Ilya Ehrenburg considered himself an “average writer”: “I know that what I write today is necessary to people now, but tomorrow they won’t need it,” he told the art historian Igor Golomstock. His sentimental novella The Thaw, published in 1954, a year after Stalin’s death, gave its name to an era in Soviet history. Although his many books are now forgotten, Ehrenburg’s metaphor remains as useful for historians today as it was for people living in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s. In Moscow in February 1956, after Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin and the Terror in a “secret speech” at the Twentieth Party Congress, “you could smell the thaw,” Golomstock wrote.
“Thaw” is an ambiguous image. It suggests movement and mess. When snow and ice melt, they expose debris and scars in the landscape, as well as the shoots of new life. And in the cycle of the seasons, the cold eventually comes back. By 1962, when there was an ideological crackdown, Golomstock thought the short spring of cultural freedom was over. “I had no faith in the thaw,” he writes at the end of his newly translated memoir, A Ransomed Dissident, “because I understood that in Russia everything will always find a way back into its usual rut.”1
Golomstock was born in Kalinin in 1929, into a family of Karaite (ethnically Turkic) Jews. He died in 2017, having spent over half his life in Great Britain. His reminiscences begin with his father’s arrest in 1934 “for anti-Soviet propaganda” and his boyhood in Kolyma, in far-eastern Siberia, where his mother worked as a doctor in a labor camp. As a child, Golomstock spoke “in a half-criminal jargon.” He saw “fugitives baited with dogs, a guard shooting a prisoner he didn’t like.” In 1943 he returned to “starving Moscow,” where intellectual schoolmates “initiated [his] ascent from savage to Homo sapiens.” Golomstock went on to become a distinguished art historian. His encounters with Western culture during the Thaw helped to make him a dissident (in Russian inakomyslyashchii, or “differently-thinking-person”).
In To See Paris and Die, the historian Eleonory Gilburd gives another perspective on the Thaw. She is less interested in “differently-thinking” members of the Moscow cultural elite than in the “average” people for whom Ehrenburg wrote. She does not discuss samizdat, or the smuggling of forbidden books. Instead, she seeks out the cultural experiences of socially conforming (that is, nondissident) engineers, doctors, librarians, and teachers in Moscow and Leningrad, and in far-flung places like Astrakhan, Ufa, and Syktyvkar. She traces the officially sanctioned channels through which Western books, paintings, films, and songs reached a mass audience, and the varied and surprising stories of how they were appropriated and transformed for a Soviet setting. Gilburd sees the Thaw as an irreversible and open-ended transformation, central to the long process of Russia’s Westernization. As such, it was comparable to the revolution from above instigated in the early eighteenth century, when Peter the Great “opened a window to the West,” but without the violence of Peter’s reign.
While contact with foreigners was cited as proof of treason during the Terror of the 1930s, the Soviet Union continued to present itself as the true home of “world culture,” sponsoring international congresses, cultural festivals, and literary journals. Late Stalinism, however, was a paroxysm of xenophobia, paranoid isolationism, and cultural autarky. In 1949, Golomstock remembers, the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, which possessed one of the world’s finest collections of European art, “was given over in its entirety to an exhibition of works presented to Comrade Stalin.” In these “years of the struggle against worship of the West,” even the famous Cocktail Hall on Gorky Street, where “the semi-disgraced creative intelligentsia spent their time,” was stripped of its foreign name.
After Stalin’s death, Western culture was disseminated more widely and rapidly than ever before in Russian or Soviet history, spreading from Moscow and Leningrad to the far reaches of the Soviet Union. Translated fiction, dubbed films, and poor-quality reproductions of artworks found their way to distant industrial cities and villages almost cut off by mud and snow. While the borders remained closed for most people, the West flooded into their lives. Thaw culture was effervescent. Books, radio broadcasts, films, and postcards of film stars offered new tastes and forms of pleasure, new ways of dressing, dancing, and falling in love. In the process of translation, Western cultural imports were themselves changed, becoming “intimate belongings,” as Gilburd writes. “Emotional intensity” had a crucial part “in transforming Western cultural figures and texts into Soviet scenarios.” In a vast work of imaginative transformation, people created a “Soviet West,” a shared dreamworld composed of eclectic “fragments of a world they thought they would never see”—a kind of utopia.
In Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and Erich Maria Remarque’s Three Comrades (“hundreds of thousands of copies…sold out in a couple of days, even hours”), Soviet readers discovered new codes of manhood, friendship, and sincerity. “Interlocking lips, and falling robes” in the films of Federico Fellini and the French director Claude Autant-Lara provided a “truly revolutionary experience.” Neorealist cinema turned Italy into a sultry street scene, a “story of passion.” Museum visitors discovered (or indignantly rejected) modernism as they stood before the works of Pablo Picasso. In Soviet eyes, the landscape painter Rockwell Kent came to represent the “pragmatic know-how, impenitent individualism, and reckless courage” of outdoor America, though he was far less well known at home. (Picasso and Kent were leftists whom the authorities could claim as “friends of the Soviet people.”) Across the Soviet Union people hummed along to the catchy chansons of Yves Montand and to Lolita Torres’s charming rendition of “Coimbra Divina” in the Argentine film The Age of Love. And in what Gilburd calls “an emancipation of bodies,” they learned to bop, shimmy, and twist.
With the Thaw, the socialist internationalism of the early Soviet period returned. In political discourse, the dream of building a true Communist society was revived, and Khrushchev promised that communism would be achieved by 1980. In the meantime, he made “peaceful coexistence” with the capitalist West a state dogma, presenting it as the only alternative to “the most destructive war in history.” This had a profound cultural impact. Foreigners were no longer portrayed as enemies. At the Geneva Summit of 1955, the heads of state of the USSR, the US, France, and Great Britain discussed ways of easing East–West tensions. The legacy of that summit was a system of cultural exchange between the USSR and Western countries that became an essential component of the cold war order. Art was to overcome divisions of geography, history, and ideology.
The Kremlin saw that it was losing the propaganda war for the allegiance of Europeans. Under the Marshall Plan, the United States had launched a huge information campaign, flooding Europe with books, movies, art, and popular music that would “reflect the best elements of American life.”2 The only audience in Europe for the cultural propaganda of the Soviet Union were scant numbers of Communist true-believers in marginal organizations. The Kremlin launched new initiatives to win over Western intellectuals directly. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hemingway, Graham Greene, Arthur Miller, Heinrich Böll, Stanley Kramer, and Fellini were among many writers and artists who visited Moscow to participate in lavish cultural festivals.
Ehrenburg, who survived Stalinism, had always been one of the “visionaries of internationalism,” as Gilburd writes. In 1954 he set the new mood, calling for a “culture of emotions” that would help “an individual to understand his fellow human being.” His place at the heart of cultural diplomacy is a leitmotif in both Golomstock’s and Gilburd’s stories of the Thaw. Ehrenburg’s view of the world beyond the Soviet border did much to define the tastes of his fellow citizens. Throughout his career, he maintained a precarious balance between risk and circumspection, working within the system, outplaying enemies of the Thaw, yet never choosing dissidence. “Even in the most boring of the novels he wrote,” Golomstock remembers, he “always went to the brink of the forbidden, just crossed that line.” He was his “country’s most prolific traveler,” a unique intermediary with the West. As a young revolutionary exile in Paris in 1910, he had mixed with modernist artists in the cafés of Montparnasse. He reported from the front lines during World War I and the Spanish Civil War, in which he also fought on the Republican side, a comrade-in-arms of Hemingway. During World War II he was embedded with the Red Army, writing ferocious anti-German articles for Soviet war propaganda. After the war, he was elected to the Supreme Soviet and awarded a Stalin Peace Prize.
As the Soviet Union’s most prominent francophile, Ehrenburg encouraged his country’s “belated love affair with France” in the 1950s. France was available in Montand’s songs about cafés, boulevards, and autumn leaves, or in the film Fanfan la Tulipe, a witty, chivalric frolic starring Gérard Philipe and Gina Lollobrigida. Dubbed movies and popular music were easy to love. Other sides of French culture were more baffling. Impressionist painters had been erased from art history during the Stalin era as foreign contamination. In the mid-1950s their work was put back on display at the Pushkin Museum. Ehrenburg helped people to see them as “great artists.” When he read his article on Impressionism aloud on the radio, millions listened with active attention, taking notes and later recording their thoughts in letters. One elderly woman from Kazan, who claimed to be “barely literate in art,” wrote that Ehrenburg had overcome her doubt about French art: “His intonations forced me to believe.”
