books How To Think Freely
To See Paris and Die
The Soviet Lives of Western Culture
Harvard University Press
In September of 1959, Nikita Khrushchev made his Hollywood debut. The Soviet premier had arrived in the United States for a twelve-day tour at the invitation of President Eisenhower. During his stay, Khrushchev visited a meatpacking plant in Des Moines where he tasted a hot dog (and by all appearances, loved it). In San Jose, he toured IBM, but was apparently more impressed by the cafeteria than the computers. The visit to Los Angeles was at Khrushchev’s request. His children wanted to see Disneyland.
Khrushchev tolerated the media circus, but a last-minute change to his itinerary brought out his famous temper. When he went up to the podium to address the glitzy audience, he was furious. He had just been told that the trip to Disneyland was called off for safety reasons. His disappointment was visceral. “Is there an epidemic of cholera there or something?” he fumed, angrily gesticulating as the biggest movie stars on earth looked on, awkwardly, afraid he’d threaten to bury them again.
I thought of this anecdote, and Khrushchev’s giddy, almost childlike delight at the prospect of seeing Mickey Mouse when reading To See Paris and Die: The Soviet Lives of Western Culture by historian Eleonory Gilburd. Gilburd’s book focuses on a period in Soviet history known as “the Thaw” or “Khrushchev’s Thaw,” when censorship in the Soviet Union relaxed and Cold War tensions abroad started to ease. The term gets its name from Ilya Ehrenburg’s 1954 novel The Thaw, which broke with the tenets of Socialist Realism (the country’s official artistic policy) and openly condemned Stalin’s Purges. Khrushchev’s policy of “peaceful cooperation” with foreign powers also meant a sudden and large-scale influx of Western art, from Italian neorealist films to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, into the Soviet Union.
In the nineteenth century, a great debate ensued between “Slavophiles” who believed Russia’s path forward lay in embracing all that made it uniquely Slavic (mostly Orthodoxy) and “Westernizers” who wanted Russia to adopt Western ideals (mostly liberalism). Gilburd reminds us that these debates largely hinged on a view of Western Europe that was fictitious. According to the nineteenth-century philosopher Georgy Fedotov, “a unified Europe had more reality on the banks of the Neva or the Moscow river than on the banks of the Seine.” The imagined freedoms and unfreedoms of the West have historically served as distorted mirrors through which Russia viewed itself. Likewise, the interpretation of Western art, literature, and philosophy was often a practice of self-making. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky used his protagonist’s descent into immorality, fueled by his consumption of Western books, to praise the virtues of Russian Orthodoxy.
Under Stalin, nationalism in art, literature, and film became part and parcel of the Soviet project. He railed against “rootless cosmopolitanism,” an anti-Semitic dog whistle meant both to question the patriotism of Soviet Jews and to draw an equivalence between reading foreign literature and colluding with foreign governments. Many popular works of Western literature went out of print (though Stalin continued to enjoy the films of John Wayne in his private study). For the Russians that Gilburd writes about in To See Paris and Die, the West was more a signifier than a place; in watching the films of Fellini and reading the novels of Remarque, Soviet citizens were demonstrating their newfound freedoms.
The reading culture that sprang up around the works of Ernest Hemingway perhaps exemplified this best. Hemingway’s most famous novels, A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, and For Whom the Bell Tolls had actually been available in the Soviet Union as early as the 1930s, but “it was during the thaw,” Gilburd explains, “that people singled out reading, and importantly, talking about Hemingway as a defining generational experience.” The Russian translation of For Whom the Bell Tolls, which Gilburd describes as “the literary smash of the 1960s,” was recast as a defiant symbol against the repressive 1930s. Reading the novel, which raised questions about the ethics of killing, even for a leftist cause like the Spanish Civil War (which had been much romanticized in the Soviet Union), became a way of signaling one’s intellectual freedom and independence of thought. What made For Whom the Bell Tolls especially appealing to this new generation was that Hemingway was openly critical of certain communists without disavowing communism.
This is why, Gilburd explains, French impressionism took on incredible significance during the Thaw. In 1958, Ehrenburg published an essay called the “The Impressionists” in which he tried to rehabilitate the French artists whose work had been deemed confusing and thus bourgeois. The impressionist dictum that vision was “entirely subjective” symbolized a kind of independence from the strictures of Socialist Realism, which mandated that art have one, clear, partisan meaning. Impressionism, Gilburd tells us, “allowed for a multiplicity of meanings” in a new era where “faith in encyclopedic authorities, unambiguous answers and correct interpretations was on the wane.”
The Thaw, like any official state policy, was of course strategic. Just as the CIA sponsored leftist magazines and abstract expressionism to assert American cultural supremacy (and to make censorship seem like something that only happened in communist countries), the Thaw mobilized the availability of Western art to combat the image of the Soviet Union as a repressive regime. Cultural exchange programs and film industry trade agreements were part and parcel of this. The Soviets, Gilburd explains, wanted people in the West to see their achievements in cinema, not merely to “propagandize revolution” but to “claim Soviet cinematic ascendancy.”
Integral to that mission was the creation of the Moscow Film Festival in 1959. Buoyed by the success of the Soviet film The Cranes Are Flying, which took home the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film festival in 1957, the Soviet cultural establishment was anxious for the world to see the art that communist countries were capable of producing. The Moscow Film Festival, which still runs today, was intended to be like Cannes “without beaches” and other bourgeois trappings. Indeed, warmer coastal cities like Sochi and Yalta were rejected as venues for the festival because, as Gilburd puts it, “both offered too many opportunities for undressing.” In its heyday, the festival attracted superstars like Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren; the latter won an award for her role in Marriage, Italian Style.
To See Paris and Die offers a glimpse into a side of the Soviet Union that’s often given short shrift in our cultural memory: its incredibly international orientation. Despite largely closed borders, the Soviet Union invited, from its earliest days, visitors from across the world. In the 1920s and 30s, the country became a beacon for travelers looking for lessons in how to build a more just and equal world. When the leftist poet Langston Hughes was making arrangements to sail to the Soviet Union in 1932, he sent a telegram saying, “Hold that boat, cause it’s an ark to me.” The Thaw of course represented a different kind of international engagement than the 1930s; this time, American visitors weren’t coming with stories of the Great Depression and interwar austerity, but with washing machines and other suburban comforts.
To See Paris and Die looks at how, despite these temptations, encounters with foreign art and other objects were not conduits to defection, but supplied a reason to recommit to the Soviet project. In the Soviet Union, Gilburd’s book reveals, Western art was essentially unrelated to the West itself. Rather, it was a prism for debates about subjectivity, freedom of expression, and identities beyond the nation. In that way, To See Paris and Die gestures more broadly at what we do when we interpret the foreign. Are we truly learning about other people, other modes of being, or are we merely looking for new ways to imagine ourselves? In the Soviet Union during the Thaw, it was certainly something closer to the latter, but in a way that feels worth celebrating. Western art was freely appropriated and misinterpreted by Soviet audiences, but that was the point: They were free.
Jennifer Wilson is a writer. She received her PhD in Russian Literature from Princeton University.