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September 2015, Russia Alumni Bulletin, Issue II


September marks CIEE’s Alumni Career Month. We believe the most fitting way to celebrate this month is to recognize our alumni who consistently inspire us with their careers and successes. Their lives serve as a testament that CIEE alumni do change the world.

The CIEE study center in St. Petersburg, year after year unites students whose background, aspirations, and career goals are different, yet united through a shared interest in Russia. What each alumnus and alumna takes from their experience is individual, however what is common for all is the uniqueness of their experience, and the significant influence their experience in Russia has on their lives and futures. And on the eve of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the CIEE study center in St. Petersburg, Russia, we would like to share as many stories of our alumni as possible. We will start with the first five, but this is only the beginning.


Finding Home in New Places

Most of our students who visited St. Petersburg in the Soviet era, remember the infamous Obshezhitiye №6, Dormitory №6. Living integrated with fellow American and Russian students, in the 1970s and 80s, CIEE students found their home in Dormitory №6. Intrigued by the stories which highlighted this notorious place alumni called home while in Leningrad, we got to researching the story of Dormitory №6; something we are sure will interest our Leningrad alumni, as well as our recent alumni.

Dormitory №6, located near the Birzhevoy Bridge (known as Stroiteley Bridge from 1922 through 1989), was originally the revenue house of merchant Fedor Ivanovich Kirikov, built in the early 19th century. It became the student dormitories of St. Petersburg State University in the 20th century. After their demolishment in 2006 through 2008, the building on Zoologichesky pereulok 2-4 was rebuilt and renovated into an affluent apartment complex, preserving its unique historical façade.



Then and now! Dormitory №6 circa 1985 and the newly renovated luxury apartments circa 2015.

We’d love to hear more about Obshezhitiye №6; send us your fondest memories, interesting stories, and pictures of Dormitory №6!

Today, the majority of CIEE students live with a Russian family, promoting language learning across all settings during the study abroad experience. Over the years, the CIEE St. Petersburg Study Center has accumulated a database of over 100 Russian families located throughout the city, many of whom have hosted students upwards 10 years. Leningrad alumni who lived in the student dormitories had the unique opportunity to improve their language by living integrated with Russian and other foreign students; today’s students have the unique opportunity to improve their language by living integrated with a Russian family. As CIEE alumna, Ella Berishev of the Russian Area Studies program, spring 2014 expressed:

“I enjoyed my host family because they helped me improve my Russian language skills. My host mother had a really helpful technique that made a world of difference for me, whenever I couldn't think of a word in Russian I would normally just change the subject or say never mind. However, she would prompt me to continue the conversation by finding a synonym or describing what I was trying to convey. Towards the end of my time in Russia I felt as though my language had improved so much that I didn't feel the need to find synonyms anymore.”


The Faces of CIEE


Laura Janda

CIEE Summer Russian Language Program, 1979


Then and now! Left: summer 1979.

Professor of Russian at the University of Tromso in Tromso, Norway, Dr. Janda’s penchant for Russian language and culture began with her undergraduate studies at Princeton University. Graduating with a bachelor’s in Slavic Languages, she continued her academic career with CIEE, studying in Leningrad during the summer of 1979, before continuing on to complete her PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles. Professor Janda’s decision to study abroad engendered a lifelong career and passion for Russian language and academia. Professor Janda teaches Czech, Old Church Slavonic, all levels of Russian, specialized courses such as the Structure of Russian, Quantitative Methods in linguistics, and Slavic Linguistics, and has explored the intricacies of Russian grammar in multiple books and articles dealing in depth with grammar complexities such as aspect and the case system.

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“I had never been to Europe before, and traveling to the Soviet Union in those days was quite exotic, a bit like going on an extended camping trip, since you had to take everything you would need (toilet paper, soap, etc.) with you. Soviet realia was fairly harsh. There seemed to be almost no men over the age of fifty in sight anywhere, and the few I did see were missing limbs. Because there were no wheelchairs, these men propelled themselves on homemade skateboards. In place of men, crews of women labored on road and building construction. And they had lots of work to do because the USSR was gearing up to host the 1980 Olympics, which the US ended up boycotting. It seemed that the whole country was na remont – closed for repairs. Everything in Leningrad was very grey, to the point that I remember how all the colors almost stung my eyes when I got off the plane in Paris for our post-program debriefing.

There were some linguistic experiences that four years of diligent language study did not prepare me for. Not many people were eager to talk to foreigners. One of the first people who approached me was a young man who abruptly demanded “Devushka, skol`ko? (girl, how much?)” I took this to mean that he had mistaken me for a prostitute and fled in horror. Later I discovered that fartsovshiki (illegal money changers) commonly asked people they suspected of being foreign for the time of day. If they struggled with the Russian numerals and had a nice-looking wrist-watch, then they were probably foreigners and could be talked into selling currency. My aristocratic instructors in the US had taught me to say gospodin (sir) and gospozha (ma’am) and kotory chas (a more literary way to ask for the time)? instead of tovarishi (comrades) and skol`ko vremeni (what time is it?)?, so I was unprepared to parse that man’s question as an elliptical request for me to look at my watch.

