To See Paris and Die, An Interview with Eleanory Gilburd

Interview by Sean Gillory, University of Pittsburgh

Eleonory Gilburd is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Chicago. Gilburd specializes in the history of modern Russia and the Soviet Union, with a particular interest in Soviet culture, society, and their international context. She is currently at work on two book projects: Weary Sun explores the history of tango in Stalinist Russia and Eastern Europe. The Entangled Histories of Soviet Newspeak and the Russian Language in the Twentieth Century describes the rise and fall of Soviet newspeak as a language bound to the daily uses and reforms of Russian itself.

Sean Guillory (@seansrussiablog) is the Digital Scholarship Curator at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies. He hosts Sean’s Russia Blog podcast.

Note: This is a modified and abridged transcription of the interview featuring Eleanory Gilburd, winner of the 2019 Wayne S. Vucinich Prize for To See Paris and Die (Harvard University Press.). Other subjects, including censorship, art exhibitions, film, and American versus European cultural imports, were also discussed. For the full interview, go to Sean’s Russia Blog.

Originally released in the March 2020 NewsNet.


Sean Guillory: I want to ask you about the title: I assume it’s a quote from one of your sources.

Eleonory Gilburd: The origin of the line is ambiguous for me. The line is usually attributed in a clichéd kind of way to Ilya Ehrenburg and to his book, My Paris, from 1931. […] The line doesn’t come from any particular source. It’s a set expression, an idiom in Russian. It’s a paraphrase of “To see Naples and die,” which received common currency after Goethe had used it in his Italian travelogues. In a more immediate context than Goethe, the phrase was used as a title of a film. After the Soviet Union disintegrated, there were several prominent films that reconsidered the place of the Western world, and Paris specifically, in Soviet lives. One of these films was Aleksandr Proshkin’s To See Paris and Die from 1992. This film is a story of a woman, Elena, and her grownup musician son. They live in a communal apartment with all sorts of unpleasant characters, eavesdropping and spying on the intimate life of others. The time period is the 1960s. Elena, the main protagonist, has a past to hide, because she is determined at all cost to have her son included in a delegation of Soviet musicians going to Paris to perform. And no moral compromise is too grave for this goal. When she thinks the goal is unreachable, when all her plans seem to have collapsed, she dies, by her own hand, having closed doors and windows and opened the gas. 

The phrase stands for life’s ultimate fulfilment and it also has a sense of fatality and finality to it – that is, that there is nothing else that’s left to experience after seeing Paris. You might as well die: there aren’t any other experiences that are left that can actually best the fulfilment of that longing.

SG: Why does this phrase capture your book for a title?

EG: The reason I thought it is so apt for my book’s title is that I tried to convey this longing, I tried to convey the unreachability, the intensity of emotional investment, and the desire that impossibility, that unreachability had sustained over decades – but I also tried to convey the tragedy behind the fulfilment of that desire.

SG: I want you to paint the context for your study. A lot of your story takes place during the Thaw, and you note that Western culture enters the Soviet Union as never before and, after the Thaw, remains a part of Soviet life. How do you understand this moment in postwar Soviet history?

EG: I try to locate the Thaw-era opening to the West in a much longer trajectory of westernization in Russia. For me, it’s not an isolated moment, but a unique one. It is distinguished by several features from any other period of Westernization. There are several consistent points that we would find in other such moments of intense Western importation and of course. Translation—unsurprisingly—is central [to all moments of openness]. The reformist tradition in Russia over centuries was closely connected to openness and closedness to Western cultural presence. In any period of such intense westernization, xenophobia went hand in hand with openness— both occurred simultaneously, rather than being opposite. The Thaw inherited ideological positions from the revolutionary 1920s and also institutions that were established in the 1920s and reached their full expression in the 1930s.

