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by Bamber Gascoigne

Ilya Ehrenburg (1891-1967) - name also written: Il'ia Grigor'evich Erenburg


Prolific Russian writer and journalist, who played as a link between Soviet and Western intellectuals before and after the Cold War. From the 1930s to the 1960s, Ilya Ehrenburg was one of the most visible Soviet figures. The second half of his life Ehrenburg spent as a respected messenger of the Soviet state. Without being a member of the Communist Party, he moved freely in foreign countries and held important cultural positions. 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, that destroyed many other writers and artists.

"How can the folk in tropics dwelling,
Where roses in December grow
Where people hardly know the spelling
Of the words like 'blizzard' and 'ice floe,'
Where even azure, even pleasant,
Above the sails a silken sky,
Since time primordial to the present,
The selfsame summer soothing the eye.
How can they even for a twinkling,
In a slumber, or in daydream learn,
How can they have the slightest inkling
Of what it means for spring to yearn,
Or how in freezing winter vainly,
When dour despondency holds sway
To wait and wait until ungainly
And massive ice gets under way."

Ilya Ehrenburg was born in Kiev, Ukraine, into a middle-class Jewish family. When he was five his parents moved to Moscow, where his father operated a brewery. In his memoirs, People, Years, Life (1960-65), Ehrenburg writes that he was pampered in his childhood and it was a mere chance that he did not become a juvenile delinquent. He attended the First Moscow gymnasium, but he was arrested in his early teens for revolutionary activities and excluded from the 6th Grade. Among his close friends during these years was Nikolai Bukharin, the Russian revolutionary who was shot in 1938 during Stalin's reign of terror.

Ehrenburg was imprisoned for five months. After release, he went to Poltava where his uncle lived. In 1908, Ehrenburg immigrated to Paris to avoid trial for revolutionary agitation. He spent much time in Left Bank cafés, met V.I. Lenin, who wanted to hear news from Moscow, and started to write poetry under the influence of Verlaine, Francis Jammes, and Konstantin Dmitrievich Balmont. His first collection of verse appeared in 1910. In France Ehrenburg become friends with such legendary figures as Picasso, Apollinaire, Ferdinand Léger, who showed him drawings made in the trenches of WW I, and Modigliani.

During the war Ehrenburg was a war correspondent at the front. His anti-communist poem, 'Prayer for Russia', came out in 1917. After returning to his home country, he lived in Kiev, (where he worked as a teacher), Kharkov, Kerch, Feodossiia, and Moscow. He also traveled to Georgia with Osip Mandel'shtam. His other friends included Mayakovsky, Marina Tsvetaeva, S.A. Jesenin, and Boris Pasternak, who read him poems. Later Ehrenburg criticized Pasternak's famous novel Doctor Zhivago – he considered it false. In 1919 Ehrenburg married his cousin Liubov' Kozintseva; they had one daughter. Ehrenburg traveled with her and his mistress Jadviga Sommer through the chaos of Russia. His last great love was Liselotte Mehr, who was married to the Swedish politician and governor Hjalmar Mehr.

Ehrenburg lived in Germany and Belgium from 1921 to 1924. The favorite place of the Russian intellectuals in Berlin was the Café Landgraf, which he described in his Memoirs  as "one of Noah's Ark, where the clean and the unclean met peaceably" and where such writers as Belyi, Sergei Esenin, Maiakovskii, Pasternak, Aleksei Tolstoy, and Marina Tsvetaeva recited their prose or poetry.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Julia Jurenito and his Disciples (1922), Ehrenburg's first novel,  ridiculed both the capitalist West and the Communist system. The work – a parody of the Gospels – 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 in the 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 naïve African. Ehrenburg himself is the first disciple and the author-narrator. The novel also includes authentic characters, such as Mayakovski, Picasso, Chaplin, Riviera, and Tatlin. In 1925, Ehrenburg was called a nihilist in a book written by I. Teres'ts'enko.

