour tri[, but found that now it arrives at a new station called Ladazhky farther from the city center.  I stayed in an apartment near the intersection of Liteiny Prospect and the Neva River, about a 40 minute walk from the seminar location at Herzen University.  Most students stayed at the 2-star Herzen Inn connected with the university.  Rooms were basic with shared baths.  There was also a café with surly Russian service and a small deli for takeout snacks.

The seminars (, organized by Mikhail Iossel, a St. Petersburg native and writer who now lives and teaches in Montreal, attract mainly students from the U.S.  The age range seemed to be early 20s to early 70s, with an average age of about 35 and a predominance of women.  Faculty were first-rate—William T. Vollmann, one of the 2005 faculty, won the National Book Award, and renowned Canadian writer Margaret Atwood  is scheduled to teach in 2007.

Workshops meet three times a week, and you can take one or two.  I chose workshops in playwriting and literary nonfiction.  Each participant could submit a piece for reading and comment by other members and get feedback on the writing.  Everyone seemed to take the work seriously, and faculty were professional and encouraging.  Some participants were already published writers, some were graduate students; others were people who wrote in addition to a day job.  One of my seminars included a lawyer and a flight attendant.

The seminar office was staffed 24 hours a day by bilingual Russian students, who were available to help with practical problems, from reporting stolen wallets to booking tickets for the Bolshoi or other cultural events.  For non-Russian speakers their help was essential.  Life is hard in Russia even for natives, and it can be very frustrating for foreigners.  Despite the fact that I read guidebooks before going, I arrived to find that my credit cards were of no use because they did not provide for instant payment.  Luckily I was able to use a bankcard to get money in roubles from an ATM machine.

The seminars surpassed my expectations.  There was also a considerable amount of free time to explore the city.  One day I took the hydrofoil out to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer palace noted for its spectacular gardens and fountains.  I took a tour organized by the seminars to visit the Catherine Palace in the suburb of Pushkin.  Even a tour of the enormous Baltika Brewery was surprising, with its extensive mechanization and use of robots –a far cry from Soviet-era industry.

There was also time to visit the Hermitage twice and to see a very large exhibit on the work of Marc Chagall, who grew up near St. Petersburg, at the State Russian Museum.  My student card allowed me to get in for about $2.50, one-tenth the regular price for foreign visitors.  Performances of the visiting Bolshoi Ballet at the historic Maryinsky Theatre and of Swan Lake at a smaller theatre on Liteiny Prospect cost about $45 each.

The city has undergone tremendous changes since the end of communism—people are better-dressed and look happier than before.  There is plenty to buy in the stores and many ethnic restaurants where you can eat fairly inexpensively.

Russia of course has severe problems, but other than street crime they are not likely to affect a short-term visitor.  All in all, I found the seminars an extremely rewarding travel experience, combining learning, meeting pleasant people,  and spending two weeks in one of the world’s most enchanting and mysterious cities.