Bedirhan Ziyanak is a graduate of the St Petersburg University Master’s programme in History and Theory of Nations and the Issues of Nationalism. He came from Turkey to Russia to plunge into its history. He mastered the Russian language to such an extent to be able to read through 16th-century manuscripts, enjoy Russian folk songs, and broaden his worldview. Bedirhan has shared his experience of studying at St Petersburg University and living in Russia.
What influenced your decision to study in Russia?
In the second year of the Bachelor’s programme, we began to study the history of Russia. I was very fascinated by this subject. I often turned to my lecturer for further information and he advised me on books and articles to read. But at that time, I could not even dream of coming to study in Russia. In my final year, I came to know about the government scholarship that can be obtained through the Russian Federal Agency Rossotrudnichestvo (the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation) in Turkey.
During the selection process, I was asked why I wanted to go to study in Russia rather than anywhere else. I replied that I wanted to study the history of Russia. If a historian aims at delving deeper into the history of Russia, reading books, and studying sources and manuscripts, in what language should they do this? I clearly understood that I wanted to learn Russian and continue my studies at a Russian university. One historian told me: ‘To understand history, you need to understand a person’. This phrase helped me prepare for a new stage in my life.
How did you choose the city, why St Petersburg?
When I found out that I had won a scholarship, I was faced with hard choices: which Russian city to study in. Many in Turkey advised me to go to Kazan, others recommended St Petersburg. I chose St Petersburg and still believe that I did the right thing. I had read a lot in books about St Petersburg. And when I came here, I began to get to know the city and walked around it a lot. I saw it for myself how truly historical it is. And this is not only my opinion from the standpoint of a historian. My friends from Turkey who had moved here also said that they ‘feel a special atmosphere here’. I replied to them that it is created by the history that permeates the city as it is in every building and every street. I have been living on Vasilyevsky Island for two years now, and I like walking along the embankments. I spend my free time in places that have changed my view of art: the Russian Museum; the Kunstkamera; and, of course, the Hermitage. All in all, I love the city very much!
There are three Romes in history. The first one is Rome itself in Italy; the second one is Constantinople, that is, Istanbul. The third Rome existed as an idea. The Russians believed that it should have been Moscow. But I think that the Third Rome is not Moscow, it is St Petersburg.
What do you think of your academic programme at St Petersburg University?
The programme covers the end of the 18th century to the present time. We study the formation of nations not only in Russia, but also around the globe. At the beginning, it was a bit difficult for me to study, because in my Bachelor’s degree I specialised in the history of Russia and Turkey, and I studied events in Europe and America less. So, I sometimes needed more background. However, the programme seemed very interesting to me, and I tried to study what my groupmates and lecturers advised me. The theories of nationalism and nation, relevant to the world today, were also very interesting and useful to me.
What period in the history of Russia do you specialise in?
I specialise in the 16th Ivan the Terrible already seems to me to be my grandfather, as I have read so much about him. The 16th century attracts me as it is quite distant in time, so it can be studied freely and is more or less true to fact. My theme is ‘Russia and Turkey in the 16th century: image, stereotypes and mutual perception’. Unfortunately, in Turkey there are very few sources on this subject. In Russia, there are a few more of them. It was not easy for me, but I think I did a good job on the sources that I had on hand. My research supervisor at the University helped me get the ambassadorial books and manuscripts.
Are you going to continue studying this topic?
Yes, I would like to continue my studies in a doctoral programme at the University. I’m already used to the system; I know the University and its academic staff. So, I would like to stay here. In a doctoral programme, I plan to do research into the 19th I think that this should be done here rather than elsewhere, because all the archives are located in St Petersburg.
Are there any differences between the education system in Turkey and in Russia?
Firstly, I have noticed that in Turkey, there are, unfortunately, few scientists studying the history of Russia who know Russian. However, in Russia, for many years, since the time of the Russian Empire, they have been studying the East and the Ottoman Empire, as well as the languages spoken there. These issues are still being considered by scientists. For example, at the Faculty of Asian and African Studies of our University, students study the history of Turkey and Turkish. It seems to me that there is therefore more information in Russia than in Turkey.
As for teaching, everything is also arranged in a different way here. In Russia, I first got acquainted with the system when students prepare reports for classes. It was very interesting for me! I want to become a lecturer at the university, and if everything turns out well, I will certainly also arrange classes in a similar way. When a student has to prepare a report on a specific topic, they study, read, write, answer the questions of their groupmates and, thus, understand the topic more profoundly. This helps to develop three critical skills for the researcher: reading, writing and reporting.
Do you use any additional opportunities of the University, apart from studies?
I communicate a lot with students who are engaged in Turkic studies. I try to help them. The University hosts conversation clubs and events where we meet and talk about certain topics in Russian or Turkish. Foreign exchange students often come to our University. Although I am an international student myself, I have taken part in the «buddy programme». I accompanied students from Turkey and other countries, showed them around the city, and helped them if they had problems. I also used to play basketball, and wanted to continue doing it here. However, our Master’s programme was very intensive, so there has been no time for sports yet.
If you had to choose three main things that the University and your stay in Russia have given to you, what would you name?
The first thing is traditions. The University has its own university traditions and they are felt very conspicuously. The second thing is its academic staff. Thanks to them, in two years, new points of view have opened to me, and my worldview has changed. The third one is people. There are a lot of both Russian and international students at the University, and there are Russians not only from St Petersburg, but from very different cities of Russia. By communicating with them, you can study very different stories, traditions, cultures, and meet with the whole world at the University. I believe that you can learn from everyone, so I constantly try to communicate as much as possible with my groupmates and other students, and with my neighbours in the hall of residence. For me, this is a great advantage of the University.
What things in Russian culture attract you?
I love Russian literature, of course: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol, Anna Akhmatova. I read these books back in Turkey. Unfortunately, I cannot read them in Russian yet, but I strive for this. I think the impression will be completely different. I also love music, especially classical and folk music. Of course, I also listen to modern songs, but I like the traditional ones more: ‘Cuckoo’, ‘The Volga River Flows’, ‘The Far and Beautiful Future’, ‘Katyusha’...!
Do you have any advice for those who plan to come to Russia?
My friends from Turkey constantly ask me what I notice, what interesting things are going on, what challenges I face. I say all the time that if a person wants to get a quality education, open a new worldview, new points of view, the address for them is definitely St Petersburg University and St Petersburg. Of course, I have encountered some challenges, but they are everywhere, in every country. The main thing is not to give up when meeting them. I really love the Russian phrase ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’. I advise those who want to study Russian and the history of Russia to go to St Petersburg.