Eleonory Gilburd. To See Paris and Die: The Soviet Lives of Western Culture. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2018. ix + 458 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-98071-6.
Reviewed by Juliette Milbach (École des hautes études en sciences sociales)
Published on H-SHERA (December, 2019)
Commissioned by Hanna Chuchvaha (University of Calgary)
The title To See Paris and Die may seem intriguing regardless of whether or not the reader is aware of the Russian idiomatic expression or the eponymous film by Aleksandr Proshkin (1993). The title is even more fascinating as the topic of the book does not focus on either Paris or France. In this sense, the subtitle, The Soviet Lives of Western Culture, is helpful, as it suggests the inclusion of both the United States and Europe. Moreover, the book is about approaching the Soviet life of artistic objects, primarily films, books, and paintings. Eleonory Gilburd focuses on the reception of Western culture in the Soviet Union as a process of appropriation. Intellectual mediators, such as the writers Ilya Ehrenburg and Viktor Nekrassov, play a key role, and their functions are finely analyzed in the book. To See Paris and Die deals with the reception of foreign influences, sometimes of foreigners themselves, on the USSR territory. Gilburd does not, therefore, deal with the artistic productions themselves and consequently does not discuss the artistic merit of the productions.
Gilburd sees the Thaw as a pivotal period in the Westernization of the Soviet Union. The Thaw, she maintains, is part of a vast time frame, beginning with the reforms of Peter the Great. Her work goes beyond the brief period of 1950-60, as she analyzes the 1970s and the 1980s, writing that “a rigid periodization with identifiable breaks does not work for the last thirty-plus years of Soviet history” (p. 8). In discussing the reception of these artistic interactions, Gilburd argues for a wider temporality, above all, by launching interpretive concepts that go beyond the Thaw.
The book therefore invites a review of cultural exchanges specific to the Thaw, which highlight Gilburd’s expertise and knowledge drawn from her extensive research. Gilburd has contributed to important collaborative pieces of work and academic journals encouraging readers to rethink the Thaw. For example, she co-authored the foreword and devoted an article on the 1956 Picasso exhibition as one of the central events of the Thaw in the French journal Les Cahiers du Monde Russe. The Thaw is situated at the center of many research projects today, but that was not the case when Gilburd first started her work. To See Paris and Die fits into the renewal of cultural studies devoted to the Thaw in seeking to abolish the perception of the Soviet Union and the West as its antitheses.
Gilburd’s research is well documented and is based on an impressive archival collection. It is the result of her earlier research, which commenced on a similar topic during her PhD work at the University of California, Berkeley, defended in 2010. Her work combines institutional and private archival sources. Gilburd went to the essential and classical institutions in Russia, namely, the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI) and the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), while having also carried out more detailed research at the Moscow Municipal Archives (TsALIM and TsAOPIM in particular). She also used a lot of material from the archives of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and worked additionally in American archives, including in the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) and the Archives of American Art in Washington, DC. Gilburd restores the voices of the Soviets, who appear to be mainly city dwellers, from memoirs, letters, and comments that were published in exhibitions’ visitor books. The variety of these sources are analyzed separately. The study of this subjective perception of nonspecialist audiences are carried out as systematically as possible.
Gilburd divides her book into six chapters with relatively vague titles. These chapters are framed by an introduction and an excellent epilogue that serves more than a synthesis, offering an impulse for further research. Some passages of the book are the subjects of previous publications, but their inclusion in the present book is entirely relevant. Indeed, Gilburd excels at being a historian of different objects (literature, visual arts, cinema) and is able to elegantly shift the focus from one vector to another, for example, from Western culture in the USSR to Soviet behavior abroad. This assembly offers a global and nuanced view of the cultural connections of the period.
The first chapter presents cultural exchanges regarding policies to facilitate Western imports. Gilburd highlights the importance of the Geneva Summit (July 1955) in debates on cultural exchanges. She contextualizes those exchanges, and their institutional frames, in a larger period than the Thaw itself. The second chapter is a colorful and well-documented description of the Moscow International Youth Festival, which was unique in its “scale, scope, investment, excitement, and impact on the lives of participants and on the city of Moscow itself.” It “launched artistic styles, cultural institutions, and the careers of countless musicians, singers, actors and actresses, artists, comedians, and athletes” (p. 55). Gilburd provides a welcome contextualization, highlighting the gap between the projects and their realizations (or un-realizations), and insists on the popular reception of this event. In “Books about Us,” the third chapter, she focuses on three authors, J. D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway, and Erich Maria Remarque, among many others, whose work has been translated into Russian, as they have been annotated by readers of the time as “books on us.” The chapter examines the Soviet Union’s understanding of certain pieces of key work and focuses on how Soviet readers projected their own feelings, desires, and emotions in those literary descriptions in a foreign context. The author analyzes the reception of books by Hemingway during the Thaw, even if he was already translated into Russian before the war. The fourth chapter is devoted to one of the most popular cultural topics of the Thaw, the cinema, but focuses on the audience. Beyond recalling the strong importance of French and Italian film, star actors, and movements, such as neorealism or the New Wave, the chapter analyzes and has a slight focus on the letters of spectators expressing their feelings (often embarrassed) in contrast to the reactions of other spectators.