In the face of all the challenges, I was continually struck by the quiet dignity of most people and occasional random acts of kindness. I was once standing in a bus, staring out the window and thinking to myself when I suddenly became aware of a great commotion around me. My fellow passengers were yelling at one man, calling him a “blind old goat (slepoy stary kozel)”. They were also pointing at me and saying that it wasn’t my fault. I gradually realized that the man was there to check tickets, but I had failed to notice him. The whole bus was ganging up on the controller, attacking him in my defense. Of course I actually had a ticket, and once I figured out what was going on I produced it and everyone quieted down. Another time I went to use the bathroom after eating lunch at the cafeteria we shared with local workers and forgot my notebook, which had all my notes from class, in the stall. When I realized what had happened, I dashed back and got in line to retrieve my notebook and found that while it had been used in place of toilet paper (which was never available anywhere), the workers had taken care to use only the sheets that had not been written on, so all my notes were saved. Small miracles like this happened daily, and my admiration for the people behind them grew accordingly.

Yes, I learned a lot of Russian that summer, and even more about how to manage unexpected challenges. I went on to complete a PhD in Slavic Linguistics at UCLA in 1984, and have since held academic positions at the University of Rochester, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and UiT The Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø. I’ve written piles of books and articles, and been invited to speak in many places in Russia, Europe, the US, and even Asia. CIEE was my first big adventure in what turned out to be a long series that seems far from over yet.”


Nick Miyares

CIEE, Summer Russian Language Program 2011


Then and now! Left: Nick Miyares in St. Petersburg, summer 2011. Right: Pictured in GUM, in Moscow, summer 2015.

How has your experience with CIEE in Russia influenced your life?

“After graduating from Columbia University in 2012 (with a bachelor’s in Political Science and Russian Language & Culture), I was presented with the opportunity to work in Russia for an American law firm with a branch in Moscow (an opportunity which I swiftly took). The decision to make such a move - uprooting my life in the States and spending, ultimately, the next three years in Russia - would probably not have been made with such ease had I not had the opportunity to get a sneak preview of Russia through CIEE. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience in St. Petersburg and, after returning to the States for my fourth and final year at university, wanted to get to know Russia more intimately. Ultimately, I would spend the next three years - until August 2015 - working in Moscow. I’m now moving to London for a Master’s program in Economics, focusing on Eurasia and Russia and looking forward to returning to Russia for a bit after completing the program in 2017.

There are about three things that come immediately to mind when I think about what I gained from my CIEE experience. First, I learned a lot about Russia. Although it had been the focus of my academics for my first three years at university, it was with CIEE in the summer of 2011 that I visited Russia for the first time. In the States, many of us are left with the impression that Russia is a country that is drastically different from our own; that it embodies the “east” whereas we the “west". After my summer in St. Petersburg, it became very clear to me that while Russia has many of its own issues and idiosyncrasies, we ultimately have much more in common than what we are led to believe. Second, I was able to significantly improve my Russian language skills. Everywhere I went I spoke Russian and the CIEE leaders on the ground, as well as the professors at Smolny, do a great job at enforcing the Russian-only rule. And lastly, I built lasting friendships with other students in the program. In the last year alone, I went with a fellow CIEE-er on an 8-day tour of Uzbekistan; with another to Budapest; and just recently visited another who is working for the U.S. government in Washington, D.C.”


Benjamin Rifkin

CIEE, Russian Language Program, Spring 1981



Then and now! Left: 1981, Benjamin Rifkin on the Red Square, Moscow.

Benjamin Rifkin embarked on his international education experience with CIEE Russia in the spring of 1981, when St. Petersburg was still known as Leningrad. After graduating from Yale University with a BA and MA in Russians Studies, Dr. Rifkin returned to the Soviet Union to work for a Soviet publishing house, followed by work for the NBC News Moscow Bureau, which led him back to the U.S. to complete a doctoral program in Russian literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Professor Rifkin’s international education experience not only launched his interest in Russian language and culture, marking the start of a long and illustrious career in academia, but also marked an important stage of personal growth: 

“My semester on study abroad with CIEE was absolutely a profoundly transformative experience for me.  Not only did I enhance my command of Russian (which I completely expected and was very motivated to do), and not only did my time in Leningrad enhance my understanding of Russian culture (which again I completely expected and was very motivated to do), but it taught me so much more that I did not expect.  Due to my semester abroad, I realized what it meant to me to be an American.  I experienced tremendous personal growth during my time in Leningrad. I will forever be grateful to CIEE for organizing, sponsoring, and directing the study abroad experience that so changed my life.”