I think the Thaw was unique and remarkable in this history, it actually altered the vector of the history of westernization, in that it was the first moment of Westernization on a mass scale. I think you correctly state one of the arguments, one of the conclusions in the book—that the process that starts in the mid-1950s persists until the end of the Soviet Union. In many ways, I think, the Thaw defined a tendency that continues to this day: the centrality of consumer objects to westernization, new media and technologies as channels of Western culture, tourism as one of the formative aspects of westernization, [and] the very broad distribution in a social sense, so that westernization is no longer a prerogative of the elite.

The reason that the fifties and sixties is one of the constitutive moments in the history of westernization is that it becomes a mass phenomenon, [accessible] to a broad strata of the population. These people turn on the radio in 1954 and 1956, and hear Yves Montand. A little later, they turn on the radio and hear Ilya Ehrenburg’s lectures on the Impressionists, whom they had never seen before and had no idea what he was talking about. Their curiosity was piqued, and they wanted to know more. These are provincial teachers, agronomists, engineers. I am talking about the capitals, but also about provincial towns, sometimes new towns. These are oftentimes dusty settlements where water pipes are just being laid, but where a movie theater was already built. I don’t know of another moment of such democratization and popularization of Western culture with so broad a distribution.

Among the reasons, I should say, for the social and geographic broadness of this phenomenon was Soviet education and the way that people were assigned to jobs after graduation all across the Soviet Union. Among the reasons was the Soviet cultural project itself, founded on the idea of classics for the masses. Among the reasons was new media: radio and cinema in the 1950s and 60s, and television later, played a huge role in the distribution of Western culture. For all these reasons, the Thaw is a special moment.

But that is not all. For this moment also overlaps—and not accidentally—with a reevaluation of Soviet history, of socialist realism, of class morality, of the very language of politics, of literature, visual language, emotional language. And it is into this context that Russian translations of Western texts and films arrive, where they begin to live a Soviet life, begin to change under its impact and, in their turn, they impact this reevaluation of values.

SG: Talk a bit about translation as an analytical concept for you, but also as it was practiced in this formative period.

EG: You’re absolutely right: translation in a very broad sense is the key paradigm in this book. First and foremost, as you said, it is a mechanism of transfer into another context, it is crucial as a process of naturalization. Translation highlights the channels of transfer. When I was getting ready to go to the archives to do this project, I wasn’t planning to write about translation. In my original vision, the centerpiece was cultural diplomacy. That is still there, about a third of the book is about cultural diplomacy. But after working in the archives, I wanted to find something that would allow me to convey an active, creative role of the receiving context that I was observing in the archives, to convey the work of people like Ehrenburg, or one of the translators and the main interpreter of Hemingway, Ivan Kashkin […]. I was tired of the usual concepts about the imitative nature of Russian culture, about derivativeness, original and copy. In these concepts the creative work that I was observing the archives gets lost, along with entire layers of meaning that are introduced by the new context into these imports.

SG: It also gives the impression of a passive consumption, that Russians are just receivers of culture from the West, and the best they can do is mimic it.

EG: Right. Translation allows me to reinstate that very active, creative role and the meanings invested in these imports as they cross linguistic and geopolitical borders, where they assume new connotation and intonation. And they lose something of their original meanings from their own domestic context.

SG: Talk about the process of translation, and how it deterritorializes a piece of culture that, say, comes from France, and reterritorializes it in a Soviet context. 

EG: One of the things that I found so interesting and thought was curious is how Soviet life brought together what we would consider incompatible aesthetic phenomena, characters who had very little in common. I have certain pairs of people or aesthetic movements, such as Picasso and Rockwell Kent, or Hemingway and Remarque, or Italian neorealists and French historical drama. In the West, you’d rarely put somebody like Picasso and Rockwell Kent in the same line. But in Soviet culture, they were deeply interrelated. The modernist canon, to which some of these artists and writers belonged, was entirely non-canonical for Soviet audiences; translation created its own canon, eclectic stylistically and chronologically. To give you an example, in interwar Europe, Remarque’s novels were read for bitter pacifism. […] In the Soviet context, that, of course, was there, but other themes were important, perhaps more important, themes like the fate of a lone man, like the salvation we find in love and friendship. Or if we take Italian neorealist cinema and French historical drama, with costumes, and fencing, and the theatrical staging of it all. These are opposing aesthetic phenomena. But Soviet viewers looked for other things and they found passion, and intimacy, and love, and torment.

