Ehrenburg’s life

The Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg has long seemed a significant, or at least a symptomatic figure. But significant or symptomatic of what? It is not merely that his career spanned from the first to the seventh decades of our century, with so many changes of fortune or direction, but also that he does not seem to have pulled the contradictions of his own personality together until the comparative and partial success of his last years. The late Anatol Goldberg’s quirky but often fascinating book reflects a rather similar disjunction, in a way which is helpful, if sometimes distracting, to our understanding of the issues involved.

Ehrenburg was, above all, a representative of the literary-political intelligentsia that is to be found in continental Europe, particularly Eastern and Central Europe. (It is not really matched by anything we have in the Anglo-Saxon countries, except as an import, like the Russian word “intelligentsia” itself.) He started in extreme youth as almost a caricature of the most avant-garde section of this intelligentsia and was known among the Bolsheviks as “shaggy Ilya.” Recruited into the party by Bukharin at the age of sixteen, he was soon arrested and spent some months in jail before the usual rich parents got him abroad, where he left the Party as a result of listening to Trotsky’s dogmatic views on literature. He never rejoined, but was later to pay at least lip service to aesthetic attitudes incomparably more dogmatic than Trotsky’s.

His exile was in Paris, where he nearly became a Benedictine monk but soon settled down to the Closerie des Lilas and the Ro-tonde. After some work as a war correspondent, he was back in Russia in 1917, opposing the Bolshevik Revolution. Over the next few years he became reconciled, up to a point, with his old comrades. They join others in what seems a fair characterization—he was a “skeptic,” “sardonic towards both Red and White,” a “nihilist.” But Bukharin helped get his first well-known work, Julio Jurenito, published; and for the next decade he moved between Moscow, Berlin, and Paris in somewhat distrait fashion, without really committing himself. In 1932, however, he made a definite decision to serve the Soviet regime—initially as Izvestia correspondent in Paris.

Ehrenburg seems to have realized that his country’s political despotism would become even worse but to have hoped that literary liberties could be preserved. And from now on, he exemplifies one of the great moral dilemmas which have faced so many Europeans and others: to what extent js it permissible to collaborate with a tyranny with a view to limiting, however slightly, its excesses? It is the question which faced not Quisling but Laval, who, by his own lights, worked to save what he could of French liberty in case of a Nazi victory. To do so he had to acquiesce or participate in many dubious actions; the same is true of the members of the United Front who collaborated with Communist governments in the postwar period. The criterion is, presumably, how far they succeed, which is usually not very far. In Ehrenburg’s, case, twenty years followed in which he had almost no effect, beyond sometimes preserving a little elbow room for himself, at the same time performing services, some of them disgraceful, to the despot. If Ehrenburg had died in 1953, there would be no more to say. But, as we shall see, he was able to defend literature to some extent after Stalin’s death.

By the Thirties he had become a brilliant journalist. Goldberg quotes some of his pieces, taking them at face value. I remember myself being much struck by his reports on the Asturias rebellion and the Schutzbund rising. But the only time I met him, after the War, he wrote his vivid descriptions of the honest Bulgarian peasantry from the bar of the Bulgaria Hotel in Sofia. Such phenomena are not unknown in Western reporting; but in this case it was a matter of fiction decking out Stalinist disinformation.

This is not to imply total dishonesty. The rise of Hitler and the Spanish War engaged his real feelings, and his reports from Madrid, even if unreliable as fact, were powerful and stimulating. He contrived briefly to defend, not anarchism as such, but at least the ordinary anarchist workers; and although he went along with the virulent attacks on Trotskyism, he never made them his main theme, sticking mainly to the horrors of Francoism. Goldberg notes that some of his books were to be published in Spain while Franco was still in power, and wonders if Ehrenburg knew of this.

On returning to Moscow late in 1937, the question of his being sent back to Spain was unresolved, so he wrote directly to Stalin, who refused permission. Thereupon Ehrenburg wrote again, urging Stalin to reconsider, and was then let out. Such a request to the dictator to admit that he had made a mistake was totally out of harmony with the spirit of the times. Stalin’s response will remind us that there was another strange personality besides Ehrenburg’s involved in Ehrenburg’s survival—Stalin’s own.

More here.

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