Ehrenburg, Ilya Grigoryevich

views updated May 14 2018


EHRENBURG, ILYA GRIGORYEVICH (1891–1967), Soviet Russian writer and journalist. Born to an assimilated middle-class Jewish family in Kiev and, with no ties to Jewish religion or culture, Ehrenburg is typical of many Jewish left-wing intellectuals of this century, whom Hitler and Stalin would not allow to forget their origins. A feeling of outrage at antisemitism recurs in Ehrenburg's books and journalistic output throughout his career and was a major factor in his youthful revolt against Czarist and, at the end of his life, against Stalinist injustice. Forced to flee Russia because of participation in revolutionary activities, he lived abroad, mainly in Paris, between 1908 and 1917. Ehrenburg returned to Russia after the February Revolution, criticizing sharply in his essays the October Revolution and its leaders, Lenin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, and others. He left again in 1921 and lived mainly in Berlin, where he witnessed the rise of the Nazis to power. Understanding that Nazi ideology was a danger to the world, he proposed to Stalin in September 1934 to turn the International Organization of Revolutionary Writers into a movement against Fascism and in support of the Soviet Union. His proposal was accepted. He did not permanently settle in the U.S.S.R. until shortly before the Nazi attack on the U.S.S.R. in the summer of 1941. On the eve of the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, the publication of his poems and essays was stopped, but renewed on the eve of the German attack on the Soviet Union. From 1948 he was active in the pro-Soviet World Peace Movement, serving as its vice chairman.

Of the nearly 30 volumes of Ehrenburg's literary and journalistic output, including collections of poems, the most successful was his first novel, Neobychaynye pokhozhdeniya Khulio Khurenito (1922; The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito, 1958), an all-out sardonic attack on different aspects of modern civilization, including its persecutions "of the tribe of Judah." A series of rather undistinguished novels dealing with different subjects followed in rapid succession. These include Zhizn i gibel Nikolaya Kurbova (1923; "The Life and Death of Nikolai Kurbov"), the story of the undoing of a Soviet secret policeman; Lyubov Zhanny Ney (1923; "The Love of Jeanne Ney"), an account of a love affair involving a Russian Communist and a "bourgeois" French woman; Rvach (1925; "The Grabber"), a typical tale of a Soviet revolutionary corrupted by peacetime prosperity; and Zagovor ravnykh (1928; "The Conspiracy of Equals"), which tells the story of Babeuf, one of the heroes of the French Revolution.

Closest in spirit to Julio Jurenito is Ehrenburg's "Jewish" novel, Burnaya zhizn Lazika Roytshvantsa (1927; The Stormy Life of Lazik Roitschwantz, 1960) a biting lampoon of injustice, hypocrisy, and pretense both under capitalism and in the new Soviet republic. Its hero, a pathetic Jewish tailor, is a direct descendant of the ne'er-do-wells and Luftmenschen of *Shalom Aleichem. Try as he may, Lazik Roitschwantz cannot understand why both the Reds and the Whites consider harmless folk like himself dangerous enemies of the State. Though outwardly a rogue, all Lazik Roitschwantz really desires is to earn a livelihood and to be left alone by the authorities. Though liberated by the revolution from the yoke of official Czarist antisemitism, he is now suspect to the Soviet bureaucrats as a petty bourgeois individualist artisan. Escaping to Western Europe, he finds himself mistaken for a Communist agent and is packed off to jail as a Jewish Bolshevik. When he finally makes his way to Palestine, fate decrees that he die of starvation in the land of his ancestors.

