An evening with the author of To See Paris and Die, shortlisted for the 2019 Pushkin House Russian Book Prize, in conversation with art historian, curator and writer Sarah Wilson.
The Soviet Union was a notoriously closed society until Stalin’s death in 1953. Then, in the mid-1950s, a torrent of Western novels, films, and paintings invaded Soviet streets and homes, acquiring heightened emotional significance. To See Paris and Die is a history of this momentous opening to the West.
At the heart of this history is a process of translation, in which Western figures took on Soviet roles: Pablo Picasso as a political rabble-rouser; Rockwell Kent as a quintessential American painter; Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway as teachers of love and courage under fire; J. D. Salinger and Giuseppe De Santis as saviors from Soviet clichés. Imported novels challenged fundamental tenets of Soviet ethics, while modernist paintings tested deep-seated notions of culture. Western films were eroticized even before viewers took their seats. The drama of cultural exchange and translation encompassed discovery as well as loss.
Eleonory Gilburd explores the pleasure, longing, humiliation, and anger that Soviet citizens felt as they found themselves in the midst of this cross-cultural encounter. The main protagonists of To See Paris and Die are small-town teachers daydreaming of faraway places, college students vicariously discovering a wider world, and factory engineers striving for self-improvement. They invested Western imports with political and personal significance, transforming foreign texts into intimate belongings.
With the end of the Soviet Union, the Soviet West disappeared from the cultural map. Gilburd’s history reveals how domesticated Western imports defined the last three decades of the Soviet Union, as well as its death and afterlife.
“Engaging… Gilburd’s book is far more than a catalogue of cultural dissemination. It captures how people reacted to what they witnessed, from outrage at bared flesh in Western movies to awe at blockbuster exhibitions of Picasso and Rockwell Kent… Succeeds eloquently in conveying just how Soviet citizens reacted to ‘the shock of the new.’”—Catriona Kelly, The Times Literary Supplement
“Fascinating… Succeeds in presenting another Soviet Union, one ‘suffused with non-Soviet things, films, sounds, and stories,’ which, as much as any high politics, shaped the way citizens understood the west, their rulers, and themselves.”—Harry Robertson, Financial Times
“Gilburd reveals the extensive Soviet cultural appropriation of Western arts, music, books and cinema during the 1950s and 1960s… One of the most delightful aspects of this history is her focus on the reception Western works received among Soviet audiences.”—Kristen R. Ghodsee, Times Higher Education
“A tour de force by a historian working at the top of her craft. By showing how Western culture was transmitted to and transformed by Soviet audiences, Gilburd has made an impressive contribution to our understanding not only of late Soviet history but of European history broadly.”—Stephen V. Bittner, author of The Many Lives of Khrushchev’s Thaw: Experience and Memory in Moscow’s Arbat
“This highly original and readable work is sweeping in its breadth and depth. Gilburd covers a wide range of Western culture—literature, travelogues, art, film, music, theater—and chronicles Soviet reactions to it. Her treatment includes, among other things, the organization of cultural exchange, the distribution of books and films, and the role of Soviet authority figures in mediating the dissemination of Western works.”—Katerina Clark, author of Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931–1941
Eleonory Gilburd is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Chicago. She specializes in the history of modern Russia and the Soviet Union, with a particular interest in Soviet culture, society, and their international context.
Professor Sarah Wilson is an art historian, curator and writer. Her global art interests are informed by specialism in postwar and Cold War Europe and the USSR. In 2015, she was co-curator and curator for the academic forum of the 1st Asian Biennale / 5th Guangzhou Triennale, Guanzhou, China.
She is a Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art of the Courtauld Institute of Art.