Dutch Studies in Saint Petersburg Stands on Sturdy Ground
The number of students is modest, but Dutch Studies does stand on sturdy ground in Russia. Particularly at Saint Petersburg State University, where translation studies and interpreting are important subjects within the study of Dutch language and culture.
Nearly every morning, before I walk through the main entrance of Saint Petersburg State University, I turn around for a moment: on the other side of the Neva river, the golden dome atop St. Isaac’s Cathedral glimmers.
Saint Isaac's Cathedral along the Mojka River
To the left of it, on the other side of the bridge, the mint-green Hermitage stands with its couple million works of art. And by now I’ve already wandered past the Kunstkamera, chock full of art and other rarities that Peter the Great once acquired from the collections of Frederik Ruysch and Albertus Seba. As always, I will have made my microscopic bow to the statue of Michail Lomonosov, the uomo universale of the eighteenth century, and appreciate, too, that the exquisite Literature Museum is not far either. This part of the Vasilyevsky Island carries a rich history and the university, whose building now stands at my back, is one of the best in Russia. Which means obligations and expectations.
Saint Petersburg State University
Under the watchful eye of attentive guards, I scan my ID, pass through the turnstile, and wend my way through narrow halls. Up a creaky set of stairs, I proceed through high-ceilinged hallways adorned with black-and-white photos of professors past, grab myself a double espresso, and turn the corner to the Dutch department, which together with the Scandinavian languages forms its own subject area, occupying a modest space behind a door that reads Kafedra skandinavskoj filologii. There are chairs, a few computers with a printer, and heavy old keys to the classrooms that hang from hooks in the bookcases. In many other departments throughout the university building, the classroom keys are gatekept by pensioners and hidden in small boxes behind rows of plants. If you need to access the keys, they ask for a name, a time, and your signature.
This university building in Saint Petersburg houses the Dutch department. © Katerina Rossolovich
In Saint Petersburg, Dutch Studies has existed since 1972. There are currently five professors: Irina Michajlova, Alexandra Yakovleva, Olga Ovechkina, Katerina Rossolovich, and one speaker of Dutch as a native language – the author of this article. There are a few important differences between the way Dutch is taught here compared to the majority of other European Union countries. Students who want to study at this University indicate ten potential areas of study on their applications – though at one time it was only three. Based on the grades earned in their high school exams (where they are required to pass Russian and Math either way), the university decides what they will go on to study. Those who score the highest in their exams have a wide selection of choices, while those who score lower obviously have fewer. To be allowed to study Dutch, students need fewer points than they do for Japanese, for example.
For readers from the Netherlands or Flanders, it may sound strange that students are not always allowed to study what they want. But many universities in China and Indonesia (the first and fourth-most populous countries in the world, with Russia being ninth) follow similar procedures.
Based on the grades earned in their high school exams, the university decides what the students will go on to study
The BA in Dutch Studies takes four years, and the MA takes two. It is worth noting that there are presently students in their second and third years of study, but none in their first or fourth. The number of students is modest: there are approximately five students per year, a number of whom will choose to study in the Netherlands or Flanders for one year as they complete their degree. In order to be accepted into the master’s program, students submit an extensive portfolio: they write an essay of around 30,000 characters, and a cover letter of around 4,000. They also send any publications they may have. The Dutch Studies program in Moscow does not offer a master’s, so Saint Petersburg often receives students from the university there. In 2019, the new cohort of master’s students had not studied Dutch Studies per se, but had obtained a bachelor’s in linguistics or translation studies.
Students write dissertations on various subjects, such as: “Verb Constructions in Eastern and Western Flemish”
At the bachelor level students follow an intensive program: first they must learn Dutch, which demands a lot of time and motivation. Besides seminars in Dutch language and literature, they also take classes in Russian and World literature (for which they must read no less than 100 titles each year), Latin, Gothic, English, Didactics, Information Technology, Philosophy, and one other language – Swedish, for example. Students set to finish their master’s this year write dissertations on various subjects: “Verb Constructions in Eastern and Western Flemish”; Dutch in professional contexts; negative sentence constructions in Dutch; style differences in Harry Mulisch’s canon; or the question of which German translations the Russian translations of Multatuli’s Max Havelaar might be based upon.
The Dutch Department
Irina Michajlova, the department’s only Professor, graduated with one of the first cohorts of Dutch Studies students in Saint Petersburg. She graduated in 1987 with a focus on conjunctives in Middle-Dutch, wrote her dissertation in 2009 on “the language of Dutch poetry and the problem posed by poetry translations”, and is our department’s resident expert on linguistics. Translation Studies and interpreting in practice are important parts of the Dutch Studies degree, and these subjects play to the specialities of the teachers: Irina Michajlova won the Martinus Nijhoff translation prize and has translated the work of Louis Couperus, A.F.T. van der Heijden, W.F. Hermans and Martinus Nijhoff (among others). She is the sole full-time employee and is asked to teach 800 hours of seminars each year. That is a lot. To compare: a professor in Germany teaches approximately 250 hours of classes each year.
