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Tell us about your background. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
Samrat Sil is a recent graduate of the English-taught Master’s programme in Applied and Interdisciplinary History ‘Usable Pasts’ at HSE St. Petersburg (National Research University Higher School of Economics). He first learned about the programme from H-NET.org, a database and portal for the social sciences and humanities that advertises a wide range of calls for conference papers, summer schools, as well as Master’s and PhD programmes at various universities around the world. After learning more, Samrat didn’t hesitate to apply to HSE.
“I was on the verge of completing my bachelor’s studies in history at Presidency University in Kolkata (India) and was looking for a tailor-made programme that would suit my needs. The new HSE programme in applied and interdisciplinary history was different from other programmes as it was practical, innovative and research based. The programme offered interesting internships at different museums, institutions and tourist companies in and around St. Petersburg, which helped us learn a great deal. It was a perfect blend of theory and practice. Along with internships, there were several interesting academic courses based on technological history, heritage management, cultural studies, Eurasia, the Cold War and Imperial Russia.”
Samrat, you are currently studying at HSE in St. Petersburg. Is Russia a popular destination among Indian students? Why did you decide to come to Russia?
“It’s a very popular destination among Indian students, especially among medical students, but, as afar as I know, I’m the first who came to St. Petersburg to study history. St. Petersburg is famous for its museums and historical sites, so if you’re a history student, this is the place to be!”
Tell us about your first impressions of St. Petersburg.
“This is my first time in Russia, as well as my first experience abroad. I’m thrilled to be here; the city and its architecture are amazing. I like to venture out and discover more about my surroundings, so I have already been to many places, like Kazan Cathedral, Isaac’s cathedral and many Russian museums.”
How has your perception of Russia changed while being here?
“Back in India, people generally think that Russia is a cold place with cold people, but when I met them, my perception changed totally. They are open, warm and sociable.. Russians are interested in the surrounding world and they love to show off their own culture, as well. As an Indian, I was fascinated to see Russian culture.
I also discovered that many Russians are interested in Indian culture, too. This has been such an amazing cultural experience. I have learnt something new every day, not only at the university, but also in everyday life.”
Was it hard to adjust to a new culture and environment?
“Honestly, yes, it was. I don’t really speak Russian, so it was hard to get used to the new conditions during my first few weeks. But once you overcome the language barrier, it becomes a lot easier.”
Please tell us about the program
The MA Programme in Applied and Interdisciplinary History is the first English-taught degree programme at HSE St. Petersburg. It focuses on the analytical part of history and how it can be used and applied in our day to day life. It comprises a wide variety of crucial topics like memory, identity narratives and the use of sources in history and historiography. It also focuses on heritage and its relation to history and economy. The students are encouraged to develop their own research topics for their Master’s thesis.
“We also took elective courses on Coursera and on Soviet films, which brought us closer to Russian visual culture. One of the most important advantages of this course is its versatility. We had students from various backgrounds, such as tourism, international relations, philosophy, media studies and sociology, which enabled an interdisciplinary academic exchange during our seminars. Learning was constant and was not restricted to the four walls of the classroom but progressed beyond it.”
What were some of the difficulties you encountered, and how did you overcome them?
“My first semester was a bit hard. We had regular assignments, readings, presentations and essays for every course, and sometimes the deadlines would fall on the same day. Furthermore, each course was different, so we had to skip between different historical periods and topics while preparing. I’ve found that the most important thing to ease the workload is proper scheduling and time management. After my first semester, which also required some of my time to adjust to a new country, I dedicated a fixed amount time for each course and their respective assignments. Things became a lot easier for me in the following semesters. I think time management and making a routine is crucial for efficient learning.”
What about the support you received during your studies?
“Everyone in the faculty inspired and encouraged me in my academic career. Professor Evgeny Khvalkov, who was my academic supervisor, encouraged me extensively on my independent research on Byzantium. He made me aware of the various international academic opportunities that are available in the field. I also worked as a teaching assistant for his course in HSE’s undergraduate programme. It was a rewarding experience for me because I was able to impart my knowledge to young students and receive their feedback.
I would also like to mention Professor Julia Lajus, who supported me throughout my time at HSE. She encouraged us to actively participate in international conferences and summer schools and to present our research in forums. This was important as we received helpful feedback regarding our work. I would also like to mention Professor Marina Loskutova and Professor Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov, who taught us about memory studies, textual criticism and cultural studies. This was a new area for me and it was really interesting to understand how these concepts functioned and their application in present day scenarios.”
How would you describe what it’s like to live and study in St. Petersburg to other international students? What advice would you share with them?
“I would say that the two years in St. Petersburg were perhaps the best two years of my life so far. The academic environment is rich and welcoming. The university and dormitory are filled with international students and exchange students from across the globe, which promotes intercultural exchange.
More than anything, the city has been an important factor for my whole experience. This beautiful city and its warm people accept you with open arms. The city itself can it teach you a lot about Russian culture and its rich history. For example, I had a unique opportunity to work at Peterhof and the Hermitage, which is a dream come true for a history student.
For newcomers, I would like to say make the most of your time in Russia. Explore the country, actively participate in academic discussions, learn the Russian culture and pursue your own research.”
What was the strangest thing that ever happened to you in Russia? What do you like most about being here?
“I wouldn’t say it’s strange, but the most brilliant thing that ever happened to me during my stay is the amazing people that I got to meet. I had the opportunity to travel high up in the Russian tundra with my friend from HSE Moscow. We were visiting Murmansk and Kirovsk with the intention of seeing the northern lights. We were hosted by a Russian man who told us about the history of the city and war. The people there were open and welcoming, even when our Russian language skills were not up to the mark. They were curious about our culture and happily shared their own. They left an everlasting impression in my mind.”
What are your plans now that you’ve graduated?
“I’m in a mixed state of emotions. I am sad and already feeling nostalgic that I am leaving behind this wonderful city and its people; I will be cherishing the beautiful memories forever. But I am happy and grateful for all the experiences I had during my stay here as it helped me to become a better individual.
I have been accepted for a one-year Medieval studies Master’s programme at Central European University in Budapest, which I plan on joining in September. This comes after getting advice from my departmental professors who are alumni of that institution. This would enable me to continue my research on medieval history that I started here at HSE. After completing that course, I plan to move on with my PhD and apply for jobs in academia and the museum sector. Perhaps that would even allow me to come back to HSE or the Hermitage as an employee!”