There are no grounds to doubt Ehrenburg's assurances that the main reason he opposed reprinting the novel in the post-Stalin nine-volume set of his works brought out in the 1960s was his feeling that the old caricature of the "little Jew" should not be revived only a few years after millions of real-life "little Jews" were murdered in Nazi crematoria. Ehrenburg's loyalty to the Soviet regime did not waver during Stalin's bloodiest terror as well as during the Nazi-Soviet pact, and for years he was a most vocal apologist for some of the most abhorrent features of the Soviet regime. His activities in the latter capacity frequently smacked of cynical opportunism, just as his later championing of freedom might have been dictated by a desire to expiate his guilt as a verbal accomplice in Stalin's crimes. There is, however, one aspect of Ehrenburg's activity in which the writer's sincerity is beyond all questioning, namely his opposition to Nazism. His novel Padeniye Parizha (1941; "The Fall of Paris"), written during the period of Nazi-Soviet friendship, was published in its entirety only after Hitler's armies had invaded Russia. Ehrenburg had become the leading Soviet journalist on the strength of his reports in Izvestia on the Spanish Civil War and, during World War ii, his impassioned diatribes against the German invaders were distributed to millions of Soviet soldiers. A member of the Jewish *Anti-Fascist Committee, he stressed his Jewish identity during the war. On the assignment of the Committee he prepared together with Vasily Grossman the "Red Book" on the heroism of Jewish fighters and the "Black Book" on the Holocaust of Soviet Jewry. The first book was banned outright by the authorities. The second was even typeset, but during the liquidation of the committee in 1948 it was halted by the KGB. Parts of the book were then published in Yiddish (1944) and Romanian (1946), and it was fully published in Russian in 1980 in Jerusalem by Yad Vashem.

Ehrenburg's usefulness as the Soviet Union's foremost anti-German ideologist came to an end with the defeat of Nazism, but he was soon to achieve eminence in the propaganda onslaught on the West, which is also much in evidence in his two novels of that period, Burya (1947; The Storm, 1949) and Devyaty val (1952; The Ninth Wave, 1958). In the fall of 1948 he played a significant part in the Soviet Union's swing away from outright support for the State of Israel. In an article in Pravda he opposed Jewish nationalism and warned Soviet Jews against cultivating any special attachment to Israel more than any other capitalist land.

A controversy that is not likely to be solved for years to come relates to Ehrenburg's role during the sinister antisemitic purges which claimed the lives of scores of Ehrenburg's friends and colleagues, such as the actor Solomon *Mikhoels, the poets Itzik *Fefer and Peretz *Markish, the novelist David *Bergelson and others. Not only did Ehrenburg escape their tragic fate, but in 1952, the year when the others were executed, Ehrenburg was awarded the Stalin Prize. However, he detached himself from the official line over the "*Doctor's Plot."

Almost immediately after Stalin's death in March of 1953 Ehrenburg became a spokesman for those Soviet intellectuals who demanded liberal reforms. His novelette Ottepel (1954–56; "The Thaw") was a major event in the struggle for a more humane Soviet society: it was an indictment of many aspects of Stalinism, including crudely propagandistic art and the antisemitic campaigns. Yet in retrospect Ehrenburg's crowning achievement may well prove to be his memoirs Lyudi, gody, zhizn (1961; People and Life 18911921, 1962; Memoirs: 192141, 1964), which were serialized in the monthly Novy Mir between 1960 and 1965. In spite of all the evasions and distortions, these presented a relatively truthful picture of Russia's and Western Europe's artistic and literary intelligentsia during the 1920s and 1930s and included several loving portraits of Yiddish cultural figures. Ehrenburg's memoirs constitute, in fact, the closest Soviet approximation to date of cultural history.

On the occasion of his 70th birthday celebrations, Ehrenburg stated: "Even though my passport declares me to be a Jew, I am a Russian writer," implying that Soviet Jews were allowed entry into Russian culture, but not into the Russian people.

Toward the end of his life Ehrenburg frequently clashed with Soviet official spokesmen, stubbornly championing the cause of a greater degree of artistic and personal freedom and, whenever the opportunity presented itself, heaping scorn on Soviet antisemites. Thousands took part in his funeral, many of them young Jews who saw him as a liberal and a fellow Jew.

A major biographical study of this Soviet Jewish writer in English appeared in 1984: Ilya Ehrenburg: Writing, Politics and the Art of Survival by Anatol Goldberg, with an introduction, postscript, and additional material by Erik de Mauny.


M. Friedberg, in: G.W. Simmonds (ed.), Soviet Leaders (1967), 272–81; M. Slonim, Soviet Russian Literature (1964), 208–17; T. Trifonova, Ilya Ehrenburg (Russ., 1952); V. Alexandrova, A History of Soviet Literature (1964), 127–42.

