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In the Center of the Earthquake

Les Surprises de la Loubianka: nouvelles découvertes dans les archives littéraires du KGB

by Vitaly Shentalinsky, French translation by Galia Ackerman, by Pierre Lorrain
Laffont, 361 pp., FF149

On Christmas Eve 1918, Lenin was being driven in his Rolls-Royce on the outskirts of Moscow when four men flagged him down, pulled him out at gun point, and searched his pockets. Lenin shouted, “Don’t you know who I am?” “I don’t care,” replied the leader of the gang, one Jacov Kochelkov, also known as The Wallet. “I’m the king of Moscow.” Seizing Lenin’s identification papers and his Browning pistol, The Wallet jumped into the Rolls-Royce and roared off, leaving the leader of the Revolution, his bodyguard, and his chauffeur to tramp through the snow to a local Party headquarters to find a car to take them back to the Kremlin.

The Cheka launched a manhunt to track down The Wallet, but he eluded capture for six months, until agents lured him to a Moscow apartment and gunned him down. In his pocket they found a love letter, a roll of bank-notes pierced by a bullet hole, and Lenin’s Browning revolver.

This story was uncovered by Vitaly Shentalinsky from the KGB files and has just been published in France. Besides allowing us to imagine how history would have turned out had The Wallet not let Lenin slip through his hands, the story also illuminates the shadowy links between the security organs and the world of literature. The Cheka agent who gunned down The Wallet decided to turn his exploits into a detective story for a Moscow literary journal, but he was unhappy with the result and gave it to Isaac Babel to be rewritten. An inspired choice: Babel did some translating for the Cheka and his Odessa Stories are masterpieces of criminal slang. According to Shentalinsky, Babel sharpened up the dialogue, dispensed with the detective’s feeble attempts at romanticizing The Wallet, and contributed a short introduction of his own.

Despite Babel’s ghostwriting, The Bandits, which was submitted to a literary review in 1925, never saw the light of day and remained on the shelves of the Lubyanka prison until Shentalinsky stumbled upon it in the early 1990s. Learning this about Babel would be something like learning that William Faulkner had ghosted detective fiction for the Los Angeles Police Department. But Babel was not the only one. In the early Twenties, Mikhail Bulgakov also eked out a living correcting the punctuation and livening up the dialogue of the detective fiction produced in their spare time by the frustrated writers of the Cheka.

As Shentalinsky digs deeper into the archives—this is his second book of discoveries1—it becomes clearer that the relationship between the “organs”—as the Cheka and its successors the NKVD and KGB came to be known—and twentieth-century Russian literature was not simply a matter of repression. Babel knew two of the heads of the secret police under Stalin and was even reputed to have had an affair with the wife of one of them. The Soviet Terror included moments of surreal intimacy between predator and victim. The head of the NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda, was a frequent guest at Maxim Gorky’s villa, where Ehrenburg met him, and Babel knew Yagoda’s successor Yezhov as well. It is unclear whether he actually believed that by frequenting the persecutors he could escape their clutches. In any event, when he finally fell into the hands of the NKVD, neither denial nor confession made any difference.

What price survival? Osip Mandelstam wrote an ode to Stalin; Akhmatova composed patriotic drivel in an attempt to secure the release of her son; but frantic ideological abjection did not guarantee survival. Michael Koltsov, a Soviet journalist, a deputy of the Supreme Soviet, a convinced admirer of Stalin, and a decorated member of the international brigade, was arrested in Spain in December 1938 and accused of being a Trotskyist, an agent of the French secret police, and an enemy of the people. Investigating his pre-revolutionary past, the NKVD uncovered violently anti-Bolshevik articles he had written in Kiev, when it was still under the control of the Whites in late 1918.

