“My life resembles a vaudeville act with many changes of costume, but I am not a ham. .I am only trying to be obedient.”
“I don’t believe in anything at all. .It is not my fault, this is how I am made up. .My backbone is so crooked that nothing can straighten it.”
“I am a turn-coat, a petty cheat, and, on the whole, a pretty nasty character with idealistic, dreaming eyes.”
These are some of the things Ilya Ehrenburg says about himself in his books. .He certainly doesn’t mean all of this, but he probably believes at least part of it. He is constantly struggling with himself in his works of fiction, killing the protagonists who represent his ego. We hardly need Freud to tell us that this sort of spiritual self-castigation usually reflects a feeling of guilt.
Ilya Ehrenburg is best known in this country as the Number One Soviet journalist. But there is much more to Ehrenburg than that. For many years he was one of the most brilliant Russian novelists. But his more recent novels are chiefly interesting as working demonstrations of the effect of totalitarianism on creative art. Ehrenburg relinquished his freedom as an artist. Today his fiction can hardly be classed as literature at all.
As Ehrenburg wrote once, there are two ways to get past a fence: you can jump over it, or you can crawl under it on your stomach.
He finally chose to crawl, but it is only fair to say that once upon a time he tried to jump.
Ilya Ehrenburg was born in Moscow in 1891. His father was an engineer and a business man, his grandfather one of the wealthiest sugar magnates in the Ukraine. His parents did not always observe the Sabbath, but they did observe Yom Kippur and the other more important Jewish holy days. Their food was kosher and they kept a special set of dishes for the Passover. Ilya began to study Hebrew at an early age, even before he was ten. He had a private tutor who came to his home several times a week; when Ilya reached college, the same tutor studied Talmud with him.
He was fourteen at the time of the Revolution of 1905. Three revolutionary parties were then active in Russia: the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks, and the Socialist-Revolutionists. Each of these parties had illegal circles in the colleges, usually led by party members. Ehrenburg joined a Bolshevik group, probably because this group had the largest following in his college.
The circles met in private homes. Their basic book was Bogdanov’s Political Economy; from that they would progress to Marx. After reading a chapter or two of Das Kapital , a student member would report on it to the rest of the group. The groups included both boys and girls; the boys could impress the girls only by well prepared reports on their reading. Those were enthusiastic times.
At the age of sixteen, Ilya was expelled from college for revolutionary activities—with a so-called “wolf’s ticket,” which meant that he could not transfer to another school. But Ilya’s father succeeded in having the wolf’s ticket withdrawn, and Ilya was able to continue his education.
At seventeen, Ilya was already attending regular workers’ meetings. At that time, he was known in party circles as “Ilya the Long-Haired,” because of the rarely cut black hair which fell over his forehead during his heated speeches. News of these speeches soon reached the police. Ilya was arrested and spent more than a year in jail before the authorities agreed to let him out on bail. His father put up the bond, but on condition that Ilya immediately leave the country. Ilya accepted these terms and left illegally for France.
In Paris, party comrades met Ehrenburg with open arms. But prison affects each man differently. Some it strengthens in their beliefs; others it breaks. Ehrenburg was not exactly broken, but he was a little disillusioned, and began to lose his taste for politics. For some time he attended Bolshevik meetings held in a hall behind the old café Pantheon in the Boulevard St. Michel, but soon he abandoned politics altogether.
This was naturally very pleasing to his family, but their joy was premature. A new blow soon struck the Ehrenburgs: friends in Paris informed the father that Ilya had decided to enter a monastery.
The heroes and heroines of 19th-century European novels often entered monasteries or convents as a way out of their sufferings, never encountering any difficulties in doing so. In reality, the thing is not so easily accomplished. French monasteries usually require a rather large entrance fee from the novices. In addition, Ehrenburg was a Jew, and, out of regard for his family, he did not wish to undergo formal conversion. In the end, he had to give up the idea, and his father, learning of his decision, resumed the regular monthly checks.
