H-Diplo Review Essay 214 on Gilburd. To See Paris and Die: The Soviet Lives of Western Culture

George Fujii's picture

H-Diplo Review Essay 214

10 April 2020

Eleonory Gilburd.  To See Paris and Die: The Soviet Lives of Western Culture.  Cambridge:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018.  ISBN:  9780674980716 (hardcover, $35.00/£28.95/€31.50).

Review Editor: Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Joy Neumeyer, University of California, Berkeley

In August 1957, the boulevards of central Moscow became home to a caliph’s palace and a Chinese pagoda. Buses decorated with daises ferried foreigners around the capital where only four years earlier stampeding crowds had mourned Joseph Stalin’s death. For two exhilarating weeks, students gyrated to rock ‘n’ roll, and everyone was bewitched by the Egyptian belly-dancer Naïma Akef. An American student named Sally Belfrage wrote down the Russian word for milk and the addresses of new Soviet friends, one of whom called her “a girl of my dream.” “I wasn’t me, I was a symbol,” she reflected in her enthusiastic account of the trip (90-1).

The Moscow International Youth Festival is the exuberant heart of To See Paris and Die: The Soviet Lives of Western Culture, Eleonory Gilburd’s fascinating study of the foreign films, books, paintings, and sensations that flooded the Soviet Union after Stalin. The festival captures some of the book’s central themes, including the projection of desires onto a faraway other; the inscription of foreign culture into local contexts; and the language of love that animated many Soviet citizens’ accounts of their relationship to Western imports. As Gilburd shows, it was a passionate and doomed affair. 

Gilburd’s emphasis on state-backed culture (rather than materials circulating semi-illicitly in the “private public sphere”) reveals the enormous amount of resources that the Soviet Union poured into translating and disseminating Western culture within its borders.[1] Her archival research combines the perspectives of cultural mediators who selected foreign works for promotion, the translators who adapted them, and the mass audiences who consumed them. The book’s focus is on the uncertain years of Nikita Khrushchev’s tenure, when Soviet youth incorporated foreign culture in their search for new sources of authority. “Progeny without patrimony, they became Picasso’s heirs,” Gilburd writes (259). If youthful energy was central to the Thaw, her approach also reveals how public tastes were shaped by aging impresarios such as Ilya Ehrenberg, who informed readers that only a fool would fail to appreciate impressionism.

While some recent scholarship has brought attention to the high degree of cultural exchange within the international socialist camp, Gilburd focuses on cultural imports from Western Europe and the U.S. to the Soviet Union.[2] As the book’s introduction notes, “the West” has long served as Russia’s legitimizing other—both a model for emulation and a nightmare to be overcome. The Bolsheviks united the visions of Westernizers and Slavophiles by framing Russia as the messianic herald of international revolution. Michael David-Fox and Katerina Clark have shown how this tendency peaked in the 1930s, when visitors streamed to the USSR in search of liberation and revolution and Soviet intellectuals framed themselves as the inheritors of global culture.[3] The relationship between revolutionary purity and global penetration was uneasy: even as the Popular Front promoted international cooperation, the Soviet Union persecuted foreign nationalities during the Great Terror and elevated border guards as heroes. The coexistence of internationalism and xenophobia would remain an enduring paradox of the Soviet system.

The introduction of peaceful coexistence in 1956 brought cultural exchange into the realm of Soviet foreign relations. Officials saw cultural connections, premised on the idea of a common humanity, as a way to appeal directly to the bourgeois public. The dream of cultural universalism reached its apogee at the 1957 Youth Festival, when 34,000 foreigners descended on Moscow. Its creators, who included surviving enthusiasts of early Soviet theater, rejected hammers and sickles in favor of doves and flowers. This remarkable relaxation of restrictions was not to be repeated: in the subsequent chill, the KGB investigated Soviet students who had been in contact with foreigners, and critics denounced Sally Belfrage’s memoir as “libelous” (90). However, Western cultural imports gained a permanent presence in Soviet life. The new journal Foreign Literature and a related publishing house produced translations of the novels of Ernest Hemingway, Erich Remarque, and J.D. Salinger, while the Moscow International Film Festival set out to be a sober-minded anti-Cannes. Translation had its limits: as dubbed French and Italian films entered Soviet cinemas, some viewers were outraged by the unaccustomed sight of a bare shoulder. Most challenging of all was abstract painting, as seen at the breakthrough 1956 exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s work in Moscow. Heated student debates about Cubism served as a proxy for broader conversations about expanding political freedoms.

