Deena Paris Leventer
CIEE Program Term: Fall 1975
Home school: Indiana University Bloomington
Major: Slavic Languages and Literatures
For the past 15 years, Deena Leventer has been Communication Director at Yad Hadiv – the Rothschild Foundation in Jerusalem, Israel. Having been contacted by St. Petersburg study center and asked to share her memories of the time she was an exchange student in St. Petersburg, Ms. Leventer sent us the following text.
‘Amerikanskaya devushka – idi syuda!’ That’s what people used to call out across Nevsky Prospekt when I wore my blue down jacket in Leningrad in 1975. I quickly ditched it for a dark wool coat so that I could ‘blend in’. But blending in was tough in Soviet Russia in the 70’s. At that time Americans were an oddity and the CIEE semester program was the only way an American undergraduate could study in the USSR. The experience was the culmination of my love affair with all things Russian – language, history and culture.
Leningrad felt to me like another planet. I had seen other cities – London, Paris, Rome, Jerusalem, but found no point of reference. The deprivation of the population (as well as our own) was stunning. Obshchezhitie No. 6 took some getting used to. Four in a room (I was in the doorway) – Mary Pedersen and I, and the daughters of two Ukrainian Party hacks, who cooked cabbage and never seemed to be studying. Essentially no hot water in the Leningrad winter, no toilet seats or mirrors (who even thought about washing machines?). And when the toilet paper we brought ran out, we used to steal it from the Astoria Hotel – a fading relic of Tsarist times, but still relatively ‘luxurious’.
We were given special treatment in the Academy of Sciences cafeteria (greasy hamburgers for breakfast). When we couldn’t bear the food anymore, we went off to the grocery stores, but found, literally, nothing to buy there. Though our dollars did not buy us food - or film for our cameras - we were able to purchase imported vodka and cigarettes in the special Beryozka dollar shops. Our jeans and our command of Russian were our ticket to entry and afforded us access to these items. Together with fearless Larry Sherwin, Irene Kiedrowski and others, we became intrepid explorers of Russian society in the years of Brezhnev.
We were regular guests in the home of Volodya, the physicist-refusenik, and his circle of friends. On Christmas day Volodya took us to his father-in-law’s dacha outside of town. We brought pelmennyi and cooked them in melted snow. We spent evenings with the dezhurnaya, whose husband was in the Navy and who brought back real tomatoes from Odessa. We partied with young Jews we met in the courtyard of the Synagogue, and with Gera – living a double life as Komsomol leader by day and dissident by night. I made an unannounced visit to a relative whose address I found in a small stand on the street that was the only ‘phone book’ available in those days. His granddaughter recently told me that that unexpected visit was ‘legendary’ in their family.
All of these people, as well as the teachers and tour guides who provided information through a Soviet filter, educated us. They helped us to piece together an understanding of the complexities of the system, of the nuance of what we were experiencing and seeing, and what it all meant. On the street, people were brusque, rude and judgmental. Strangers complained that I was ‘blocking the door’ on the trolley, ‘a scarecrow’ at the banya and ‘feeble minded not to be wearing a hat’. But when we got into people’s homes and hearts – their warmth was overwhelming. There was nothing they wouldn’t do for us – or for one another - in times of need.
That CIEE semester that I spent in Leningrad was the most formative of my life. It gave me perspective on my place in the world, on what it meant to be American, on the nature of freedom and free speech and human nature.
When I returned to the US I finished my BA at Indiana University, worked for a year running the Russian book department at Schoenhof’s Bookstore, in Cambridge, and then went off to Yale to do an MA in Russian Studies. For years afterwards, my conversations with people were inundated with stories and references to ‘that time I spent in the Soviet Union’. I eventually moved to Israel, edited a review of the Soviet press and worked for 20 years in the Russian Research Centre at Tel Aviv University editing a series of books on Russian History. For the past 15 years I have been out of the field, working as Communications Director at the Rothschild Foundation. But there is barely a day that goes by that something about those four months doesn’t come back to me.
Woody Allen once said he would never want to be a member of a club that wanted him as a member. I pretty much agree with that. The exception is my membership in the club of CIEE alumni. Our 2017 reunion made me realize how proud and connected I feel to the organization and grateful for what it gave me at such an impressionable time in my life. I am also pleased about its recent efforts to become more inclusive and diverse and hope to see CIEE’s Russian programs grow and flourish in better times.