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Regular version of the site

To See Paris and Die: The Soviet Lives of Western Culture

In March, the International Center for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences at HSE welcomed Eleonor Gilburd, Assistant Professor of the History and the College at the University of Chicago. Professor Gilburd presented her book To See Paris and Die: The Soviet Lives of Western Culture which deals with the history of translation, cultural diplomacy and exchange and the interpretation of Western texts by Soviet audiences in the mid-20th century. She spoke to HSE News Service about her research.



Eleonor Gilburd

— The phrase To See Paris and Die which you chose as the title of your new book, belongs to famous Soviet writer, Ilya Ehrenburg. He is also responsible for coining the term The Thaw that became the symbol of a certain period in Soviet history. What triggered your research and writing about this period of Soviet history?

— This project, and The Thaw, have been with me for many years. I initially stumbled upon The Thaw in a historiography seminar. The requirement for that seminar was an original research paper. It was my father, actually, who suggested looking at the Virgin Lands campaign. I ended up immersing myself in the press of the mid-50s.

In the process, I realized just how skewed historiography was toward the 1920s and 30s and how little we knew about the late Soviet decades. It seemed as if the Soviet Union had taken its final shape by the late 1930s and no change, no evolution, no innovation was possible. Historiography completely wrote off nearly a half of the Soviet experience. And indeed, this picture frozen in time was one of the cornerstones of Cold War historiography – a pillar that even revisionist social history did not shake. This was in the late 1990s. So much work has been done since then, and we now have a complex, rich history of the second half of the Soviet period. But my initial impulse for studying this period was that realization.

I ended up immersing myself in the press of the mid-50s. In the process, I realized just how skewed historiography was toward the 1920s and 30s and how little we knew about the late Soviet decades. It seemed as if the Soviet Union had taken its final shape by the late 1930s and no change, no evolution, no innovation was possible.

Soviet history is very personal for me. The books we were reading in that first seminar, books, again, about the 1930s, portrayed a very different Soviet Union than the one I remembered (my family left the Soviet Union in 1989, in my early teen years). And, of course, I understand what memory, moreover memory of childhood, often idealized, does to our perception of the past. Yet, even allowing for all the imperfections (or, more precisely, perfections) of such memories, and keeping in mind some fundamental continuities, the Soviet Union of the 1970s differed from the Soviet Union of the 1930s. I wanted to know when and how the Soviet Union I remembered had taken shape, how it had come into being.

— You analyse the reception of Western books, paintings and movies by the Soviets when cultural exchange made them available in the USSR. What were your methods?

— The book’s narrative proceeds on three levels. First, the cultural diplomacy – the channels by which various texts arrived in the Soviet Union, and I should mention that I deal primarily with legitimate and official channels, because those were most important in saturating Soviet cities and homes with Western, and more broadly foreign, texts and images. Secondly, mediation and translation – this is how texts changed, or how they were explained to Soviet audiences. Finally, reception – what these texts meant in the context of The Thaw, why certain images and texts were received as ‘about us’ and became intimate Soviet belongings, while others were rejected. These three levels are interrelated.

The general Soviet condition of restricted information and closed borders created opportunities for a few commanding voices to have a profound impact. They pursued a self-delegated mission and cared deeply about the reception of their efforts. Cultural mediation was a Soviet enlightenment project. Ilya Ehrenburg is perhaps the main character in this group – because he was so paradigmatic as a cultural mediator.

To study reception, I used comment books from Western art exhibitions and from photography exhibits and exhibits of travel sketches by Soviet artists. I also used letters from the audiences – to cultural mediators such as Ilya Ehrenburg, to journals, newspapers, and publishing houses, to the radio in response to radio programs, and to various institutions of cultural exchange.

What matters to me are individuals in these letters: how people read and how they listened to the radio (they took notes!), what kinds of texts were available to them, how they tabulated information available from the newspapers with other types of information, how they got their texts (bought at a Soiuzpechat’ kiosk, checked it out from the library, subscribed to a journal, bought from private hands, received for a night or several days from friends), how they could ascertain what was true in, for example, travel accounts about countries where they had never been, with whom they went to the movies and what they expected to see there, and how the movies made them feel. To give you an example, in looking at the responses people sent to Ilya Ehrenburg after his radio program about impressionism, I was attentive to how his lectures sent people checking out the Soviet Encyclopedia, how people compared different sources of information about impressionism, and how encyclopedic certainties were giving way to a desire to look at the paintings for themselves and trust their own eyes.

The usual (Western) distinction between ’high‘ and ’low' cultural forms, neatly overlaying social divisions, did not apply in the mid-1950s.  Rather than the domain of highbrow intellectuals, reading serious literature and going to museums were the daily pursuits of educated professionals.

The comments are a very different source. Comments were always written in public, scribbled in a matter of minutes, and retain the immediacy of anger or repartee. The openness of the comment book, the possibility of surveillance, and the repetitiveness of the entries raise doubts about the integrity of this source. Several scholars have treated comment books as performance or posturing, as engaging in a ritual. But I don’t see writing in the comment books as performance that is fundamentally distinct from any other kind of behavior. For me, patterns and repetitions were especially important and very telling.

