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SERVING STALIN AND LITERATURE - The New York Times, 30/12/1984 (in English)

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http://www.nytimes.com/

SERVING STALIN AND LITERATURE
By ANTHONY AUSTIN


Anthony Austin, an editor of The New York Times Magazine, reported from Moscow for The Times from 1979 to 1981. ILYA EHRENBURG Revolutionary, Novelist, Poet, War Correspondent, Propagandist: The Extraordinary Epic of a Russian Survivor. By Anatol Goldberg. Edited and introduced by Erik de Mauny. 312 pp. New York: Viking. $17.95.

WHAT interest does the life of the late Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg hold for us today? He was, after all, the man who placed his considerable gifts at Stalin's service during the eight postwar years before the tyrant's death - this when finer artists resisted compromise and perished. He was the Soviet loyalist of the 1930's who managed to live out most of that decade as an expatriate in Western Europe, at a safe distance from the nightmare purge that decimated his friends and colleagues in Moscow.

True, before that, in the 1920's, his mordant and inventive novels brought both Western decadence and Soviet regimentation under fire. And during the German invasion of the Soviet Union, he rose to a wrathful eloquence in his newspaper articles that made him the authentic voice of Russia at war. Yet, remembering all those Soviet writers of his time who were less pliant than he, and who paid for their bravery with oblivion or death, what value can we extract from the life of a man who skirted danger, made a career that spanned 40 years and was buried with honors at 73, the Order of Lenin on his lapel?

As Erik de Mauny, a former BBC correspondent in Moscow, says in his postcript to this book, Ehrenburg ''was the great survivor on the Soviet literary scene.'' But as Anatol Goldberg, the author of this biography, makes vividly clear, and as Mr. de Mauny would surely agree, the meaning of Ehrenburg's life lies in more than survival. Being spared or stamped out by Stalin was a paranoid game of chance. It was what Ehrenburg lived by that gives his story its point.

Ilya Ehrenburg, born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Kiev in 1891, was an outsized romantic who fell in love with Russia, revolution and Europe, embracing all three simultaneously, unable to deny any of them even when they betrayed his vision of their ideals. In a tumultuous time, which demanded strict ideological choices, he was unable to decide who he really was - a Russophile, a Soviet revolutionary or a European. That, more than cowardliness, explains the moral ambiguities, slippery silences and outright lies that blemished his years as Stalin's publicist to the West. The line that separated Western Europe from Bolshevik Russia ran through his heart. Can anyone who has known the pain of divided affection withhold a measure of sympathy from so extravagant a plight?

NO one was better fitted to write his biography than Anatol Goldberg, a product of the same cultivated Russian-Jewish professional class that molded Ehrenburg's temperament. Educated in Berlin, where his family moved after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Goldberg emigrated to Britain in the mid-1930's. As a member of the BBC's Russian Service, he won renown after World War II with his regular broadcasts to the Soviet Union, where he built up a vast audience. At the time of his death in 1982, his work on Ehrenburg was almost done. Mr. de Mauny, who edited the manuscript, filled in a few gaps and provided some additional documentation, but says that ''in every other respect, this portrait of Ehrenburg, warts and all, is entirely his.''

One of the first strokes of this sophisticated and absorbing study shows us the young Ilya aghast at the conditions that dehumanized the workers at the Kiev brewery where his father was employed as manager. If this was the underside of czarist capitalism, revolution was the only answer. In Moscow, where the family moved just before the abortive revolution of 1905, he joined the underground organization of the Social Democratic (Communist) Party, distributed leaflets among workers and soldiers, wrote for an underground newspaper and landed in prison by the time he was 17.

His father was able to get him out and send him to Paris for ''medical treatment.'' Ehrenburg was infatuated by what he saw. He was engulfed by the poetry and cosmopolitanism of the belle epoque capital of bohemianism and, more than that, by the whole European cultural tradition, and he made his pilgrimages to the shrines of Renaissance art in Italy, Belgium and France.

