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The Survivor

The Post-War Years 1945-54

by Ilya Ehrenburg, translated by Tatiana Shebunina, in collaboration with Yvonne Kapp
World, 352 pp., $6.50

In years of danger and crisis, it becomes almost a crime to survive. Siéyès, the original survivor, blotted his reputation in history for ever, merely by drawing attention to himself. After the First World War, those who came back from the trenches were troubled by remorse, as Harold Macmillan and others have shown in their memoirs. In the same way, there is a general chorus of opinion that there must be something peculiarly wrong and degraded in those who survived the years of Stalin’s terror. The Soviet politicians are not worth condemning. It is obvious that they were concerned only to save their skins. For some reason, writers are less easily excused. Any Soviet writer who came through alive or at any rate without a stretch in Siberia must surely be a coward and a timeserver.

This has been the universal verdict in the West, given with particular fervor by British and American writers, who have never had to risk anything except perhaps an occasional decline in their royalties. The current ran especially strong against Ehrenburg. He was well known in the West. He was friendly with writers and artists, and in the prewar years had been ready to criticize them for not doing enough against Fascism. After the Second World War, all those who repudiated their earlier beliefs by turning against Soviet Russia made Ehrenburg the symbol and excuse for their own betrayal. They had seen the anti-Communist light. He continued to act as an instrument of Soviet policy. Ehrenburg was troubled by these reproaches, and this present volume reflects his trouble. Here are the thoughts of a man who felt that he ought to be ashamed of himself. Ehrenburg sought a way out and hoped to vindicate his honor by throwing himself into the Peace movement. This was a futile endeavor. Last September he died peacefully in his bed, and the obituaries all concluded that he was a character too weak for his times.

This was a harsh and unfair verdict. Writers are not obliged to be heroes. Indeed heroes usually make inferior writers, as witness the pseudo-literary productions of T.E. Lawrence. The manifestoes of writers on every subject from drugs to the Vietnam war are displays of vanity, not acts of heroism. Writers like to think that they are wise guides to ethics or public action merely because they have written entertaining novels or incomprehensible verse. A writer who is really any good sticks to his job of writing, as Thomas Hardy did. Even a writer may want to protest now and then for something. But he has no duty to do so, and his protest will not make the slightest difference. Those who live by words must resign themselves to the fact that they are not men of action.

Ehrenburg’s record was in fact by no means dishonorable. He did not go out of his way to invite the lightning, but he kept his standards intact. In difficult times, he did what he could. He explains how, like many Soviet citizens, he went on believing that Stalin, who had led them so well in wartime, must have some reason for what he was doing. Also, Stalin had a peculiar trick of implying that he himself was rather impotently on the side of freedom. Thus in 1948 Fadeyev reported to the Politburo that Ehrenburg’s novel, The Storm, suffered from certain defects: “One of the main characters, a Soviet citizen, falls in love with a Frenchwoman. This is not typical. Then there were no real heroes.” Stalin retorted: “But I like this Frenchwoman, she’s a nice girl. And besides, such things do happen in real life. As regards heroes, I think that few people are born heroes, it’s ordinary people who become heroes.” Yet shortly after this Stalin issued a decree, forbidding marriages between Soviet citizens and foreigners.

THE REAL FAULT in Ehrenburg was not that he failed to stand up to Stalin. It was that he was a second-rate writer. He was a good polemical journalist as he showed during the Second World War. His novels were better in intention than in achievement. Inevitably he became a writer by profession instead of by accomplishment. This, too, often happens. Every university nowadays has a Poet in residence, who proclaims the Poet’s attitude to every conceivable question, though he has long lost the ability to string two lines of verse together. Ehrenburg suffered a similar fate. There was no opportunity for him inside Soviet Russia. He had spent most of his life in the West, and besides Fadeyev had moved in as the director of Soviet literature. Ehrenburg had therefore to become the peripatetic Soviet writer in the outer world. The times were right for him. In 1948 the cold war started. Ehrenburg describes very well its impact on those Soviet citizens who knew anything of the world. They believed that the cold war was a preliminary to Western aggression against Soviet Russia. Most western observers saw things the other way round, particularly those who were snugly established as official historians or political pundits. Now, in cool retrospect, we are coming to recognize that there were faults on both sides, but more on the western than the Soviet. Aggressors, if any, were in Washington, not in the Kremlin. To this extent, Ehrenburg had reason to worry.