In light of what happened to Koltsov—summarily executed in February 1940, around the same time as Babel—it is doubly extraordinary that one of those who mastered the art of survival was Ilya Ehrenburg, no less intimate with the organs than either Babel or Koltsov, and no less vulnerable in his earlier commitments. Joshua Rubenstein’s fine biography begins unraveling the mystery of Ehrenburg’s survival by making a shrewd observation about the psychology of dictators: they prefer the company of people with a dirty secret they can use to control them. “Stalin in fact preferred people with a tainted political history to those with an unblemished pedigree within the party.” Andrei Vyshinsky, the odious chief prosecutor of the show trials of the 1930s, had been a Menshevik and had even distributed orders for Lenin’s arrest in Moscow in 1917. This dubious background made him all the more eager an instrument of Stalin’s will.

By analogy, Ehrenburg’s would be a case of loyalty made unconditional by its very ambiguity. He had to deny his very nature, and it was this inner struggle that turned him into a reliable accomplice of dictatorship. There was the matter of his bourgeois class origins: he was the only son of a prosperous brewery manager in Moscow. Then there was his Jewishness: Ehrenburg was recurrently repelled by Stalin’s persecutions of the Jews but never let outrage carry him too far. Ehrenburg was susceptible to what the comrades would have called petty-bourgeois bohemianism. After taking part in the 1905 revolution as a teenager, he had fled to Paris where he lived until 1917, surviving on translations and on war journalism for Russian newspapers, and writing poetry in cafés frequented by Picasso, Soutine, and Modigliani. While in Western Europe, he had managed the unusual feat of meeting and then alienating both Lenin and Trotsky, the former by a crude caricature he published in an émigré journal, the latter by a violent defense of poets whom Trotsky had dismissed as decadent reactionaries. Fortunately, he retained the friendship and protection of the third architect of the revolution, Nikolai Bukharin.

Returning to Russia, Ehrenburg was soon repelled by the Bolshevik takeover and published poems depicting Russia as a dying mother raped by revolutionaries. In 1918, fearing arrest, Ehrenburg fled to Kiev, and when the Whites took the city, he wrote denunciations of the Bolsheviks for local newspapers. They left no room for ambiguity:

We gave Europe Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Mendeleev and Mechnikov, Moussorgsky and Ivanov. Now we have neither bread nor books nor ideas. Death is wandering through an empty house…. The Bolsheviks are not political enemies, but rapists and conquerors.

Although he loathed the Reds, he quickly learned that, as a Jew, he was under even greater danger from the pogroms of the Whites. For nine months he took refuge in the Crimea, where he made friends with Marina Tsvetaeva’s husband Sergei Efron and Osip Mandelstam. By 1920, he had resigned himself to the Revolution, deciding that it was not another “bloody riot,” but the birth of a “new world.” Finding his place in it proved difficult. Without his influential friends he might have gone under. It was Bukharin who got him authorization for a suit of clothes and a coat from the party warehouse. When his connections failed to lead to a good job, Bukharin secured him a visa—probably the first issued to a Soviet citizen—to return to France, where Ehrenburg was to remain from 1921 until 1940.

In the Twenties, he kept his independence as a writer, publishing his best novel, Julio Jurenito, a broad satire about a nihilistic Mexican philosopher who recruits his European disciples to attack the ideas of Western art and culture as “anarchist.” But by 1932, when he agreed to become Izvestia correspondent in Paris, he had become a paid apologist of Stalin’s regime. He insulted Breton and the Surrealists for failing to toe the Communist line and in 1937 denounced André Gide as a “philosophizing tourist and a thoughtless puritan” when he published Return from the USSR, an attempt to awaken the French left from their infatuation with Stalin.

Joshua Rubenstein does his best to defend Ehrenburg as an architect of the anti-fascist united front on the European left. Certainly he did not lack physical courage; he traveled to Madrid to describe Franco’s bombardment of the city for his Russian readers, and narrowly missed death when the car he was traveling in with André Malraux collided with a truck carrying artillery shells. But even in Spain, he had to lie to his readers about the Communist attacks on anarchists and anti-Stalinist socialists on the republican side. When he helped André Malraux organize the famous International Writers Congress in Paris in 1935, he joined in the attempts to prevent Gaetano Salvemini, the Italian anti-fascist, from raising the case of the writer Victor Serge, who had been recently arrested in the Soviet Union for Trotskyist activity. “No matter what happened,” Ehrenburg later wrote, “however agonizing the doubts,” he kept faith with Stalinism.