But Ilya did not forsake Christianity. For the next few years he moved in two different worlds. One was the world of Catholicism and of Catholic priests, mainly Jesuits, often men of great intellectual gifts. Ehrenburg would discuss religion with them in night-long sessions, and he enthusiastically studied religious books and the history of Catholicism in the Bibliothèque Nationale.
Ehrenburg’s other world was the small cafés along the Boulevard St. Michel. He now carefully avoided the Pantheon, where the group of Russian Marxists congregated, and began to patronize La Source, another café a few blocks down the Boulevard, where young painters and poets gathered. The rising star among the painters was Diego Rivera, whose fame did not as yet go beyond the confines of the Boul’Mich. Ehrenburg became his closest friend and admirer. Rivera encouraged Ehrenburg to paint. Ehrenburg’s paintings were not bad, but they couldn’t stand comparison to Rivera’s. Then the Mexican, who was at that time a cubist, made a rather unorthodox portrait of Ilya which the latter did not like at all; long arguments on cubism eventually shattered the friendship and drove Ehrenburg to the poets’ corner of La Source. Soon after he took up writing poetry.
At the beginning of 1914, he published his first book, Verses to the Madonna, a volume saturated with religious fervor. The poems were uneven in quality, sometimes reaching a high level, sometimes falling flat, but all of them expressed the same thing: a profound personal identification with Catholicism.
When World War I broke out, Ehrenburg became the Paris correspondent of the Petrograd (now Leningrad) daily, The Stock Exchange News. It was a slightly liberal, very patriotic, and rather yellow paper. Ehrenburg’s dispatches were steeped in nationalism, even in chauvinism. These were his first steps in journalism; all that can be said of them is that they certainly did not increase his stature as a writer. He knew that and he wasn’t too happy. His chauvinism was part of a new effort to find a spiritual home; it was too crude and too synthetic to ring true; the feeling of not-belonging must have grown all the stronger.
The Russian Revolution offered a different opportunity. In 1917, Ehrenburg remembered his revolutionary past and hoped at last to find his lost soul. He made up his mind to return immediately to Russia and to devote himself wholeheartedly to revolutionary activities.
This was not easy to do, for there were no communications with Russia and the war still raged on all fronts. But he learned of the now famous sealed train in which the German General Staff was to allow Lenin and other Russian revolutionaries to cross the Reich and return to Russia. Only one such train is usually mentioned. Actually, there were five or six. Ehrenburg couldn’t get into any of them. His ties with the Bolsheviks had long been severed, and his articles in the Stock Exchange News, not to mention his side-excursions into Catholicism, had alienated him still more from his former friends. The men to whom Ehrenburg appealed merely shrugged their shoulders.
He turned to Lenin. Lenin didn’t know or didn’t remember the name of Ehrenburg, but he remembered “Long-Haired Ilya,” of whom he had heard in years past. Lenin liked to quote an old Russian proverb which said that in a large household even a bit of string may be of some use. All the more so in a Revolution. With Lenin’s help, Ehrenburg eventually secured a place in one of the sealed trains and left Zurich for Russia.
A few months later the Bolsheviks overthrew the Kerensky government and seized power.
Ehrenburg spent almost four years in Russia as an active participant in the Revolution, but by 1921 he had become a bitter adversary of the Bolshevik regime. He went to Berlin, at that time the center of Russian emigrants, and he became very active among the disaffected.
While still in Russia, he had written a new volume of poetry, A Prayer for Russia, which appealed so highly to the White Russian generals that they had some of the poems reprinted in their army newspapers.
The leaders of the anti-Soviet movement were soon disappointed in him, for he harped always on one subject, attacking the Bolsheviks for destroying ancient Russian churches and other historical relics, and he avoided taking a clear political stand. When pressed to broaden his position, he would speak of a novel he was then writing. This novel, The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito and His Disciples, appeared a year later and almost immediately made its author famous all over the world. It was translated into many languages, including English.
