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Prominent Russians: Ilya Ehrenburg

January 27, 1891 – August 31, 1967

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Ilya Ehrenburg was a prolific Russian writer and journalist. From the 1930s to the 1960s he was one of the most visible Soviet figures. Ehrenburg published poetry, short stories, travel books, essays and several novels, which combined patriotism with cosmopolitanism. Ehrenburg adapted his writings to Soviet political demands and avoided conflicts with the authorities, unlike many other writers and artists who were destroyed for their failure to conform. Ehrenburg spent the second half of his life as a respected messenger of the Soviet state. Beyond his undeniable talent as a writer, Ehrenburg had a remarkable ability to survive. According to the logic of the times in which he lived, Ehrenburg should have been executed at least three or four times. But, as Yevgeny Yevtushenko said: Ehrenburg “taught us all how to survive.” A life full of change and contradiction surely was his. But perhaps Ehrenburg himself described it best in his memoirs: “If within a lifetime a man changes his skin an infinite number of times, almost as often as his suits, he still does not change his heart; he has but one.”

Ilya Ehrenburg was born in Kiev, Ukraine, into a middle-class Jewish family. Originally given the name Eliyahu, Ilya had three older sisters. His father had no interest in Jewish ritual, while his mother continued to observe religious customs. Ilya followed his father's example, and never learned Yiddish or Hebrew. When he was five his parents moved to Moscow, where his father operated a brewery. The Moscow home of Lev Tolstoy adjoined the brewery and young Ilya would often see the elder writer strolling about.

In his memoirs, “People, Years, Life,” Ehrenburg writes that he was pampered in his childhood and it was a mere chance that he did not become a juvenile delinquent. Ilya enjoyed a relatively privileged lifestyle in Moscow and attended the First Gymnasium where he met and became friends with Nikolay Bukharin, the Russian revolutionary who was shot in 1938 during Stalin's reign of terror.

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Ilya got involved in politics and was in the crowds erecting barricades during the Revolution of 1905. Both Ehrenburg and Bukharin joined the Bolshevik organization in 1906. Ehrenburg and Bukharin edited an underground journal, spoke at meetings, collected funds and organized a strike at a wallpaper factory. Ehrenburg also worked to establish a Bolshevik cell in a soldiers' barracks.

But he was arrested in his early teens for revolutionary activities and excluded from the 6th Grade. Ehrenburg was imprisoned for five months but was allowed out for medical reasons. After his release he went to Poltava where his uncle lived. In 1908 Ehrenburg immigrated to Paris to avoid trial for revolutionary agitation. The young Ehrenburg arrived in Paris because, as he wrote in 1960, that's where Lenin was. He spent much time in Left Bank cafés, met Lenin, who wanted to hear news from Moscow, and started to write poetry under the influence of Verlaine, Francis Jammes and Konstantin Balmont. His first collection of verse appeared in 1910.

In France Ehrenburg became friends with such legendary figures as Picasso, Apollinaire, Ferdinand Léger, who showed him drawings made in the trenches of WWI, and Modigliani. Eager to hear the impressions of a young person fresh from Russia, Lenin invited Ehrenburg for a private dinner and conversation.

Soon, however, Ehrenburg's interest in politics began to wane and he took to writing poetry. Not ready to give up politics entirely, he followed the advice of Lev Kamenev and went to Vienna to work with Leo Trotsky.

In Vienna, Ehrenburg helped prepare copies of “Pravda” to be smuggled into Russia. He had conversations with Trotsky about art. He found Trotsky to be dogmatic and intolerant, calling the poets Ehrenburg admired decadents and the product of political reaction. This attitude depressed Ehrenburg, so he returned to Paris where he decided to renounce politics and devote himself to literature.

With the help of poet Liza Polonskaya, Ehrenburg produced a few magazines lampooning most of the revolutionary leaders, including Lenin, who, in one caricature, was labeled a chief janitor. Lenin saw and was outraged by the lampoon.

Living on an allowance sent by his father, Ehrenburg spent most of his time reading and writing in the cafes. Near the end of 1909, Ehrenburg met and fell in love with Katya Schmidt, an émigré from St. Petersburg. On 25 March 1911, she gave birth to Ehrenburg's only child, Irina. Ehrenburg was not prepared for the responsibilities of being a husband and father and he never married Katya.

