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New International, July 1949


Martin Thomas

Meet Ilya Ehrenburg

“A Swindler ... with Dreamy Eyes”


From The New International, Vol. XV No. 5, July 1949, pp. 149–153.
Reprinted with permission of Confrontation Internationale, No. 1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


“Life is like a vaudeville show, with innumerable changes of costume, but I’m no one in particular. I try simply to obey.

“I believe in absolutely nothing. It isn’t my fault. That’s how I’m made. My spine is so supple that nothing can straighten it out.

“I’ve changed my shirt again. Now I’m a despicable swindler, doubling as an indecent fellow with dreamy and idealistic eyes.”


These are some of the appreciations Ilya Ehrenburg has of himself in his own works. There is no doubt that he believes only in certain of the things that he says in his behalf. In his novels he is continuously struggling against himself, destroying everything that represents his “ego.” There is no need to refer to Freud to understand that this type of spiritual self-punishment almost always reflects a guilt feeling.

Ehrenburg is today best known as Soviet journalist No. 1. But Ehrenburg is more than that. For a long time he was one of the most brilliant Russian novelists. But the interest in his recent novels lies rather in the positive proof they reveal of the effects of totalitarianism on creative art. Ehrenburg renounced his freedom as an artist. Today his novels can hardly be considered as works of literature.

Ehrenburg once wrote that there are two ways of getting past a high wall: by jumping over it, or crawling under it. He ended up by crawling under it. Yet we must recognize that sometimes he tried to leap.

Ilya Ehrenburg was born in Moscow in 1891. His father was an engineer and business man. His grandfather was a sugar magnate in the Ukraine. Ilya was 14 during the revolution of 1905. Three revolutionary parties were then known in Russia – the Bolshevik, Menshevik and the SR’s. Each had an illegal circle in the schools. Ehrenburg belonged to the Bolshevik group, probably because it was the strongest in the college he attended.

These circles met in private apartments. Political Economy by Bogdanov and the works of Marx were the most important books studied. After they read a chapter or two of Capital, a qualified student explained them to the group. The members of these circles were young people of both sexes. Those were glorious days!

At 16, Ilya was expelled from grammar school for revolutionary activity. His identification card prevented him from continuing his studies elsewhere. Ilya’s father succeeded in having this card withdrawn and so Ehrenburg could continue his studies. At 17, he actively participated in all workers’ meetings. In this period he was known in party circles as “the long-haired Ilya,” a nickname given to him because of his ungroomed head of hair which covered his forehead during his heated arguments.

The police were not long in getting wind of his activity. Ilya was arrested and spent more than a year in prison before being freed under bond. His father paid the bond which let him free on condition that Ilya leave the country immediately. Ehrenburg accepted and fled illegally to France.

In Paris he was received with open arms by the party comrades. But prison life influences men differently; some are demoralized, others strengthened in their faith. Ilya was not, properly speaking, demoralized, but he had lost his taste for political questions. For some time he attended meetings which were held in the back room of the old Café du Panthéon on Boul’ Mich’, but he soon gave up any political activity. Ilya’s family derived great pleasure from this but they were soon to be disillusioned. Friends of the family warned them that their son intended to enter a monastery.

The heroes and heroines of the last century frequently entered a monastery to escape from their sufferings. Their entrance met no obstacles. But in reality this did not happen with the same ease in every instance. French monasteries customarily asked a fixed sum, payable in advance, of their novitiates. Besides, Ilya was a Jew and could not be formally converted without the consent of his parents. He finally had to abandon his plan and his father, having learned of his new decision, once more began to send him a regular monthly allowance.

Ilya did not abandon Christianity. During the years that followed, he evolved in two different worlds at the same time. The first was Catholicism and its clergy, especially the Jesuits, who had some distinguished intellectuals in their ranks. Ehrenburg had many night-long discussions with them. During the day he enthusiastically studied the history of Catholicism at the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Ilya and Diego

The little cafes of Boulevard Saint-Michel were the other world in which Ilya developed. Ilya carefully avoided the Panthéon, where the group of Russian Marxists used to meet, and used to spend his time at La Source, where young writers and artists held sway. Diego Rivera, whose fame had not yet spread beyond the boundaries of Boul’ Mich,’ was the leading figure. Ehrenburg became his intimate friend and admirer. Diego Rivera encouraged him to paint. Ilya’s paintings were not bad but did not compare with the Mexican’s. Rivera, who was a cubist, made too heterodox a painting of his friend, who did not like it. Long discussions of cubism ended the friendship of the two men and Ilya once more returned to the poet’s corner and gradually began to devote himself to poetry.

