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 few months in jail. But his father was able to buy him out and send him to Paris, a move that was to set him apart from most of his contemporaries and ultimately to determine the direction of his extraordinary career.

In Western Europe Ehrenburg met both Lenin and Trotsky, but soon tired of the revolutionary scene, and found the bohemian circles of Montparnasse more to his taste. There he became friendly with Picasso, Modigliani, Soutine, Diego Rivera, Apollinaire, and others in the Parisian art world. He wrote faintly decadent symbolist poetry (which he published at his father’s expense), and when the First World War broke out, found his true métier as a correspondent for the Saint Petersburg Stock Exchange Gazette. With the fall of the czar, Ehrenburg hurried back to Moscow in time to witness the October Revolution, and was horrified by the violence of the civil war. He wrote a celebrated “Prayer for Russia,” which ran in part: “Let us pray for our native land, / for the fields deserted and cold, / …O Lord! / Do not forsake her in her last hour! / May she return to Thee. / And may she by her torments / redeem these years of Hell…. ”

As the poem shows, Ehrenburg was, to say the least, ambivalent about the Revolution, but when the civil war was over, he sided with the Reds. A brief spell in prison (he was accused of spying for the Whites) was followed by a job administering children’s theaters, where he got to know, among others, Meyerhold, Tairov, and Eisenstein. This was the period of War Communism, a time of great austerity and intellectual confusion in the Soviet Union. Some Russian writers, like Ivan Bunin and Marina Tsvetayeva, left the country. A much larger number decided to stay, including many who had still not made up their minds and who were generally known as “fellow travelers.” Ehrenburg was one of these. In 1921 he obtained a Soviet passport and returned to Western Europe, where he remained, except for brief visits to the Soviet Union, until the start of World War II.


This long period abroad meant that Ehrenburg’s experience of the results of the Revolution was mainly secondhand, and it determined the somewhat original direction that Ehrenburg’s socialism was to take. Just what this was became clear from his first—and for many his best—novel, The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito and his disciples (the full title covered half a page), a picaresque satire about a nihilistic Mexican philosopher, Jurenito, who sets out to destroy European culture with the unwitting help of a cosmopolitan band of disciples, who include an American, a German, a Frenchman, an Italian, a Russian, and an African. The idea of making the destruction of European culture a central element of his plot was suggested to Ehrenburg by his memories of the effects of the First World War, which he had reported on for the Stock Exchange Gazette. One of his goals was to illustrate how the Europeans had become their own worst enemies. In other words, the book expressed a resounding “no” to European culture, and it is significant that in a conversation about national characters within the novel, Jurenito defines the Jews as the great “no” sayers of human history. Ehrenburg clearly saw himself as within that tradition. The novel’s fundamental message was also fully in tune with Soviet beliefs about the decadence of Western Europe, and when it was published in the Soviet Union, it had a preface by his old mentor, Nikolai Bukharin, then one of the leaders of the revolutionary government and the editor of Pravda. Lenin, according to Ehrenburg’s memoirs, also liked the novel.

In 1921, Ehrenburg moved to Berlin, then the center of Russian culture abroad. Gorky, Mayakovsky, Esenin (with Isadora Duncan), Zamyatin, Bely, Chukovsky, Shklovsky, and many others were part of the Berlin literary scene, and Ehrenburg knew them all, while being careful to give preference to those writers, and to write for the magazines, that were favorable to the Soviet regime. After four years Berlin began to lose its attractions for the Russians, and most of the writers left either for Moscow (and the Soviet regime) or for Paris (and emigration). Ehrenburg managed to do both. He returned to the Soviet Union for a few months to observe the economic boom produced by the New Economic Policy (NEP), of which he strongly disapproved, and he then moved back to Paris (still on a Soviet passport) where he wrote a satirical novel, The Racketeer, about the new tolerance for private business. This was followed, throughout the rest of the Twenties and Thirties, by a series of anticapitalist novels in the spirit of Jurenito, among them The D. E. Trust. The Story of the Destruction of Europe (about the takeover of Europe by American capitalism), The Love of Jeanne Ney (about a blind French girl who falls in love with an idealistic Russian communist), Summer 1925 (a satire on the decadence of Twenties Paris), Ten Horsepower (about the iniquities of the automobile age), The Dream Factory (an attack on the movie industry), Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (about the miserable lives of Russian émigrés in Paris), and so on.

Ehrenburg had the best of both worlds. Indeed, it seems to have been a tossup whether he would go back to the Soviet Union (where he was increasingly being attacked as a “spiritual nomad” out of touch with his homeland) or, in order to stay in Paris, would join the emigration and become an opponent of the Soviet regime. Characteristically he solved the dilemma by agreeing, in 1931, to become Paris correspondent of Izvestia. Goldberg treats this decision as marking a major crisis in Ehrenburg’s career and suggests that it was made from ideological conviction, but his explanation is unconvincing and the evidence adduced in his book indicates otherwise.