[Maurice Friedberg /

Shmuel Spector (2nd ed.)]

Ilya Grigorievich Ehrenburg

views updated May 23 2018

Ilya Grigorievich Ehrenburg

The Soviet author Ilya Grigorievich Ehrenburg (1891-1967) is best known for his role as a man of letters throughout the first 50 years of Soviet history. He wrote more than 100 books and pamphlets, which range from lyric verse, to fiction, to journalism.

Ilya Ehrenburg was born on Jan. 27, 1891, in Kiev. He came from a middle-class Jewish family, and his father worked in a brewery. The rampant anti-Semitism of Kievan life at the turn of the century made a deep impression on young Ehrenburg. Throughout his life he engaged in the fight against racism. In 1896 Ehrenburg's family moved to Moscow, where Ilya entered the First Moscow Gymnasium. Although he was a poor student, he drew inspiration from Moscow life. Leo Tolstoy kept a townhouse next to the Ehrenburg home, and Maxim Gorky lived for a short while in the Ehrenburg house.

Ehrenburg's formal education ended in 1907, when he was expelled from the gymnasium for leading an anticzarist strike. He had been exposed at school to ideas of revolution and early leaned toward the Bolshevik ideology. Ehrenburg was arrested several times in 1907 and 1908 for radical writings, and he was finally exiled in 1908. His exile brought him to Paris in 1909, where he settled down in the emigre artists' colony.

The experiences of Ehrenburg in Paris from 1909 to 1917 and from 1924 to 1940 left an indelible impression on his life and art. His acquaintance with Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera introduced him to the avant-garde in the arts. His contacts among Russian emigres led him to reflect on the problems of Russia's historical destiny in the context of European civilization. During the 1910s Ehrenburg led the life of a literary bohemian, attending lectures at the Haute École des Études Sociales, working as a tourist guide and stevedore, and testing his talent as a writer. His first literary work was poetry, and he published a book of poems entitled Parisat his own expense in 1910. Ehrenburg spent much of World War I working as a correspondent for various Russian newspapers.

Ehrenburg had deep reservations about the Russian Revolution. He returned to Russia in 1917 after the February Revolution, working at various literary and journalistic jobs until 1921. Ehrenburg married in 1919, and he and his family left the Soviet Union in 1921, traveling about Europe until 1924, when they settled in Paris. In 1921 in Belgium, Ehrenburg wrote his most successful novel, The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito and His Disciples. This satirical novel portrays the comical adventures of a Mexican as he confronts the absurdities of capitalist and socialist life in Europe and the Soviet Union.

From 1924 until his return to Moscow in 1940, Ehrenburg lived the life of a journalist and free-lance writer throughout Europe. Although he came to accept the role of the Soviet Union in world affairs and to praise the Soviet Union's opposition to fascism, Ehrenburg was hesitant about committing himself to life in the Soviet Union. In 1932 he became a regular correspondent for the Soviet newspaper Izvestia. His duties as journalist took him to Spain in the 1930s, where he wrote about the Spanish Civil War. In 1940 he was again in Paris, then occupied by German troops. His book The Fall of Paris (1942) presents an excellent account of the Occupation.

Ehrenburg returned to Moscow in 1940 with a worldwide reputation. He worked as a war correspondent for the Soviet newspaper Pravda throughout World War II. Ehrenburg's attitudes toward the unreasonable strictures placed on the Soviet writer by socialist realism were ambivalent until after the death of Stalin. In 1954, however, Ehrenburg published The Thaw, depicting the harm done to Soviet writing by the heavy hand of the Soviet bureaucracy. The title of this novel became the name of the liberal decade of the 1950s in Soviet literature. Ehrenburg further contributed to the thaw in Soviet literary policy with his memoirs, People, Years, Life, published in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Ehrenburg's memoirs are a valuable source of information for students of Soviet literature.

Ehrenburg was an urbane man, an extremely prolific writer, and a protector of the arts. He died in Moscow on Sept. 1, 1967.

Further Reading

The best source on Ehrenburg's life is his autobiography. For critical appraisals of his writings see Max Eastman, Artists in Uniform: A Study of Literature and Bureaucratism (1934), and Vera Alexandrova, A History of Soviet Literature (1963). □