At the beginning of 1914, Ilya published his first book, Verses for the Virgin, a little book filled with fervor. The poems were not uniform in value, but all of them expressed the same sentiment, a profound identification with Catholicism.

At the declaration of war in 1914, Ehrenburg became a correspondent for a Petrograd daily. It was an organ mildly liberal in character and patriotic. Ehrenburg’s articles tended toward chauvinism and nationalism. They were his first efforts in journalism. All that can be said of them is that they did not strengthen his position as a writer. Ilya was not unaware of it and was distressed. His chauvinism was only a new attempt to find a spiritual hearth, but it was too crude and schematic to ring true.

In 1917 the Russian Revolution offered another opportunity. Ehrenburg remembered his revolutionary past in the hope of again finding his lost soul. He made the decision to return to Russia at once to give his all to the rising movement. This was no longer easy. Communications with Russia were non-existent and the war was still raging on all fronts. Ilya had heard of the famous sealed train in which the German general staff had permitted other revolutionaries and Lenin to cross the Reich to return to Russia. But Ilya did not succeed in getting back to Russia by this means.

His ties with the Bolsheviks had long since been broken and although his articles appearing in the Petrograd paper had never mentioned his playing around with Catholicism, yet they had discredited him among his old friends. He turned to Lenin, who did not remember Ehrenburg but had not forgotten “Ilya with the long hair.”

Lenin liked to quote an old Russian proverb which said, “In a large family, a little piece of thread must be saved.” During a revolution, this proverb gained a greater significance and with Lenin’s help Ilya was again able to return to Russia.

A few months later the Bolsheviks took power, driving out the Kerensky government. Ehrenburg spent almost four years in Russia, but in 1921 he was already a relentless enemy of the Bolshevik regime.

He left for Berlin, the center for Russian émigrés, and took part in opposition work. During his stay in Russia he had published a new volume of verse, Prayers for Russia, which was of great interest to some generals in the White Army. They reprinted some of his poems in the daily paper of their army. But the leaders of the anti-Soviet movement were soon to become disillusioned with Ilya. He attacked the Bolsheviks only because they had destroyed old churches and other historic relics, but he took good care not to take a clear political position. When pressed to state his position clearly, he replied he was writing a novel.

The novel, The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito and His Disciples, suddenly gave him worldwide fame. He was translated into several languages, including Spanish. The book, a satirical novel, attacked socialism and capitalism alike. His leading character, a Mexican, is an allegoric figure, a sort of Mephistopheles who wants to put an end to the whole world, without excluding Russia and its pseudo-socialist system. Ehrenburg has his Jurenito say of this system that its grandiloquent orders can only succeed in transforming human beings into robots incapable of thinking independently. When he is arrested in Russia by the Cheka, Jurenito addresses the commissars as follows: “You have a great mission on earth. You must convince men that the irons with which you brand them are in reality the loving arms of a mother.” Before dying Jurenito (echoing the author’s thought) sends his last kiss “to all his brothers who without programs and principles simply love the howling of the wind and adventure.”

Ehrenburg published this book in Berlin but it was soon reprinted in Russia in several editions. That was still possible in this period. At this same time there was published in Moscow, on Lenin’s demand, a still more biting criticism of the Soviet regime, the famous book of A. Averchenko, Twelve Blows in the Back of the Revolution.

At this time Ehrenburg left for Paris and with great concentration began to write one novel after the other. He worked most of the time in the Rotondade and when in 1926 this cafe was put to another use, he crossed the Boulevard Montparnasse and emigrated to the Coupole.

The Coupole was open day and night. At four in the morning the place was cleaned, and the customers were asked to move to the back of the room while the cleaning was taking place. Ilya was the most regular witness of this ceremony.