In 1910 Ehrenburg came up with enough money to publish his first poetry collection, “Verses.” It contained poems on themes of Catholicism and the Middle Ages. The prominent Symbolist poet Valery Bryusov found the work elegant and beautiful. He wrote: “Among our young poets, Ehrenburg is second only to Gumilev in his ability to construct verses and derive effect from rhyme and the combination of sounds.” Gumilev, however, was unimpressed, stating that all he found in Ehrenburg's work was "ungrammatical and unpleasant snobbism."

Ehrenburg's second volume of poetry was published in 1911. It again contained Catholic poems, but also “To the Jewish People,” a poem voicing despair over the historical plight of the Jews. This volume was more to Gumilev's liking and he wrote: “Ehrenburg has made great progress from the time of his first book's appearance. He has passed from the ranks of imitators into the ranks of apprentices and even sometimes steps forth on the path of independent creativity.”

In 1912, Ehrenburg, an official fugitive from Russian justice, applied for a commutation of his sentence, knowing that the Tsar was likely to grant a broad amnesty in connection with the 100th anniversary of Romanov rule. The request was denied. Ehrenburg kept on working and helped to edit two issues of the journal Helios, in which he wrote glowingly about the verse of Marina Tsvetaeva. In 1914, he published an anthology of his own translations of French poets, including Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Apollinaire.

When World War I broke out, Ehrenburg tried to enlist in the French army, but he was rejected as being too gaunt. Instead, Ehrenburg wound up working as a war correspondent for the Russian papers “Utro Rossii” (Morning Russia) and “Birzheviye Vedomosti” (Stock Market news). His reporting was intelligent, skeptical and fair. His coverage of the French army's shameless use of bewildered Senegalese troops in the most exposed positions so infuriated the French government, that Ehrenburg was almost expelled from the country. The war took a toll on Ehrenburg and he suffered a nervous breakdown. He began to yearn for his homeland, and after the February Revolution, he set back for Russia. He arrived in Petrograd in July and moved on to Moscow where he met the October Revolution by cowering in his room as street fighting raged outside his window.

In early 1918, Ehrenburg published a collection of verse entitled “A Prayer for Russia.” One work in this collection, “Judgment Day,” makes Ehrenburg's hostility to the Bolsheviks apparent. It features Red soldiers stopping to rape a woman as they storm the Winter Palace. Mayakovsky denounced the collection as “tiresome prose printed in verses” and Ehrenburg as “a frightened intellectual.” Later (in 1921) Ehrenburg himself dismissed the collection as “artistically weak and ideologically impotent.” Throughout 1918 Ehrenburg wrote anti-Bolshevik articles, calling Lenin “a stocky bald man” who resembles “a good-natured burgher.” He called Kamenev and Zinoviev “high priests” who “prayed to the god Lenin.” In 1919, things got too hot in Moscow for Ehrenburg, so he moved to his hometown of Kiev. He met and associated with various writers including Andrey Sobol and Osip Mandelshtam. In Kiev Ehrenburg married a distant cousin named Lyubov Kozintseva.

In September 1919, the Whites took control of Kiev, and Ehrenburg resumed publishing hate-filled anti-Bolshevik articles, calling Lenin's revolution a “drunken orgy” and the Bolsheviks “rapists and conquerors.” This attitude, however, did not appease the fiercely anti-Semitic Whites. They came looking for the Jew Ehrenburg at the newspaper office once, but the printers hid him. So Ehrenburg fled to the Crimea with his wife and his mistress and from there returned to Moscow.

Two weeks after his arrival in Moscow, Ehrenburg was arrested and accused of being an agent of Wrangel. Four days later, however, he was released, probably through the intervention of Bukharin.

Resuming his literary life, Ehrenburg worked along side Andrey Bely, Boris Pasternak, Sergey Esenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam etc., barely surviving by doing readings and literary reviews. Then he found a real job supervising the nation's children's theaters for the Ministry of Education. His direct superior was Vsevolod Meyerhold.