While journeys outside the socialist bloc remained the purview of leading artists and delegations, travel writing circulated impressions of life beyond Soviet borders. Expected by genre convention to reveal filth, poverty, and prejudice lurking around every corner, travelogues were open to attack for excessive positivity, as seen in the press campaign against Viktor Nekrasov’s accounts of America. Nekrasov was defended by readers who praised his rejection of stereotypes as a sign of sincerity and grew convinced that life in the West was “incomparably better than their own” (269). In the epilogue, Gilburd describes how this fantasy shattered upon direct contact. Soviet citizens who emigrated to “the idea of Eden” (in writer Sergei Dovlatov’s formulation) often found themselves socially and culturally marginalized (139). The author-provocateur Eduard Limonov’s image of his fictional alter-ego rooting through dumpsters in Manhattan in the novel It’s Me, Eddie captured the sense of dispossession experienced by many emigres. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Soviet citizens became foreigners in their own country, as Latin-lettered advertisements crowded public spaces and evroremonty (‘Euro-renovation’) transformed homes. Picasso’s Soviet heirs sold off treasured volumes of Hemingway and Remarque to make ends meet.

Gilburd’s work joins other recent scholarship in showing how contact with and interest in Western culture could be compatible with Soviet norms. Like Soviet citizens who listened to Deep Purple (in Alexei Yurchak’s study of late socialism) or vacationed abroad (in Anne Gorsuch’s work on tourism), those who defended Cubism tended to see a love of foreign culture and belief in Communism as mutually reinforcing.[4] To See Paris and Die explores how cultural imports became embedded in local concerns. French impressionism was associated with the post-Stalin search for sincerity and subjectivity; Italian neorealism helped inspire Soviet cinema’s revived efforts to depict life as lived; Remarque was read less for his pacificism than for his depictions of love and friendship.

Yurchak’s interpretation of the “Imaginary West” in late socialism, which emphasizes English-language rock music and labels, clothes, and linguistic expressions, argues that the “literal meaning” of cultural imports was often irrelevant.[5] However, Gilburd’s focus on translation projects, where intelligibility was the point, shows what happened when Soviet audiences did interact with the specific contents of Western culture. According to the Soviet theory of translation that emerged by the late 1950s, the translator’s job was one of “reincarnation,” with the translator responsible for recreating not only the words but the experience of the original (115). Thus the necessity of “falling in love” with an author’s creation as a precondition of translation, and the emergence of a Russian Holden Caulfield with a richer lexicon than his American original (116). With marvelous attention to detail, Gilburd counts at least eight different Russian translations for Caulfield’s frequently uttered ‘goddamn.’ Her spotlight on translators introduces heroes such as Rita Rait-Koraleva, the 62-year-old woman who adapted Salinger’s work for Soviet audiences. Gilburd demonstrates how Salinger’s words, Rait-Koraleva’s reincarnation, and the concerns of local audiences fused to make the Russian Catcher in the Rye part of the revitalization of language after Stalin.

Combining exhaustive research with emotional sensitivity, To See Paris and Die movingly recreates the Soviet encounter with the fantasy world beyond its borders. Due to its emphasis on the Thaw and its selection of genres, there are understandable gaps in its coverage. We encounter the social criticism of Bicycle Thieves but not the soapy tears of Yesenia, the 1971 Mexican melodrama that became the most popular film ever shown in the Soviet Union.[6] Perhaps one of the next steps in the cultural history of the Soviet Union after Stalin is to integrate audiences’ reverence for Remarque with their love of sexy shlock, and the story of the ‘last Soviet generation’ who spent the ’70s listening to bootleg rock records with the tastes and habits so richly chronicled here.


Joy Neumeyer is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is completing a dissertation about death in late Soviet culture. She is currently a Visiting Scholar at NYU’s Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia.



[1] Viktor Voronkov and Jan Wielgohs’s concept of late socialism’s “private public sphere” in Kevin M.F. Platt and Benjamin Nathans, “Socialist in Form, Indeterminate in Content: The Ins and Outs of Late Soviet Culture,” Ab Imperio 2 (2011), 312.

[2] See Anne E. Gorsuch and Diane Koenker, eds., The Socialist Sixties: Crossing Borders in the Second World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).

[3] Michael David-Fox, Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy and Western Visitors to the Soviet Union, 1921-1941 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Katerina Clark, Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011)

[4] Yurchak, ibid; Anne Gorsuch, All This Is Your World: Soviet Tourism at Home and Abroad after Stalin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). On consumption see David Crowley and Susan E. Reid, eds., Pleasures in Socialism: Leisure and Luxury in the Eastern Bloc (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2010). This research challenges the post-Cold War consensus that Soviet citizens’ longing for Western consumer culture brought down the Iron Curtain. See Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999); Victoria de Grazia, Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005).

[5] Yurchak, 191.

[6] Kristin Roth-Ey has shown how the Soviet public’s attraction to Western low-brow cinema became a persistent thorn in the side of the culture establishment, which struggled to interest audiences in more ideologically ennobling fare. Kristin Roth-Ey, Moscow Prime Time: How the Soviet Union Built the Media Empire that Lost the Cultural Cold War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011).