Ilya Grigorievich Ehrenburg (1891 - 1967)
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 Ehrenburg was one of the most visible Soviet figures, who spent the second half of his life 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 artist.
"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, in 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 tells that he was pampered in his childhood and it was a mere chance that he did not become a juvenile delinquent. He attended 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 terror. Ehrengburg 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 cafйs, 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's become friends with such legendary figures as Picasso, Apollinaire, Ferdinand Lйger, 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', appeared in 1917. After returning to his home country, he lived in Kiev, where he worked as a teacher, Kharkov, Kerch, Feodossia, and Moscow. He also traveled to Georgia with Osip Mandel'shtam. Ehrenburg's The Stormy Life and Lazar Roitschwantz (1928) was a version of Jaroslav Ha ek's The Good Soldier of Svejk and Voltaire's Candide. The hero is a Jewish ghetto tailor who escapes from Russian anti-Semitism and whose adventures take him through a half a dozen countries and several prison. Lazar works as a rabbit breeder in Tula, rabbi in Frankfurt, police informer for Scotland Yard, film actor in Berlin, a starving pioneer in Palestine, and painter in Paris. Ehrenburg's satirizes among others the phoney artists of the Quartier Latin and the speculators in 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 Ehrenburg composed in 1933 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 made him a target of Goebbel's propaganda. As late as January 1945 Hitler claimed that Stalin's flunkey Ilya Ehrenburg manifests, that the people of Germany must be destroyed.
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. Ehrenburg's connections to 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 picked 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.
Ehrenburg received the Stalin Price 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. 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. Ehrenburg 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. He also campaigned to have published works by writers who had earlier been politically condemned by the regime.