To See Paris and Die
The Soviet Lives of Western Culture
by Eleonory Gilbert
Harvard University Press
A podcast for The New Books Network
The Soviet Thaw Era
Josef Stalin’s death in 1953 marked a noticeable shift in Soviet attitudes towards the West. A nation weary of war and terror welcomed with relief the new regime of Nikita Khrushchev and its focus on peaceful cooperation with foreign powers. A year after Stalin’s death, author and commentator Ilya Ehrenburg published the novel that would give a name to this era, “The Thaw,” which probed the limits of cultural expression, now expanded by Khrushchev’s political pivot.
One of the critical hallmarks of The Thaw is an almost immediate deluge of foreign culture into the Soviet Union, which for most of the population was entirely new: in pre-revolutionary Russia, culture was the prerogative of wealthy aristocrats and intellectuals, and for the much of the first three decades of the nascent Soviet state, access to foreign culture was strictly forbidden. Suddenly, the vast country was flooded with international books, films, paintings, and music. The impact was seismic, and the reverberations are still felt today.
“To See Paris and Die: The Soviet Lives of Western Culture,” by Eleonor Gilburd, is a deep dive into this phenomenon, which spans period from the death of Stalin in 1953 to the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Gilburd looks at the perfect cultural and social storm created by the combination of more liberal politics, foreign culture and the technology to make it accessible to 11 time zones. But Gilburd doesn’t limit herself to the impact of culture on the Soviet population, rather she examines the ways in which Soviet cultural interpreters made foreign cultural artifacts “about us.” In Gilburd’s study, we see how translators dug deep into Russian street language to bring Holden Caufield to the page, how film distributors brought Fellini’s neorealism to the steppes of Kazakhstan, and how Ilya Ehrenburg gently reintroduced a nation to the beauty of French Impressionism. This is as much a story of translators, commentators, and curators as it is of their audience.
Gilburd’s extensive research in the Moscow archives unearthed a trove of letters to radio personalities, comments in guest books from traveling photography and art exhibits, (undelivered) messages to foreign authors, and fascinating insight into the Moscow Youth Festival of 1957.
For scholars of The Thaw era, this intensely-researched book offers keen insight into the minds of ordinary Soviet citizens encountering unexpected emotions that Western culture helped define, and then, in turn Soviet interpretation made its own. At the end of the book, Gilburd takes us inside the 1990s, when Soviets were able to experience first-hand the realities of the West and how their imagined “Paris” did not always measure up to the one they had dreamed.
“To See Paris and Die: The Soviet Lives of Western Culture” was short-listed for the 2019 Pushkin House Prize.
Enjoy my conversation with Eleonory Gilburd
Eleonor Gilburd is an Assistant Professor of Soviet History and the College at the University of Chicago, and the author of “The Thaw: Soviet Society and Culture during the 1950s and 1960s.” She received her Ph.D. from the University of California Berkley in 2010.
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