Anatol Goldberg Ilya Ehrenburg.
Viking, 312 pages, $17.95
The Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg has long seemed a significant, or at least a symptomatic figure. But significant or symptomatic of what? It is not merely that his career spanned from the first to the seventh decades of our century, with so many changes of fortune or direction, but also that he does not seem to have pulled the contradictions of his own personality together until the comparative and partial success of his last years. The late Anatol Goldberg’s quirky but often fascinating book reflects a rather similar disjunction, in a way which is helpful, if sometimes distracting, to our understanding of the issues involved.
Ehrenburg was, above all, a representative of the literary-political intelligentsia that is to be found in continental Europe, particularly Eastern and Central Europe. (It is not really matched by anything we have in the Anglo-Saxon countries, except as an import, like the Russian word “intelligentsia” itself.) He started in extreme youth as almost a caricature of the most avant-garde section of this intelligentsia and was known among the Bolsheviks as “shaggy Ilya.” Recruited into the party by Bukharin at the age of sixteen, he was soon arrested and spent some months in jail before the usual rich parents got him abroad, where he left the Party as a result of listening to Trotsky’s dogmatic views on literature. He never rejoined, but was later to pay at least lip service to aesthetic attitudes incomparably more dogmatic than Trotsky’s.
His exile was in Paris, where he nearly became a Benedictine monk but soon settled down to the Closerie des Lilas and the Ro-tonde. After some work as a war correspondent, he was back in Russia in 1917, opposing the Bolshevik Revolution. Over the next few years he became reconciled, up to a point, with his old comrades. They join others in what seems a fair characterization—he was a “skeptic,” “sardonic towards both Red and White,” a “nihilist.” But Bukharin helped get his first well-known work, Julio Jurenito, published; and for the next decade he moved between Moscow, Berlin, and Paris in somewhat distrait fashion, without really committing himself. In 1932, however, he made a definite decision to serve the Soviet regime—initially as Izvestia correspondent in Paris.
Ehrenburg seems to have realized that his country’s political despotism would become even worse but to have hoped that literary liberties could be preserved. And from now on, he exemplifies one of the great moral dilemmas which have faced so many Europeans and others: to what extent js it permissible to collaborate with a tyranny with a view to limiting, however slightly, its excesses? It is the question which faced not Quisling but Laval, who, by his own lights, worked to save what he could of French liberty in case of a Nazi victory. To do so he had to acquiesce or participate in many dubious actions; the same is true of the members of the United Front who collaborated with Communist governments in the postwar period. The criterion is, presumably, how far they succeed, which is usually not very far. In Ehrenburg’s, case, twenty years followed in which he had almost no effect, beyond sometimes preserving a little elbow room for himself, at the same time performing services, some of them disgraceful, to the despot. If Ehrenburg had died in 1953, there would be no more to say. But, as we shall see, he was able to defend literature to some extent after Stalin’s death.
By the Thirties he had become a brilliant journalist. Goldberg quotes some of his pieces, taking them at face value. I remember myself being much struck by his reports on the Asturias rebellion and the Schutzbund rising. But the only time I met him, after the War, he wrote his vivid descriptions of the honest Bulgarian peasantry from the bar of the Bulgaria Hotel in Sofia. Such phenomena are not unknown in Western reporting; but in this case it was a matter of fiction decking out Stalinist disinformation.
This is not to imply total dishonesty. The rise of Hitler and the Spanish War engaged his real feelings, and his reports from Madrid, even if unreliable as fact, were powerful and stimulating. He contrived briefly to defend, not anarchism as such, but at least the ordinary anarchist workers; and although he went along with the virulent attacks on Trotskyism, he never made them his main theme, sticking mainly to the horrors of Francoism. Goldberg notes that some of his books were to be published in Spain while Franco was still in power, and wonders if Ehrenburg knew of this.