Ilya and God

Hundreds of people were acquainted with his face, his long, almost simianlike arms. He wrote for hours, smoking his pipe, impervious to interruptions.

He was a brilliant and clever conversationalist although a bit cynical. While chatting with friends he tried to show them that he had no beliefs, not even in God. He had definitely abandoned the religious period of his existence. Instead of faith he now cultivated hate.

His special hate was the great men he held responsible for all the calamities which beset humanity. About 1926 a French writer who had just heard a lecture by Madame Curie told Ilya that he regarded this woman as an outstanding individual. Ehrenburg sardonically replied to his informant: “Wait a few years and you will see another great man make powerful bombs from this radium she has discovered.”

When the Nazis took power, they publicly burned all the books they disapproved of. As for the Russians, they did not burn books, but after the Moscow Trials, the vast majority of the books published during the revolution disappeared. Nobody knew what became of them.

Many of Ilya’s works are among the books that disappeared. Upon their publication, Ehrenburg was criticized several times by the Soviet press. But his books had many readers and no doubt influenced a considerable number of young Soviet writers during the period between the two world wars.

Ilya and Trotsky

It is now impossible to find in Russia copies of Ilya’s first works. One of the reasons for their disappearance is that he several times mentions the names of Trotsky, Bukharin and other Bolshevik leaders of the first period. “He speaks like Trotsky, each sentence contains an idea,” says one of the characters in a work by Ehrenburg.

But that is not the real reason for the disappearance of Ilya’s works. Ehrenburg is a serious and conscientious artist. His characters, whether Communist or not, are well delineated and are true artistic creations. This means that the reader can do something else than “recognize” them or identify himself with them; any serious second-rate writer can write a “true” novel, but Ehrenburg sums up in these characters the authentic psychological and moral problem of the revolutionary upheaval and, as the Russian

Revolution became crystallized into a totalitarian mold, the clear artistic vision of Ehrenburg became a danger signal.

What was needed now was a simpler art which rejects complications. In A Little Street in Moscow, a novel by Ehrenburg, a certain Pankrator, a nouveau riche of the Revolution, says to a friend while pointing out to him a Soviet police agent:

“This gum-shoe no longer defends either the revolution or the proletariat or anything resembling it. He is here in the street to protect me and my money.”

Ehrenburg wrote this novel when the upstart bureaucracy was still practically absent from the Soviet Union, but at the beginning of a period which was to lead to the formation, of a new ruling class. Ehrenburg saw the danger.

Good literature anticipates life. Many of Ehrenburg’s novels live today in Russia and we can discover their origin in his work; for example, the hero of The Life and Death of Nicholas Kustor, Michael Lykov of The Profiteer, the Communist Yur of The Summer of 1925 and many others. Lacking faith, enthusiasm, without any foundation, they were turned into blind functionaries who are no longer driven by anything but a “system” only distantly related to the revolutionary spirit which inspired their youth.

Is there anything surprising in the bureaucracy’s trying to suppress the work of an artist who paints the internal mechanism of its development? To see this artist end up by identifying himself with this very bureaucracy is the astonishing thing.

The most extraordinary of Ilya’s first works is perhaps The Amazing Life of Lazik Roitschwanz. Lazik, a Jewish tailor in a little city, is dragged into the Revolution but is not part of it. While the world is in turmoil, Lazik ponders over the theoretical problems of the Hebraic tradition. Ilya could not have written this book if he had not known of the teachings of the Talmud in his youth. Arrested in Moscow for an alleged violation of the law, Lazik remains indifferent to his fate and a problem dawns upon him and engrosses him completely: if two Jews find a taled in the street, whose is it, the one who saw it first or the one who picked it up? In other words, which is more important, the eye or the hand? In such a serious situation, Lazik ponders over this fact: May a Jew eat an egg laid on Saturday?

These meditations are, so to speak, a flight for Lazik, a trick to escape everything he cannot control.

“Good luck is a word found in an old dictionary which is non-existent. You can, of course, change your name as some do and call yourself Spartacus, Rosa Luxemburg or Apollo the Enthusiastic. Yet what’s the use? When history goes marching past in the streets, all Mr. Everybody can do is to die in ecstasy.”

