In 1966, the year I made the acquaintance of Ilya Ehrenburg, these words appeared in the Daily Mirror: ‘His name is always mud – somewhere or other. He is Ilya Ehrenburg, the renowned Soviet writer, who has shouldered the lifelong burden of always being blamed by somebody, somewhere, for something.’ Joshua Rubenstein shows flair in taking this as the epigraph for his book, and so acknowledging the magnitude of his task.
Two obstacles face anyone wishing to deal with the life of Ehrenburg. One is the obstacle of righteousness: to suppose that in his circumstances one might have behaved more nobly than this agile apologist for Stalin. The other is the obstacle of special pleading: to argue that, however nasty he was, he also did a lot of good. His advocates reverse the old adage about the flea: Ehrenburg couldn’t do much good, but he did all the good he could. But this good itself, one might argue, was a fairly heterogeneous matter, for we should never forget the remark of Yevtushenko, quoted by Erik de Mauny in his postscript to Anatol Goldberg’s Ilya Ehrenburg (1984): ‘He taught us all to survive.’
The tension between these two unappetising alternatives furnishes a good deal of the intellectual and moral electricity in Rubenstein’s fascinating biography, which, on the whole, manages to be balanced and commonsensical, melancholy and forgiving, and never boring. The operative terms of the subtitle are key: the life may have been unedifying, but given the times in which that life had to be lived (and Rubenstein vividly reconstructs them) it is impossible to remain wholly unsympathetic.
True, the laudable instinct for fair play does occasionally cross the line into ludicrous understatement. Of Ehrenburg’s dispatches from the Spanish Civil War, where he was the correspondent for Izvestia, Rubenstein writes: ‘As a fervent partisan, Ehrenburg was not trying to provide objective reports of what he witnessed.’ Even years after the death of his master Stalin, Ehrenburg could not bring himself, in his multivolume autobiography, to provide anything like ‘objective reports of what he witnessed’. Whether, after a lifetime of adroit lying, he could entertain the concept of objective reporting is highly dubious.
Ehrenburg is today all but unknown among people younger than fifty, yet there was a time when his name figured alongside that of Stalin (to his immense peril) in the Western press. He was the quintessential pisseur de copie, and wrote from morning to night, churning out millions of words; yet I cannot locate a single dictionary of quotations (in English) that considers one syllable by him worth recording. But in his Introduction to Ewa Bérard’s La Vie tumultueuse d’Ilya Ehrenbourg (1991), Efim Etkind goes so far as to call him the man of the 20th century.
There is, however, a chasm between the actual work of Ehrenburg, immensely important at the time, and its general consequence in the world that followed that time. The preponderance of his writing is journalistic dust, superseded days if not hours after it was written, or political rant of one kind and another. But he wrote in practically every form, including verse. No fewer than three editions of his collected works came off the press while the man was still alive. But then who was not so honoured in the Communist hierarchy? Brezhnev after all was collected.
More than anything, Ehrenburg probably aspired to be a novelist. His greatest success was a political fable written in Paris when he was not yet thirty, The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito and His Disciples (1921), which uncannily predicted the German attempt to exterminate the Jews. One reads it today as the historic curiosity and jeu d’esprit that it is. Other works by him have suffered the same fate of being emblematic without being any good. Take the novel The Thaw, published in 1954, when Stalin’s corpse had scarcely begun to cool. It is a wooden and mediocre book, painful to read even once (though it is a masterpiece compared with Ehrenburg’s Stalin Prize novel, The Storm, 1948), but it gave the name to a short-lived era in Soviet political and intellectual history and will therefore always be at least mentioned in accounts of the period. The public library in Princeton, unfazed by the University library a block away, has an impressive collection of fiction. Yet while it contains two biographies of Ehrenburg, it contains not a single work by him. (The University library conscientiously stocks all his novels and several more biographies, including Bérard’s, which managed to elude the bibliography of the encyclopedic Rubenstein.) Ehrenburg brilliantly solved the problem of being inescapable without bothering to be readable.
That my old Harvard teacher Roman Jakobson prized the work of Mayakovsky I set down not only to his literary judgment, which I respected without sharing, but also to the fierce loyalty that Russians feel toward the friends of their youth. That he seemed also fond of Ehrenburg I could simply not comprehend, and to speak of forgiveness in such matters would be an impertinence. I was trying, under the guidance of Jakobson, to write a dissertation on the poetry of Osip Mandelstam. Jakobson had been a Futurist, like Mayakovsky, and Mandelstam was an Acmeist. These labels seem increasingly quaint, but at the time they still meant something, even to Roman Osipovich. Mandelstam interested him chiefly as a metrical innovator – that is, as a linguistic phenomenon. But Ehrenburg had no standing at all as a writer worth serious attention, so Jakobson’s regard for him was utterly mysterious.