The Stormy Life and Lazar Roitschwantz (1928) was a version of Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier of Svejk and Voltaire's Candide. The hero is a Jewish ghetto tailor who escapes from Russian anti-Semitism. His adventures take him through a half a dozen countries and several prison. Lazar works as a rabbit breeder in Tula, a rabbi in Frankfurt, a police informer for Scotland Yard, a film actor in Berlin, a starving pioneer in Palestine, and a painter in Paris. Among the targets of Ehrenburg's satire are phony artists of the Quartier Latin and speculators of the Weimar Republic. He also viewed skeptically the era of the New Economic Policy in the Soviet Union. Zhizn i gibel Nikolaya Kurbova (1923) was about the downfall of a Soviet secret policeman and The Love of Jeanne Ney (1924) depicted a love affair between a Russian Communist and a French woman. Out of Chaos (1934) was an apologia for Socialist Realism, and in Ne perevodya dykhania (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.

During the Spanish Civil War, Ehrenburg wrote for the Soviet newspaper Izvestiia. He met Ernest Hemingway in Madrid – according to Ehrenburg he was at that time young and thin. In 1941, he returned to Moscow and listened Stalin's radio speech after the Nazis had attacked the Soviet Union. Stalin was nervous, he drank water and called his listeners "brothers, sisters, friends". Ehrenburg worked as a war correspondent. His ambitious novel, The Fall of Paris (1941-42), depicted the decline of capitalist France. Ehrenburg's reputation, and position as the head of propaganda for the Red Army during the war, made him a target of Goebbel's propaganda. Once he said to the British war correspondent Paul Winterton, that "in wartime every objective reporter should be shot." When he reported on Nazi atrocities after visiting concentration camps, he pleaded the U.S. public to believe him: "I want to tell America what I have seen," began his article in The New York Times Magazine in December 1943. "The Germans have outdone themselves."

The Storm (1949) and The Ninth Wave (1951-52) reflected the atmosphere of the Cold War – Stalin himself defended against critics The Storm, in which a Soviet citizen falls in love with a French woman. In The Thaw (1954-56) Ehrenburg tested the boundaries of free speech in the relatively less rigid but short period starting in the mid-1950s. Nevertheless, he was one of the targets, along with such names as Konstantin Simonov and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, in a vigorous campaign against literary "revisionists," which reached its climax by time of the Third Writers' Congress in Moscow in 1959.

Following the turn of the Soviet policy toward Israel, Ehrenburg denounced Zionism in his controversial article 'On the Subject of One Letter' (published in Pravda in September 1948) and warned Soviet Jews not to identify with Israel, a bourgeois state. "The Jewish people does not want to hear Ehrenburg's advice," wrote 'A grey-haired old man from Moscow' as a reply to his article in the newspaper Eynikayt

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 emigrate to Siberia. Behind the scenes, Stalin planned to launch another purge and use Jewish doctors and their absurdly invented "crimes" as an alibi.

The title of Ehrenburg's famous short novel Ottepel (1954-56, The Thaw, also: A Change of Season) referred to the whole period after Stalin's death and the mild de-Stalinization program of Nikita Khrushchev, who was the secretary general of the Communist Party from 1953 to 1964. Originally the first part was published in the magazine Znamia (Banner) in 1954 and the second in 1956. Generally it is considered artistically insignificant, but it marked the turn toward new tendencies in Soviet literature. In some speeches at the second Congress of Soviet Writers in 1954, the novel was criticized for giving a false picture of Soviet reality. When Ehrenburg visited Hungary in 1956, he did not know, that the book was there semi-forbidden – only 100 copies had been printed for the Party elite. 

The novel's main character is Dmitri 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 lives of an opportunist painter and 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 with some taboo subjects of the 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. In 1946, he visited Canada and 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. While in China, he was astonished by the discipline of the people. He met Pablo Neruda in 1954 in Chile, 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 World Peace Council (1950-67) and a Deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR from 1950. He died in Moscow on August 31, 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. The publication of the work was delayed for ideological reasons. Khrushchev said: "When you read Ehrenburg's memoirs, you note that he presents everything in gloomy tones." ('Ilya Ehrenburg and Hungary's 1956: Ehrenburg, the Khrushchev Party Elite and the Western Intelligentsia' by Alexandr S. Stykalin, Trondheim Studies on East European Culture and Societies, No. 27,  December 2008, p. 13) The Central Committee Presidium repeatedly took up the "Ehrenburg question."