Jurenito is a satirical novel, which attacks socialism as well as capitalism. The hero, Jurenito the Mexican, is an allegorical figure, a sort of Mephistopheles who seeks to destroy the whole world, not excluding Russia with her pseudo-socialistic system. Ehrenburg has Jurenito say of this system that its high sounding slogans serve only one purpose: to transform human beings into automatons, unable to think for themselves. When arrested in Russia by the Tcheka (now GPU-NKVD), Jurenito addresses its chieftains thus: “Yours is a great task upon this Earth. You must convince the people that the fetters into which you throw them are in reality the embraces of a loving mother.” And just before his death, Jurenito—certainly voicing the author’s own thoughts—sends “his last kiss to all brothers who have no program and no principles, who are naked and despised, and who only love the howling wind and adventure.”
Ehrenburg published his book in Berlin, but it was soon reprinted in Russia, where it went through many editions. This was still possible in those days: at about the same time, on Lenin’s demand, a still sharper criticism of the Soviet regime appeared in Moscow: Arkady Averczenko’s famous Twelve Stabs in the Back of the Revolution.
Ehrenburg in the meantime moved to Paris and began writing more novels, one after another, with amazing speed. He did most of his work at a table of the Café de la Rotonde in the Boulevard Montparnasse; when this cafe was modernized in 1926, he moved across the street to the Coupole. The Coupole was open night and day, never closing for a single minute. It was cleaned at four in the morning, at which time the patrons were asked to move to the tables on one side, and then back again to the other. Ehrenburg was perhaps the steadiest witness of this ceremony.
Hundreds of people knew his stooped figure with long, almost simian arms. He sat hour after hour writing and smoking his pipe, but he never minded interruptions; he was a brilliant and amusing talker, though at this period a most cynical one. In talks with his friends, he took pains to emphasize that he believed in nothing, not even in God; the religious period of his life was definitely over. Instead of beliefs, he now cultivated his hatreds, especially a hatred for all so-called great men, whom he held responsible for all the calamities of mankind. Once, in 1926, a French writer came to the Coupole directly from a lecture on Madame Curie-Sklodovska, the discoverer of radium. When he said that here, surely, was a great woman who had devoted her life solely to the good of humanity, Ehrenburg scoffed: “Wait a few years and you’ll see other great men making the most powerful bombs in the world from this radium of hers!”
When the Nazis took power in 1933, they publicly burned all the books they didn’t approve of. The Russians did not burn books, but after the Moscow trials most of the books published during the revolution simply disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to them.
Among the books which disappeared were many of Ehrenburg’s novels. When he published them, he was often severely criticized in the Soviet press, but his books were widely read and there is no doubt that they influenced quite a few young Soviet writers between World Wars I and II. At present it is almost impossible to find copies of his early novels in Russia. One reason for their withdrawal is that Trotzky, Bukharin, and other early Bolsheviks are
often mentioned in them. (“He speaks like Trotzky!” remarks one of Ehrenburg’s heroes. “Every sentence contains an idea.”) But there is another, more fundamental reason. Ehrenburg was a good and serious artist, and his Communist and non-Communist characters were always rounded and truthful artistic creations. This means more than that the reader could “recognize” them, or identify himself with them; any second-rate but technically clever writer can concoct a story or a novel that the reader will “believe” in. Ehrenburg made of his protagonists meaningful embodiments of the real moral and psychological problems of social upheaval and revolution, and as the Russian Revolution solidified in the totalitarian mold, the clear-sightedness of the artist Ehrenburg became a danger. What was needed now was a simpler art that could deny the complications and the alternatives of a more fluid day.
