Mapping Memory in St. Petersburg

Sasha Prokhorov and I began discussing ways to incorporate video and audio production into the St. Petersburg study abroad program in September of 2010. We both realized the potential for a collaboration like this, but we were unsure of the best plan of action to developed. The following idea, “Mapping Memory in St. Petersburg,” serves as our springboard. In January 2011, the Reves Center pledged to support the project through the Center’s Faculty Fellowship in International Research.

Mapping Memory in St. Petersburg is a collaborative undergraduate research initiative between the Russian, Literary and Cultural Studies, Environmental and Public Policy, and Film Studies Programs. Students will develop research questions in the spring semester, carry out basic exploratory research while living in St. Petersburg for six weeks in the summer, and will produce a multi-media product in the fall semester. These reports will use written, audio and visual media to develop a cohesive story of different memory sites within the city of St. Petersburg.

Cultural historians claim that communities construct their sense of the past via memory vehicles such as books, films, museums and commemorations. This process of creating a collective memory is directly related to a society’s perception of the present. In recent years, historians and social activists in post-Soviet Russia have urged for a re-evaluation of their cultural memory.Within this contemporary context, our project intends to examine several sites relevant to the city’s memory as urban development accelerates within the city.  In 2011, student research will focus on issues of urban development, historical preservation and sustainable efforts to maintain urban eco-systems. Drawing upon methodologies from cultural studies, memory studies, environmental science and media studies, students will engage first hand in research in the field of Russian and Post-Soviet Studies. In the process of media production, students will use videography technology and social media tools such as blogging.

The inclusion of media into this project will add three important elements. First media production requires students to get out and talk to locals. As this interaction is often the most challenging yet rewarding aspects for study abroad students, this element assures that students push themselves out of their comfort zone. Second, while writing creates one avenue of cultural preservation, the immediacy of visual media cannot be denied. Students will create an appreciation for this form preservation of culture as a powerful tool for negotiating cultural memory. And third, the opportunity to present this information to larger audiences is strengthened through the use of media. Videos are an effective medium of communication and an easy way to share with the community from which the video arose.

Research initiatives that weave basic exploratory research with media production help to develop and improve a student’s visual literacy. Learning to communicate effectively through visual means is an imperative skill to acquire and these students will broaden these skills. Depending on the success of this project, I think incorporating visual media components might be of value to other study abroad research programs. But first, let us experience St. Petersburg.