People who had never traveled abroad felt they knew Paris with the “knowledge of the heart.” It was the most familiar foreign city. They had been there in the novels of Dumas, Balzac, Hugo, Stendhal, Flaubert, Zola, and Maupassant, which were all reprinted in multivolume sets in the 1950s. A few lucky Soviet writers (Viktor Nekrasov, Konstantin Paustovsky, and Viktor Sytin) wrote travelogues during the Thaw, retracing the literary map of nineteenth-century Paris, describing the “charm” of its streets and cafés and the forbidden allure of its nightlife. The city was the setting of much of Ehrenburg’s memoir People, Years, Life. His post-war novel The Storm, in which a Russian man has a love affair with a French woman, evoked an “impressionist” vision of Paris that would be quoted for years to come by people lost for words of their own: “He fell in love with the lustreless enigmatic Seine, with the pavements—now a grayish blue and now violet, washed by the frequent rains and reflecting a swarm of restless lights.”
Modernist paintings presented a greater challenge for Soviet taste than Impressionism. Again, Ehrenburg was a guide. On his frequent trips abroad, he cultivated the Soviet Union’s friends in the leftist cultural elite of the West. Prominent among them was Picasso, a card-carrying Communist and peace activist, whom Ehrenburg had known since his bohemian days in Montparnasse. Their collaboration had profound ramifications, as Gilburd and Golomstock both relate in fascinatingly overlapping accounts. The Picasso exhibition that Ehrenburg organized at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow (it traveled next to the Hermitage in Leningrad) in 1956 epitomized the excitement of Thaw culture.
Picasso chose twenty-five paintings to hang alongside works from the collections of the pre-revolutionary merchants Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov that the Soviet state had expropriated in 1917 and 1918, respectively. The Central Committee wanted Picasso celebrated for his politics rather than his art, and mandated a “small” show. No posters advertised the exhibition and no catalogs were printed, but word spread. Muscovites lined up all night for the opening. The clamor at the museum doors was so great that Ehrenburg came out and said, “Comrades, you have waited for this exhibition for twenty-five years, now wait calmly for twenty-five minutes.”
The exhibition “acquired an epic significance in the memoirs of underground artists, political dissidents, and ordinary people,” Gilburd writes. It became “a biographical milestone and a shorthand notation for the Thaw itself.” People argued about the meaning of modernism in student dormitories, editorial offices, and meetings of the Party youth, the Komsomol. Hundreds of students gathered in Leningrad’s Arts Square for an impromptu discussion, which alarmed the authorities and led to arrests. One fearless student, Yuliia Krasovskaia, made a speech that “became a city legend overnight.” “Maybe this is not real art,” she said, but what thrilled her was “the atmosphere of lively debate, when people wanted to discover how art should develop.” One student, quoted by Gilburd, called the Picasso exhibition “the greatest event in our cultural life.”
Others experienced bewilderment. Looking at modernist art, they reported, caused pain: “Severe headaches, depression, and exhaustion.” As they looked at Picasso’s portraits of faces with all their features in the wrong place, people felt a loss of “stable definitions…as well as a certain innocence.” Modernist paintings were “never comfortably domesticated,” Gilburd explains. They seemed a barbarous desecration of the museum space itself, challenging “deep-seated notions of culture and the prevalent narrative of Russian-Soviet cultural ascendancy.”
In 1958 Golomstock, who had been a guide at the exhibition, was commissioned to write a book on Picasso, who had won the Soviet Peace Prize. The book marked a station on Golomstock’s road to dissidence. He invited the academic and writer Andrei Sinyavsky to be his coauthor. At this time, Sinyavsky was already reading his “underground” stories to a small circle of friends and sending manuscripts abroad under the pseudonym Abram Tertz. They decided to write “as if…for the free world.” Despite the support of Ehrenburg, who wrote the introduction, and whose ingenious maneuvers enabled the publication of the monograph in a print-run of 100,000 copies, the head of Propaganda and Agitation in the Central Committee disapproved of it. It was savaged in the press and ritually denounced at a meeting of the Academy of Arts.
