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Evaluations by IMARS graduates

Lisa Butenhoff (IMARS 2001/02)
January, 2007

Dear Pavel,*

I don't know if you remember me, but I was a student at IMARS in 2001/2002. I did my master's thesis on environmental policy in Sakha Republic with Nikolai Vakhtin.

Since I graduated with IMARS, I spent 3 and a half years working in the South Caucasus for the Eurasia Foundation on a regional conflict mitigation program. More recently I lived in Liberia for a year managing the programs department for an international NGO.

This fall I was admitted to Columbia as a student at the School of International and Public Affairs, where I've just started this week. I thought of you during orientation week because I remembered that you had studied at Columbia and also because there is a Dziga Vertov** poster hanging in the student affairs office.

I wanted to say hello and let you know how useful my education at IMARS has been to me. Beyond being a lot of fun, IMARS really is an excellent background for anyone who wants to work in Eurasia. Columbia actually awarded me a full semester of coursework (the most that they can award for advanced standing) because of my degree from EU.

I'm hoping to go back to Eurasia after I graduate to work on conflict-related programs.

Anyhow, I hope you are well. Hello to everyone in the department. Vsyevo nailuchshevo,


*Pavel Lyssakov--IMARS director, 1999-
**Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera is one of the films discussed in Professor Lyssakov's course on film taught in IMņRS; see

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Graziella Pavone (IMARS 2005-06):

ďUmom Rossiyu ne ponyatí,Ē reads a well-known Russian poem that verbalizes something anyone who decides to go to Russia and study there will sooner or later come to terms with. For this purpose, the International MA in Russian Studies (IMARS) at the European University at St. Petersburg is a useful tool for understanding the proverbially complex Russian world, providing various keys of analytical research as well as precious insights on Russia and the countries of the former Soviet space. Although similar disciplines are taught in prestigious European and American Universities, I would say that there is obviously no better place to understand the Russian kaleidoscope than Russia.

For me, studying at the EUSP has been a very challenging and crucial experience, which certainly broadened my horizons, in terms of the knowledge I have gained, as well as in terms of skills I could improve and develop. Having previously studied International Relations, when I applied for the Master's degree, my aim was essentially to acquire a specialized knowledge of the socio-political situation of the country and avail myself of first-hand information and direct access to the sources.

The rich choice of courses offered by the program, ranging from Russian domestic and foreign politics to political economy, or from contemporary history to ethnic issues in post-Soviet space, is meant to provide an interdisciplinary training which can be further narrowed by the student who wishes to specialize in one of the disciplines. All of the classes were very interesting and extremely formative. Since I was unable to attend more than six courses out of the fourteen offered (and I was interested in all of them), I decided to take only one more class, and if it had not been for the burden of homework, I would have taken even more. It should be pointed out that much depends on individual motivation, as the program very much relies on self-organization and commitment. Those who do not fear bureaucratic headaches or occasional administrative hurdles are without any doubt on the right track to get the best out of it and experience an unforgettable stay in Russia.

The strongest side of IMARS is definitely the human capital, i.e. the quality of teaching and the professors' commitment. Lectures were in most of the cases well-organized in order to stimulate dynamic discussion, giving way to inspiring brainstorming in an international environment. Class after class we grew keener and our research skills sharper. My professors were first-class experts who, totally committed to their work, created a very friendly environment and assisted us in every possible way. Being in a small university, we easily had access to them and we even spent extra-curricular time with many of them, thanks to their enthusiasm and motivation. In addition to their excellent academic preparation, the professors' dedication was beyond limits. My thesis advisor¹ would e-mail me even when he was on business trip in Tatarstan and would send me his comments on my chapters. Irina², would not only take us by the hand through the thick forest of the language but would also never miss an opportunity to make sure we would understand Petersburg and the ďRussian soul.Ē We went on a study-trip to Novgorod with our energetic History professor³ à la recherche of Russia's distant past and find there new questions, new answers, new angles. Along similar lines, I will never forget an extra class on Art history4 under the rain, reading poems about the "inaccessible ruins" of Novaya Gollandia in front of its gate on a cold winter evening; mixing with young Russian talents at a post-modern art event, or attending exclusive theatre performances with Leonid Mozgovoi playing only for us in an old Dostoevsky-style mansard...