— Who are the main characters of your new book and why?

— There are two sets of main characters in the book.  First, there are the cultural mediators. These are translators, who recreated foreign books within the framework of the Russian translation culture which claimed translations as works of original literature. There are dubbing actors and directors, who created an image of foreign speech, who gave sound to cultural stereotypes of what, say, Italian or French speech sounds like. These are artists and writers who traveled abroad and then depicted foreign places in writing, pencil or watercolors. Cultural mediators held positions of eminence that gave them access to mass media. And it was the state’s monopoly on radio, print, and cinema that assured them a country-wide audience. The general Soviet condition of restricted information and closed borders created opportunities for a few commanding voices to have a profound impact. They pursued a self-delegated mission and cared deeply about the reception of their efforts. Cultural mediation was a Soviet enlightenment project. Ilya Ehrenburg, whom you mentioned in your first question, is perhaps the main character in this group – because he was so paradigmatic as a cultural mediator.

One consequence of the new availability and the incredibly diverse choices is that many people cannot imagine a world otherwise and have stopped valuing each choice.

The second group of characters is their audience: ordinary readers and viewers. The audiences overwhelmingly consisted of teachers, librarians, doctors, engineers, and students (studying to become teachers, librarians, doctors, and engineers). They were geologists stationed in South Siberian mountains at Sorsk, Khakassia, and in Trans-Ili Alatau, the Northern Tian Shan ranges of Kazakhstan. They were engineers in design bureaus of the Leningrad electronics and the Riga railcar plants, at the heavy machinery factories in Stalino and in Stavropol’. They were dentists, pediatricians in district clinics, and surgeons in town hospitals. They taught in music schools and in rural schools, where they organized art history and foreign language study groups for peasant children. These people, the technical intelligentsia, were educated in republican and regional centers. Afterwards, their institutes and universities assigned them to jobs according to requests of central economic planners. We find these graduates in remote villages, at construction sites, in new settlements amidst the steppe, in places often unmarked on the map. To these places, they brought big-city experiences and the Soviet aspiration to cultural accessibility. Cultural activities were integral to their daily lives. The usual (Western) distinction between ’high‘ and ’low' cultural forms, neatly overlaying social divisions, did not apply in the mid-1950s.  Rather than the domain of highbrow intellectuals, reading serious literature and going to museums were the daily pursuits of educated professionals.

The audiences are so important in the book because they were the co-creators of Soviet translations and the ultimate interpreters. Their intense feelings — surges of anger, revulsion, humiliation, pleasure, longing — transformed distant Western stories and images into Soviet possessions.

— How do you assess the huge changes that have occurred over the last few decades with regard to cultural exchange and access to international texts, music and art globally and also in Russia?

— Of course, the changes of the last several decades have been dramatic and profound, in no small part thanks to new technologies and the immediacy of the internet. It is no longer a matter of specific governmental structures exclusively organizing cultural exchange.

But for me, the most radical changes are technological as well as informal. I still remember the time when to call Russia from the United States you had to dial 0, wait for many hours, family members taking turns by the phone, and suddenly hear the operator say: ‘Speak!’

Today, you can dial any number on your cell, see people across the world on skype, and live out any experience vicariously, thanks to the blogosphere and new mapping possibilities. You can access nearly every musical album online, see practically any image and read practically any text, in your own language or in the original. In Russia and around the world, significantly more people than at any earlier point in history know foreign languages. And many more words of foreign provenance are now part of the Russian language: musical, technical, philosophical. Finally, you can travel, and we all, in Russia and elsewhere, live in a far more mobile world than only several decades earlier. The new freedom of travel for Russian citizens, even of average means – as tourists, as vacationers – is not something to be taken for granted.

I think it is absolutely imperative to go to the theater – I mean drama theaters – as often as possible, even if your Russian isn’t up to par yet. It can do wonders not only for your languages skills, but also for your soul.

One consequence of the new availability and the incredibly diverse choices is that many people cannot imagine a world otherwise and have stopped valuing each choice. Sometimes I catch myself being one of these many people who take choices and mobility for granted. Another consequence is that when borders were flung open, when the market came to regulate availability, and foreign languages became common currency, translation lost its social weight.

— What do you recommend for international students in order to understand Russia better?

— I want to start by saying that there is an extraordinary interest in Russian culture among American students, at least the students I encounter. One of the greatest attractions remains Russian classical literature of the 19th century, and to a significant extent, I agree: it is still a good starting point for understanding Russia past and present. Among the films I watched lately, my favorite is Geograf Globus Propil, based on Alexei Ivanov’s book with Konstantin Khabenskii in the lead role. I think it is absolutely imperative to go to the theater – I mean drama theaters – as often as possible, even if your Russian isn’t up to par yet. It can do wonders not only for your languages skills, but also for your soul.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya for HSE news service