In the Wolfhound Century
Tangled Loyalties: The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg
by Joshua Rubenstein
Basic Books. 482 pp. $35.00
The Bones of Berdichev: The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman
by John and Carrol Garrard
Free Press. 437 pp. $27 50
“This wolfhound century has hurled itself upon my shoulders, but I have no wolfish blood running in my veins.” So wrote Osip Mandelstam, the Russian poet now regarded as perhaps the greatest of our century. Mandelstam was born a Jew and would die in the gulag, devoured by Stalin’s wolves. Although his story was not atypical, not all his peers were quite so unlucky as he. Two writers who witnessed the horrors of the Stalinist period but managed to survive and even, in varying degrees, to prosper were Ilya Ehrenburg (1891-1967) and Vasily Grossman (1905-64). Each is now the subject of a new biography, and the two books together offer an occasion to reflect on the moral compromises different individuals make in the face of a brutal regime—and, as it happens, on the compromises biographers make to justify the lives they narrate.
Both Grossman and Ehrenburg were born into assimilated and privileged Russian-Jewish families. Like only a few Jews at the time, they grew up speaking Russian rather than Yiddish, and their connection with Judaism was tenuous, enforced less by tradition than by anti-Semitism. Although their careers took very different paths, the two of them collaborated on an important project that never saw the light of day, The Black Book, which detailed Nazi atrocities against Jews on Soviet territory.
As a boy, Ehrenburg had befriended the future Bolshevik leader, Nikolai Bukharin, and with him was drawn into radical politics, leading eventually to exile in pre-World War I Paris. There he continued to participate in Bolshevik activities until he made the mistake of writing parodies of Lenin; Bolsheviks, he discovered, could not take a joke. Leaving the party, Ehrenburg turned to the life of a littérateur, associating with Apollinaire, Cocteau, Modigliani, and Chagall, and becoming notorious for his bad dress and his decadent poetry, some of which seemed to indicate he had become a Catholic.
Ehrenburg returned to Russia in 1917, shortly after the February revolution which overthrew the czar and brought in the provisional government. By November of that year, the Bolsheviks had seized control; now Ehrenburg became an ardent polemicist against them, comparing Russia to a woman raped. When the Bolsheviks won the ensuing civil war, Ehrenburg “reassessed” his anti-Communist journalism, a process which Joshua Rubenstein refers to as “a change of heart” but which sounds more like a desperate attempt to cut his losses. Bukharin saved him from arrest, and Ehrenburg managed to go abroad legally.
In the following years, Ehrenburg wrote some distinguished fiction—including his whimsical novel Julio Juerenito—and articles for émigré papers, until, at last, he “made his peace with the regime” (as Rubenstein puts it) and became foreign correspondent for Izvestia. His turnabout was complete. He penned fiercely partisan articles on the Spanish Civil War, recruited Western writers to support the Soviet Union, and became, in short, a hack. Although he knew about the gulag and the purges, he concealed what he knew from the people he recruited.
One of his Spanish friends at this time commented that it was disturbing to watch Ehrenburg “assassinate the artist in himself through his anguish, his fears, his concerns, and his profitable mission.” Profitable, indeed: for much of his life, Ehrenburg managed to live comfortably abroad and to travel back and forth as often as he liked, when for other Russians mere contact with foreigners could earn a trip to the gulag.
Ehrenburg reached the height of his fame and influence during World War II, when he made it his mission, as Rubenstein writes, “to teach the Red Army how to hate.” His articles—he penned over 2,000 of them before the war was over—were so popular and effective that a decree was issued forbidding soldiers to use them for cigarette paper. Today, what strikes one most about these articles is their bloodthirstiness:
Now we understand the Germans are not human. Now the word “German” has become the most terrible curse. Let us not speak. Let us not be indignant. Let us kill. . . . If you have killed one German, kill another. There is nothing jollier for us than German corpses.
After the war, Ehrenburg made it his business to praise the newly installed Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe, singling out Enver Hoxha of Albania, the most brutal dictator of them all, for his “faith in human nature and respect for the dignity of the individual.” He maintained that citizens of Bucharest lived better than Parisians, wrote a lot of crude anti-American propaganda designed to appeal to West Europeans, and, in Washington, solemnly declared that “one who hates the Soviet Union” was by definition a fascist. He was particularly effective in organizing Western intellectuals into “peace movements” while, as he knew, Stalin was rapidly building his armies, rushing to create nuclear weapons, and consolidating his hold on Eastern Europe.