Ehrenburg also campaigned to have published works by writers who had earlier been politically condemned by the regime. When his old friend 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. Commenting on the novel and breaking the conspiracy of around Pasternak's name, he said ambiguously in his memoirs: "It was its artistic untruth which struck me about the novel. I am convinced that Pasternak wrote it sincerely; it contains some marvelous pages on nature and love; but too many pages are devoted to things the author did not see or hear." 

Though anti-Semitism was deeply interwoven into Russian culture, Ehrenburg did not betray his origins. Jewish themes can be found throughout his work. At the instigation of Albert Einstein, Ehrenburg and two dozen other writers were invited to investigate and write about Nazi war crimes. In 1943 Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman began collecting material for The Black Book, about the murder of Jews during the war. The work was banned in Stalin's Russia; even the type plates were destroyed, along with gallery-proofs. After her father's death, Ehrenburg's daughter Irina found from his  archives folders containing parts of the book. With the help of a foreign diplomat, she smuggled them out to the Yad Vashem Archives in Jerusalem. Eventually the book was published by Yad Vashem in 1980. An English translation was produced by the Holocaust Library in 1981. In a speech on his 70th birthday Ehrenburg said: "I am a Russian writer. But as long as a single anti-Semite remains on earth, I will answer the question of nationality with pride: a Jew." The publication of his correspondence, essays, and other writings is still in progress.

For further reading: Il'ia Erenburg by T. Trifonova (1954); History of Soviet Literature by V. Alexandrova (1963); Ilya Ehrenburg: Writing, Politics and the Art of Survival by Anatol Goldberg (1984); Il'ia Erenburg by Aleksandr Rubashkin (1990); Ehrenburg by Michael Klimenko (1990); Ilya Ehrenburg: An Idealist in an Age of Realism by Julian L. Laychuk (1991); Il'ia Erenburg by Viacheslav Popov (1993); Tangled Loyalties: The Life and Times of Ilya Ehremnburg by Joshua Rubenstein (1996); 'Ilja Ehrenburg - radikaali esteetikko, joka oli täynnä ristiriitaisuuksia...' by Staffan Skott, in Lenin rakastajatar (2002); Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century, ed. by Sorrel Kerbel (2003); 'Ehrenburg, Ilya Grigorevich (1891-1967)' by Efraim Sicher, in Encyclopedia of Modern Jewish Culture, Volume 1, edited by Glenda Abramson (2005); Ilya Ehrenburg and Hungary's 1956: Ehrenburg, the Khrushchev Party Elite, and the Western Intelligentsia by Alexandr S. Stykalin (2008); 'Ilya Ehrenburg and His Picaresque Jewish Bodies of the 1920s,' in Exemplary Bodies: Constructing the Jew in Russian Culture, since the 1880s by Henrietta Mondry (2009); Writer's Block: The Paris Antifascist Congress of 1935 by Jacob Boas (2016) - See also: Octavio Paz

Selected works:

