Commotion in Moscow

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • To See Paris and Die: The Soviet Lives of Western Culture by Eleonory Gilburd
    Harvard, 458 pp, £28.95, January, ISBN 978 0 674 98071 6

Paris can be a dangerous place to visit. The Japanese are said to be particularly vulnerable to the medically recognised condition called ‘Paris syndrome’, which inflicts anxiety, depersonalisation and dizziness on those whose expectations are too high. Soviet Russians, though less prone to physical collapse than the Japanese, were even more heavily invested in Paris as the Mecca of civilised cultural pilgrimage. Despite the Soviet disdain for capitalism, deep respect for the Western cultural heritage was built into the Soviet system. The only problem was that the Soviet Union’s borders were closed, and under Stalin appreciation of the heights of Western culture was equalled only by a xenophobic fear of degenerate artistic ‘formalism’, a.k.a. modernism. But in the post-Stalin period, under Khrushchev’s Thaw, ‘peaceful co-existence’ with the West – as Eleonory Gilburd puts it – became the new orthodoxy, linked with an idea of the ‘universality’ of human culture and the value of ‘world civilisation’.

Cultural exchanges established by a Soviet-British agreement in 1959 and administered by the British Council – of which I was a beneficiary as a postgraduate student in 1966 – supplemented the smaller-scale visits organised earlier on under the auspices of the National Union of Students, while a new if cautious mutual encouragement of international tourism brought foreigners to the Soviet Union and, in limited numbers and under strict controls, Soviet tourists to the West.

The journal Foreign Literature, which introduced European and American writers in translation to Soviet readers, was eagerly sought after (like all journals people actually wanted to read, it was a scarce commodity). In it, Soviet readers devoured Scott, Hugo, Dickens, Dumas, Balzac, Twain and Remarque. Encouraged by Russian and Soviet tradition to ‘live’ a work of literature and model themselves on fictional protagonists, they entered these literary worlds with enthusiasm, finding as much scope for involvement with the ambiguous emotional dilemmas of Hemingway’s protagonists as they did with the more straightforward struggles of ‘positive heroes’ in socialist realist classics like Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered. When Hemingway died in the summer of 1961 the Soviet press ‘mourned the loss of a national hero, a treatment afforded Hemingway in the United States and Cuba, but nowhere else’. The Catcher in the Rye came out in several editions with large print runs, but as usual demand exceeded supply, and the book’s black market value was almost thirty times its official price. Remarque’s Three Comrades, published in Russian in 1958, became ‘the novel – the Russian word roman can also mean “a love affair” – of a generation’, as one Soviet contemporary put it. Its depiction of male friendship (among German ex-soldiers after World War One) and doomed love was ‘received as a revelation … “We read ourselves in Remarque.” The novel was “about us”.’

The August 1957 Moscow Youth Festival, which brought 34,000 foreigners to Moscow for two weeks in August 1957, was the moment when yearning towards the West was transmuted into ecstatic contact, a watershed in the lives of a generation. Controls on foreigners, normally strict, were largely lifted: no checks of bags at the border, no currency declarations to fill in, not even normal visas, since anyone chosen as a delegate by the relevant committee of the international youth movement simply collected a card guaranteeing entry from their local Soviet consulate. The Soviet Union had no power to veto delegates selected by national committees, even if they were tipped off that a ‘suspicious character’ was on his way, and as a result they included ‘socialists from France and Christian Democrats from Italy, Falangists from Spain and empire loyalists from Britain, as well as committed Zionists from all over the world’. Delegates could wander freely to far-flung festival venues in Moscow (including some, like Khimki on the northern outskirts of Moscow, that had been off-limits to foreigners before 1957 and were again for decades afterwards). The festival’s artistic planners, reviving an avant-garde spirit of adventure that hadn’t been seen since the glory days of the 1920s, had the inspired idea of painting trucks and buses ‘orange, blue, yellow, lilac’, adding ‘exotic flowers, birds and butterflies, with wavy azure stripes’. It was a total shock to a population used to drab and sombre colours. ‘Before, we had known no other but camouflaged trucks in Moscow, as if they all were ready for sudden mobilisation, for transfer to the army regime,’ one Muscovite remembered.

The first encounters between Muscovites and foreigners were rapturous, despite thirty thousand Komsomol activists lining the streets to keep order. As the trucks painted in their ‘unthinkable colours’ brought delegates from their hotels in the city’s north to the newly built Luzhniki stadium in the south for the opening ceremonies, people – even the Komsomol activists – climbed onto the trucks, pushed bouquets into bus windows, pulled foreigners out to be embraced and drawn into impromptu dancing and singing. An iconic image from the Moscow street showed two American girls dancing hand in hand, one barefoot, to the Russian folksong ‘Katiusha’ played by an American boy on the banjo.