The crisis that Ehrenburg experienced in the early Thirties was connected not with his attitude to socialism, but rather with a deep aspect of his personality, his attitude toward his Jewishness. In an early memoir, Ehrenburg had written a little about his Jewish childhood, and about the anti-Semitism he had experienced at school, but apart from Jurenito’s speech on the nature of the Jews, had generally avoided the subject. But in 1929 he wrote a second picaresque novel, very much in the manner of Jurenito, called The Stormy Life of Lazik Roitschvantz, about a benighted Jewish tailor who gets mistreated and exploited both in the Soviet Union and in Western Europe, and eventually dies an ignominious death at the hands of the British in Palestine.


Roitschvantz was Ehrenburg’s first “Jewish” novel and in many ways was better than Jurenito, for its hero was both more appealing and more human than the Mexican anarchist, and his adventures more believable. But Roitschvantz was also Ehrenburg’s first novel not to be accepted for publication in the Soviet Union (indeed it has never been published there) and the shock to Ehrenburg’s morale was considerable. A greater shock came a couple of years later, however. In 1932 he made another of his flying visits to the Soviet Union to inspect the workings of Stalin’s Five-Year Plan, which the regime was heavily promoting in its propaganda campaigns. Having spent some time at a huge new steel works under construction at Kuznetsk in Siberia, he hastened back to Paris to write The Second Day, the novel about the Five-Year Plan that was expected of him. To his consternation, the novel was rejected by Soviet publishers, rendering his gesture of loyalty useless. Coming after the rejection of Roitschvantz, this failure seemed to signal disaster, and Ehrenburg resorted to extraordinary measures. At his own expense he printed a private deluxe edition in Paris and sent copies to every member of the Politburo, as well as to other influential figures. The device worked, and in due course the novel was accepted for publication in the Soviet Union.

This “gesture of despair,” as Ehrenburg later called it, only confirmed the capitulation implicit in the book itself, but the strain of conforming and of writing a propagandistic novel had clearly been heavy for him. This showed up most plainly in his portrayal of the novel’s hero—or rather anti-hero—Volodya Safonov, a disaffected intellectual modeled on Ehrenburg himself. Safonov can accept neither the philosophy of the Five-Year Plan nor the new Soviet society, which he perceives as an anthill and bitterly criticizes in some notes he makes for a speech: “The anthill is a model of reason and logic. But it already existed a thousand years ago. Nothing in it has changed.”

Zamyatin had reached a similar conclusion a decade earlier in his wonderful dystopian novel We. Ehrenburg’s treatment of the subject was significantly different, however. Safonov becomes incensed by the jibes against the USSR of a visiting French journalist. He changes his mind about his speech and from the platform proclaims: “The future is ours! We shall overcome!” Later he thinks to himself: “Curiously enough, I spoke sincerely. But I was not saying what I thought. Or rather, I was and I wasn’t. We are all double-dealers, fakes and hypocrites. But we dissimulate with relish, our cant comes from the bottom of our hearts, and our hypocritical devotion is such that we develop genuine stigmata.”

Safonov’s loss of nerve was in fact Ehrenburg’s loss of nerve, and in the novel, Safonov ends by committing suicide. Whereas Zamyatin had stuck to his convictions and ultimately been damned for writing We, and Mayakovsky, faced by a similar dilemma over what to write, had as he put it “stepped on the throat of his own song” and shot himself, Ehrenburg hanged his fictional double and hoped to carry on as before. No wonder he was stunned when the novel was rejected. His abject scramble to curry favor with the Politburo and overturn the ban on his work simply underlined how completely he had capitulated.

Curiously, Goldberg passes over this incident and concentrates his attention on Ehrenburg’s decision to work for Izvestia, which he describes as arising from an ideological “conversion” to communism. In this, he seems to me to be leaning too heavily on the “revised” version of these events that Ehrenburg presented in his memoirs, without making sufficient allowance for Ehrenburg’s tendency to varnish the past. Ehrenburg’s decision to throw in his lot with the Soviets was more a matter of practical prudence than ideological conviction. There was no market in the West for his superficial satires, which depended for their success on an audience ignorant of the European society they mocked. He must have doubted that he could survive as a writer outside the Soviet Union.

From the time The Second Day was accepted for Soviet publication, Ehrenburg’s worldly position swiftly improved, while morally he began a long, steady slide downhill. In 1934 he was a leading figure at the First Congress of Soviet Writers, designed to bring the writers under the control of the monolithic Writers’ Union. (This was the congress where Isaac Babel announced that he was working in a new genre, “silence.”) A years later, along with the French communist writer Jean-Richard Bloch, Ehrenburg staged the Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers in Paris, at which criticism of the USSR was stifled. When the Spanish civil war broke out, Ehrenburg went as a correspondent, and in 1937, at the height of the purges in Moscow, he organized the Second International Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers, this time in Valencia, where Alexei Tolstoy distinguished himself by denouncing international “Trotskyism.” That same year, Ehrenburg was summoned to Moscow and given a ticket to the show trial of his former friend and mentor, Nikolai Bukharin, who was sentenced to death.