Since the 1990s, Dr. Rifkin has held various academic positions – professor, department chair, and director of the Russian language program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, director of the Middlebury Russian School, president of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages, president of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages, board member of the American Council of Teachers of Russian –  that have helped to advocate and advance Russian language learning in the U.S., an achievement for which he was recently recognized when awarded the Lillian Stroebe medal at the 100th anniversary of the founding of Middlebury’s first language school.

Throughout his illustrious career, Professor Rifkin has published a number of textbooks, web-based learning modules for advanced-level listening comprehension in Russian, and more than two dozen articles in scholarly journals on Russian film, applied linguistics, second language education, and foreign language education. He has given numerous presentations at scholarly conferences, and guest lectures at universities across the country and around the world."



Paul Spitzer

CIEE, Spring 1977


Then and now! [Left] Paul Spitzer playing the balalaika-contrabass (1977). [Right] Paul Spitzer in front of the Kul Sharif Mosque in Kazan, Russia (2014).

Paul Spitzer’s experience studying with CIEE in Leningrad marked the start of a lifelong adventure and eventful career illustrating the CIEE motto, “the world is our classroom.” After studying with CIEE, Paul graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in Russian Language, completed his masters at The School of International Training, and embarked upon an extensive career in teaching English language as a second language. Paul has worked in Finland, the U.S., Russia, and Georgia; his most recent endeavors have brought him to the Republic of Tatarstan, where he advanced the English program as an English Language Fellow and Senior Lecturer at the Kazan Federal University. This has led him to his current posting in Tbilsi, Georgia as the coordinator of the academic writing program of the dual-diploma program with San Diego State University and three technical universities in Georgia.

Paul Spitzer’s passion for international education began during an AFS Intercultural Exchange Program to Finland during his last year of high school, expanded to Leningrad in the spring of 1977, and continued throughout his career. Promoting international education throughout all generations, Paul has contributed greatly to a local international exchange organization called the Friendship Force, which was one of the first organizations to host Soviets on a citizens-diplomacy level. His involvement with TFF can be traced back to the early 80s, where he managed to translate into English the protocol agreement for President and Mrs. Carter to take with them to Moscow. Throughout the years, Paul has periodically incorporated his Russian, whether it has been volunteering as an interpreter-tour guide, working as a Russian-speaker case worker at a Jewish Family Services organization, or organizing the TFF clubs in the countries of the former Soviet Union. 


Ella Berishev

CIEE, Russian Area Studies Program, Spring 2014



[Left] Ella Berishev standing outside St. Petersburg State University’s Department of Political Science which houses the CIEE St. Petersburg Study Center (spring 2014). [Right] Student ID (spring 2014). 

Opportunities to study abroad helped Ella Berishev, an international relations and affairs major, pursue her interest in U.S. – Russia relations. Ella spent the spring semester of her junior year in college, participating in an intensive exploration of Russia, as a student of the CIEE Russian Area Studies program.

“CIEE had a nice array of classes that complemented my studies of U.S.-Russian relations. Taking classes like Russian politics, and ethnic studies (in Russia) accentuated my degree and gave me a better understanding of the country than I could have received in the U.S. I believe it really made a difference that the professors were locals, they often shared stories of their own Russian experiences while simultaneously answering any questions or concerns we had from what we hear in our media.”

Ella is in her element working in Washington DC as a training assistant for the Diplomacy at High Threats Posts Course of the U.S. State Department which trains diplomats going to places the State Department has deems “high threat posts.” Having graduated in spring 2015 from Western Washington University with a degree in international relations and affairs, and a focus on U.S. – Russia relations, Ella has already taken a significant first step into her unfolding career.


In addition to advancing the start of her career, Ella’s experience in St. Petersburg shifted her paradigm of thinking, opening her eyes to new perspectives, and adding depth to her understanding of the U.S. and Russia.

“Going to St. Petersburg made me critically think about how the western media portrays Russia. While I feel that I'm fairly open-minded, I know I can get caught in the stereotypical tropes that are often portrayed online and in the news. However living in Russia for 4 months and spending the majority of that time talking to locals, helped me realize that there is more to the story, and that Russia is not the backward country it once was.”



Russia boasts one of CIEE’s longest withstanding study centers. Founded in 1967, CIEE Russia is nearing its 50th anniversary of having its doors open to curious students who venture to Russia with a vigor for learning in and outside of the classroom, who pursue deeper insights, and who seek new ways of looking at the U.S., Russia, and the world at large. Following their experience in Russia, alumni have chosen to build careers rooted in Russian language and Russia, have chosen to build careers accentuated by their specialized knowledge of Russia, and have established careers in other fields, preserving their proclivity for Russia as a passion pursued in their spare time. Regardless of what path our alumni have chosen and choose, it is undeniable, the lasting effect one semester with CIEE in Russia has in shaping the lives of its alumni.


Best wishes from your CIEE family


The CIEE St. Petersburg team on their teambuilding trip to Karelia (Spring 2015).