Still, life was hard and once again with Bukharin's help, Ehrenburg became one of the first Soviet intellectuals to be granted a passport to travel abroad. Forced to leave his mistress behind this time, Ehrenburg took his wife and set off for Paris in March 1921. But after only two weeks in the French capital, the French police grabbed Ehrenburg and expelled him from the country, never giving a reason.

From 1921 to 1924 Ehrenburg lived in Berlin and Belgium. His first novel, “The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito and his Disciples,” was written in 28 days. It ridiculed both the capitalist West and the Communist system. The work was a parody of the Gospels and was in many ways controversial. It was blasphemous toward Christianity attacking socialists, pacifists, and all governmental organizations. The central character is a cynical prophet Julio Jurenito, whose seven disciples are thrown into global turmoil. Julio Jurenito dies at the age of 33 in a provincial Russian town. He is an Antichrist, whose teachings are based on hatred. He promotes the destruction of beauty and all arts unless there is a Utilitarian purpose for their products. His involvement in behind-the-scenes plotting, somehow connected with the progression toward World War I and the Russian Revolution, never becomes clear. Among his seven disciples are such ethnic stereotypes as an American industrial entrepreneur, an easy-going Italian, a militaristic German and a noble and naive African. Ehrenburg himself is the first disciple and the author-narrator. The novel also includes authentic characters, such as Mayakovsky, Picasso, Chaplin, Riviera, and Tatlin. Julio Jurenito created an immediate sensation, winning universal praise, even from Pravda. Bukharin wrote an introduction to the Soviet edition of the novel, calling it “a most fascinating satire that exposed a number of comic and repulsive sides to life under all regimes.” Evgeny Zamyatin noted in particular Ehrenburg's use of irony, calling it a “European weapon” seldom used by Russians. He applauded Ehrenburg for ridiculing all targets equally and readily accepted Ehrenburg into the brotherhood of heretics. Of Ehrenburg, Zamyatin wrote: “He is, of course, a real heretic and therefore a revolutionary.”

In October 1921, Ehrenburg moved to Berlin, where the tempo of his literary output increased. By 1923 he had produced three more novels. In “Trust, D.E.” American millionaires finance a plan to destroy Europe with viruses and poison gas. “The Love of Jeanne Ney” is the story of a love affair between a young, respectable French bourgeois woman and a Russian Communist, who is sent to France on a subversive mission. He is arrested on a murder charge and the only way to prove his innocence to reveal his true mission. He remains heroically silent and is sentenced to death. Jeanne sacrifices her honor in a vain attempt to save her lover. Ehrenburg also viewed skeptically the era of the New Economic Policy in the Soviet Union. The novel “Zhizn i gibel Nikolaya Kurbova” (Life and Death of Nikolay Kurbov) (1923) was about the downfall of a Soviet secret policeman. “Out of Chaos” (1934) was an apologia for Socialist Realism and in “Ne perevodya dykhania” (Breathless) (1935) the writer accepted the official Communist policy in economic and political matters.

From 1925 to 1945 Ehrenburg lived in Paris, working as a foreign editor of Soviet newspapers. At intervals he returned to the USSR. With the American director Lewis Milestone in 1933, Ehrenburg composed a screenplay for a film, based on one of his stories, but the film was never realized. When the International Writers Congress was held in Moscow in 1934, he opposed Gorky, who advocated the doctrine of Socialist Realism.

In 1928, he published “Conspiracy of Equals,” an historical novel concerning the Babeuf movement in Revolutionary France, which rejected terror and advocated an egalitarian democracy. Stalin did not like this work, dismissing it as “pulp literature” suitable for “a real bourgeois chamber theater.”