In A Street in Moscow, one of Ehrenburg’s novels, a certain Pankratov, one of the nouveaux-riches of the Revolution, points out a Soviet policeman to a friend and says: “This policeman is no longer defending the proletariat, the international revolution or any such thing. He is there on the street to defend me and my money.” Ehrenburg wrote this novel when the bureaucratic parvenu was still a comparative rarity in the Soviet Union; but even then, at the very beginning of the period that was to end with the formation of a new ruling class, Ehrenburg saw the danger.
Good literature precedes life. Many of Ehrenburg’s fictional heroes are still alive in Soviet Russia, in the flesh, and we can find their early histories in Ehrenburg’s novels. There is Nikolai Kurbov (The Life and Death of Nikolai Kurbov), for example, who had already lost all belief; there is Mikhail Lykov of The Profiteer, the Communist Yur of Summer, 1925, and many others. Left without beliefs, without enthusiasm, without anything to hold on to, they became blind functionaries carrying out not ideas but “policies” that had only the most formal connection with the revolutionary spirit that moved them in their youth. Is it surprising that the bureaucracy should wish to suppress the work of an artist who depicted the inner mechanism of their development? The only wonder is that the artist himself came at last to join them.
Perhaps the most typical of Ehrenburg’s early works is a novel entitled The Uncommon Life of Lasik Roitschwantz. Lasik is a Jewish tailor from a small town, a man caught in the Revolution but not of it. While the world heaves, Lasik meditates about theoretical problems within the Jewish tradition. (Ehrenburg could never have written this book had he not studied the Talmud at an early age.) Arrested in Moscow for an alleged violation of the law, he remains unconcerned with what may happen to him, and becomes deeply engrossed in a problem that suddenly comes to his mind: if two Jews found a tallis on the street—who would be the rightful owner? The one who first saw the tallis or the one who picked it up? In other words, which is more important—the eye or the hand? At another and no less dangerous moment, Lasik considers whether or not a pious Jew may eat an egg laid on the Sabbath.
For Lasik these meditations are a form of escapism, a device for ignoring what he cannot control. “Happiness,” he says, “is a word from an old dictionary that no longer exists.” One could, of course, as others did, change one’s name to “Spartacus Rosa-Luxemburgski” or “Apollo Entusiastoff,” but even that would not help much. “When History walks the streets,” says Lasik, “all the common man can do is to die with a look of ecstasy on his face.”
The highlight of the novel is a story which, according to Lasik, was told by old Jews in his home town. It is a tale about the zaddik of Berdichev and his quarrel with God. This is how the story goes:
There once lived in Berdichev a Jew by the name of Meisl, a selfish and covetous man, who never performed a good deed in his life. When he died and appeared before God, nobody would put in a good word for him. So the zaddik himself decided to plead for Meisl before the Almighty. “You cannot blame Meisl,” he told God, “for he never saw good deeds rewarded on earth. You promised him, as well as other Jews, that you would send Messiah down to earth, but you didn’t keep your promise, and Meisl gave up hope of ever seeing Messiah, and he stopped believing in him, and so did many other Jews I know. Why don’t you send Messiah? When are you going to do it?”
“You may have something there,” replied God. “Let’s talk about it.”
The zaddik produced many arguments in favor of sending Messiah immediately and God was virtually convinced. But at that very moment the zaddik happened to see that one Hirsh, a very old and poor Jew, was dying in Berdichev—and only he, the zaddik, could save him. So he did not finish his talk with God, but went down to earth and saved Hirsh. And God became angry with him, and did not send Messiah down to earth.
Later, when the zaddik was criticized for his action and told that the salvation of humanity was surely more important than the life of an old Jew, he replied:
No. The life of a human being should not be sacrificed even for the happiness of all mankind.