There was a hangover afterwards, with the KGB compensating for having been sidelined during the festival by setting up surveillance on locals who had established questionably close ties with the foreigners. That was still going strong when I arrived as a student a decade later, by which time purple trucks had long disappeared from the streets and the festival remained only a dreamlike memory. But the impulse to connect with Western culture and be part of world civilisation survived, sometimes restricted by the government but often encouraged. Italian and French films arrived in the mid-1950s, making Gérard Philipe, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret cult heroes. Fellini’s won the grand prix at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1963, though some were outraged at the choice, and Khrushchev reportedly went to sleep during the showing.

Yves Montand gave wildly successful concerts in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. His songs ‘C’est si bon’ and ‘Les grands boulevards’, repeatedly broadcast on the radio, were central to the Paris myth that was developing in the Soviet Union. Equally influential were the memoirs of the Francophile writer Ilya Ehrenburg, serially published in Novyi mir in the 1960s, in which he dwelled fondly on his days in Montparnasse at the turn of the century: ‘Ehrenburg’s Paris had ash-grey buildings and green grass in December. It was inhabited by street singers, kissing couples, respectable old men passing time in cafés, women in huge feather-bedecked hats, mischievous students and indigent artists.’ Ehrenburg was a passionate advocate of the French Impressionists, out of favour as insufficiently realist in the late Stalin period, but represented by him as authentic and sincere (core values of the Thaw), infused with ‘a yearning to see nature anew, to paint it differently’. The Pushkin Museum began to get its Impressionist paintings out of storage, and big exhibitions from both Soviet and French collections followed. The Impressionists’ Paris, Ehrenburg’s and Yves Montand’s, all merged in a single romantic Soviet myth of the city.

The mid-1950s also brought something harder to digest than the Impressionists: Picasso, whose work (his own selection) was exhibited in Moscow and Leningrad in 1956 and provoked passionate controversy. In Soviet terms Picasso was complicated, since he was both a communist – the maker of the famous peace dove – and a ‘modernist’, whose artistic style was unfamiliar to Soviet gallery-goers. Some embraced his work as representing a quintessential break with the Stalinist past; others saw it as ugly and perverse. It was an interesting argument, because for once the state wasn’t part of it. Heated debates took place in student dormitories, editorial offices, even city squares, and the queues to get into the exhibition were huge. ‘Clamour and commotion’ were prominent in contemporary accounts, as crowds gathered around the museums to hear ‘outlandish young men defend modernism passionately, while equally earnest guardians of socialist realism try to shout them down’.

While Gilburd’s prose is at its liveliest and most evocative describing clamour and commotion, as in the case of the Moscow Youth Festival and the Picasso exhibition, her chapters on the mechanics of cultural contact are tours de force. Take translation: the Soviets had their own approach, conceptualising translation’s function as ‘reincarnation’ (perevoploshchenie), somewhat on the lines of Stanislavsky’s famous theory of acting. The principle was that ‘every translation of a foreign work must become a phenomenon of Russian literature,’ involving not just a rendering of a text ‘but, above all, the experience of the original’. It was an act of imaginative re-creation involving subjective input on the part of the translator. ‘Having preserved a Scotsman in Burns’, the editor Alexander Tvardovsky said of the poet Samuil Marshak’s translation, Marshak had nevertheless ‘made him a Russian’. I might have taken this as a mere rhetorical flourish had I not, in the 1960s, heard the Soviet bard Iuly Kim singing Marshak’s version of A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin poems, miraculously transformed – for me as well as the Moscow audience – into something unmistakably Russian. Marshak’s Christopher Robin, having lost his tweeness and gaining emotional depth, was better than Milne’s, and that is what the Soviet translator aimed to achieve. Rita Rait-Kovaleva had never been abroad when she translated The Catcher in the Rye, but she saw Holden Caulfield as ‘an agitated, tender and chaste soul’, awaiting his translation into the Russian that would uniquely convey his ‘lovely, pure voice’. Gilburd is usually reticent about her personal preferences, but it certainly sounds as though she prefers the Russian version of her childhood to the original: Rait-Kovaleva’s translation, she writes, was ‘richer, more expressive and emotionally charged’ and the Russian Holden Caulfield ‘had a more expansive, precise, and surprising vocabulary than his American prototype: he was also more sensitive, affectionate and vulnerable.’

Most foreign films shown in the Soviet Union were dubbed, not for censorship reasons, according to Gilburd, but out of an ‘aesthetic concern for the integrity of the image’ and the ‘wholeness of the frame’ inherited from the Soviet avant garde of the 1920s. Soviet dubbers couldn’t match the high cultural status of literary translators, and the medium of film itself restricted the degree to which a foreign world could be reimagined as a Russian (Soviet) one. Still, they did their best, discussing dubbing in the ‘vocabulary of musicality and rhythm’ and seeing the challenges of their work as analogous to those of the translation of poetry. It was their task to make the film comprehensible – emotionally as well as literally – to Soviet viewers, and sometimes heroic measures were called for. In the Soviet version of Fanfan la tulipe, starring Gérard Philipe and Gina Lollobrigida, the dubber Zinovy Gerdt provided a voiceover narrator completely absent from the original – ‘a new character, a Soviet invention, created to explicate the action’ – and the film’s humour in its Soviet version owed much to him. Soviet dubbing directors aimed to make their versions better than the originals – psychologically deeper and emotionally more transparent.

