Authors: Ilya Ehrenburg

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Russian novelist, journalist, and literary critic

Identity: Jewish

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Neobyknovennye pokhozhdenia Khulio Khurenito, 1922 (The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito and His Disciples, 1930)

Lyubov Zhanny Ney, 1925-1926 (2 volumes; The Love of Jeanne Ney, 1929)

V Protochnom pereulke, 1927 (A Street in Moscow, 1932)

Burnaya zhizn Lazika Roytshvanetsa, 1928 (The Stormy Life of Lasik Roitschwantz, 1960)

Desiat loshadinykh sil: Khronika nashego vremeni, 1929 (The Life of an Automobile, 1977)

Den vtoroy, 1934 (Out of Chaos, 1934)

Ne peveyoda dyhania, 1935

Padenie Parizha, 1942 (The Fall of Paris, 1942)

Burya, 1948 (The Storm, 1948)

Devyaty vai, 1953 (The Ninth Wave, 1955)

Ottepel, 1954 (The Thaw, 1955)

Nonfiction:

Voyna, iyul 1941-aprel 1942, 1942 (journalism; Russia at War, 1943)

Dorogi Evropy, 1946 (journalism; European Crossroad: A Soviet Journalist in the Balkans, 1947)

O rabote pisatelya, 1953 (criticism; The Writer and His Craft, 1954)

Perechityvaya Chekhova, 1960 (Chekhov, Stendhal, and Other Essays, 1962)

Lyudy, gody, zhizn, 1961-1967 (6 volumes, autobiography; Men, Years–Life, 1961-1966, 6 volumes; revised 1962-1967, 4 volumes)

Biography

For more than forty years, Ilya Grigoryevich Ehrenburg (AY-ruhn-behrk) was a prolific novelist and journalist whose writings shaped Soviet readers’ views of the West and provided Western readers with a glimpse of Soviet life. He was born in Kiev to a middle-class Jewish family; his father was a brewer. When Ehrenburg was five years old, the family moved to Moscow. While a secondary school student, Ehrenburg became involved in anticzarist activity, participated in the Revolution of 1905, and was jailed. He fled Russia in 1909 and went to Paris. There he lived a bohemian life on the Left Bank, frequenting cafés where artists, writers, and intellectuals met. Ehrenburg published his first volume of poetry in 1910, and for a time he flirted with Catholicism and mysticism. His early verse, intense and experimental, was typically avant-garde.{$I[AN]9810001089}{$I[A]Ehrenburg, Ilya}{$I[geo]RUSSIA;Ehrenburg, Ilya}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Ehrenburg, Ilya}{$I[tim]1891;Ehrenburg, Ilya}

When World War I began Ehrenburg became the French correspondent for a St. Petersburg newspaper and learned journalism. After the revolution deposed Czar Nicholas in February, 1917, Ehrenburg returned to Russia. Pleased with the revolution but disapproving of the Bolshevik ascendancy, he published an anti-communist poem for which he was briefly imprisoned. Ehrenburg remained in Russia during the bloody civil war, but he returned to Paris in 1921. After having witnessed seven years of war in France and Russia, he expressed his gloom and disgust about contemporary civilization in his first novel, The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito and His Disciples. This picaresque tale follows the roguish Julio as he traverses Europe and collects fellow scoundrels from every nation. The novel satirizes Soviet communism and European capitalism with equal vigor. In 1923 Ehrenburg became Izvestia’s European correspondent, and for the rest of the decade he wrote a prodigious number of newspaper articles and popular fictions. His constant theme was the decadence of Western democracy and the loss of revolutionary idealism in Russia. Ehrenburg discovered a facility for fictionalizing an issue or phenomenon in the news: He invented interesting plots with grotesque twists, stocked them with simple characters, and spun them out in readable, hyperbolic prose. He sometimes also experimented with typographical arrangement.

