One major strength of the Russian Studies programme is the diversity of the core studies

For those interested in our eastern neighbour, the International Master’s Programme in Russian Studies at the University of Helsinki provides a variety of fields, topics and phenomena to study. Peter Taggart, a second-year Russian Studies student, discusses what persuaded him to move to Helsinki, the pros and challenges of the programme and life in Finland, and what differs from his studies abroad.

A broad grounding and wide scope to specialise in Russia-related studies

Where are you from?

I'm from Belfast, Northern Ireland. Before coming to Finland, I studied Central and East European Studies and Russian at the University of Glasgow. 

Why did you choose Russian Studies in Finland?

I had a few reasons. During my undergraduate studies, I developed a keen interest in Russian language, society, and politics. When discussing future plans with academic staff at the University of Glasgow, they spoke highly of the Aleksanteri Institute and its research output.

The close proximity of Finland to Russia was a big draw for me as well – although I've only been able to make it to Russia once since moving here (due to COVID-19 situation). Apart from a year spent studying Russian at Tver' State University, I had only ever lived in the UK, and was keen to move to Europe for at least a few years. Helsinki's much-lauded quality of life really appealed to me. 

What is the best thing about Russian Studies?

For me, one major strength of the Russian Studies programme is the diversity of the core studies. When browsing other Russia-related Master’s programmes I found many of them were primarily concerned with security studies, which isn't my area of interest.

I find that the core courses on offer at the Aleksanteri Institute not only provide a broad grounding in Russia-related areas of study, but also offer scope to specialise in a particular field. In that vein, the variety of optional courses available is another benefit of the programme. I was able to pick appropriate Russian language options, as well as in-depth Russian Studies options. Admittedly, finding optional courses in the first place is a little tricky using the university's systems.

More lecture-based learning

What do you find the most challenging about Russian Studies?

Explaining to other people what Russian Studies actually is! To be fair, I had this same problem when studying Central and East European Studies beforehand.

The difference in teaching style from the UK was quite challenging to adjust to. In my final undergraduate year, classes were mostly in a seminar format – maybe a short 30-minute lecture to begin the class, but the remainder of the class would be some sort of group task or discussion. It was very student-led. I did not expect this Master’s course to be so lecture-based – there is not as much interaction as I expected. This, I understand, is the Finnish academic tradition.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Right now I don't have many courses, so I'm combining course readings with some thesis research. The corona situation being as it is, I'm combining working from my apartment with working in cafés. I live in Kallio, not far from the University, which has plenty of comfortable cafes to sit and work in. 

How has the pandemic situation affected your studies or free time?

The shift to distance learning has been tough – Zoom just really isn't the same as in-class teaching. With regards free time, of course the limits on capacity and opening hours of venues is unfortunate, as is the inability to travel – I had hoped to travel around the Baltics and to Russia more than I've been able to. But the situation could be worse – I'm still able to play badminton and meet up with friends, which is good.

“The quality of life here is really great”

What would you say to students who wonder whether the International Master’s Programme in Russian Studies is right for them?

If you're like me and your interests in Russia lie outside the security field, you should really consider this programme. There is considerable scope to specialise in a variety of fields and topics, as demonstrated by the variety of thesis topics chosen by my peers. The courses in social policy, environmental issues, legal culture, for example, and their embedded nature with research projects means that the courses are founded on recent data. 

Generally speaking, I would advise people coming here to make sure they have the means to support themselves. The quality of life here is really great – I've never lived somewhere with this level of developed cycling infrastructure and well-run public transport – but it can be quite expensive. I'm lucky that I'm receiving a Leverhulme Trust Study Abroad Studentship for the duration of my Master’s studies. That being said, there are opportunities for financial assistance. 

What are your plans in the near future?

As I'm in the second year of the programme, I'm finishing up the last of the core courses. Getting properly stuck into my thesis work and looking for an internship for next year are on the agenda. After that, I really hope to stay and find a job here in Helsinki!