The fifth chapter, “Barbarians in the Temple of Art,” is devoted to the visual arts and specifically the figures of Pablo Picasso and Rockwell Kent. In addition to a, perhaps, deliberately provocative parallel between Kent and Picasso, the similarities that Gilburd recalls (differences are more obvious) are notable: they are leftists and in the past they had issues with the United States. In Kent’s pictures, Soviet viewers can find an echo to the past with the reappearance of an impressionist canvas, which Gilburd describes as “a realism that retained representational likeness but dispensed with detailed delineation, naturalistic color, and the illusion of objectivity.” Here, Gilburd’s sources are very important to show the nuances of the the artistic reception of Kent. Kent had great reception in the Soviet establishment. What Gilburd reveals is that viewers found his realism to be “unusual and startling” (p. 239). The chapter focuses on the deconstruction of the state’s one-dimensional interpretation of the artistic production. In my opinion, Gilburd’s stance is original, especially on the perception of plastic art and the visitor books having not been previously used enough in research on Soviet art. These visitor commentaries offer insight and knowledge on the reception of modernism in these years in a refreshing manner. Recalling Ilya Ehrenburg’s role in the rereading of impressionism and the different embodiments of realism for Russians, Gilburd highlights comments made by the “simple” visitors to the exhibitions and uses those comments as a form of analysis. Some comments are surprising; Gilburd, for example, concludes that “viewers remarked on cultural regression in the West and attributed modernist paintings to primitive man, deranged minds, or destructive impulses. The Soviet Union, by contrast, was the preserve of culture in a world gone mad, animalistic and brutal.” She analyzes these comments: “The universality of images had long been taken for granted, until modernist exhibitions from the West began arriving in the mid-1950s. At these exhibitions, people discovered alternative definitions of art and sometimes sadly confessed to the absence of culture in the Soviet Union” (p. 266). Analysis of visitors books reveals—and, as we understand it to be, it could be the point of the entire chapter—the critical thinking of the viewer in this face-to-face encounter with contemporary art. Some words, in comparison with the reception of the movements that occurred concurrently in the West, could have been a complementary way to have embodied Soviet viewers as highly important actors of the art discourse during that period.
The sixth chapter completes the previous chapter, as it is about travel and Soviets residing outside Soviet borders. It also pays particular attention to the journeys of elites, such as painters, and their impression of Italian art. The chapter reaches a natural end, detailing Soviet emigrants’ interpretation, known as translation, of Western cultures while residing in the West during the late Soviet era.
The fact that Gilburd does not solely focus on the duality of official and unofficial art, can be destabilizing at the first reading. But by focusing on a nonspecialist audience—a popular reception—the book offers a sense of porosity that reveals a lot about the Thaw. The audience is presented in all its complexity as “co-creators of Soviet translations and the ultimate interpreters” (p. 17). Thus, Gilburd presents the Thaw as a period of complexities and tensions, where yesterday and tomorrow appear to be in constant discussions in diverse public and private sources.
Translation culture “highlights the channels of cultural transfer and the ways in which imports and their recipients change in the process. And it underscores the agency of the recipient, frequently lost in the usual schematic vocabulary of model and imitation” (p. 9). Even if this notion of translation, paraphrased by Gilburd as a “mechanism of transfer, a process of domestication and a metaphor for the ways cultures interact” (p. 1), is now used a little too exclusively in the analysis of the period, Gilburd, by not focusing on a particular medium but on a particular receiver (and a vast one), brings undoubted novelties in the understanding of the cultural history of the Thaw.
. Eleonory Gilburd and Larissa Zakharova, foreword, Les Cahiers du Monde Russe, nos. 1-2 (2006): 9-14; and Eleonory Gilburd, “Picasso in Thaw Culture,” ibid.: 65-108.
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Juliette Milbach. Review of Gilburd, Eleonory, To See Paris and Die: The Soviet Lives of Western Culture.
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