St. Petersburg: Imagining a City, Building a City

In light of the ongoing global COVID-19 crisis and worldwide travel restrictions, which are expected to remain in place for an indefinite period of time, Stanford University is suspending all BOSP Summer Quarter 2019-20 programs (see full announcement).

Seminar Quick Facts

Locations: St. Petersburg, Russia and Tallinn, Estonia

Faculty Leaders 
Gabriella Safran, Slavic Languages and Literature
Michael Kahan, Urban Studies

Arrival date in Talinn, Estonia: August 28, 2020

Departure date from St. Petersburg, RussiaSeptember 17, 2020

Information Session: November 13 (12:30pm-1:30pm) in Sweet Hall rm. 020

Program Cost: $600 program fee. Fee covers room and board, transportation and course activities during the program. Fee excludes airfare to/from the program location. Financial assistance towards the program fee and cost of travel may be available. Please visit the Overseas Seminar Overview webpage for complete information.

Academic Prerequisites
SLAVIC 155 / URBANST 156, St. Petersburg: Imagining a City, Building a City (Spring Quarter) - If off-campus during Spring Quarter, communicate with the Faculty Leaders in advance to make arrangements to participate in the course remotely.

Additional Program Requirements
1) Ground Rules - In order to optimize safety during the program, students will be required to agree to and sign Ground Rules that may restrict behavior throughout the program. These Ground Rules are in addition to the BOSP Participation and Assumption of Risk, Release of Claims, Indemnification and Hold Harmless Agreement that all students sign and agree to at the time of program application. Students’ parents/families will also need to sign these Ground Rules to confirm that they acknowledge the specific dangers of travel to the program location.

Activity Level
Light/Moderate: Activities may include city walking tours, easy/short hikes, museum and other site visits as well as an occasional physical activity such as snorkeling, hiking, or kayaking. For a full list of program activity levels refer to the Overview page.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Health Information for Travelers to Russia
Health Information for Travelers to Estonia

US State Department Country Information

Visa Information
Embassy of the Russian Federation
Consulate General of Estonia

General Information: Visit the Overseas Seminars Overview page.

Application Deadline: January 26, 2020 at 11:59pm (applications will open in December 2019). Please visit BOSP's Application Process page for more information.

Questions? Schedule an appointment with a BOSP staff member.

General Description

This seminar introduces the students to St. Petersburg, one of the world’s great planned cities.

The course explores the tension between St. Petersburg as it was imagined -- by rulers, planners, inhabitants and visitors – and as it was built and experienced over more than three centuries. Dostoevsky called Petersburg the most abstract and intentional city on the entire globe. Yet the intentions of the city’s rulers were frequently subverted by a variety of forces, both natural and human. We will explore maps of the city as expressions of planners’ intentions, but we will also study the impact of floods, fires, migrations, wars, revolutions, and everyday acts of resistance in transforming and thwarting those intentions.

In St. Petersburg, we will explore these themes by giving students on-site visits preceded by expert lectures. We will tour the city’s streets, parks, subways, and shops, and visit museums and palaces. As much as possible, we will meet local students and explore the city with them. In the Peterhof palace and the city’s famed art museums – such as the Hermitage – we will focus on how art and the built environment display the authority of the state. In the two ethnographic museums we will help students understand the roots of Russia’s multi-cultural history and its striking similarities to and differences from the multi-cultural history of United States. In the Museum of the Siege of Leningrad, the Museum of the History of Religion, and the house museums of writers including Fedor Dostoevsky and Anna Akhmatova, we reflect on the individual’s ability to negotiate city space, especially in times of war and repression. In shopping spaces, we try to understand how goods reach urban consumers, and how consumption patterns shape urban culture. During a few days in Tallinn, Estonia, we observe the ways that in literary texts and in the built environment, a different city and a different culture negotiate the cold, watery Baltic landscape and the history of empire, coexistence, and violence.

Academic requirements

Students must participate in a two-unit class in Spring Quarter, where they will receive an orientation to our themes and prepare a topic that they will continue to investigate in St. Petersburg and Tallinn. They will select topics that can be pursued experientially and without language skills.


During the seminar students will post 3 blogs. Topics that would work include:

  • A literary text and the city;
  • maps and representations of space;
  • an architectural feature (courtyards, statues, canals, bridges, facades, etc.)
  • representations of a specific historical event or person;
  • consumer goods or foods in stores;
  • behavior in public;
  • global exchange reflected in museums or in street advertisements;
  • oral history with a (pre-selected) resident.

Learning outcomes

  • Students will gain an understanding of the history, culture, and literature of St. Petersburg and Tallinn; they will gain some understanding of Russian and Estonian history, culture, and literature more broadly.
  • Students will learn basic concepts of Urban Studies, and be able to apply them to St. Petersburg, Tallinn, and other cities.
  • Students will improve their skills in formulating a research question in the humanities or social sciences, gathering (primarily qualitative) data, analyzing and synthesizing data, and communicating their findings in written and visual formats.  