Golomstock’s recollection of that meeting captures the pathos and paradox of Thaw culture. His former teacher Yury Kolpinsky was one of those who spoke out against the “incorrect attitudes” in the Picasso book at the meeting. Kolpinsky was “an art historian who sensed beauty and harmony in his very nerve endings,” Golomstock writes. After the meeting, he approached Golomstock as he was leaving, furtively asking to shake hands to signal contrition. All Kolpinsky’s compromises of taste and moral integrity had been made with the goal of receiving an invitation to the Soviet Academy of Arts’ villa outside Rome. He had denounced Western culture because he longed to get close to it again, Golomstock writes: he “secretly dreamt of seeing the hills of Tuscany at least one more time, and the treasures of the museums of Rome, Florence, Venice, the Vatican.”
Though Western art divided people, the idea of culture as a universal language remained a prevailing myth of the Thaw. The year after the Picasso exhibitions, Moscow hosted an International Youth Festival. For two weeks in the summer of 1957, 34,000 visitors poured in from around the world to enjoy a vast array of international films, art exhibitions, performances by ballet, pantomime, and aerobic troupes, classical orchestras, jazz and folk ensembles. Western condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 heightened the emphasis of the festival’s planners on the universality of culture to divert attention from political tensions. Moscow’s infrastructure was transformed. The city became an immense theatrical space: giant flowers were painted on roads; vans and trucks were decorated with birds and butterflies in wild colors; on boulevards, Arabian palaces and Chinese pagodas were built behind park benches, and painted palm fronds mingled with the branches of linden trees. At the opening ceremonies people threw flowers and wept for joy, stretching out their arms in a state of collective elation. Though the event had been meticulously planned, the illusion was perfect; it felt spontaneous and enchanted.
The festival celebrated the transcendence of language barriers. The press reveled in stories of linguistic confusion, in funny mistakes and the affable laughter they provoked. Singing, dancing, gestures, and exchanges of keepsakes took the place of accurate verbal communication. Above all, people found a common language in dance, romping ecstatically in the streets to banjos, accordions, and drums, joyfully moving and touching one another in ways that had previously been associated with sexual depravity and foreign cultural contamination. As Gilburd describes the planning that went into the festival and its realization, she seems caught up in its excitement. She calls it “a utopian endeavor,” a “signature event,” “a landmark,” “a watershed,” “a logistical tour de force,” “a ticket to life,” “spectacular,” “fantastic,” “singularly memorable”:
What was so…beyond the conceivable in 1957, was the opportunity to stand surrounded by foreigners on a street corner or to sit in their company on a park bench, to exchange whispers with them in dimly lit theaters, invite them home for tea.
For two weeks, the Soviet Union felt like an open society. Customs and baggage searches were suspended. At one point, two Englishmen found Golomstock in the Pushkin Museum and handed him copies of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and George Orwell’s Animal Farm, sent by an émigré friend in London. Golomstock translated the books, which circulated widely in samizdat.
“It is hard to overestimate the part [the festival] played in the subsequent history of Russia,” Golomstock writes. It opened “a window onto Europe”; with the foreigners came “the fresh air of freedom.” Golomstock worked in a pavilion exhibiting contemporary Western painting, where he tried to explain to the public “the principles of how to approach contemporary art.” In his own milieu, the festival stimulated “what came to be known…as unofficial Soviet art.” For the first time, young artists saw examples of Western Surrealism, Expressionism, formalism, and abstraction. “Each of the artists I knew,” Golomstock writes, “interpreted the experience of the West in their own way.” The painter Anatoly Zverev, for example, immediately assimilated Pollock’s method, splashing paint onto canvas, then making a few quick brushstrokes to create a likeness or a landscape on top of the splattered background.
Some people consider the festival to have been a fatal error on the part of the Soviet government. For all the surveillance, manipulation, moral panic, censorship, and repression before and after the event, the window it had opened would never shut again. Living behind closed borders, people ached to travel abroad, to experience, as Gilburd writes, “something they called ‘the fullness of life’”: “There was a tragic disconnect between the world people constructed out of travelogues and Western cultural imports and the monotony of their daily lives.”
