In Defense of Betrayal

Joshua Rubenstein's biography of Ilya Ehrenburg, who survived Stalin's regime, tries to make the Jewish journalist-propagandist come off as a saint.

"Tangled Loyalties: The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg," by Joshua Rubenstein. Hebrew edition translated from English by Ariel Bar Levav, Mossad Bialik, 477 pages, NIS 103

Biographies comparing the 20th century's two leading tyrants, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, were logical fruits of a time when there was a broad tendency to connect their respective regimes under the rubric of "totalitarianism." Subsequently, many researchers tended not to focus on the regimes and their leaders, and turned instead to investigations of the ordinary citizens who lived under them. The conclusion in many cases was that there were significant differences between the lives of Soviet citizens and those of people living in the Third Reich.

In his thought-provoking "The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia" (2004 ), Richard Overy emphasized that the Soviet state controlled the fate of ordinary citizens in a much more arbitrary, inconsistent way than the Nazis did. A German citizen who wanted to live far from the regime's political grasp, without any ideological or other encumbrances, could do so relatively placidly. In contrast, the work and penal camps in Stalin's gulag were filled with people incarcerated for no logical reason - citizens who hadn't uttered a single word denouncing either the regime or its leader.

This thought engaged me frequently when I read the biography of journalist Ilya Ehrenburg (which was originally published in the U.S. in 1999 ). During his lifetime, and more so after his death, many perceptive observers wondered how this person, who was always in the spotlight, managed to elude the bitter fate encountered by many of his comrades. Many presumed that Ehrenburg (1891-1967 ) purchased his freedom and life by relinquishing all basic human dignity, even by betraying family and friends to the regime.

Ehrenburg violated every rule of public life in the Soviet Union. People rotted in prisons for sins less grievous than his. But he was a wizard of timing and proportion. The biography's author, Joshua Rubenstein, claims Ehrenburg survived because he managed to make himself extremely expensive. He created a thick web of acquaintances and connections, particularly abroad. Fearing that any action against him would damage the Soviet Union's international status around the world, the regime was afraid to confront him. Ehrenburg was not harmed because he had devoted and famous friends like Pablo Picasso, poet Louis Aragon and many other illustrious figures.

I find it difficult to accept Rubenstein's claim at face value. He works hard to refute the accusations of "betrayal" that have been leveled against Ehrenburg. He admits that Ehrenburg betrayed women and also knew how to avoid clashes, in the belief that more propitious moments would come along for waging his campaigns. Yet it appears that this biographer wants to expunge all guilt from Ehrenburg for the sordid aspects of his life, which played out in the service of a malicious regime that imposed perpetual indignity on its citizenry.

Ehrenburg did not even try to live the life he could have lived had he forfeited the spoils of power, a life that could have included a small share of quiet and spiritual freedom. This was the course that other artists and writers of his generation, such as Boris Pasternak and Dmitri Shostakovich, chose, albeit not always with great success.

In February 1966, for example, two anti-regime writers, Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, were convicted of "anti-Soviet propaganda and sedition." In cultural circles that did their utmost to oppose state coercion and intimidation, an initiative took root to circulate a petition supporting the two convicted writers. The petition's organizers asked Ehrenburg to sign the appeal. Of course, he rejected this request. Rubenstein says this was because Ehrenburg was slated to depart for France, and feared his trip might be stopped if he were to speak out.

The biographer also seeks to justify his explanation.

Rubenstein's industriousness led him to troves of documents and testimony. Without this evidentiary foundation, it would be impossible to add favorable color and complexity to Ehrenburg's portrait. This especially holds true regarding Ehrenburg's efforts to help some of his friends and colleagues, whom the regime had decided to prosecute and punish for reasons of its own. Here, Ehrenburg knew how to utilize all the tactics that helped him ward off the regime's heavy hand: He implored, abased himself and even dropped some veiled hints. Occasionally, he succeeded.

Throughout his life, for example, he tried to defend the name of his friend from his youth Nikolai Bukharin, who was destroyed by Stalin's terror juggernaut. Ehrenburg kept mum when it was dangerous to say anything positive about the victim, but when the first signs of a "thaw" became manifest (he coined this phrase in a well-known book about the de-Stalinization process ), he lobbied for him, trying to repeal the historic injustice.

In his foreword, the author cites a letter by Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of the persecuted poet Osip Mandelstam, praising Ehrenburg and justifying his actions.