Only a few years after he told this little story, Ehrenburg saw the light. The French say that there are two kinds of marriage: manage d’amour and moriage de raison. The marriage entered into by Ehrenburg with the Kremlin was undoubtedly a mariage de raison—for both parties. Russia’s rulers wanted Ehrenburg, who was a famous writer, well-known not only in Russia, but also in Germany, France, and nearly all other European countries. Ehrenburg, too, had important reasons for making peace with the Soviet authorities. The lack of a literary convention enabled—and still enables—the Soviet government to publish books written by authors who live abroad without paying them any royalties; only those considered friendly to the regime receive their writers’ fees from Moscow. It is also possible that the strong, nationalist, and imperialist Russia of Stalin was more to the liking of the former correspondent of the Stock Exchange News than the Russia he had left in 1921.
During the first years of his political marriage Ehrenburg maintained a certain degree of dignity and independence. It was not until the Civil War broke out in Spain that his abasement became complete.
Ehrenburg went to Spain as a correspondent for Izvestia. He arrived in Madrid at the time when numerous groups of GPU killers were “liquidating” socialist leaders one by one—the Spanish socialist Andrés Nin, the Austrian socialist Kurt Landau, the young Russian-Jewish socialist Marc Rein, and many others. Under pressure from the Soviet government, the members of the POUM, a semi-Trotskyist Spanish revolutionary party, were then put on trial in Barcelona on trumped-up charges. It was the first attempt to transplant the Moscow trials to European soil. Ehrenburg’s task was to report to the readers of Izvestia that all the Spanish anti-Stalinists were Trotzkyist wreckers, agents of Hitler and Franco, etc. He did the job thoroughly and his articles were immediately translated and published in the Stalinist press all over the world. But an artist does not give up his integrity with impunity: the novels Ehrenburg wrote in Paris after returning from Spain were so bad that they seem written by someone else. The protagonists are still Communists, but these Communists are now only automatons. The author winds them up and makes them utter trite phrases, lifted from the editorials of the Soviet press. They are the new Soviet men, who have no doubts about anything. The few who do have doubts usually commit suicide; doubt is the new kind of failure. In The Second Day, a young Russian workman kills himself because he cannot be a hundred per cent Stalinist. In another novel, an enemy of the Communists hangs himself in a Paris hotel upon his return from the Soviet Union. In a later novel, The Fall of Paris, written some time after his return to Moscow, Ehrenburg tries to prove that the Communists were the only ones in France who really fought the Nazis—conveniently forgetting the role they played during the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact.
Ehrenburg left Paris for Moscow in 1940, mainly and perhaps solely because he feared that the Germans, after taking Paris, would kill him for being a Jew. The Soviet leaders, possibly aware of this, treated him rather coldly until Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 and the Nazi-Soviet pact ended. Ehrenburg was then made a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. (Two members of this committee, the Polish-Jewish socialists Erlich and Alter, were shot in Russia as—Hitler’s agents.) As a member of that committee, Ehrenburg appeared at meetings and directed appeals to Jews abroad. But he once made a very serious slip: in a speech he revealed that Jewish soldiers at the front frequently received letters from their families which filled them with anxiety, because the letters spoke of a spreading wave of anti-Semitism. Ehrenburg’s speech appeared in a Jewish newspaper, published in Moscow. After that nothing more was heard about his political activities.
He returned to journalism and soon became the best and the most famous Soviet newspaperman, a sort of Ernie Pyle. He was so popular with the Soviet army during the war that special orders were issued forbidding soldiers to use his printed articles as emergency cigarette paper. Not even Stalin can boast of such an honor.
Ehrenburg was certainly sincere when he wrote his attacks on the Germans, whom he always hated fiercely. Some of his liveliest journalism was created out of this hatred. But when Soviet policy toward Germany changed after the formation of the “Free German” Committee of Generals von Paulus and von Seydlitz, Ehrenburg was among the first victims of the shift: G. W. Aleksandrov, Head of the Propaganda Division of the party, severely criticized Ehrenburg in Pravda for his anti-German attitude. The general tone of Aleksandrov’s article indicated that the Russian bureaucrats—who are always willing to use people like Ehrenburg when they need them—did not trust him at all. Perhaps that is why Ehrenburg, in spite of his great literary past, is not even a member of the Board of the Soviet Writers Union, which is headed by one A. Faddeiev, a man who has no literary past worth mentioning.