Rubenstein argues that even during this bad time, Ehrenburg never entirely sided with the regime. During the first Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934, for example, Ehrenburg criticized the anti-intellectual populism of socialist realism, defending writers who wrote difficult, even hermetic, work. By taking this position he was implicitly taking the side of Babel, Mandelstam, and Pasternak. But he was to watch helplessly as one by one they were silenced.

He knew exactly what was happening, having returned briefly to Moscow in 1938 to witness his friend and protector Bukharin being put on trial. He came home from the trial, lay down on the sofa, face to the wall, and could not eat for several days. When Stalin made his pact with Hitler, Ehrenburg was so nauseated, Rubenstein writes, that he could not swallow solid food for eight months. Between August 1939 and April 1940, he lost forty pounds.

He was then safe in Paris, but even there the security organs kept their eyes upon him. Shentalinsky found, for example, that when Ariadne Efron, Marina Tsvetaeva’s daughter, was being interrogated, the police asked her how Ehrenburg was viewed in Paris by the pro-Soviet community. Efron replied—or was made to reply—that he frequented the cafés of Montparnasse and was considered more of a Russian émigré than a loyal friend of the Soviet regime. Ehrenburg, she said, had a foot in both camps.

From the safety of the Soviet embassy he watched the Germans enter Paris in June 1940, but he returned to Moscow in September and started writing a novel, The Fall of Paris. In April 1941, he received his one and only call from Stalin, who told him he liked what he had seen of the novel so far and wondered whether he intended to denounce the German fascists. Ehrenburg, shrewdly realizing that the regime was about to distance itself from its pact with Hitler, said the third part of the novel would describe the German entry into Paris. Stalin reportedly replied, “Just go on writing, you and I will try to push the third part through.”

Publication of The Fall of Paris transformed Ehrenburg from a writer in disfavor—as a known opponent of the Hitler-Stalin pact—into the foremost anti-fascist writer of his day. His subsequent career as a war correspondent made him a national hero. His pieces were read aloud in barracks, and he was mobbed whenever he appeared at the front. As he said later, his job—in more than 2,000 articles—was to teach Russia how to hate. “Now we understand,” he wrote in 1942, “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.”

It is not surprising that his patriotism should have taken this blood-curdling form. His tours took him to the atrocity sites left behind by the retreating German armies, from Babi Yar outside his native Kiev to Vilna and Dubno, liberated by Jewish partisans. He was both a Jew and a voice of the Russian nation at arms, and he knew full well how deeply xenophobic the Russian nation at arms could be. He received countless anti-Semitic letters; when he tried to persuade the Soviet President to award a medal to a woman who had hidden Jews and saved them from extermination, he was turned down. When the writer Mikhail Sholokhov ran into Ehrenburg in 1941, Sholokhov jeered, “You are fighting, but Abram is doing business in Tashkent.” Ehrenburg shouted back that he would not share a table with a pogrom-monger. Like all such slanders, Sholokhov’s remark was the reverse of the truth. Jews earned more medals in the war per capita than the members of any other Soviet nationality.

Near the end of 1944, Ehrenburg helped to coordinate the research for The Black Book, a record, by two dozen writers, of the murder of one and a half million Jews by the Einsatzgruppen, the shooting units that followed the German army into Russian territory in 1941. Together with Vassily Grossman, Ehrenburg collected testimonies and oral accounts, and prepared a vast inventory of genocide for publication. It was shelved for “grave political errors” after the war, when Stalin was preparing his last anti-Semitic campaign. This campaign, which officially began in 1948 with the murder of the great Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels and continued with the execution of twenty-four Jewish intellectuals in August 1952, came close to Ehrenburg himself, and he was only saved by his obsequious public flattery of the aging and increasingly paranoid dictator. On his foreign visits he made himself useful by denying that any pogroms of his people were taking place. Fellow Jews wrote him anonymously, begging him to speak out. “Who are you? Why are you silent? Are you a traitor or an honest man?”