On returning to Moscow late in 1937, the question of his being sent back to Spain was unresolved, so he wrote directly to Stalin, who refused permission. Thereupon Ehrenburg wrote again, urging Stalin to reconsider, and was then let out. Such a request to the dictator to admit that he had made a mistake was totally out of harmony with the spirit of the times. Stalin’s response will remind us that there was another strange personality besides Ehrenburg’s involved in Ehrenburg’s survival—Stalin’s own.
Stalin was responsible for the slaughter of a great number of Soviet writers. It was later revealed that of the seven hundred writers who attended the first Writers' Congress in 1934 (at which Ehrenburg made a mild defense of non-tractor-meets-girl novels), only fifty survived to see the second in 1954, though the average age had been under forty. The victims included Babel, Pilnyak, Mandelstam, Vasilev, Tabidze—a whole roster of Russian and other genius. Nevertheless, Stalin was not predictable in this sphere. In fact, on the whole he seems to have preferred those not deeply concerned with Party matters, even those of wholly “alien” backgrounds, to Communists like Babel and Koltsov. The Days of the Turbins, notably heterodox, had been allowed on the Moscow stage. Pasternak (to Ehrenburg’s own surprise) had been allowed to work while abject Party hacks had perished. The real leftists of RAPP had been condemned. And though “Socialist Realism” was formalized in 1934, Stalin allowed himself the caprice of making exceptions. When it came to individual decisions, like that on allowing Ehrenburg to go back to Spain (rather than face the normal sanction against indiscipline —death), Ehrenburg’s rival, Konstantin Simonov, provides a penetrating analysis in one of his novels. A character, “General Serpilin,” approaches Stalin to release a colleague, whose civil-war services he recounts. But,
Serpilin’s recalling of past services had failed to touch Stalin. It was the directness of the letter that had interested him. In his ruthless character, side by side with a despotic demand for total subservience, which was the rule with him, there lay the need to come across exceptions—which was the obverse side of the same rule. At times he evinced something akin to flashes of interest in people who were capable of taking risks, of expressing opinions which ran counter to his own .... Knowing himself, he knew the degree of this risk and was all the more capable of setting store by it. Sometimes, that is! Because it was far more frequently the other way round and this was where the risk lay.
This is the normal caprice of oriental despotism. But in Stalin’s case it also served, as has been pointed out by many samizdat commentators, to make the terror more effective by depriving it of the mere obvious rationality of killing suspect categories while leaving others with a feeling of security. As it was, no one felt safe, while everyone felt that with luck he might be spared—psychologically a major component of the terror.
Ehrenburg, as a notorious anti-Nazi, was virtually silenced by the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Until June 1941, the very word “fascist” disappeared from the Soviet vocabulary. But after the German invasion in 1041, Ehrenburg became the main anti-German propagandist. He had always been anti-German— one of the things which had divided him from the Bolsheviks in World War I—and now he was given free rein. He had also been hostile to “fascism” as such, partly but perhaps not centrally for its anti-Semitism. Indeed his main charge had been the literary one of the Nazi book burning. Goldberg supports this without comment, but there is nevertheless an ambiguity. In her Memoirs, Raisa Orlova makes the point that “They stoked up bonfires for books in our country as well, but... they were burned in Russian cities in secret”; and she quotes Ehrenburg himself in a speech in which he cited Babel as having visited a factory for pulping undesirable books into paper: “hefty wenches sit there and sensually rip off the covers.”
Until the end of the war, Ehrenburg was unleashed for the most violent attacks on Germans as such. Goldberg, acquitting him of urging attacks on German women, implies that these did not take place, whereas it is clear that mass rape and murder was the accompaniment of the advance into East Prussia. At this point, Stalin, who had found the kill-all-Germans propaganda useful during the war, had a censure of Ehrenburg’s line published, with a view to establishing a regime of his own in Berlin.