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In the face of increasing criticism from Moscow, Ehrenburg gradually began to shift his writings into a more openly pro-Soviet direction. He wrote about European peasants, blasted Poland's authoritarian rule and France's racist colonialism. He undertook a series of stories and novels exposing the greed of noted wealthy entrepreneurs. “The Life of the Automobile” focused on Andre Citroen, Pierpont Morgan, and Henry Ford. “The Shoe King” attacked Tomas Bata, the Czech footwear capitalist. “Factory of Dreams” takes on Hollywood, George Eastman, and the Kodak camera. “The Single Front” takes as its target Kreuger, the Swedish Match King. The capitalists were not amused. Bata sued Ehrenburg, and Kreuger opened a public relations war against the writer. Moscow wasn't particularly thrilled either, however. While these books exposed the abuses of capitalism, they failed to suggest communism as the solution to these ills. The 1931 edition of the Small Soviet Encyclopedia described Ehrenburg as follows: “He ridicules Western capitalism and the bourgeoisie with genuine wit. But he does not believe in communism or the proletariat's creative strength.”

In 1931 Ehrenburg visited Germany twice. The rise of Nazism, which he saw there gravely disturbed him. It seemed to him that war was inevitable and he could no longer remain an uncommitted skeptic because, as he wrote later, "Between us and the Fascists there was not even a narrow strip of no-man's land."

In 1932, Ehrenburg became a reporter for Izvestiya, covering the trial of a deranged Russian émigré who had assassinated the French President. In addition, his articles were persistent and clear in calling attention to the danger of the rise of fascism.

Later that year, Ehrenburg returned to the Soviet Union. He spent weeks in Siberia, touring construction sites in Sverdlovsk, Tomsk, and Kuznetsk. Upon his return to Paris, Ehrenburg penned “The Second Day,” sometimes translated as "Out of Chaos." It is a day-to-day account of the harsh conditions of life and the heroic efforts of workers to overcome nature's resistance as they build a blast furnace in Kuznetsk. In the novel, a weak dreamer tries to fit in with the more dedicated workers but fails. He becomes complicit in an act of vandalism. Ashamed of his own spiritual bankruptcy, he commits suicide. This work was Ehrenburg's attempt to reestablish himself politically in the Soviet Union. At first, the publication was rejected. But Ehrenburg sent copies to Stalin. He got lucky, and publication was approved.

In 1932 Ehrenburg also produced the novel “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears” about the difficulties of a Russian artist who has the opportunity to study in Paris. The artist is attacked by a critic at home who denounces his work as degenerate and bourgeois. In this work, Ehrenburg makes the point of comparing western capitalist society to a lavatory in a fifth-rate Paris hotel.
Ehrenburg was a participant and one of the principal organizers of the International Writers' Congress in Defense of Culture, which began its work on 21 June 1935. The goal of the congress was to organize a broad anti-fascist coalition of writers from a wide range of perspectives, including liberal, socialist, communist, Christian, and Surrealist. In the fall of 1935, Ehrenburg made a quick trip back to Moscow. While there, he gave speeches and wrote articles in praise of Pasternak, Babel, Meyerhold, Dovzhenko and the independence of art. This resulted in some criticism of Ehrenburg. Vera Inber, for example, rebuked him for implying that only Pasternak had a conscience among Soviet poets.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in summer 1936, Ehrenburg immediately traveled to Spain to report on the war, disobeying instructions from Izvestia, which wanted him to stay in Paris. His reporting was intelligent and passionate, maintaining a constant drumbeat of anti-Fascism. While in Spain, Ehrenburg also met Ernest Hemingway. By 1937, he had put together a book of sketches on the war entitled “What A Man Needs.” Ehrenburg continued writing dispatches from Spain and France. Then he suffered a severe shock in August 1939 with the announcement of the Hitler-Stalin pact. He was so shaken that for eight months he could only take in liquids and chew on herbs and vegetables. He lost 20 kilos.

In December 1937, Ehrenburg went to Moscow for a short vacation at the height of the terror campaign. His friends in Moscow couldn't believe how foolhardy he was to return at a time when writers were being regularly arrested. He expected to return to Spain after two weeks, but the authorities told him this would not be possible. On the orders of Stalin, he was given a ticket to attend the trial of his old friend Nikolay Bukharin. Izvestia wanted him to write an article on the trial, but Ehrenburg adamantly refused. Unknown to Ehrenburg at the time, Karl Radek, one of Bukharin's co-defendants, had revealed under "interrogation" that Ehrenburg had been present while Radek and Bukharin were plotting their coup. Fearful and tired of waiting, Ehrenburg sent an appeal to Stalin, asking to be sent back to Spain. The request was refused. Knowing that he was being extremely foolhardy, Ehrenburg decided to "play the lottery" and sent a second appeal to Stalin that, for unknown reasons, was granted this time.