In February 1953, he was ordered by one of Stalin’s officials to sign a public appeal, written by two Jews, and urging the deportation of the Jews to Siberia, where they would be given their own homeland. Ehrenburg refused and wrote to Stalin urging him, rather craftily, to take a stand against a measure which would be bound to revive Jewish nationalism. Rubenstein argues that Ehrenburg could have been shot for his defiance. Luckily, the dictator expired of a brain hemorrhage a month later.

In 1954, Ehrenburg, an uncannily accurate reader of his times, published The Thaw, a novella whose title gave its name to the entire Khrushchev era, with its implication of a spring after a cruel winter. Describing the hopes and fantasies of some of the more liberal members of the intelligentsia during the year after Stalin’s death, the novel was sentimental and its dialogue, Rubenstein himself admits, was listless, but it helped to unshackle Soviet literature from socialist realism and it gave a new twist to Ehrenburg’s reputation. From an apologist for Stalin, he had transformed himself into a discreet dissident, while still retaining his privileges, including foreign travel and a dacha, but also using his authority to push the limits of censorship.

Rubenstein documents Ehrenburg’s efforts at self-rehabilitation: he tried to secure the release of Anna Akhmatova’s son from the gulag; he campaigned for new editions of Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, and Babel. His introduction to a 1957 edition of Babel’s stories returned Babel to the public canon of Russian literature. In 1962, he presided over the first public meeting in Moscow devoted to the poetry and the memory of Marina Tsvetaeva. For public consumption and especially for foreign audiences, Ehrenburg parroted the party line, but this, Rubenstein argues, was always a cover “to pursue his ultimate goal: to challenge the limits of Soviet censorship, revive Russia’s connection to European culture, and restore to living memory the names and works of those whom Stalin first killed then erased from history.”

There is truth in this, but Rubenstein overstates it. In the case of Pasternak, for example, Ehrenburg did support the poet during the furor when he won the Nobel Prize for Dr. Zhivago. Pasternak had given him a copy of the manuscript and Ehrenburg praised it to foreign journalists. When Pasternak was forced out of the Writers’ Union, Ehrenburg pointedly refused to attend the meeting. Yet for foreign consumption he used his memoirs—published in translation soon after they appeared in Moscow in 1962—to denounce the “spiritual inaccuracy of the prose.” The novel, he wrote, “saddened” him. Pasternak’s “guilt,” he went on, “consisted only in the fact that he was Pasternak;… while marvelously understanding one thing, he was unable to understand another,” i.e., that his work would be used as anti-Soviet propaganda in the West. Rubenstein would probably say that these were the formulas required of the times, but they make depressing reading.

When Ehrenburg published his memoirs in Novy Mir and in them spoke for the first time of the “conspiracy of silence” with which the Soviet elite had allowed Russian literature and culture to be decimated during the 1930s, he was attacked by the party press and by Khrushchev himself. But Ehrenburg, then in his seventies, received a letter of support from another, much more heroic witness to the tormented tradition of Russian letters. Nadezhda Mandelstam, who had reason to thank Ehrenburg for his devotion to the memory of her husband, told him that everyone now understood that he had always been on their side. It had been hard to live at the epicenter of an earthquake, and he had often been reproached for failing to do the impossible. Now, she said, it had become obvious how much Ehrenburg had done “to relax our usual ways.” Certainly it is a letter which must have come as a kind of absolution, and Rubenstein makes it the centerpiece of his case for Ehrenburg as an ambiguous kind of dissident at the heart of the regime. But Ehrenburg himself perhaps came to a much grimmer reckoning with the price of his own survival. In a poem written within a year of his death in 1967, he said sadly,

Time to admit—even to howl or to cry,
I lived my life like a dog.

  1. 1

    See my review of the first volume, Arrested Voices: Resurrecting the Disappeared Writers of the Soviet Regime, The New York Review, October 3, 1996.

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