When the storm blows, there is nothing to do except take shelter and wait for fine weather. Ehrenburg wanted to do something more active. Maybe the reproaches of the complacent westerners were already nagging at him. On a more realistic basis, the World Peace Movement got him out of Russia on a prolonged round of conferences and junketing. By chance I saw the beginnings of the nonsensical affair—an episode which Ehrenburg does not mention. This was the Culture Congress at Wroclaw in 1948. The Poles had started it as a little gesture of Franco-Polish independence against the Great Powers. Instead the Russians moved in. Fadeyev delivered a hamfisted Communist speech, denouncing everyone except the Kremlin. Even fellow-travelers were stirred to indignation and, without knowing what they were in for, put me up to reply. I wrecked the unity of the Congress. Ehrenburg came to the rescue in a soft, conciliatory speech, which sounded as though he was agreeing with almost everybody. This made his reputation as the Soviet speaker who knew how to soften gullible westerners, and he was set for the international treadmill. Ehrenburg had plenty of, troubles at the time, and I am sorry that I added to them. Of course, he would have done better to stay away. Still, his fate was decided.

Is there ever any sense in a World Peace movement? What can you do except declare your enthusiasm for Peace? No one takes the slightest notice. The World Peace Movement was particularly senseless when it became an agency for denouncing American policy and praising Soviet policy. But it would have been pretty senseless even if it had been sincere. Ehrenburg has a rich passage in which he describes these meaningless activities for peace:

In Rome two hundred thousand people marched through the streets with lighted torches. We were given a solemn reception by the President of Poland, Bierut; and in Delhi Nehru, addressing us, spoke of India’s traditional feeling for peace. We made pilgrimages to Gandhi’s grave and to lay wreathes at the caves where the Gestapo had shot Italian patriots. A delegate from Brazil died of heart failure on arrival in Vienna because the long flight had been too much for him. At one of the congresses we listened to a recital of Nazim Hikmet’s poems, at another Paul Robeson sang. At a third an old Indian story-teller chanted a poem extolling brotherhood.

These activities cannot have advanced the cause of peace by a single bullet, let alone a single nuclear bomb. Not a penny was chopped off the arms budget in any country by all this parading and singing and even, on the part of the Brazilian delegate, dying. Yet the participants thought it of great importance. They even disputed over the wording of resolutions, which would in fact be universally ignored:

At a meeting of the bureau in Helsinki in December 1956 we began work at nine one morning and only reached agreement at eight the next day, after twenty-three hours of arguing in a stuffy smoke-filled room.

Ehrenburg tried to believe that it was not all in vain:

Looking back, I have no regrets: we were doing something, we achieved something. Thirty of forty years hence an historian, who today is just learning his letters, may possibly devote a chapter, or perhaps a few lines, to the peace movement.

I think that this is extremely unlikely. Ehrenburg, like other intellectuals, refused to acknowledge that he was totally useless. So Boswell, storm-tossed in the Hebrides, held strenuously to a rope all night and found in the morning that his pulling was to no purpose. Johnson, more wisely, slept through the storm. Of course poor Ehrenburg in his smoke-filled rooms was no less effective than, say, George Brown, also hurrying round the world to important conferences about nothing.

The best part of this sad book is in the asides, the casual remarks by Ehrenburg’s co-workers in the cause of peace. They, too, were eaten up in the pursuit of futility, and some of them could really have found better things to do. But there is also a vanity which grips even the most innocent. Public activities have a peculiar corruption, with everyone in them agreeing that they are of great importance. There is a conspiracy of mutual praise. You applaud my speech, and I will applaud yours. I like to imagine that there is slightly more sense in a peace movement directed against one’s own government. One ought to be able to achieve something. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in England a few years ago ran specifically against the British bomb and all associated with it. Even so, I suspect that we were merely clearing our consciences, and I’m sure that we enjoyed rousing large audiences.

The personal portraits which Ehrenburg gives are too diffuse to be effective. Everyone is typecast: writer, scientist, artist, and of course fighter for peace. Like Ehrenburg, they all smile artificially as they march up the treadmill. But there is a good line by Slutsky, the Polish poet, written soon after Stalin’s death:

The time for circuses is over, it is now the time for bread, a break for smoking has been granted to all those who were storming heaven.

Ehrenburg deserved a break for smoking. It was only partly his fault that he rarely got it.

Letters

Uses of Intelligence January 4, 1968

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