"From the vantage point of daily life, it is hard to live in the center of an earthquake," wrote Mandelstam. "You know there is a tendency to blame you for not having reversed the flow of rivers, for not having changed the course of the stars, for not having changed the moon into a honey cake and feeding it to us. In other words, people always wanted the impossible from you; and they were angry when you did what was possible."

"Now," she continued, "how you acted, and how you continue to act to modify the roads to which we have become accustomed is completely clear; your role in our lives is clear, as is the extent to which we owe you our gratitude. Everyone understands that right now. And I am happy to tell you that, and shake your hand."

Nadezhda Mandelstam never compromised her conscience in dealings with the Soviet regime, so such statements from her certainly constitute solid testimony from a "character witness" that mitigates history's judgment vis-a-vis Ehrenburg.

Call to war

Rubenstein does not try to present Ehrenburg as an important writer who left behind classic works. He may have been influential, but his works were not significant for their literary value, but rather for how they molded conceptions.

The truth is that Ehrenburg was a witness and chronicler of note - as long as one approaches his writings, reminiscences and journalistic achievements with caution, and can separate the wheat of truth from the chaff of propaganda and fawning obsequiousness toward the regime.

His writings and memoirs, even ones republished with fragments censored by the Soviets, cannot be taken as reliable testimony. Ehrenburg knew history would be extremely severe with him, so he did his utmost to defend and prettify himself.

I believe that his journalism is what merits most attention. This is not because it embodies any pure truth, but because of its power to stir significant, interesting processes. From early on, Ehrenburg preferred life abroad, and his reports from dozens of places he visited - and coverage of major 20th-century events that he witnessed - are still intriguing. They display a flair for tempo, talent and originality.

The pinnacle of his journalistic career was during World War II. The story of the Red Army newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda (The Red Star ), and its Jewish editor, David Ortenberg, during World War II is fascinating and tumultuous. The newspaper employed the Soviet Union's best writers and poets, including Vasily Grossman, Konstantin Simonov and Ehrenburg; their reports from the front are instructive documents about fateful days of heroism and tragedy.

During the war, Ehrenburg filed some 450 articles, and their impact on his readers' patriotism cannot be overestimated. He articulated rage, demanded vengeance and called on Red Army soldiers to massacre invading Nazi troops mercilessly. During this period, Hitler and his cronies reportedly regarded Ehrenburg as a terrible enemy who had to be destroyed. Testimonies by soldiers on the battlefield illustrate the influence of Ehrenburg's reporting, just as poems written by Simonov for Krasnaya Zvezda were sometimes taken into battle by soldiers.

Ehrenburg never cited his Jewish heritage as justification for his calls for revenge against the Nazis. He never claimed he sought German blood because of what was done to the Jews. Instead, he said his reporting was rooted in his patriotic Russian instincts.

Nonetheless, when perusing Ehrenburg's articles from this period, it is hard to stave off the impression that the war against the Nazis gave him an opportunity to express emotions freely as a Jew. Ehrenburg was not a Zionist; he called for assimilation. When Israel was established, he didn't hesitate to criticize it and its leaders. This stance drew him criticism: Rubenstein notes that David Ben-Gurion called Ehrenburg the "most abominable Jew in the world."

The biography clearly and cogently establishes that Ehrenburg's attitude toward his Jewish identity was more complicated than the vituperative Zionist castigations imply. When circumstances were propitious for such campaigns, and when Ehrenburg took up the cudgels on behalf of his harassed writer-colleagues, he conducted quite a few wars on behalf of Jews.

During the war, and for a while after it, the Soviet regime thirsted for international Jewish backing and expressed support for Jewish efforts. When the circumstances were right, Ehrenburg joined the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. As always, he knew to leave this body the moment he grasped that the regime had changed its course and no longer required the services of those pro-Soviet patriots.

Rubenstein proves that World War II and the Holocaust brought about significant changes in Ehrenburg's attitude regarding Jewish national existence. Even when he articulated vehement anti-Israel views, he never doubted that the Jewish people had a right to independence.

Ehrenburg's plight worsened considerably when Nikita Khrushchev launched his anti-Stalin campaign. Ultimately, Khrushchev himself fell victim to the processes he unleashed. Despite Ehrenburg's efforts to denounce the Stalinist legacy, and his occasional shows of solidarity with those who sought reform, he could not deny his close connection to that regime. Ultimately, he had survived the Stalin years - and it was very difficult for survivors to explain how they had done so. Rubenstein proves that the Soviet regime of arbitrariness and cruelty left large holes in its web of power, and those with special abilities managed to sneak through those holes.

Eli Shaltiel is a historian, and the editor of the "Ofakim" nonfiction series published by Am Oved.