SG: One of the key events that you open your study with is the Sixth International Youth Festival in 1957. This seems [to be] a key moment; several historians have looked at it from a variety of different angles. What was this festival and why was it so significant?

EG: It is, of course, one of the central events of the Thaw. For different historians it means different things. For me, the festival was the Soviet Union’s first mega-event. That is not to say that the Soviet Union had not had international events before; it did, but those were leftist events. This is the first event that began the transformation of Moscow from a city of international leftist events to a city of mega-events. The youth festival invited foreigners from across the world. […] There were about 34,000 foreigners and two weeks of cultural celebrations, athletic events, performances, and political and cultural debate.

In the book, the festival serves as a structural center, because it features all the threads that I develop in subsequent chapters. I see the festival, first and foremost, as a literary invention, an incredible invention on paper. Before various plans, figures, and pictures came alive in the streets, they had been imagined by festival planners and narrated on paper. I see it as a utopian project in search of an ideal language, that is, a universal language. And in the 1950s this language was the language of culture. There were lots of dictionaries published for the festival, lots of language instruction. But it’s important to say that linguistic fluency was suspect: foreigners who were fluent in Russian were surveilled and followed in the streets more than other foreigners. The language that the festival planners really had in mind was the language of culture, literary archetypes, painting, cinema, dance, and gesture, and this is the language that the festival wanted to speak when its creators, artists, planners returned time and again— and this shows up in the documents so poignantly and also surprisingly— to the story of the Tower of Babel.

Like other major initiatives of the Thaw, the festival left an enduring legacy not eclipsed in later decades. It was in some sense a Potemkin village, because they were talking about central streets, about Moscow, and about building facades. But it was much more than that, because so much was created in brick and stone. Entire neighborhoods of Moscow that we know today were colonized. Little buildings were razed to the ground and big buildings were erected in their stead. Like other mega-events, the festival led to substantial changes in infrastructure. One of the important and interesting aspects about festival planning, for me, is that the city of Moscow was modeled according to Olympic cities. [At] the Olympic games in Melbourne, besides the Soviet athletic delegation participating in the games, there were all sorts of bureaucrats from various ministries to see how an Olympic city would look like. That Moscow was modeled according to the Melbourne example is very telling. […]

SG: How do you understand the attempt to make the Soviet Union part of world culture in the postwar period?

EG: I don’t think it is, in its most cynical expression, unique to the Thaw. Soviet cultural leaders had always imagined what they were building both as part of European culture and as having universal significance for the rest of the world. I don’t think they are innovative in this sense. They are innovative during the Thaw in a different sense. They want to appeal to ordinary people abroad. In the mid-1950s, they were increasingly realizing that they had been preaching to the converted for decades. They increasingly realized that nobody was watching Soviet films in Europe and the United States, nor reading Soviet magazines specifically produced for distribution abroad, nobody except for a narrow circle of people associated with the so-called friendship societies, that nobody was watching Soviet films, often screened in third-rate movie theaters on the outskirts of cities or in working-class neighborhoods. And they want Soviet exports to be in the spotlight, they want Soviet films to be screened in the very centers of European capitals in first-rate movie theaters. And they are willing to enter into standard practices of cultural diplomacy, they are willing to engage with the capitalist world, they are willing to sign cultural exchange agreements. The exchange agreements, renewed every few years, are very formulaic, they quantify everything, they are tedious to read through, but they are the scaffolding upon which this entire edifice of Western imports is built. [What is] innovative during the Thaw is that they want to step out of leftist confines, of communist enclaves and leftist neighborhoods—and they want to appear on Main street. […] This goes to the heart of your questions about how they imagine themselves and Soviet culture as part of Western and more global cultural scene: they want to be on Main street[…]