Alexandra Yakoleva is working on translations of the work of Jan Fabre, and translates primarily non-fiction. She earned her degree in 2007 with a thesis on the three Dutch verbs zeggen (say), spreken (speak), and praten (talk), and besides her work at the university also has extensive experience in the area of simultaneous interpretation. She has interpreted at high profile events, including the official visits of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and the Mayor of Rotterdam Ahmed Aboutaleb.
Dutch class in St. Petersburg with Professor Irina Mikhailova at the back. © Olga Ovechkina
Olga Ovechkina earned her degree in 2010 with a thesis on the topic of philological prose by W.F. Hermans. She was previously employed at the Dutch embassy in Moscow and has been the director of the Netherlands Institute in Saint Petersburg (NIP) since 2015. Founded in 1997 by the late journalist and author Alexander Münninghoff, who passed in April 2020, this institute seeks to “stimulate and internationalise” education and research in Russia and the Netherlands, and is financially supported in its mission by six Dutch universities.
Finally, Katerina Rossolovich, who has a master’s in Russian as a foreign language, keeps herself busy with translation strategies, literary translation, and innovative forms of education. Other reputable translators of Russian and Dutch have also been associated with the Faculty, such as Hans Boland, who won the Martinus Nijhoff Translation Prize in 2015; Aai Prins, who won the Dutch Foundation for Literature Translation Prize in 2019, and Petra Couvée.
The basis for Dutch Studies in Russia is solid: a three-volume catalogue on the history of Dutch literature was recently published in Russian under the title “Van ‘Reynaert de Vos’ tot Godenslaap”. Progress is also underway on a new language-learning book called Dutch for Russians, and Dutch Studies in Russia is also a member of DOEN, the platform for Dutch Studies in Eastern Europe. Additionally, the Dutch Faculty in Saint Petersburg publishes a peer-reviewed magazine twice a year in tandem with the Scandinavian department, called Скандинавская филология (Scandinavian Philology).
The students are optimistic about their futures: some want to work as translators or interpreters, some as guides, and others want to look for jobs or further graduate studies in Flanders or the Netherlands. There are also a few who want to teach Dutch at universities or high schools – not only in Russia, but also in Dutch-speaking parts of the world.
If the foundations of Dutch Studies are solid in Russia, then the foundations of the subject in Saint Petersburg are particularly solid: not only are the above-mentioned publications the result of initiatives that were started here, they are also supported by the Netherlands Institute (NIP)Vand the Dutch Consulate General, which provide for a stimulating network of Dutch activities in Saint Petersburg. For example, the NIP organizes workshops, conferences, and lectures by prominent Dutch thinkers under the title Dutch Wednesdays.
Every year, groups of Slavic Studies students also come from Leiden and Amsterdam for a few months to take part in seminars. During the summer months programme, Rusland uit eerste hand, students are also invited to learn about Russian language and culture. Many of these meetings are open. Furthermore, the NIP brings Russian and Dutch researchers together, and strives to take a more prominent role as an initiator of academic gatherings and exchanges between Russia and the Netherlands, or, in a broader sense, between “East” and “West”. The Dutch Consulate also regularly hosts discussions, readings, and presentations.
© Jaap Grave
The NIP is on the right path: the Dutch Organisation for Academic Inquiry (NOW) has recently set up the Science Diplomacy Fund with the goal of “financing academic activities that positively contribute to the diplomatic projects between the Netherlands and a partner land, and that might stimulate the cooperation between these countries.” The project is oriented towards Brazil, China, Indonesia, India, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey.
Of the forty-three acknowledged projects, fourteen are linked to partners in Russia, and the NIP is attached to a number of those as well. One example is the project Building Bridges: Russian Dutch Studies and Dutch Russian Studies in historical perspective. Eric Metz of the University of Amsterdam is the lead researcher for this project, which was written in collaboration with the NIP and the Dutch faculty at the Saint Petersburg State University. Next year, two colloquia on the topic are set to take place in Saint Petersburg and in Amsterdam.
Students are crucial to these projects, and in order to get more students in the future, there are a few important benchmarks that must be met. As has been seen, the Dutch faculty does not choose the students themselves; their choice of faculty depends on the grades that they receive in their high school exams. It can be a disservice to the field that the university does not always heed their preferences – even though that does not appear to have much impact on the motivation of the current students. If the faculty and the department did more to promote the option to study Dutch, then more students would know that the subject exists, and would make a conscious choice to join the department. Second, the transition to the bachelor-master system over ten years ago has meant that the practical application of the language has become more important. It is the wish of the department that there is more room in the curriculum for the theoretical side of language and literature studies.
Saint Petersburg is a beautiful city with a rich history, as I wrote in the introduction, and there remain many ties between this city and the Netherlands. From the university, I see the city centre that was built from the ground up, upon the initiative of Peter the Great. The centre is built by architects, it is inhabited by resourceful and creative people of all backgrounds, and it is admired by visitors from all over the world. Saint Petersburg has always been the most European city in Russia, and the Dutch scholars and contemporaries of the Netherlands who work there – with their pedagogy, research, and lectures – contribute valuably not only to the international academic community, but also to the dissemination of the culture of Low Countries around the world.