Ilya Ehrenburg: Revolutionary, Novelist, Poet, War Correspondent, Propagandist
The Extraordinary Epic of a Russian Survivor material by
What are we to make of Ilya Ehrenburg, the great survivor among Soviet writers? The list of his friends and contemporaries who were sent to Stalin’s labor camps, took their own lives, or died in lonely exile reads like a Who’s Who of twentieth-century Russian letters: Mayakovsky, Esenin, Pilnyak, Zamyatin, Babel, Bulgakov, Mandelstam, Olesha, Zabolotsky, and Tsvetayeva, to name only the most famous. The very fact of his survival in these circumstances is sufficient to raise suspicions, especially when considered along with Ehrenburg’s vast output of generally conformist novels, poems, plays, articles, essays, and memoirs. Yet his reputation as a “liberal” and a fundamentally honest man continues. Young (and not-so-young) dissidents I have spoken to remember him with respect, even with affection. Emigré critics appear to have a favorable opinion of him. Most impressive of all is the testimony of Nadezhda Mandelstam. For that cantankerous and exacting critic of the Soviet literary scene, Ehrenburg was “always the odd man out among Soviet writers, and the only one I maintained relations with all through the years.” At his funeral in 1967, she noted, the faces of the crowd were “decent and human ones,” showing that Ehrenburg was widely admired and had “done his work well.”
What “work” did Nadezhda Mandelstam have in mind? I think she meant that in his memoirs, published in the 1960s, Ehrenburg did much to introduce the younger generation in the Soviet Union to their country’s cultural history and to that of the avant-garde in Western Europe during the early years of the century. But the questions about Ehrenburg date from the period preceding the memoirs, and especially from the 1930s and 1940s, when his career was at its height.
Anatol Goldberg, a former commentator in the Russian Service of the BBC, met Ehrenburg during that period. He was fascinated by the enigma of the man and, when he retired, decided to write a book about him. Unfortunately he died before he could complete his work, and the present book has been put together from notes and drafts by Erik de Mauny, a former BBC correspondent from Moscow. The resulting study still seems somewhat lacking in information about Ehrenburg and is regrettably vague about certain important phases of his life. But it nonetheless does a workmanlike job of introducing the reader to a complex, yet representative Soviet writer of the older generation.
After changing his mind several times, Goldberg came to the conclusion that Ehrenburg was essentially honest and that Nadezhda Mandelstam was right. He seems to accept that the emotional and intellectual center of Ehrenburg’s life was his belief in socialism and that Ehrenburg was a communist from conviction. Certainly there were early signs of this. Born in Kiev in 1891, the son of a well-to-do Jewish brewery manager, he moved to Moscow in time to witness the abortive Revolution of 1905, whose bloody repression shocked him. Like Mayakovsky and Zamyatin, he dabbled in bolshevism—he distributed leaflets for Nikolai Bukharin—and like the others spent a…
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