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During the war, he wrote over two thousand articles, mainly for the paper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). He gained credibility and popularity among the troops by frankly assessing German strength and admitting Soviet losses as well as expressing a fierce hatred for the enemy. In one of his most famous articles he wrote: “Now we understand the Germans are not human. Now the word “German” has become the most terrible curse. Let us not speak. Let us not be indignant. Let us kill. If you do not kill a German, a German will kill you. He will carry away your family, and torture them in his damned Germany. If you have killed one German, kill another.” Soldiers loved his articles. An order was passed not to use copies of Ehrenburg's articles for rolling cigarettes. Molotov reported that Ehrenburg “was worth several divisions.” On May Day 1944, Ehrenburg received the Lenin Prize for his wartime efforts. In 1948, Ehrenburg produced the novel “Storm” about World War II with action set both in the Soviet Union and in France. It described the enormous efforts of the Red Army to defeat Nazi Germany. While it contained descriptions of the massacres of Jews at Baby Yar, it also portrayed a shocking liaison between a Russian and a French actress (marriages with foreigners were illegal at the time) and made an oblique jibe at the Hitler-Stalin pact. Nonetheless, it won the Stalin Prize.
Then, in 1954, Ehrenburg published a novel that was to give its name to an entire era of Soviet history. In “The Thaw” (Ottepel) he tested the boundaries of free speech in the relatively less rigid but short period starting in the mid-1950s. Ehrenburg's connections with the top of the Soviet political hierarchy were exceptionally good and just before Stalin's death rumors spread in Moscow that the writer Ilya Ehrenburg had been chosen to deliver a petition to Stalin begging him to let Russia's Jews immigrate to Siberia. Behind the scenes, Stalin planned to launch another purge and use Jewish doctors and their absurdly invented "crimes" as an alibi. The main character of “The Thaw” is Dmitry Koroteev, an engineer who is unhappily in love with Lena. She is married to Ivan Zhuravlev, the influential director of a factory. With the story of these three characters, Ehrenburg interlinks the lives of an opportunistic painter, his counterpart, an old-guard communist, and a Jewish doctor. Externally the story moves slowly. In the end Zhuravlev is called to the capital never to return again. The lengthy inner monologues touch in passing some taboo subjects of Soviet history, including the arrest of Koroteev's stepfather in 1936 and the anti-Semitic hysteria in the early 1950s. The book secured Ehrenburg's place among the reformers, although he was better known for his loyalty to the Stalinist regime.

Ehrenburg received the Stalin Prize in 1942 and 1948, and the International Lenin Peace Prize in 1952. He visited Canada in 1946 and then the United States, where John Steinbeck said to him, “If you spit in the mouth of a lion, it becomes tame.” When newspapers and magazines stopped printing his writings in 1949, Ehrenburg sent a short letter to Stalin. The ban was lifted, and he continued his travels in different parts of the world. In China he was astonished by the discipline of the people. He met Pablo Neruda in Chile in 1954, and in Japan he felt that Kipling's famous lines, “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, are not only wrong but dangerous.” Ehrenburg was the Vice President of the World Peace Council (1950-67) and a Deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR from 1950. He died in Moscow on 31 August 1967. The last years of his life Ehrenburg devoted to his memoirs, “People, Years, Life,” which portrayed a number of famous writers and artists he had known. He also campaigned to have published works by writers who had earlier been politically condemned by the regime. When Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 for his novel “Doctor Zhivago” and Soviet authorities started a protest campaign, Ehrenburg refused to participate in it. When Yevgeny Yevtushenko came under attack for his poem "Babi Yar" in 1961, Ehrenburg rose to his defense by writing a letter to the editor of “Literaturnaya Gazeta.” Ehrenburg lent support to younger writers. He signed a letter in support of Iosif Brodsky, counseled Andrey Voznesensky on how best to avoid complications, protested against the sentences given to Sinyavsky and Danil and expressed positive views about Solzhenitsyn.


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