Dragana Labanac is a student of the Preparatory course from Serbia. She shared her experience and tips of studying at St Petersburg University during the COVID-19 pandemic, her favourite places in St Petersburg, and her future plans.

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What influenced your decision to study the Russian language?

My decision to learn the Russian language was connected to my deep interest and passion for literature as well as for Russian culture in general. Since my youth up until now, I have been fascinated and overwhelmed by the ingeniousness of Russian classical writers and poets. But my decision to study the Russian language came about when I started to read the modern Russian writer, Victor Pelevin. His novels are in a sense a sublimation of my previous interests. In my opinion, they reflect the main line thoughts and philosophical ideas starting from the middle of the 20th century up until now. I believe that’s a great value of his work.

The second reason, I decided to study the Russian language was connected to the beauty of the language. That beauty is manifesting itself through a particular melody of the language, which in a certain way, sounds archaic and ancient. The sound and melody of the language are bringing to life something of meaningful and old which cannot be translated to another language. When I was finally able to read some of my favourite poets, such as Anna Akhmatova, I was overwhelmingly happy. Moreover, poetry always loses some of its beauty in translations, and I feel blessed to be able to read it in the original.

How did you choose the city, why St Petersburg?

The decision was based on my wish to continue further education at St Petersburg University, one of the oldest universities in Russia with great traditions. Before I applied for the scholarship, I did serious research. For a while I was inquiring, trying to find, and figure out the proper university and programme for myself. My final decision was St Petersburg University. The city itself was not a priority for me, but the circumstance, making it St Petersburg, made it much easier to make the final decision. Now, I have been living in the city only for a couple of months (due to circumstances surrounding COVID-19, I was unable to come earlier like many other students), but I managed to visit many sights of the city, such as the Hermitage Museum, Russian Museum, Church of the Saviour on Blood, Peterhof Palace. The city is surrounded by water. The Neva is passing directly through the city reminding us of Venice. So far what I’ve managed to see, understand, and feel is: St Petersburg is a par excellence European city with marvellous architecture, abundant culture and history.

What did you find difficult during the first semester of the course and how did you handle it?

It’s never easy when we dive in a process of learning and meeting new people, especially when we are faced with new circumstances for the first time likewise distance learning. Thanks to the help of great teachers and classmates, dedicated to work and learning, I quickly overcame the fear of the unknown. After that everything was easier. The main challenge was maintaining my focus on the learning process, doing homework and developing my conversation skills in Russian.

Did COVID-19 change the process of learning somehow?

This might sound strange, but basically I feel like it did not. The essence, as I mentioned, stayed the same. It didn’t change much in comparison to my previous experiences in learning. I came to understand — the learning process on one hand, depends on my work and dedication, and on another hand on the teachers and work environment. Getting into the process of learning Russian was not so hard with the help of great teachers. Their classes are well organized classes which motivated and guided us, the students, throughout the whole experience. Though essentially there are no differences between learning online or in real-time, I think there are a few differences worth mentioning. Good thing about distance learning is more free time outside the classroom, and subsequently more time for work at home. You don’t have to spend time on transportation or sitting in traffic. However, what I find particularly challenging in our situation as we are learning a new language is that we are missing the experience of continuous learning outside of the classroom. We did not spend two semesters in Russia which, in my opinion, slows the process of learning. Overcoming language barriers while living in the country, you can practice practically at every step you take. You learn something new in the classroom. After that you find yourself in situations which require you to use those phrases in practice, thus positively influencing the process of learning. Nevertheless, a lucky circumstance for the students from Serbia is that eventually, we were able to come to Russia towards the end of the first semester. In my opinion, I see the combination of distance and classical learning as the best solution for the students, until the situation with COVID 19 changes for the better.

Are there any differences between the education system in Serbia and in Russia?

Not as many, although there are some things worth paying attention to. From my perspective since I will be studying in the postgraduate programme, the most important difference is that a big portion of the educational process requires writing and publishing texts. Within the educational system in Serbia, that’s a rare opportunity which happens only so often. Students basically have to find their way to get published all by themselves. I was lucky because I had help from a professor who was willing to stand for students dedicated to their studies. But I was well aware that it was not a part of the requirement for each student. I see publishing opportunities as a huge advantage of the education system in Russia since practical experience is always of great importance for the students.

What is your specialisation area of the second semester? Do teachers help you to fully understand the subjects?

During the second semester besides regular classes of Russian language with my teachers from the first semester, we are having classes of literature, history and social studies with new teachers. New classes are considered to help and prepare us for our future studies, organised for students with the same field of future education. I’m satisfied with my new teachers, as I am with my old ones, and truly those classes are giving us a quality base for future studies, also contributing to spread the diapason of words, phrases and expressions in particular fields of sciences.

Are there any things in Russian culture which attract you?

Culture is a term that contains a wide spectrum of human activity, belief system and tradition. For me, the most attractive part of Russian culture is the works of classical Russian writers, painters and composers. They were born, raised, and developed creatively, intellectually and spiritually in this country. They are in an essence a part of its tradition and history. The frame for their creative work was, beside others, their country. I’m deeply motivated to learn more about the context, circumstances, atmosphere and the background which has influenced their creativity. Moreover, I’m inspired to understand connections, interweaving, crossing lines between, for example philosophical thoughts, overstepping boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, creating simulacrum and portraying ordinary, contemporary men in the capitalistic value system in Victor Pelevin’s work with the poetics of Gogol, position of little man in Gogol’s novels, deep sense of human tragedy and division in the work of Dostoevsky, Mayakovsky’s inspiring revolutionary boldness, and the lost individual locked in (post)modern speedness in Venedikt Jerofeyev novels. All of that builds together the context of creation, or what we call Russian culture, which has given to the world some unsurpassed spiritual heights.

What are your favourite places in St Petersburg?

I have been living in the city for a short period of time and St Petersburg is so beautiful, that almost every place that I’ve visited made a great impression on me and created a sense of necessity to visit it again. I love open space, so one of my favourites is Palace Square, right in front of the Winter Palace and of course Nevsky Prospect. The House of the Book (Singer House) is a great bookshop which I’ve visited several times. Also, I adore spending time in nature, so green zones such as Peter and Paul Fortress are my choice. As I live in Peterhof, when it’s nice weather I prefer walking by the lake in the English park as well as in the park Sergievka.

What are your plans for your future career? Will you go into further academic study in St Petersburg University?

I hope so. Yes, I am planning to continue my further education at St Petersburg University. Serious studies are before me. Everything will be harder because Russian is not my first language, but that’s the beauty of the challenge. As for my future career, I already worked in Serbia after my master’s studies as a teacher for over a year, and I would like to continue working in the educational field.

What would you wish to applicants and students of St Petersburg University?

I would like to wish them not to be afraid if they are foreign students. So far my experience is reassuring; professors here are full of understanding and always willing to help. They are truly giving their best making us feel as if we were at home. Also I wish them to not be afraid of the Russian cold weather, and good luck on their journey.