Whenever he got into trouble—as, to be fair, he often did for his Western ways, for being Jewish, and for cautiously testing the limits on what could be said in and about art—Ehrenburg turned to Stalin for help. And time and again, Stalin responded. Once, when he was having trouble getting a section of a novel published, he wrote to the Great Leader, who telephoned him to say: “Just keep writing, you and I will try to push [it] through.”
Ehrenburg’s amazingly successful career has led many observers to accuse him of having been a secret agent for the Communist regime. Rubenstein denies it. But even if he was not an agent, how is his behavior to be justified?
Unfortunately, while conceding that Ehrenburg struck some morally troubling compromises, Rubenstein for the most part rushes to his defense. Thus we are told more than once that during the 193O’s Ehrenburg was “compelled” to support Stalinism at home and abroad because fascist regimes were consolidating themselves around the world. But at that time, nothing the fascist regimes had yet done was remotely comparable to Stalin’s murder of millions of peasants in the early 1930’s. As for Ehrenburg’s behavior after the war, Rubenstein asserts that he had no choice if he was to keep seeing his Swedish mistress, while in mitigation he reminds us that Ehrenburg did help to get the work of executed writers like Isaac Babel rehabilitated and, at moments of relative liberalism, took advantage of the opportunity to criticize official doctrines of art.
The “Ehrenburg question,” then, the question of compromise, is a very “tangled” one indeed, and could be asked of many writers. In the Soviet Union, if a writer protested, he would accomplish nothing and would die needlessly; but if he compromised too much, he necessarily wound up doing some heinous things. The more “tangled” the question, the more sensitive the scholar or biographer must be to moral complexity. But Ehrenburg, for one, committed a number of unconscionable acts of collaboration, and it is a pity that his biographer seems bent on obscuring that inescapable fact.
Vasily Grossman presents a different case from Ehrenburg, as John and Carol Garrard make clear in The Bones of Berdichev.
The Garrards have written a book on the model of Lord Jim: the story of a man who spends much of his life atoning for disgraceful acts. The mistakes were rather common Soviet ones. Thus, Grossman failed to speak up for arrested relatives and friends when he could have helped them at minimal risk to himself; in one of his stories, he attacked the uncle who had raised him, which may have led directly to the old man’s arrest; and most disturbing of all, when he could have saved his mother from the Nazis by the simple expedient of sending her a ticket to Moscow, he neglected to do so. The Garrards plausibly see Grossman’s subsequent attempts to publicize the Holocaust, and later the various Stalinist mass murders, as acts of atonement for, in particular, letting his mother die a horrible death.
Unlike Ehrenburg, Grossman spent his early years quietly, studying to be a chemist. But he soon grew bored with this vocation and took advantage of a false diagnosis of tuberculosis in order to pursue a career as a writer. (Soviet law forbade switching jobs without official permission.) By the mid-193 O’s, he had won membership in the official Writers’ Union, and was gaining a reputation as a journalist and literary figure.
Grossman’s rise coincided with Stalinist Russia’s descent into state-engineered mass famine and terror. In the early 1930’s came the collectivization of agriculture, more accurately described as a war on the countryside, in which over ten million peasants lost their lives, most of them as a result of a deliberate campaign of mass starvation. Grossman’s posthumously published novel, Forever Flowing, includes a chapter in which a Bolshevik official reminisces about trains that were sealed so that no one could throw food to the starving beggars. Grossman had witnessed such beggars on a trip to Ukraine in those years, where he also learned that, as previously in the civil war, there were instances of cannibalism as well.
And this was only prelude. In 1937 came the Great Terror, in which some four million people lost their lives in random purges. The gulag swelled to tens of millions. No one was safe: of the 1,966 delegates at the Communist party “Congress of Victors” in 1934, 1,108 had been shot by 1939. It became common practice, when someone was arrested, to imprison his relatives as well. Denunciation of neighbors became the rule, not only to settle old scores or to free up scarce living space but because it was criminal not to.