For me, Ehrenburg was the very emblem of the poisonous toad croaking in the Stalinist night. He impinged on my consciousness and that of my generation during the years 1945-53 – from the end of the war to the end of Stalin – and this was arguably the low point of a moral existence that did not lack for low points. He was to Stalin what Goebbels was to Hitler, sycophant-in-chief. He praised his master and maligned my country with a kind of machined regularity and with detestable forensic skills.
For all the veneer of his European culture, Ehrenburg’s behaviour on his one visit to the United States, in 1946, was indistinguishable from that of the crassest Soviet philistine, driven by two inexorable motives: to traduce America while acquiring as much of its capitalist bounty as his means allowed. Shown a factory surrounded by a parking lot full of automobiles, he insisted that the cars could not possibly belong to the workers inside. Then he bought himself a luxury car, a Buick, had it shipped, at the expense of Soviet workers who probably could not even imagine such a thing, back to the USSR and there relied on a Red Army chauffeur to operate it, since he himself was unable to drive.
Other friends, such as my Princeton colleague Nina Berberova, depressed me by their positive views of Ehrenburg. When, later on in the USSR, I found that Nadezhda Mandelstam, with whom I all but lived for a year, always spoke of Ehrenburg as ‘the last person alive with whom I am na ty’ – i.e. use the affectionate form of address – my despair was complete. Rubenstein quotes this remark, which Nadezhda regularly made as a sort of ritual exculpation whenever the name of Ehrenburg came up. When, finally, she insisted I accompany her to meet him in his elegant Moscow flat, I contemplated rebellion. The promise of seeing the treasures of modern art, officially proscribed by the state of which he was still the number one wowser, won out. The aged Matisse had done a portrait drawing of him, but Ehrenburg knew that, whereas a Buick might be managed, he could not at the time import into the USSR anything so officially decadent.
Aged and ill (he died the following year), the famous journalist greeted me from his notoriously stooped position, looking up from beneath his brows, and said in what I suppose was meant to be an ingratiating tone: ‘What I wrote about your country – it was not too horrible?’ I cannot recall my answer, though it was doubtless one of the formulae of politeness meant to preserve decorum, not advance the conversation, of which, in fact, there was little. By this time, anyway, Ehrenburg’s immense power to pull the strings of cultural life had devolved on his French-born secretary, Natalya Stolyarova. She had become the facilitator, the person to see for appointments, assurance that this or that coast was clear, permission to read this and that, and so on.
Nothing is so striking about Ehrenburg’s identification with the policies of the USSR as the amount of his life that he contrived to live elsewhere, comfortably beyond the reach of those policies. His family got the young Bolshevik safely out of the country when he was 17. The first thing he did in Paris was meet Lenin and the second was to renounce his Bolshevism and lampoon Lenin. He took up his station as a café regular, met and was befriended by everyone from Picasso on down, and did not return to stay in the Soviet Union until he was nearly fifty. Even then, he never stayed long, for his utility – as the poster boy of Soviet creative freedom, racial tolerance and wide European culture – was far greater in the West. This man, with no formal education beyond that received in childhood (he knew little history and no science), was a sort of itinerant Ministry of Culture. Mediocre at best as an artist, he nevertheless recognised art in others, and he was selfless and indefatigable in promoting the art of one of his constituencies to the others.
Like his epigones among the political ‘consultants’ of today, Ehrenburg was a man without political or moral convictions, but no one ever seems to have doubted his personal loyalty. It is this, I think, that explains the loyalty shown him by Roman Jakobson, Nina Berberova, Nadezhda Mandelstam and many equally worthy people, including his biographer. He was loyal mostly to individuals. If, however, there was any group to whom his loyalty never wavered, it was his fellow Jews. Rubenstein’s book becomes properly incandescent in the account of this covenant. All the other objects of his supra-personal loyalties, such as his beloved France, which co-operated with the Nazis in their genocidal programme, eventually let him down. The Jews were the final homeland of his chronically homeless heart. When Zionism, one of the most dangerous of all crimes in the USSR, or the establishment of the Jewish state, were at issue, he took the most valorous risks of his career.
For years Ehrenburg was the chief collaborator on a work that he never managed to see through the press. He was instrumental in the publication of a Russian translation of the Diary of Anne Frank, but the volume closer to his heart, The Black Book, a documentary account of Nazi atrocities against the Jewish populations in their path, was published only in 1980 in Jerusalem (an English translation came out in New York in 1981).
I know of nothing more exculpatory than what Avraam Shalamov said of Ehrenburg. I knew Shalamov rather well, he was at Nadezhda Mandelstam’s kitchen table nearly as often as I was, and I trusted the probity and moral instinct of this writer of genius, who had spent decades in the camps and who was not inclined to be forgiving of the various informers, turnkeys and lackeys who, eager to avoid the fate themselves, had sent him and some forty million others to presumptive death. Of Ehrenburg he said: ‘There was no blood on his hands.’