By this time Ehrenburg must have understood the price of his conformity, especially when he was kept waiting for several months before returning to Europe. The worst was still to come after the Second World War. But the war itself was kind to Ehrenburg. He became the most celebrated correspondent in Russia, and his fame spread abroad. Introducing an English translation of his articles, J. B. Priestley called him “the best we know of the war’s winning team” and expressed the hope that British correspondents would imitate him. From 1946 on, Ehrenburg was a prominent member of the Soviet-inspired Peace Movement, traveling throughout the world to speak at conferences. In 1947, on Stalin’s personal orders, he was awarded the Stalin Prize for literature for his war novel The Storm (the prize committee had recommended it for second place).

In 1948, however, Stalin started his purge of the Jewish intellectuals. The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (founded by Stalin in 1941 to solicit funds for the war effort from American Jews) was disbanded and all its prominent members, with the single exception of Ehrenburg, were arrested and eventually shot. Just before Golda Meir arrived in Moscow (where crowds of Soviet Jews would cheer her), Ehrenburg was pressed into service to write an article denouncing Zionism and denying that there was any anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. He was then sent to Paris to quiet Western fears about the campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans” (i.e., the Jews). In 1949, in London, he was obliged to assert that all the Soviet Jewish intellectuals were safe and well, while knowing that many were in jail and perhaps dead. Goldberg, who was present on that occasion, describes this—justifiably—as one of the most shameful moments in Ehrenburg’s life.

Ehrenburg’s “socialism” had taken its revenge on his Jewishness—at what price Goldberg does not attempt to assess, and presumably we shall never know. There was, meanwhile, a third aspect of Ehrenburg’s character that was important to him, and that was his genuine love of literature and art. This too had been progressively trampled on, and was about to suffer its greatest humiliation. At a sumptuous party in Moscow to celebrate his sixtieth birthday in 1951, Ehrenburg publicly thanked “the man who has helped me to write so much of what I have written, and who will help me in the future”—i.e., Stalin. His next novel, an anti-American tract called The Ninth Wave, ended with an equally emotional testimonial to Stalin.

Two years after his birthday celebration, Stalin was dead, and a year after that, in 1954, Ehrenburg astonished the world with his novel The Thaw, in which the principal villain was a ruthless and dogmatic Party loyalist, clearly modeled on Stalin himself, and the hero a frustrated artist. Though feeble as a work of fiction, the novel was a sensation and gave its name to an entire period in Soviet history, culminating in Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956. Ehrenburg became a “liberal” overnight, and later confirmed this position by working steadily for the artistic rehabilitation of his vanished friends—Babel, Tsvetayeva, Mandelstam, and many others. In his lengthy memoirs, published in Novy Mir between 1960 and 1965, he finally made amends of sorts for his past. At least he opened up to younger Soviet readers some of the true history of their culture and he gave a lively picture, rare in Soviet writing, of the exhilarating period of artistic experiment in Paris.

Despite its benign ending, this is not a very edifying career to contemplate and one is forced to return to the original question: what is the explanation for Ehrenburg’s continuing reputation? Ehrenburg is a mediocre writer. His memoirs, on which much of his reputation now rests, are journalistic compositions, hardly worth comparing with Nadezhda Mandelstam’s two great works, and they are suspect as testimony about the period because of Ehrenburg’s lifelong habit of evasion. But Ehrenburg’s real achievement, according to Nadezhda Mandelstam, was that although he was “as helpless as everyone else, at least he tried to do things for others.” Ehrenburg, for all his abjection before power, and for all the lies he was obliged to tell when the alternative seemed too grim to contemplate, never quite lost a fundamental decency. He did his best to help others, especially during his later years. If he is still mentioned in the same breath as Isaac Babel, Osip Mandelstam, and other writers of that generation of giants, it is because he never quite lost faith, never turned his back on them and their families and their cause.

Important, too, are the things he did not do. He cannot be compared with other conformists of his generation—Alexander Fadeyev, Konstantin Fedin, and Nikolai Lesyuchevsky, for example, who with numerous others, denounced and betrayed their fellow writers and drove many of them to death—or with such burnt-out cases as Leonov and Sholokhov, who never lifted a finger to help a colleague in trouble.

Ehrenburg is different from these men. The melancholy fact is that he lived through a period of unparalleled ferocity in modern Russian history, which caused special hardship in the arts. The Soviet experience produced new categories of horror for writers to endure, and Ehrenburg’s tortured career testifies to the terrible price exacted from those who weren’t strong enough for heroism or martyrdom, but who tried to preserve at least some shred of integrity. Ehrenburg’s reputation as a writer is unlikely to survive, but as a man he was far from the worst thrown up by the Soviet system, and was rather better than many.

This Issue

February 28, 1985