Given all this, it is hardly surprising that when the Germans invaded Russia in 1941, they found willing collaborators among all those Ukrainian relatives of the starved peasants. Grossman’s birthplace, Berdichev, a Ukrainian town that was about half Jewish, occupied a special place in the symbolic geography of the period, being known as the “Kike Capital.” The Germans assigned a mere 25 SS men to kill the 30,000 Jewish natives of the town, Grossman’s mother among them. The task would obviously have been impossible without the backing of the Ukrainian Polizei, or auxiliary police, who played a decisive role in the extermination of Jews all over Nazi-occupied Soviet territory.
World War II brought Grossman to international renown. He spent the years as a war correspondent, living with the troops during the battle for Stalingrad and periodically crossing the Volga to file his moving reports. As the Russian armies recaptured lost territory, the fate suffered by the Jews in the western areas of the USSR became increasingly apparent. Grossman made it his project to let the world know what had happened.
He did so with semi-official approval. In the early days of the war, after suffering catastrophic defeats that brought the very survival of the Soviet Union into question, Stalin had permitted the formation of a Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. This body mobilized sentiment in the West against the Germans and on behalf of the Jews, while also raising money and sympathy for the Soviet Union. Its literary commission, acting jointly with prominent Americans, undertook to document what had happened to Soviet Jews.
This was The Black Book on which Ehrenburg and Grossman collaborated. Grossman had already written articles on the topic, described by the Garrards as “the first treatments anywhere . . . of what later came to be known as the Holocaust.” As for Ehrenburg, his job was to guide the volume into print; but in the end he bowed out and left the project in Grossman’s hands.
As always, Ehrenburg was being sensitive to the political winds. By now it had become clear that the Soviets would win the war, and policy changed. The last thing Stalin wanted was to encourage the ethnic identity of a people with ties abroad, and he certainly did not want large numbers of Soviet citizens described as German collaborators. (Grossman’s researches had shown him a great deal about his own regime, which was no less eager than the Nazis themselves to suppress evidence of atrocities against Jews.) To this day, The Black Book has never appeared in Russia.
After the war, when Stalin launched his campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans,” especially Jews, things got worse: over a dozen prominent Jews associated with the Jewish Anti-Fascist committee were shot, and over a hundred others were arrested. Somehow, Grossman and Ehrenburg survived, though it is doubtful that either of them would have escaped had Stalin lived long enough to carry out his plan to deport millions of Jews to Siberia.
In his last years, Grossman wrote the two novels on which his fame now rests; neither could be published in Russia until glasnost. Life and Fate (completed in 1960, English translation 1980), is a huge panoramic treatment of World War II whose own fate was to be “arrested” by the party. (As a “liberal,” Nikita Khrushchev arrested the manuscript rather than the author.) Forever Flowing (completed in 1964, English translation 1972), describes the return of a prisoner from the gulag, and makes explicit Grossman’s idea that Soviet brutality could not be attributed only to Stalin and his “cult of personality” but rather formed the very basis of the regime.
In both books, Grossman advances the bold thesis that the Nazi and Soviet totalitarianisms were mirror images of each other, and morally equivalent. Both regimes killed people because of the circumstance of their birth, the one if they were Jews, the other if they came from peasant or bourgeois families. Marxism, in other words, was also a form of racism: racism by class.
The Garrards have done a commendable job in reconstructing Grossman’s life, though they get carried away in their admiration for his abilities as a writer—his works survive as powerful documents, not as masterful literary works. Unfortunately, too, they tend to suggest rather facilely that the suffering inflicted upon the Jews has given them a morally privileged position, and to apologize for anything and everything Jews have ever done.
More unfortunately still, the Garrards advance the thesis that the unspeakable crimes of this century are to be laid at the door of science and technology. This pseudo-profundity—it is hard to see how either the terror famine or the pits filled with bodies at Berdichev required much technology—leads them into a little diatribe against nuclear weapons, violence on television, and environmental pollution (“poisoning the wells” is their unfortunate metaphor).
Indeed, they write, the problems of science and technology have now become “potentially apocaplyptic”:
We still live with the legacy of the hot and cold wars that have killed off and maimed countless millions of our fellow human beings but stopped us from tackling the root cause of death and destruction that have characterized our century.
If, in fact, we have learned anything in our century, it is that the search for “root causes” has been an open invitation to the most brutal “solutions” imaginable, and that invoking the apocalypse can justfy almost anything. Perhaps the best way to help avoid future horrors is to resist the rhetoric of extremes altogether.