Built at the edge of an enormous empire by Peter the Great at the start of the 18th century, St. Petersburg was designed to display the autocrat’s power to his subjects and to the world. Called “The Venice of the North,” its straight, wide streets, reflecting in the canals, are lined with beautiful pastel-colored palaces, built by nobles whom Peter forced to move there. Its writers, including Dostoevsky, Gogol, and Akhmatova, birthed a world-famous literary tradition, the “Petersburg myth.” The city has survived many traumas: devastating floods, three revolutions in the first two decades of the 20th century, and a deadly siege during World War II. In the 21st century, it is an epicenter of the cultural and political struggles in Putin’s Russia. Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is only a few hours away along the Baltic Sea. For a time, Estonia belonged to the Russian Empire, and to the Soviet Union, but it has distinctive histories in the medieval period and in the 20th century, and a fascinating post-Soviet present. 

Living and Travel Conditions

Students will live in a small hotel in the center of the city. They will share double and triple bedrooms.

St. Petersburg and Tallinn are wonderful cities for walking. Expect to walk 2-5 miles per day (on mostly flat ground), as well as exploring museums and palaces.


PROFESSOR SAFRAN is a specialist in pre-revolutionary Russian literature who writes about issues of religion, ethnicity, and the history of listening. She teaches courses on Russian and Yiddish literatures, folklore, and sound studies. DR. KAHAN is an urban historian who writes about American cities in the Gilded Age and the more recent past. He teaches courses on gentrification, San Francisco history, and urban studies more generally. They have both taught at Stanford for over fifteen years. They have both lived in St. Petersburg; they love the city and have a network of friends and colleagues there. As long-term Stanford faculty, they have both taken students to cultural events off campus; this will be the second BOSP trip that they are leading to St. Petersburg.

Prerequisites and Expectations

Students are required to participate in a two-unit class in Spring Quarter, SLAVIC 155 / URBANST 156, “St. Petersburg: Imagining a City, Building a City.”  The primary purpose of this class will be to have each student prepare a topic that they will continue to investigate in St. Petersburg. Students who will be off-campus during Spring Quarter should communicate with the Faculty Leaders in advance to make arrangements to complete the course remotely.

Application Process

The maximum number of participants is 15. Decisions will be based on the application materials. There will be no interviews.

Grading Basis

Satisfactory/No Credit

Passport and Visa

Students are solely responsible for obtaining their passport and visa (if applicable). Every BOSP participant MUST have a signed passport that is valid for at least 6 months after the scheduled RETURN date from the overseas program. Students who do not have a valid passport must apply for a new or renewed passport immediately. For information on obtaining or renewing a U.S. passport please visit the State Department website.

To determine whether a visa is necessary for your program, visit the Consulate General of Russia website. You may also consult with the recommended visa service providers listed below.

VisaCentral by CIBT
VisaCentral by CIBT offers online Stanford rates, or contact the local office:

In person: 555 Montgomery St. Suite 700, San Francisco, CA 94111
Walk-in hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
By phone: (877) 535-0688

Health and Safety

Students on international programs should be aware that attitudes toward medical conditions, disabilities, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and psychological conditions vary by culture and under the laws of the host countries. These differences impact the level of treatment and accommodation available abroad. Students should give serious consideration to their health and personal circumstances when accepting a place in a program and should consult with their clinician.

While the benefits of international travel can be enormous, it is often associated with certain health and safety risks. Thankfully, a number of interventions exist to mitigate these risks including vaccines, use of certain medications, and specific behavior changes. Health concerns vary by the particular destination, time of year, the health of the individual, type of accommodations, length of stay and specific activities. Participants should be up to date on all their regular immunizations, check the CDC website for vaccinations and immunizations. In addition, specific travel vaccines such as typhoid, yellow fever, or rabies vaccines may be indicated. Various types of medication may also be needed to prevent life-threatening malaria or altitude illness; or to treat traveler’s diarrhea. Finally, students should learn and utilize insect precautions, food and water precautions, and general safety precautions. These can prevent illnesses such as dengue fever, schistosomiasis, HIV; or accidents such as those involving motor vehicles. In spite of all the precautions, occasionally students do become ill or sustain an injury while traveling. Thankfully, most of these are minor. However, it is critical that students have a clear plan of care in case of an emergency on their trip. The travel clinic at the Vaden Health Center has produced an online travel health module that provides comprehensive strategies to help you stay safe and healthy while traveling.

Students must review the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for complete information regarding the health concerns and vaccine recommendations specific to Russia and Estonia. Students must also discuss with the on-campus Vaden Health Center Travel Clinic or a travel health specialist about the best ways to protect their health.

Students must review the U. S. State Department’s Country Information for complete information on safety and security in Russia and Estonia.

As with any foreign travel, students are advised to be alert to their surroundings, and be particularly aware of any health and safety advisories for the area in which they will be visiting. Students should consult with their health care provider(s) to be prepared for potential illness. Additional issues of personal health and safety and precautions will be discussed in detail during the mandatory pre-seminar preparation and upon arriving in the country.

If you are uncomfortable traveling under such conditions, you should not apply to this seminar.

Program Modification and Cancelation

Stanford reserves the right to cancel or modify the seminar before or during its operation for any reason, including natural disasters, emergencies, low enrollment, or unavailability of facilities or personnel or compliance with the University travel policy. The specific seminar dates, locations, facilities, and activities are subject to change depending on available resources at the time, safety and security situations on the ground, and other important considerations that may arise for a successful implementation of the seminar.