From my experience, the magic formula of the program is without doubt a mixture of high level training and in-country experience. For example, while extra-curricular activities were not formalized in the program itself, we had, nonetheless, the opportunity to enjoy plenty of them after we learned how to make good use of our spirit of initiative. In a climate of discovery and enthusiasm for one semester we carried out a project, the ďOstranenieĒ film club, which screened Russian and Soviet films. The idea, born during one of our exciting classes on Media and Mass Communications5, became itself an instrument of further knowledge for us. Although we certainly lacked resources to give resonance to the film-club, we nonetheless enjoyed the high potential of the experiment. Every time I had the chance I would take all the opportunities to attend seminars or conferences at the University even though they were not always specifically linked to my Master's program.

My knowledge of Russia has improved considerably and my cultural background has been enriched on all fronts. Most of all, I have gained the tools to continue along this path and make good use of them in my future endeavors. I would without doubt recommend the program to anyone seriously interested in living and working in Russia. IMARS is definitely more than just an intellectual experience--it's a state of mind!


1 Professor Eduard Ponarin
2 Irina Sapunova, the Russian language instructor
3 Sergei Podbolotov
4 Dimitri Ozerkov, Stanislav Savitskii. Utopia & Identity: Russian 20th century Art
5 Pavel Lyssakov. Media and Mass Communication: Contemporary Methodology in the Post-Soviet Context

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Neal Kumar


This testimonial is written for the benefit of those students who may be planning to enroll in the EUSPB or have recently enrolled and will be moving to St. Petersburg in the fall.  First, I should make it very clear that you will not find a better education with regards to Russian Studies anywhere else in the world, nor will you find professors more qualified in any American or European university.  Although I do not possess first hand knowledge of the nature or capabilities of similar programs in the United States, I will say that I cannot imagine them to be better.  Sure, the professors may be well known at say, Harvard or Yale or even the most horrible place on earth (i.e. Northwestern), but I guarantee that they are not better teachers or even more influential than the professors at the EUSPB.  Professors Kharkhordin, Lomagin, Ponarin, Volkov, McAuley, etc. are first class professors and experts in the their fields of study.  They are held in high regard and are widely published.  If you have any doubts as to the level of education you will receive please remove those doubts immediately.  Having said that, there are a few caveats that you must take into account.

First, you will get out of the program what you put into it.  If you wish to arrive late to class, hardly study, go out partying very often, and generally do not treat the program as an MA program, then you will not enjoy the same intellectual benefits as someone who puts serious effort into the program.  In my view, the IMARS program should raise its expectations of the students, but it does not simply because it regards the students as adults who are able to make their own decisions about their behavior.  Basically, the only weak link of the program is that the students sometimes do not take classes seriously, although I should note that it is generally the case that American students are less serious than their European counterparts, which is probably a reflection of our university system and its tendency to burn out any intellectual curiosity by the age of 22.  However, the program is intellectually rigorous.  I donít know about you, but I like to be able to actively participate in a discussion about Foucault, Kant, Dostoevsky, and Weber rather than sit on the sidelines and feel inadequate, and in order to do this it is necessary to complete all the assigned reading and think about it before entering the classroom.  In general, there was a high level of intellectual discourse, and the students were generally prepared for the 2 hour discussions.  The professors, having already taught in England, America, and other parts of Europe, know how to structure classes in order to facilitate discussion, and anyone whoís had a new teacher knows how awful discussions can be with teachers who have no idea what theyíre doing.

Another caveat that must be taken into account is that youíll be living in Russia.  If youíve never lived abroad or in Russia, then the change will be exciting at first and then hard for a little while.  I lived in Moscow for 2 months a year before I moved to St. Petersburg so I knew what to expect and could speak enough Russian, but it was still difficult for a while.  I should note that working through this difficulty was the best thing Iíve ever done in my life from a mental standpoint, and that overcoming culture shock and living in another culture should be a requisite requirement for all Americans in order to overcome our sometimes-limited narrow-minded worldview.  America in its entire efficient splendor is almost too easy a place to live now that Iíve lived in Russia for an extended period of time.  Itís also much more boring than St. Petersburg.  Maybe itís just that I live in Washington, DC now, and am jaded by the sheer conformity and lack of uniqueness of 95% of the population here.  I do like Russia a great deal (and if you move to St. Petersburg try to live near Sennaya Ploschad so that youíll be near the Patersonís supermarket that saved my life by having Tabasco sauce) but it can sometimes be hard, especially during the winter.  But if you're not tough enough to live in Russia, then you might end up with a distorted view of Russia, which is another thing to take into account.  If you want to be a Russian scholar or simply be knowledgeable about Russia, then I donít understand how you could not live in Russia for an extended period of time.  I just donít.  Itís sort of like how people think that they understand New Jersey and have all these idiotic preconceptions about it even thought theyíve never lived there.  Yes, Iím from Jersey, and yes, I hate it when people mock my state.