While the number of Soviet tourists going to the West remained comparatively small, it was growing, and many Soviet writers were among the tourists. They wrote of the great cities of Europe as intimately familiar, through their representation in literature and painting, but at the same time miraculously unknown. Paris was the city they knew best, with a ‘special knowledge “of the heart” and … an intimacy beyond factual information’. But they had factual information too, from sources ranging from Zola’s novels and Ehrenburg’s memoirs to a photography exhibition, The Living Paris, shown in Moscow in 1960. ‘For Soviet artists, writers and readers,’ Gilburd writes, ‘Paris was a memory first, prior to experience.’ Sometimes, indeed, the actual experience was disconcerting (shades of the Paris syndrome!), when the city’s grands boulevards turned out to be full of American tourists, ‘loud, ignorant, smug and mercantile’, and the façades of its venerable buildings disfigured by ‘garish posters’.

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The Soviet love affair with the West was bound to end in disappointment. Once Russians were free to travel, even to emigrate and live in Paris for good if they could afford it, Paris was no longer a dream. Sometimes, for disorientated émigrés of the 1990s, it was more like a nightmare. Having lugged their beloved multi-volume translations of Zola and Balzac out of Russia, the new émigrés found them suddenly irrelevant, even embarrassing. It turned out that ‘their’ Paris – their universal culture – had become unrecognisable. The Soviet cultural imagining of the West turned ‘into old junk not too different from other Soviet things of poor quality … People learned that their cultural predilections were outmoded, their ways of living books were juvenile … They had cultivated cultural capital devotedly but found themselves empty-handed.’ They had felt themselves ‘possessors’ of the Western cultural heritage, but, it turned out, the possession had existed only in their dreams.

‘Soviet and Western utopias disintegrated together,’ Gilburd concludes. That is one of the paradoxes of the situation she describes. The love affair with Western culture did not, as might first have appeared, involve a repudiation of Sovietness. On the contrary, to love Western culture was a token of Soviet culturedness (kulturnost), something to be expected of every educated and cultivated Soviet citizen. As any visiting foreigner who was ever quizzed about the novels of Walter Scott or Theodore Dreiser and found wanting will attest, Soviet citizens often thought they knew more than Western natives about Western culture (or at least the canonical Soviet version), and loved it better – and they were right. Moreover, they felt that this faculty of cultural appreciation was itself a product of their domestic culture (which they would sometimes label ‘Soviet’ and sometimes ‘Russian’), and they were right about that too. There were Russians who liked capitalism, but these were not the cultured Russians – the Soviet intelligentsia, broadly construed – that Gilburd is writing about. The type of ‘ownership’ that Gilburd describes, involving non-material and non-exclusive collective possession of cultural goods conceived as universal, could scarcely have been less capitalist. In fact, although late Soviet practitioners often preferred to avoid the term for fear of sounding banal, it was unambiguously socialist, squarely in the Soviet socialist tradition going back to Russia’s first People’s Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky.

To See Paris and Die is a highly personal book by a young US academic who is herself the child of Russian Jewish émigrés of the late Soviet period. (A disclaimer is in order here: in the 1990s, Gilburd studied with me as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where she now teaches Soviet history.) Her book has something of the same tone of Soviet/Communist nostalgia to be found in the film Goodbye Lenin! or the work of Svetlana Alexievich and the late Svetlana Boym. But it’s an interesting variant, in that the subject is not the Soviet Union itself but rather a vision of the West that collectively entranced several late Soviet generations. The underlying nostalgia is for whatever it was in Soviet society that made culture (including, but not only, Western culture) so important and fostered such strong collective emotions about it.

Reading the book, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the Soviet propagandists who laboured so hard and so long to make citizens fall in love with Soviet socialism. If only they had done a bit of reading in capitalist marketing theory and grasped the idea of the scarcity principle. What if, instead of making Western culture a scarce commodity – and therefore all the more desirable – they had done the same for Soviet socialism? How attractive socialism might have become if properly rationed and restricted, accessible only to the most worthy, an exotic intermittent presence in Soviet life whose hidden riches were only to be glimpsed. The works of Marx and Lenin could have been stored only in the spetskhran (the restricted section of libraries), released only to those with a high level of ideological purity. Socialist realist paintings could have been locked away in the basement of the Tretyakov Gallery, with Cubists and Abstract Expressionists on constant display. Pictures of Soviet blast furnaces and power stations could have been classified ‘secret’, like information about workers’ strikes and gold mines, instead of being thrust in the face of every watcher of the evening news. It was a missed opportunity for Soviet propagandists, remedied only after the collapse of the Soviet Union made them obsolete (superseded by Western-style advertising and PR people) and paved the way for Soviet nostalgia.