Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Ilya Ehrenburg

Perhaps no other writer's career illuminates so many facets of the Soviet experience as that of the prolific Ilya Ehrenburg.   For many decades, Ehrenburg was one of the Soviet Union's most internationally recognized writers.  His various successes as a writer neatly correspond to many of the Soviet Union's most important milestones in socialist government.  For Ehrenburg was a poet and avant-garde novelist when the Soviet Union was itself a sort of experimental project;   Ehrenburg was a patriotic propagandist when the country was engulfed in Nazi atrocities;  Ehrenburg was a court flatterer when almost everybody in Russia was collaborating on some level or another with the phenomenon of Stalinism;  and Ehrenburg was a humanist when the country made its fateful, if short-lived and uneven, move away from unbridled totalitarianism.

Joshua Rubenstein's portrait of Ehrenburg, Tangled Loyolaties:  The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg,  sheds light on a dozen different aspects of modern Soviet history.  Most importantly, Rubenstein's biography demonstrates the pervasiveness of anti-semitism throughout modern Russian history.  In his early career, Ehrenburg was a Bolshevik and rebel, but quickly became revolted by revolutionary successes, only to return to Leftist politics when confronted with the violent Jew-baiting of the Whites.  Although Ehrenburg compromised his integrity over and over again in order to survive Stalin's extraordinarily dangerous regime, he worked hard to temper political violence and ideological extremism, and never more so than when this violence and extremism was directed against Jews.

It's remarkable to trace the history of anti-semitism in twentieth century Russia, but Ehrenburg's life bears witness to its tenacity.  Although never a religious man, Ehrenburg grew up in a Russia which prevented Jews from living outside of the "Pale of Settlement" without special permission from the government.   He then watched much of the Civil War's fury directed against Jewish civilians. After that, Stalin's regime proved decidedly unfriendly to Jewish interests before Nazi Germany took anti-semitism in the East to hitherto unimagined extremes.  This orgy of bloodshed wasn't the end.  After winning the Second World War, Stalin moved decisively against Russia's large Jewish population, labeling them "rootless cosmopolitans" with no allegiance to the socialist state. The so-called "Doctor's Plot," in which Stalin and his henchmen falsely accused Jewish doctor's of plotting the medical assassination of several leading communists, Stalin included, was certainly the signal for a wider campaign against Russia's defenseless Jewish population.

Ehrenburg, almost alone among the Soviet Union's leading Jewish writers and other cultural leaders, survived.  Rubenstein speculates that this was because Ehrenburg demonstrated his usefulness to the regime as a bridge to Western cultural figures.  But he also wonders whether Ehrenburg's fame helped Stalin to cloak the destruction of most other leading Jewish writers, actors, and cultural leaders.  In any event, Rubenstein's title, Tangled Loyalties, is descriptive.  Ehrenburg did repeatedly demonstrate some measure of political courage, notwithstanding his decision to remain publicly loyal to the Soviet Union's political establishment.  In fact, throughout his career, Ehrenburg defended countless intellectuals and writers who demonstrated some level of autonomy in the Soviet Union.  He was, for instance, a champion of Pasternak, Mandelstam, and Akhmatova.  More importantly, he helped to document the holocaust in the East.  In the end, Ehrenburg may be best known for writing the book, The Thaw, which gave a name for the liberalization that the Soviet Union experienced after Stalin's death, and for producing a memoir which, while politically cautious by today's standards, were filled with liberal, modernist, international, and humanist sentiments, sentiments that inspired a generation of Soviet dissidents and reformers and artists.

One thought that stayed with me is that Ehrenburg's humanity, like that of the Russian people, somehow survived Stalinism.  At the same time, Ehrenburg was honest enough to avoid any simple claim that he had been duped or overawed or purely victimized by Stalin's villainy.  Although Stalin was a brutal dictator, Ehrenburg believes that the Soviet people participated in their own degradation.  Why?  Many have argued that the Russian people were spoiled by centuries of rural ignorance.  To his credit, Ehrenburg rejects this thesis.  Germany had no such excuse:  an educated populace was no barrier to Hitler's charism.  Whatever the case,  on some level the Russian people liked Stalinism, even embraced it. While Ehrenburg couldn't explain why this should be the case, and even expected historians to wrestle with the questions for several decades if not more, he acknowledged that this paradox of what Terry Eagleton calls "holy terror" (i.e., desirable, even transcendent, brutality) must eventually be resolved if people are ever to avoid the horrors of modern totalitarianism.

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