In Vienna, his fellow exile Leon Trotsky told him that his poetry was incompatible with socialism. Stunned, he quit the party (he never rejoined) and sought the broader doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. His preparations to convert to Catholicism and join the Benedictine order were broken off at the last minute when he fell in love with a Russian student in Paris. A daughter was born to them in 1911, but the mother left him soon afterward and married someone else.

World War I, for him, was a horrifying negation of the European idea. The contrast between suicidal carnage at the front and bourgeois selfishness in the rear rekindled his revolutionary dreams of a saner world. When Czar Nicholas II abdicated, Ehrenburg was among the thousands of Russian exiles who hurried joyously home by whatever means they could find. But two years of chaotic wanderings in different parts of Russia and the Ukraine filled him with sorrow. The Bolsheviks' ultimate victory could not reconcile him to the devastation, the ''release of evil spirits'' he had witnessed in the storm of civil war.

Besides, the new regime made him uneasy. The poet Valery Bryusov, a convert to the cause, showed him an intricate chart setting out the Government's plans for regulating the arts. In the midst of the creative ferment released by the lifting of czarist autocracy, the Communists were planning to put literature in a straitjacket of their own. Though still on the side of the Revolution (for he could not live without faith), Ehrenburg was no longer optimistic about the final result.

But when he returned to Paris with a young Russian wife in 1921 - going abroad was not as difficult as it became later under Stalin - it was to write a wildly satirical novel, ''The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito,'' that excoriated the spiritual hollowness of postwar Europe as he saw it. Published in Berlin and republished in Moscow, it was an instant success and made his reputation on both sides of the political divide.

Thus was the pattern set. For the rest of his days Ehrenburg alternated between Western Europe and the Soviet Union - a born writer who wanted to belong to Russia and the Revolution and yet remain free, a worshiper of Western civilization who poured venom on its failings as an expression of his love. His prolific output - some 60 volumes of novels, essays, plays, poems and short stories, plus some brilliant newspaper reporting from Germany during the rise of Nazism and from Spain during the Spanish Civil War - sank on occasion to sentimentality and flatness. But the best of it drew its tension from the war inside him between commitment and despair.

The Stalinist dictatorship confirmed his worst forebodings. Still, he accepted it because he saw no other power willing to stand up to the new menace of Nazi Germany. After World War II, Stalin assigned him a leading role in his cold war propaganda campaign, and Ehrenburg complied, though with sporadic flashes of rebelliousness to make the task bearable. His most servile moment came at a press conference in London in 1950, when he dismissed rumors of the arrest of a number of Soviet Jewish intellectuals, though he knew the rumors to be true. Yet when, following orders, he wrote an article in Pravda cautioning Soviet Jews against identifying themselves with Israel, he added, with passion, that he regarded himself as a Jew because of all the blood that had been spilled from Jewish veins. After Stalin's death in 1953, he put the matter more clearly: ''As long as there is a single anti-Semite left in the world, I shall proudly call myself a Jew.'' In his 1954 novel, ''The Thaw,'' and in his last major work, the multivolume memoirs ''People, Years, Life,'' he spoke up more and more boldly for liberalization - and for Russia's return to its European heritage, a healing of the fissure in his own heart.

IN paying tribute to Goldberg's gifts as a biographer, Mr. de Mauny says this study sometimes seems too ready to give its subject the benefit of the doubt. The reader must judge for himself. A footnote quoting Nadezhda Mandelstam, the late widow of the martyred Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, is appropriate. In ''Hope Abandoned,'' her unsparing indictment of the Soviet decades she knew, she says of Ehrenburg: ''He was always the odd man out among the Soviet writers, and the only one I maintained relations with all through the years. He was as helpless as everybody else, but at least he tried to do something for others. . . . There was a great crowd at his funeral, and I noticed that the faces were decent and human ones.''

Perhaps that's as good an epitaph as we're likely to have about Ilya Ehrenburg's devious and ardent life.