Though still living abroad in the 1930’s, he adopted the conventions of Socialist Realism promulgated by the Union of Soviet Writers. Soviet literature took on the task of energetically, glamorously depicting Joseph Stalin’s commitment to national industrialization. In 1934 Ehrenburg published Out of Chaos, about the construction of a steel factory, and in 1935, Ne peveyoda dyhania (without respite), which celebrates centralized economic planning. In 1936-1937 Ehrenburg was a war correspondent in Spain, reporting on Soviet advisers and equipment sent to help the Loyalist side in the civil war there. At the outbreak of World War II Ehrenburg was again in Paris, and in 1940 he saw the Nazis conquer the city. For him the event became an image of the West’s inability to resist fascism: Ehrenburg wrote The Fall of Paris to express his conviction that communism, not democracy, could stand against fascism.

The novel won the Stalin Prize for Ehrenburg, and in 1941 he returned to the Soviet Union. When Germany invaded that country he became a ubiquitous, tireless war correspondent. His graphic depictions of Nazi atrocities stirred his countrymen’s patriotism and won sympathy from Europeans and Americans. From his war observations Ehrenburg fashioned the panoramic novel The Storm. After victory in the Great Patriotic War, as World War II was known in the Soviet Union, the Communist Party imposed rigid ideological control upon writers. Ehrenburg was temporarily threatened for being Jewish, for familiarity with the West (cosmopolitanism), and for his earlier criticism of the Soviet regime. He made his peace with Stalin’s government, however, by publishing journalism attacking Israel and in 1953 publishing a novel attacking the United States (The Ninth Wave). He also supported a purge of “unreliable” authors from the Union of Soviet Writers, even serving briefly in the Supreme Soviet.

When Stalin died in 1953 Ehrenburg was the first writer to sense and express a new atmosphere. His short novel The Thaw, published in 1954, is almost a political allegory. This tale of lovers tempted to put their passion for each other above passion for the state challenged the dictates of Socialist Realism, which had held sway for twenty years. The novel gave its name to the decade that followed as Nikita Khrushchev began the de-Stalinization of Soviet life and culture. Ehrenburg took advantage of the changes in the political climate to advocate the rehabilitation of writers from the 1920’s and 1930’s whose works had been suppressed. Ehrenburg died in 1967, soon after the completion of his long memoirs. By that time, under Leonid Brezhnev, the limited freedoms writers had enjoyed during the thaw were already being sharply curtailed again, and Ehrenburg’s account of his life and times was quite circumspect.

Ehrenburg was one of the Soviet Union’s most prolific, most widely known writers before 1960. He published more than eighty books and thousands of articles. His works are a mirror of his time. Although his characters are wooden and his themes sometimes controlled by political considerations, his fiction is inventive and his language vigorous. He survived dangerous days when many other writers perished. His ability to write according to the demands of the times shows considerable virtuosity yet raises serious moral questions. Whether Ehrenburg’s survival skills deserve more praise or blame is a question readers, critics, and history have yet to answer.

BibliographyAlexandrova, Vera. A History of Soviet Literature. Translated by Mirra Ginsburg. 2d ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971. An overview of Russian literature with a chapter about Ehrenburg.Brown, Edward J. Russian Literature Since the Revolution. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. History of Russian literature in the Soviet period that has a separate section about Ehrenburg.Erlich, Victor. “The Metamorphoses of Ilya Ehrenburg.” Problems of Communism 12 (1963). Provides important interpretations of Ehrenburg’s career and on the debated question of his artistic as well as moral integrity.Friedberg, M. “Ilya Grigorevich Ehrenburg.” In Soviet Leaders, edited by G. W. Simmonds. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1967. Explores Ehrenburg’s life and career.Gaev, A. “The Decade After Stalin.” In Soviet Literature in the Sixties, edited by Max Hayward and Edward L. Crowley. New York: Institute for the Study of the USSR, 1964. Overview that makes frequent, brief references to Ehrenburg’s influence from 1920 through 1960.Muchnic, Helen. “Ilya Ehrenburg’s Story.” Review of Men, Years–Life, by Ilya Ehrenburg. In Russian Writers: Notes and Essays. New York: Random House, 1971. This review of Ehrenburg’s autobiography provides an instructive overview.Slonim, Marc. “Ilya Ehrenburg.” In Soviet Russian Literature: Writers and Problems. 2d rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Provides history and criticism of Ehrenburg’s career.
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