Another thing to take into account is the financing of this education.  You will not be able to defer your federal loans in the US, although I think the EU administration is working on this.  On the other hand, for $6500 you will receive an education that would cost $70,000 at a similar institution in America (if it was a 2 year MA program).  If what youíre looking for is the name recognition of a Princeton or Brown, then you will not get it with this program, which is more due to the insipid nature of the American academic culture and its inability to believe that a school outside of America could in any way provide an education of similar quality.  I value education over name recognition, but most in the American academic or business community would be unable to comprehend this.  On the other hand, Iím working in DC at a fairly reputable think tank while I look for a job, and the EU has close ties with the University of Michigan and the London School of Economics, so itís academic reputation worldwide is increasing.

Iíve written this to alleviate any concerns someone may have about the EUSP based on the concerns I had before I left to go over to Russia.  I figured that even if the university turned out to have bad teachers and be insufferably boring, that at the very least I would have the time to conduct my own research and write a thesis that would satisfy my intellectual curiosity about the relationship between the Russian state and economic development following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised and was able to write the dissertation I wanted and be helped by professors who are first-class experts in the field I wished to study.  Not only are the teachers helpful, but theyíre friendly and always willing to help.  Coming from Northwestern University, which is supposedly one of the preeminent academic institutions in the United States, I was surprised to find that there are universities that donít simply treat students as commodities meant to finance the north shore homes of its professors, but actually seek to help students above and beyond what theyíre legally obligated to do.  As such, I highly recommend going to school at the European University in St. Petersburg.  I learned more in the last year than I did in my four years of undergraduate work and feel that it was well worth attending school in St. Petersburg.  As a final note, if you are worried about the Russian winter, well, you should be.  Itís not fun, but not too bad.  Just stick around for the White Nights and graduation, then youíll realize why Russians suffer through the winter.  If anyone wishes to contact me about living in St. Petersburg or the school, my email is

Neal Kumar

Neal Kumar (MA in Russian Studies, 2004, with distinction)

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Andrej Novak:

For those seriously interested in studying Russia in a broad perspective of social sciences and humanities and in being there to experience (urban) Russian life themselves, the European University at St. Petersburg is a great place to go and do exactly that. While those already proficient in the Russian language can choose from a variety of classes taught in Russian, those less advanced can take 10 hours of Russian at three levels a week (beginner to advanced levels) plus elect courses offered in the International MAsters in Russian Studies Program where classes are taught in English. For the most part, professors are young and dedicated with a very good academic background. Most have Ph.D.s from top Western European or North American universities and teaching experience in the west. In addition to that, an American professor with a focus on Russia is visiting each semester. The national library in the city offers unique resources open to EUSP students. I definitely recommend staying for a full academic year and completing the IMARS program, because in this fashion one can gain the most insight into Russian studies and hope to maintain contacts in this stunning city (architecture, opera, ballet, museums, restaurants, nightlife, etc.) afterwards. From my experience I can also tell that students completing the IMARS program tend to be the most dedicated and form a close group during the year. Most students come from the US, Finland, Britain and Germany and overall some 7 or 8 nations are usually represented in each class.

Graduate students doing research not specifically linked to St. Petersburg might find the perspective too broad or the school too small and miss the resources a top western university can offer. Yet in this small university one no doubt can find some of the best and most dynamic teachers in Russia along with excellent students from all over Russia and the CIS countries in the masters and ph.D. programs, most of whom have won grants to study there for their academic performance.

During the year at EUSP I have gained a great deal of knowledge and improved my judgement of not just Russia, but theoretical thought and sociology (to name only two areas) in general. I am very comfortable speaking Russian next to fluently and with only a slight accent. I wish to continue to pursue the bond I have formed with Russia and its old capital both personally and professionally and utilize my skills in a career that includes the country and its people in some way.

Andrej F. Novak, M.A. (Russian Studies), IMARS class of 2002 Free University-Berlin, Political Science.

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Sandra Evans:

If one wants to study the social, political or cultural issues within Russia today and wants to receive a balanced education that is close to reality, not only physically but also scientifically, then I can only recommend the IMARS Program at the EUSP. Beyond the obvious benefits of being on location for cultural, linguistic and archival reasons, EUSP offers small seminars with access to renown Russian professors, who are considered specialists in their respective fields of research. Another notable benefit is the fact that all of the professors have spent a significant time abroad in order to effectively serve as a conduit between cultures. Iím certain no other institution can provide all of these benefits in one place.