  • Stikhi, 1910 [Poems]
  • Ia zhivu: Stikhi, 1911 [I am Alive]
  • Oduvanchiki, 1912
  • Budni, 1913
  • Poety Frantsii. 1870--1913. Perevody I, 1914
  • Detskoe, 1914
  • Povest' o zhizni nekoi Naden'ki, 1916
  • O zhilete Semena Drozda, 1917
  • Molitva o Rossii, 1918 [A Prayer for Russia]
  • Ogon, 1919
  • V' Zvezdakh, 1919 [To the Stars]
  • Lik Voyny, 1920 [The Face of War]
  • Razdumya, 1921
  • Kanuny: Stikhi 1915-1921, 1921
  • Neobychainye pokhozhdeniia Khulio Khurenito i ego uchenikov, 1922
    - The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito and His Disciples (translated by Usick Vanzler, 1930) / Julio Jurenito (translated by Anna Bostock and Yvonne Knapp, 1958)
    - Julio Jureniton ja hänen opetuslastensa ... merkilliset seikkailut ... (suom. Ulla-Liisa Heino, 1964)
  • Zolotoe serdtse; Veter, 1922 [Golden Heart; Wind]
  • Portrety russkikh poetov, 1922 [Portraits of Russian Poets]
  • Opustoshaiushchaia liubov', 1922 [A Devasting Love]
  • Veter, tragedia, 1922
  • A vse-taki ona vertitsya, 1922
  • Shifs-Karta, 1922 [The Steamship Ticket]
  • Moskovskie razdumya, 1922
  • Zarubezhnye razdumya, 1922
  • Trest D.E, 1923
    - film: Europa, abends, 1989, prod. Lichtblick Film- und Fernsehproduktion (I), Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR), dir. Claudia Schröder, starring Eddie Constantine, Maja Maranow, Christoph Moosbrugger, Susanne Beck
  • Chetyre povesti o legkikh kontsakh, 1923
  • Otrechennye, 1923
  • Zverinoe teplo, 1923 [Animal Warmth]
  • Trinadtsat trubok, 1923 [The Thirteen Pipes]
  • Zhizn' i gibel' Nikolaya Kurbova, 1923
  • Liubov' Zhanny  Nei, 1924
    - The Love of Jeanne Ney (translated by Helen Chrouschoff Matheson, 1929)
    - film: Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney, 1927, prod. Universum Film (UFA), screenplay Rudolf Leonhardt, Ladislaus Vajda, dir. Georg Wilhelm Pabst, starring Édith Jéhanne, Uno Henning,  Fritz Rasp, Brigitte Helm  
  • Trubka, 1924
  • Rvach, 1925
  • Nepravdopodobnye istorii, 1925
  • Leto 1925 Goda, 1926
  • Uslovnye stradaniia. Zavsegdataia kafe, 1926
  • V protochnom pereulke, 1927
    - A Street in Moscow (tr. 1932)
  • Bely ugol' ili slyozy Vertera, 1928  [White Coal or Werther's Tears]
  • Burnaia zhizn' Lazika Roitshvanetsa, 1928
    - The Stormy Life of Lazar Roitschwantz (tr. 1965) / The Stormy Life of Laz Roitshvants (translated by Alec Brown, 1965)
  • Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 1927-28 (8 vols.)
  • Zagovor ravnykh, 1928
  • Viza vremeni, 1929
  • Desiat' loshadinykh sil, 1929
    - The Life of the Automobile (translated by Joachim Neugroschel, 1976)
  • Ediny Front, 1930
  • My i oni, 1931
  • Fabrika snov, 1931
  • Ispania, 1933
  • Moskva slezam ne verit, 1933 [Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears]
  • Moy Parizh, 1933
  • Den' vtoroi, 1934
    - Out of Chaos (translated by Aleksandr Bakshy, 1934) / The Second Day (translated by Liv Tudge, 1984)
  • Zatianuvshaiasia razviazka, 1934
  • Khronika nashikh dney, 1935
  • Kniga dlya vzroslykh, 1936 [The Book for Adults]
  • Granitsy nochi, 1936
  • Chetyre trubki, 1936
  • No Pasaran!, 1937
  • Vne peremiriia, 1937
  • Chto cheloveku nado, 1937
  • Ispanskii zakal, 1938 [Hot Spain]
  • 'Padenie Parizha', 1941 (in Roman-gazeta, 3-5)
    - The Fall of Paris (Gerard Shelley, 1942)