The difference between Soviet writers and Communist writers abroad is that the former know very well what is going on at present in Russia, while the latter are sometimes able to keep themselves in a state of relative innocence, especially if they do not actually become party functionaries. Thus Louis Aragon, in Paris, can still write novels of some quality, and Howard Fast, in New York, by confining his attention to the American past, can continue to function as a writer of second-rate popular novels, with every apparent sign that he “believes” in what he is doing. But neither Ehrenburg nor any other Soviet writer can write honest works of fiction in present-day Russia, unless he is heroic enough to risk the fate of Pilniak, Zoschenko, or Anna Ahmatov. This is why Russian novelists—and there still are many excellent novelists in the Soviet Union—simply do not publish anything at all. Some of them have remained silent for as long as five, eight, or even ten years.
But the journalist is in a somewhat different position. You don’t write newspaper articles with your soul. You can achieve a high degree of technical brilliance in journalism without bothering too much about such things as truth or your own conscience. There are enough examples all over the world to prove this. Ehrenburg is one of them. He was in the United States in 1946, and after his return to Russia he published six long articles in Izvestia about the United States. Here are some passages from these articles:
. . . An American journalist was indignant that the Yugoslav government deprived about 200,000 people, who helped the Germans, of the right to vote. But the same journalist thought it quite natural that millions of American Negroes are not allowed to vote. I would like to ask a question of my American readers: which is worse—to deprive people with black consciences of the right to vote or people with black skins? . . .
An industrialist, who is a bitter enemy of the Soviet Union, told me: ‘It is not the foreign policy of the Soviet Union which threatens us; it is its future. We don’t want you to raise the standard of living too high.’—Yes, the Americans who lead the anti-Soviet campaign are fighting against our saucepans, against Soviet agricultural products, against Soviet prosperity. . . .
I frequently heard talk about the Iron Curtain which is supposed to fence off the Soviet Union from the rest of the world. This Curtain is being manufactured in America, in the editorial offices of American papers, in the radio broadcasting stations and in the offices of film producers. . . . Do the Americans really know what is going on in Iran, Germany, or Bulgaria? . . . The papers, controlled by the trusts or by individual magnates of the printed word, misinform the readers under the pretext of informing them.
Ehrenburg, of course, knows only too well that the Yugoslav puppet government deprived of the right to vote not 200,000 people, but the entire population of the country, since only one ticket, the Communist one, was put on the ballot. The comparison of black skins to black consciences is nevertheless a good journalistic trick. So is the statement attributed to the “American industrialist,” because it implies that America envies Russia’s economic “successes” and therefore wants to fight her.
During the war, shortly before the German collapse, Ehrenburg wrote in one of his articles that Germany resembled a forest in autumn: there were still some leaves on the trees, but every day more and more of them fell to the ground.
One remembers this metaphor when reading Ehrenburg’s recent articles. There are still some leaves left on Ehrenburg’s pen, but they wither and fall off one by one.
Ilya Ehrenburg is now living in Moscow in one of the most luxurious apartments in the city. He is a rich man, and on state occasions he can cover his chest with two rows of decorations. When he was in New York in 1946, he told a reporter that almost everything in American stores was junk, but that he would buy a few things for his two dogs. He apparently meant that everything was better in Moscow than in New York.
Notwithstanding all that, one suspects that he is not a happy man. He is very ambitious, and his greatest ambition has always been to be a great novelist. During his last stay in New York he ran into one of the friends of his Paris days. The friend pretended not to see Ehrenburg. Irritated, Ehrenburg went up to him and asked whether he didn’t know him. “Of course I know you,” the friend answered. “You are Ilya Ehrenburg, the former writer.“
Ehrenburg didn’t say anything then, but he later told some of his friends that this hurt him more deeply than anything else that had ever happened in his whole life.