When I studied twentieth century history in college, the name Ilya Ehrenburg was always in the background. A Russian writer whose works were not widely read in the West, and (I didn’t know) perhaps had not even been translated from the Russian. A Jewish writer, who seemed to prosper during the period of time when other Jewish writers were being silenced, or murdered. A favorite of the Communist party, who never seemed to lose favor, irrespective of the twists and turns of leadership ideology.
For this reason, when I saw Joshua Rubenstein’s biography of Ehrenburg (published in 1996), I jumped at the chance to read it, and was not disappointed. Rubenstein’s portrait of Ehrenburg is a fascinating description of a very unusual man, who led perhaps an ever more unusual life.
Born in 1891, Ehrenburg was exiled from tsarist Russia as a 17 year old in 1908, as a result of his adolescent revolutionary activity. Going to Paris, and traveling around Europe, he hobnobbed with fellow revolutionaries such as Nickolai Bukharin, and met both Lenin and Trotsky. But his interest in revolutionary activity faded, in part as a result of his contacts with these future Soviet leaders, and he decided to devote himself, not to the overthrow of the Romanovs, but to poetry and literature.
To make a living, he turned to journalism, becoming a stringer for a St. Petersburg newspaper during the first World War, but he did not return to Russia until after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Then, rather than simply glom on to the Bolshevik program, he again grew disillusioned, and, during the Leninist period of relative liberalism, returned to Paris, where he lived for most of the next several decades.
He reported on the Spanish Civil War, and then returned to Russia where he covered, for domestic consumption, the Second World War, becoming by far the Soviet Union’s most popular journalist.
He was a prolific author (again, I don’t think most of what he has written has been translated into English), books, poetry and articles. His activities continued through the Stalinist years, even though his writing did not always tow the Stalin line (although always pro-Soviet), and demonstrated a surprising amount of fairly independent thought. While Stalin was arresting and murdering his political associates and public intellectuals in various fields (including particularly Jewish intellectuals), Ehrenburg (although always fearing the knock on the door) was never touched, was allowed to continue to write, maintained a degree of direct contact with Stalin, and was permitted to travel widely and even, with his family, live abroad.
He was also able to maintain his contacts with Russian and western intellectuals. This does not mean that his life was without tension – he had his enemies within the Soviet establishment, and they often won the small battles, although he never lost the war.
The critics have been cruel to Ehrenburg, accusing him of kowtowing to the Bolsheviks (although he was never a Bolshevik), and of living while everyone else was being purged and killed. But there is no evidence that Ehrenburg conspired with the leadership in the purges. It is simply that, for reasons unclear, Stalin decided to let Ehrenburg live.
I found Rubenstein’s book fascinating. It is well sourced and comprehensive, talking of Ehrenburg’s successes and failures, professional and personal. Whether or not Rubenstein’s analysis of Ehrenburg is completely accurate or not, I do not know. because we are dealing with so much in the secretive and vicious Soviet Union, it is hard to judge the objectivity of facts as they are unearthed. But I think that Rubenstein’s conclusions make sense, portraying Ehrenburg as very talented, committed to his art, reluctantly political, not at all shy, and more than anything else,, lucky. It is this luck that is the wild card. How could Ilya Ehrenburg be this lucky, unless he was an active participant in Soviet ruthlessness? But the truth is that those who were active participants were no more able to avoid being murdered by Stalin than those who were not. Kowtowing to Stalin was far from the key to survival.
So the mystery of Ehrenburg’s survival (he died of prostate cancer in 1967) remains a mystery – a mystery to Ehrenburg as well as to us.
One final thing: Rubenstein’s descriptions of some of Ehrenburg’s writing shows him to have been incredibly prescient as to how history would move forward. I would love to read some of his works, starting with The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito, written in the early 1920s. From Rubenstein’s description, it seems to presage the entire remainder of the 20th century. I am sure I can find a copy somewhere.