Ehrenburg was not, however, in serious trouble. But he was soon facing the most difficult time of his life. In 1948 the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was dissolved. Ehrenburg, as a Jew by birth, had been used as a member of this body when its work had been useful to the Soviet regime. Many of his colleagues on the committee had been prominent in the field of Yiddish culture. Ehrenburg himself was a Russian writer and, as a Jew, an assimilationist. Before the Revolution, Goldberg notes, he had been addicted to the novels of Knut Hamsun, later cursing himself for it “not because Hamsun was a reactionary and an anti-Semite of the more primitive kind (most readers rightly attached little significance to his anti-Jewish bias or did not even notice it), but because he was a romantic.” An interesting thing here is not so much that in those days Ehrenburg saw anti-Semitism as something obsolete, like crinolines, but that Goldberg could report it in this way after all the anti-Semitic horrors of later years.
But, when the Nazis had emerged, Ehrenburg took the honorable position that, as he later put it, while anti-Semitism existed, he was a Jew. And now, in the late Forties, anti-Semitism became one of the elements of Stalinism itself. Over the period 1948-1953, over four hundred Jewish intellectuals were arrested, and few survived. Most of the Yiddish writers were shot in the “Crimean Affair” in August 1952, after two or three years in labor camp. Ehrenburg meanwhile was sent abroad to defend the regime. He provided a great contribution in the West to the Stalin “peace campaign” (waged by the World Peace Council, an organization still prominent in Western “peace” affairs)—this was the period of the “Stockholm Peace Appeal,” signed by millions, including almost all the North Korean Army, then on the point of the attack on the South. In addition, he found himself having to lie in a more personal way, claiming to know that nothing had happened to men he knew perfectly well to be in jail awaiting execution. Goldberg plausibly acquits him of a charge that he actually denounced Bergelson and Fefer and the others. But as their colleague on the Committee he could hardly have avoided interrogation about their activities, and anodyne answers, however reluctant, were not acceptable to the MGB. The moral ambiguity of his situation was in any case obvious. But at the end of 1952 came the arrest of those accused in the Doctors' Plot, which was designed to bring the anti-Semitic campaign to its climax. By now even Ehrenburg was in danger. He is said to have refused to sign a letter drafted by the Party calling for leading Jewish intellectuals to apply for the deportation of the whole Jewish community to Siberia, though his letter expressing qualms, as given here in an appendix and referred to in the introduction, must either be on a different theme or be wrongly dated: his “refusal” is merely a request for instructions, and a promise to sign if “leading comrades” think it desirable. However that may be, the idea put forward here that this refusal was what saved the Jews from deportation is quite unreal. The plan seems to have been to hang the “Zionist” doctors and start the deportation of the Jews in mid-May 19 5 3, and what saved them could not have been any action of Ehrenburg’s, however brave and well-intentioned. Stalin’s death on March 5 was what did it.
At this point Ehrenburg entered his best period. His novel The Thaw launched the whole idea of a return to freedom in literature, and not only in literature. Over the next years, he was violently denounced. But by now he was, if not a Grand Old Man, at least a respected senior figure; and his opponents were no longer in a position simply to kill him off. He was denounced, and largely silenced, several times. But as the political struggle gave openings, he used them to struggle for his views. Finally came his autobiography, People, Years, Life, of which Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote that it was “the only one of his books to have played a positive part in this country .... It may well have been he who first aroused people into reading samizdat.”
It is hard to sum up such a career. Yevtushenko says that “he taught us to survive.” But Ehrenburg made fewer unnecessary concessions, in a far worse period, than the younger man. He survived in part through accident and caprice. He was not a writer of the first rank. But, if we find much of his activity abhorrent, those of us who have never been through the Soviet experience are not in a good position to pass judgment. Indeed, there are murky and disgraceful incidents in his life story. It remains true that whenever he had the power he showed a devotion to literature, including the reprobated literature of the West, and defended it as far as he could. Of course literature is not the most important thing there is, but in the circumstances of totalitarianism it is inseparable from a concern for truth. Some are concerned with truth for its own sake. Others, like Ehrenburg, are prepared to lie, but in the long run are forced into truth by their literary spirit.