Sandra Evans (Berlin), MA, IMARS class of 2002

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Anthony Baird:

I really enjoyed the opportunity to study with professors who have the experience and professional level of US graduate professors, yet with the native background necessary to really understand Russian affairs. The combination is one that will be hard to find in any other graduate program. Another strength of the program is that while it is in Saint Petersburg, with all its economic problems, our university still had extremely impressive access to library resources and to the most up-to-date computer system, internet, scanning and e-mail. At the same time, I was also able to receive first-hand experience in Russian life by living in Saint-Petersburg, renting an apartment just like a regular Russian citizen, haggling with the landlord, having to boil all water, washing clothes in the bathtub, and forcing my way on to public transportation just like all other Russian citizens. It is an experience not be missed.

The only drawback was that the program did not focus on teaching the Russian language as much as I had expected. But this does not prevent one from being forced to learn adequate Russian just to get by everyday, buying groceries, waving for taxis, renting apartments, and fending off beggars.

Overall, I really enjoyed the program and would recommend it even to those students like myself, whose main focus is not necessarily Russian. While my center of interest was international conflict resolution, the IMARS program gave me the opportunity to study different cultures and viewpoints first-hand. It also gave me the opportunity to study international conflicts somewhat firsthand. First, Russia is intrinsically involved in the conflicts to its south. Second, there are many of refugees from these conflicts in Saint Petersburg with whom I could do direct, first-hand research. The IMARS program is multi-faceted and definitely challenging. I would recommend it to all who find any interest in intercultural relations and who are ready for a challenge.

-Anthony Baird, Class of '99

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Par Gustafsson:

IMARS program has been a great academic experience for me. IMARS has been what I expected--a creative environment with motivated fellow students (both Russian and foreign), high-quality teaching and basic facilities for research (library and computers). The possibility to get an internationally recognized diploma was also valuable. The main weakness I have observed at IMARS is in the handling of its human resources.

I have taken courses in the following areas: Russian Political History; Sociology of Entrepreneurship in Post-Communist Russia; Political Economy of Market-building in Post-Soviet Russia; State Violence and Mafia; Ethnic Issues on the Post-Soviet Territory; Russian Foreign Policy.

IMARS worked very well for me, and now I have the sights on getting accepted at a Ph.D. program, and the alternatives are for me the following: 1) Abroad. I am planning to apply for Oxford, and others; 2) Sweden.

As for other comments, I decided to attach my letter to Johan Aberg of the Swedish Embassy in Moscow.

Yours Sincerely,

Par Gustafsson

St Petersburg, July 2, 1999.


TO: Dr. Johan Aberg
Embassy of Sweden
Moscow, Russia
Fax: 095-937-9202

Dear Dr Aberg,

I just got the message that I have fulfilled all requirements for the M.A. degree. In retrospect, I consider my year at IMARS to have been a substantial leap forward. I would also like to take the opportunity to show my gratitude for the letter of recommendation you wrote when I applied for M.A. studies at IMARS.

A creative environment

The seminar discussions (three per week) have been very important for me during the year at IMARS. The constant exchange of ideas and interpretation of texts contributed to the creative environment. I very much appreciated the high level of motivation among my fellow students at the university.

EUSP as an access point to world science

One of the most important functions of the European university (from my perspective) is the constant stream of foreign and Russian guest-lecturers and visitors. This creates ample opportunities for those who need to create a network of contacts with social scientists that study Russia. The atmosphere is very international and nothing like I have seen in Russia so far.

The M.A. program "IMARS"

Each of the six courses (see below) has given me analytical tools (in the shape of theories and facts) that constitute concrete skills that I have used not only in the area of Russian Studies. I especially appreciate the solid historical background given in each course. The frequent seminar discussions have been very important. The discussion sections have definitely been an important cornerstone in the pedagogy, and I consider it a success. The roots of IMARS are found in the seminar discussions and the papers we had to write. There are of course no such thing as a perfect organization, a perfect university, or a perfect workplace. But, I think the potential of the university and IMARS is very good. EUSP/IMARS has the potential to seize an interesting position in the academic field of Russian Studies as part of the growing cooperation between Scandinavian and Russian social scientists.

My future plan is to continue to pursue an academic career. I will most certainly return to the European University at St Petersburg in the near future one way or another.