    - Pariisin kukistuminen (suomentanut Matti Lehmonen, 1945)
  • Vernost', 1941 [Loyalty]
  • Beshenye volki, 1941
  • Fashistskie mrakobesy, 1941
  • Padenie Parizha, 1942 (Roman-gazeta, 3-5)
    - The Fall of Paris (translated by Tatiana Shebunina, 1949; J. Fineberg, 1949)
  • Za zhizn, 1942
  • Ozhestochenie, 1942
  • Solntsevorot, 1942
  • Stikhi o voine, 1943 [War Poems]
  • Padenie duche, 1943
  • Svoboda, poemy, 1943
  • Voina: (iiun' 1941 - aprel' 1942), 1943
    - Russia at War (tr. 1943)
    - Venäjä sodassa: kesäkuu 1941 - toukokuu 1942 (suom. Matti Grönlund, Matti Rossi, Juhani Taari, 1981)
  • Rasskazy etikh let, 1944
  • Derevo, 1946 [Wood]
  • Dorogi Evropy, 1946
    - European Crossroad (tr. 1947)
  • Burya, 1946-47
    - The Strom (translated by Eric Hartley and Tatiana Shebunina, 1949; J. Fineberg, 1949)
  • Lev na Ploshchadi, 1947
  • Za mir, 1950 [For Peace]
  • Nadezhda mira, 1950
  • Devyaty val, 1951-52
    - The Ninth Wave (translated by Tatiana Shebunina and Joseph Castle, 1955)
  • Sochineniia, 1952-54 (5 vols.)
  • Lyudi khotyat zhit', 1953
  • 'O rabote pisatelya', 1954
    - The Writer and His Craft (tr. 1954)
  • Ottepel', 1954
    - The Thaw (translated by Manya Harari, 1955) / A Change of Season (tr. 1962)
    - Suojasää (suom. Ulla-Liisa Heino, 1963)
  • Sovest' narodov, 1956
  • Frederik Zholio-Kyuri, 1958
  • Frantsuzskie tetradi, 1958
  • Indiyskie vpechatleniya, 1958 [Impressions from India]
  • Stikhi, 1938-58, 1959 [Poems]
  • Karel Purkine, 1960
  • Perechityvaya Chekhova, 1960
    - Chekhov, Stendhal, and Other Essays (translated by Anna Bostock, Yvonne Kapp, Tatiana Shebunina, 1963)
    - Tšehovia lukiessa (suom. Martti Anhava, 1977)
  • Lyudi, Gody, Zhizn', 1961-66 (2 vols.)
    - Men, Years, Life (6 vols.): Childhood and Youth, 1891-1917 (translated by Anna Bostock, Yvonne Kapp, 1962); First Years of Revolution, 1918-21 (translated by Anna Bostock, Yvonne Kapp, 1962); Truce, 1921-33 (translated by Tatiana Shebunina, 1963); Eve of War, 1933-41 (translated by Tatiana Shebunina, 1963); The War, 1941-45 (translated by Tatiana Shebunina, 1963); Post-War Years, 1945-54 (translated by Tatiana Shebunina, Yvonne Kapp, 1966) / Memoirs (tr. 1964)
    - Ihmisiä, vuosia, elämää 1-3 (suom. Juhani Konkka, 1961-63)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1962-66 (9 vols.)
  • Stikhotvorenia, 1972
  • Letopis muzhestva, 1974
  • Chernaia kniga, 1980 (editor, with Vasilii Grossman)
    - The Black Book: The Ruthless Murder of Jews by German-Fascist Invaders Throughout the Temporarily-Occupied Regions of the Soviet Union and in the Death Camps of Poland during the War of 1941-1945 (translated by John Gland anbd James Levine, 1981) / The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry (translated by David Paterson, 2001)
  • In One Newspaper. A Chronicle of Unforgettable Years, by Ilya Ehrenburg and Konstantin Simonov (1986)
  • V smertnyi chas (Stat'i 1918-1919gg), 1996 [At the Hour of Death]
  • Stikhotvoreniia i poemy, 2000 (edited by A.S. Kushner, et al.)
  • Na tonushchem korable: stat'i i fel´etony 1917-1919 gg., 2000
  • Neobychainye pokhozhdeniia, 2001 (edited by B.IA. Frezinskogo)
  • Pis'ma: 1908-1967, 2004 (2 vols., edited by  B.IA. Frezinskim)
  • IA slyshu vse-- pochta Il'i Erenburga, 1916-1967, 2006 (edited by. B. IA. Frezinskii)

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