“I had been dreaming about leaving the country for as long as I remember,” Golomstock reflects. His wry, conversational memoir is full of affection for the extraordinary people he knew in his forty-three years as a Soviet citizen, for Russian literature, and for the ruined churches and “unpeopled emptiness” of the far north, but he expresses no nostalgia for Russia. “I was not a patriot,” he writes. When Sinyavsky was arrested in 1965 for publishing his work abroad, Golomstock was interrogated, his apartment was searched, and he was dismissed from his academic posts. After refusing to give evidence in the trial of Sinyavsky and the writer Yuly Daniel, he was sentenced to six months’ correctional labor. “The entire stock of my big book about modern European art…was pulped,” he writes. “There was only one solution—to emigrate.”
Golomstock was finally given permission to leave in 1972. The price was twenty-five years’ worth of his salary, to “reimburse” the state for his education. A third of this “ransom” was raised by the Moscow intelligentsia and the rest by friends in London, where his story had appeared in the press. After emigrating he taught at the universities of Essex, St. Andrews, and Oxford, worked for the BBC Russian Service and Radio Liberty, and wrote Totalitarian Art, which discusses the aesthetic similarities between Nazi and Stalinist art. While Golomstock thrived, his friend Sinyavsky suffered and declined following his emigration. After years in labor camps, Sinyavsky settled in Paris, where, as Golomstock describes, the former dissident was hounded by the Russian nationalist émigré community, who suspected him of collaboration with the KGB.
Gilburd’s book also points toward the Soviet border. Her epilogue, titled “Exit: How Soviets Became Westerners,” makes for a melancholy ending. When the border finally opened, people suffered the “intimate tragedy” of “cultural dispossession.” In the 1970s and 1980s, more than 350,000 people relinquished Soviet citizenship and left for the West. They knew only the utopian West of their imaginations that had been formed during the Thaw, and they invested “quixotic hopes” in emigration. Life in Paris and New York rarely “turned out as they had imagined it in their book-inspired and cinematic dreams.” When the Soviet Union itself disappeared in the 1990s, the sense of dispossession was on an inestimably greater scale. People found themselves “foreigners at home,” Gilburd writes, as “the rest of the country essentially emigrated to the West.” As those who remained lost their jobs, social status, and life savings, “they lugged to used bookstores…the treasured books of the Thaw…. These were perhaps the most unwanted of things.”
Gilburd’s book restores meaning and value to the detritus of the Thaw. She brings into view the individuals who gave Western culture its Soviet lives. The actor Zinovii Gerdt, lamed by a war injury, turned his talent to dubbing foreign films. His ironic voice-over was as memorable a part of the Soviet experience of Fanfan la Tulipe as the swashbuckling star Gérard Philipe. The avant-garde designer and choreographer of mass spectacles Betti Glan, who had turned Gorky Park into a fairyland in 1929, returned from more than a decade in the Gulag and helped create the magical festival of 1957. Ivan Kashkin and Rita Rait-Kovaleva, the translators of Hemingway and Salinger, regarded translation as “original creation.” Their guiding principle was that “every translation of a foreign work must become a phenomenon of Russian literature.” Gilburd calls their labor “an act of love.”
Gilburd emigrated from the Soviet Union in her late teens in 1989. She acknowledges that Soviet history is a personal matter: “I wanted to know when and how the Soviet Union I remembered had taken shape, how it had come into being.”3 Her writing magnificently combines scholarly sophistication with insight and sympathy. Its emotional intensity is in keeping with its theme. To See Paris and Die is itself a late outgrowth of the Thaw, one of the Western lives of Soviet culture.4
The Russian title of Golomstock’s memoir, which was published in the journal Znamya in 2011, is Recollections of an Old Pessimist. ↩
The CIA’s involvement in translating, publishing, and distributing Western books in Soviet-controlled countries is discussed in Michael Scammell’s “The CIA’s ‘Zhivago,’” The New York Review, July 10, 2014. ↩
Gilburd is one of a number of remarkable historians now working in universities in the West who left the Soviet Union in its last decade and have written memorably about the late Soviet period. See, for example: Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (Basic Books, 2001); Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton University Press, 2005); Eleonory Gilburd and Denis Kozlov, The Thaw: Soviet Society and Culture During the 1950s and 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2013), and Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton University Press, 2017). ↩