Yours Sincerely,

Par Gustafsson

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Katie Downey:

I am completely satisfied with the education I received at EUSP and with my experience in St. Petersburg as a whole. My main concern was how I could use this degree on the job market, and even though I don't have a "real job" yet, in Washington there are many prospects for someone with my background. (I actually turned down one offer just because the salary was too low.) But who cares, really because it was an amazing experience and I have no regrets.

More specifically, I have to say that my favorite class was Henry's, because of his enthusiasm, and the subject matter was most interesting for me. One class that I think should be beefed up a little is the ethnic issues class, because it seemed repetitive (but interesting nonetheless!). Another area that I would urge to be improved is the copier. That was definitely the most frustrating aspect of studying at EUSPb. I also think that not enough time was given for writing theses. Even one more week would have allowed me to submit a much better paper. IMARS's comment: we now have a brand new copier of our own!

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Tuomo Pessi:

If someone had told me two years ago, that I will ever live and study in Russia, I would have laughed. Me in Russia?! Never. But look what happened. On 1st of February this year I arrived at the Finland Railway Station in St. Petersburg. Well, perhaps I came not as celebrated as the bald little man before me in 1917. Nevertheless, I was ready to study the spring term in Russia to improve my knowledge of the country and the language. Before I came, I had less than two years of the Russian language and one year of Russian business studies. Not too much to start with, but on the other hand, what would the life be without challenge?

As I planned to study at the European University at St. Petersburg IMARS programme only the spring term, I could not have the MA diploma at the end of semester. Also, my major interest in Russia was the country itself and the language. I picked up one course as a credit course: State and Violence in Post- Communist Russia/Informal Practices in the Soviet and Post-Soviet Economy. Because I had never studied social or political science before, it took me some extra effort to get into the core of the course. Still, at the end I felt that I got something very important out of it. Not only did I learn new things about the subject of the course, but also I learned something about sociology and political science themselves. I also attended lectures on Russian Foreign Policy. The teachers of the IMARS courses I attended were young, skilled and highly motivated and I could see no trace of the 'Soviet school' education that had worried me a little in advance.

Learning Russian language was high on my priority list and that was taken care of at the university by one of the best language teachers I have ever had--Andrei. I had intensive language lessons four times a week in a group of two (!) students; just me, Andrei and ever so tactful Frank. Besides that, I took private tutoring and I must say that even in such a short period of time my language skills improved a lot.

As a student of economics and business administration (my major is corporate finance) I naturally wanted to see how the tricks of the trade are learned in this country. I was glad to be able to take part in the economics department's course in Corporate Finance. It was different. To put it short, I was able to make a kind of schedule that suited my needs.

The facilities at the university were good. Some bigger and smaller improvements were made in the building all the time. The library, (the heart of every university) served from time to time as my living room. The computer class, which was open six days a week, was really up-to-date and had all the necessary programs. I had my personal e-mail account and the "lifeline"--Internet connection. The only problem I had with the facilities during my stay here was that the ever so important toilet paper was missing from the toilets, as a rule. Very soon I learned to carry a piece of my own in the backpack. 'Learning by doing', I guess.

European University is small and seemingly few traditions of arranging extra-curricular activities existed, so it was practically up to the students themselves to arrange their free time as they wished. I personally missed some kind of sport activity and since there were no sport clubs at the university I had to find other ways to keep fit. Perhaps the university could also have done more to encourage interaction between foreign and local students, to really match the name 'European University'. On the other hand, I had little free-time problems after I learned to take full advantage of the great variety of alternatives that the city of five million had to offer. A study place like St. Petersburg is just great! I visited museums, concerts of classical and popular music, cinemas, sports events and, well, a number of bars and restaurants. Many times I simply picked up a place on the city map where I had never been to.

The accommodation was arranged by the university. I lived in the 'kommunalka', a communal apartment with a hospitable local family. The life at the communal apartment was lively and eventful and I bet there is no better way of getting to know the "Russian soul" than to live with a couple "souls".

All in all, I was very satisfied with my semester at the European University. As the arrangements were in order and the university took good care of me, life was made easy. I learned a lot of new facts about Russia and St. Petersburg, about the language, about the customs and habits, and about the people. I recommend studying for a year or a semester in Russia to anyone who has scholarly or cultural interest in Russia. Just keep in mind that in Russia you will encounter a different culture where things work out differently, but don't worry and try to adapt as quickly as possible. I was happy to return home after the spring term spent here, but one day, Russia, I'll be back!

-Tuomo Pessi

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