Five Minutes with Eleonory Gilburd

Eleonory Gilburd talks about her book 'To See Paris and Die', shortlisted for the 2019 Pushkin House Prize.

What is your connection to Russia?

I was born in the Soviet Union. My family left in 1989. When I was in college at the University of Chicago, I was interested in several disciplines, all of them having something to do with Russia. I decided to study history given my predilection for stories and a particular form of argumentation.

Why are there different variants of your name?

My name is part of the immigration story: I’m Eleonora in Russian, but when we arrived at JFK airport the border guards made a mistake and put a “y” at the end so I became Eleonory. I’ve kept it this spelling in official paperwork and it’s on the cover of my book. Sometimes I anglicise it to Eleanor. Part of the émigré identity is that others define you, and you find ways to describe yourself in the new circumstances.

Why did you decide to write this book?

When I was growing up in the Soviet Union there was so much that was non-Soviet or Soviet and non-Soviet at the same time. This is how some of my favourite childhood books were and the films we watched: hybrid products. I remember how, in the late 1980s, the first soap operas appeared. Cities emptied out to watch the Italian mafia series La Piovra. The courtyards were flooded by the blue light from all the televisions. I wanted to understand how this could have happened: when and why and by what channels all this came to the Soviet Union, what meanings Western imports accrued in the process of translation and adaptation – and how they were transformed into an inseparable part of Soviet lives.

Give some examples of cultural adaptation

One of my favourites is JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye: that book, in that moment in the early 1960s, responded to certain literary debates and linguistic needs to find a different, livelier, more colloquial language. The Russian translation was very unusual in the Russian-Soviet linguistic universe. Many critics took the translation’s language as the language of young west-loving people, as the language of the stiliagi subculture. But you can find all of the unusual words that the translator brought onto the printed page in Soviet normative dictionaries, where these words are usually marked as substandard. The Russian translation of Salinger inundated the page with colloquial substandard speech, which had been ousted from print in the early 1930s.

Another example is dubbed films. In order for the dubbers to catch up with the speech, to stall time, they added all sorts of texts in Russian which weren’t there in the original: street signs, posters. The result is a very subtle, unintentional repositioning: Russian texts appear briefly on the screen and you don’t realise what happened, but the film now looks like a Soviet film about a western country. And viewers were often confused and conflated what was Soviet and what wasn’t.

How did western culture impact the Soviet Union?

Part of the story westerners like to tell themselves is a triumphant one about how western imports changed the Soviet Union. I don’t think the changes in the Soviet Union were mono-causal, and this book doesn’t tell a story of western triumph. Still, western culture did have certain subtle effects. It introduced a language to express feelings of despair, darker sentiments specifically in translated texts. It introduced considerations of universal morality rather than class-based ethics. It’s not that the world changed suddenly and definitively but the intellectual and artistic field became more capacious. In the restricted Soviet information space, and with closed borders, the stories in Western paintings, books, and films that came in gained a monopoly on veracity.

Was censorship a big issue?

I didn’t find it nearly as important as we tend to think. Movies that were unacceptable were not purchased in the first place. The reels were expensive so when the authorities invested money, they were likely to show them. Sometimes subtitles were used as a mode of censorship: the authorities thought people would have a hard time reading text at the bottom of the screen, so they sub-titled rather than dubbed films they didn’t like but bought for diplomatic reasons. Sometimes the kinds of things that were supposed to be cut – undressing, for example – but accidently were not, created a hysteria about uncut copies in circulation. For literature, editors knew what should and shouldn’t be there. And it was often editors and translators, rather than censors, who carried out subtle censorship. One of the more interesting aspects about censorship was that Soviet readers and viewers expected it, they assumed that films were cut and texts were tampered with; sometimes, they even called on censors “to do their job.”

What most surprised you in your research?

What viewers saw in Soviet films after having watched Italian or French ones. They wrote letters to various film institutions complaining about “pornography”: it was not a reflection of what happened on the screen; it was a certain language of outrage. What viewers noticed is not something that our eyes would pick up. Soviet viewers were very sensitive to the tiniest baring of a shoulder or leg: a wife in a nightgown brushing her hair before bed whose shawl would fall, revealing her shoulders; a woman who would take off her stockings to run barefoot in the rain; a kiss in a film set in the virgin lands of Kazakhstan. These scenes elicited a storm of positive and negative reactions. From the perspective of our own sensibilities, a lot of it is so innocent that we would not even pause. These viewers letters forced me to look at Soviet films differently, to try to see what they had seen. For them, there were clear connections between Soviet and French and Italian films – the depiction of intimate life on the screen.

Are there any parallels with Russian cultural practices today?

I think the story of Russia’s engagement with the west is a pendulum-like relationship. There are moments of isolationism, then openness. Each time the pendulum swings, there is already a treasure trove of cultural knowledge and imagery on which the relationship gets rebuilt. Western imports of the late Soviet decades became a part of the Soviet past, integrated with other Soviet things that are inseparable from the lives of at least two generations. This cultural knowledge does not get erased even in moments of isolationism.

What is your next book?

It’s a history of tango in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. The Stalinist 1930s was not the right time and place for this music but astonishingly it arrived - from the newly independent states formed on the borders of the Soviet Union after the collapse of the Russian empire. Russian tangos were created by White émigré communities and other Russian speakers in Warsaw and Riga. In this project, I look at their lives and at the music they wrote and performed. And I follow this music back to the Soviet Union, where tangos circulated on the radio, on gramophones playing in courtyards and in Stalinist parks of rest and culture. 

Eleonory Gilburd was in conversation with Andrew Jack, chair of the Pushkin House Book Prize Advisory Committee, former co-chairman of Pushkin House trustees, and a journalist at the Financial Times.