Ilya and Stalin

Only after writing this tale did Ilya begin to see it clearly. The French say that there are two kinds of marriages, those of love and reason. Ehrenburg’s marriage with the Kremlin is one of reason.

The rulers of Russia liked Ehrenburg not only because he was popular in his own country but because he was as well known in Germany, France and other European countries. As for Ilya, he had serious reasons for wanting to make peace with the Soviet authorities. The Soviet government had no special agreement and could still publish works of authors who live abroad without paying them royalties. Only those who were subject to the regime received their royalties from Moscow.

It is no longer impossible to think that in the last analysis, the all-powerful Russia of Stalin, patriotic and imperialist though it may be, is more in conformity with the tastes of the former correspondent of the Petrograd daily than the one he left in 1921.

During the first years of his “marriage,” Ilya retained a certain independence and dignity. But he submitted completely when the Spanish Civil War broke out. Ilya was Izvestia’s correspondent in Spain. He reached Spain when many murderous hands of the GPU were liquidating socialist leaders one after the other. Thus fell Andrés Nin, Kurt Landau, Marc Rein and so many others.

Under the pressure of the Soviet government, the members of the POUM were framed up. That was the first attempt to transport the Moscow Trials to Europe. Ehrenburg’s tack was to inform his readers of Izvestia and to make them believe that all Spanish anti-Stalinists were Trotskyist saboteurs, agents of Hitler and Franco. He did his work conscientiously and his articles were immediately translated and published in the Stalinist press of the whole world.

But an artist cannot with impunity give up his integrity. The novels that Ehrenburg wrote on his return from Spain to Paris were so bad that it seemed they could have been written by somebody else. The characters are always Communists who are robots. The author sets them up and has them utter words borrowed from the editorials of Pravda. This is the new Soviet man who has no doubts about any problem. Those who, by chance, may have some doubts end by committing suicide, the doubt being a sort of frustration.

Ilya pro Ilya

Ilya was soon the most famous Soviet correspondent. His popularity was so great in the army during the war that the soldiers were given special orders not to roll their cigarettes with the newspaper in which his prose had appeared. Stalin himself could not pride himself with such a mark of favor. [He contented himself with an order that his prose not be used for another, more mundane purpose.]

There is no question of Ilya’s sincerity when he wrote his anti-German articles. He always had a deep hatred of the Germans. His most violent articles were born of his hate. But when Russia’s policy toward Germany changed, Ehrenburg was among the first victims.

The head of party propaganda, Aleksandrov, violently criticized his anti-German position in Pravda. The tone of Aleksandrov’s article showed that the Russian bureaucrats – who are always ready to use men like Ehrenburg – could no longer have any confidence in him. That is perhaps one of the reasons why Ilya, despite his great literary past, is not the head of the Union of Soviet Writers, presided over by Fadeyev, who has no talent.

The difference between a Soviet writer and a Communist writer abroad is the following: the former knows what is now happening in Russia, while the latter lives in a state of relative ignorance. Take Aragon’s case: he can continue to write novels which have some value; and Howard Fast, who, in New York, draws on the American past to write second- rate popular books, giving the impression he believes in what he is doing. But neither Ehrenburg nor any other Soviet writer can today write anything honest in Russia unless he has the heroism of a Pilnyak, or a Zostchenko. That is why Russian novelists – and there are excellent ones – publish nothing. There are some who have been silent for ten years.

Ilya Ehrenburg now lives in one of the most luxurious houses in Moscow. He is a rich man who on national holidays can bedeck his chest with two rows of decorations. When he came to New York in 1946 he told a reporter that American stores sold only rubbish, but he would nevertheless buy something to bring back to his two dogs. It seemed he wanted to indicate by that that what was sold in Moscow was of superior quality.

There is reason to suspect that Ehrenburg is not happy. He is very ambitious and his greatest ambition is to be a great novelist. During his first stay in New York he accidentally met a friend whom he had known in Paris. He acted as if he did not recognize Ilya, who came up to him and asked if he did not know him. His former friend then replied: “Sure, I know you. You are none other than Ilya Ehrenburg, who used to be a writer.” Ehrenburg did not dwell on it but he later confessed to a friend that this remark had deeply hurt him.

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