Isaac Deutscher 1964

Two Autobiographies

Source: Isaac Deutscher, Ironies of History: Essays on Contemporary Communism (Oxford University Press, London, 1966). Originally published in The Nation, 21 December 1964. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.


The present volume of Ilya Ehrenburg’s Memoirs [1] is an eye-witness account of two crowded and stormy decades in Soviet and European history. For the Soviet Union the period began with the aftermath of the Civil War; it was to end with the Nazi invasion. In between lay the close of the Lenin era, the rise of Stalinism, the upheavals of industrialisation and collectivisation, the suppression of literary and artistic freedom, the Great Purges, and the Stalin – Hitler Pact of 1939. Within the same span of time bourgeois Europe recovered from the revolutionary shocks of 1918-21, enjoyed a spell of semi-illusory stabilisation, and succumbed to the Great Depression and to fascism and Nazism, until it was engulfed by the Second World War.

Of the Russian scene Ehrenburg gives us only intermittent glimpses; he concentrates on the events, personalities and political climate of Western Europe. He lived most of the time in Germany, France and Spain; he was little more than a tourist in his native country. Even while active as a propagandist for the Kremlin, he felt more at home in the cafés of Montparnasse than within earshot of the Kremlin bells. The topsy-turvy Berlin of the early 1920s, the Rome of the time of Matteoti’s assassination, the Paris of the Popular Front, and the Barcelona and Valencia of the years of the Civil War come more easily to life in his pages than does either Moscow or Leningrad. Nevertheless, his is a Russian writer’s view of Western Europe, for he has been ever sensitive to the winds blowing over Russia and the moral pressures they bear. He always feels and makes us feel Russia’s spiritual and political presence in Europe – most often he portrays Russian personalities against French or Spanish backgrounds. His pages are crowded with character sketches of Frenchmen, Spaniards, Italians, Poles, Czechs and Jews. The pen portraits, to mention only those of Antonov-Ovseenko, the hero of 1917, who represented Stalin in Barcelona in 1936; and Durutti, the Spanish anarchist of legendary fame; Ernst Toller, the German revolutionary playwright; Julian Tuwim, the Polish poet; and Peretz Markish, the Yiddish poet, are extremely well drawn and even moving. (Though I knew most of these men and my images of them differ somewhat.)

It is easy to see why these Memoirs must have excited and thrilled Soviet readers, especially the young ones: Ehrenburg has revealed to them a world which they had not been allowed to know, a world doom-laden yet magnificent, decadent yet still creative and capable of heroism. Western readers too will find this book instructive and pleasant to read, for Ehrenburg’s style is easy, fluent and at times imaginative.

Yet his defects are not less evident here – the defects which once caused the tolerant and generous Lunacharsky to remark: ‘Ehrenburg is the best type among the worst of our fellow-travelling literati.’ Ehrenburg’s writing is indeed too easy and too fluent. One feels as if one met the author in one of his favourite Montparnasse cafés and listened to an immense, rambling causerie, [2] a causerie which never ceases to be vivid and intriguing, but is often superficial and less than candid. He would like us to accept his book as a weighty testimony but he wonders himself whether he is not asking too much:

I said at the beginning that... I wanted to write a confession: I probably promised more than I can fulfil... Having come to my adult life, I pass a great deal over in silence, and the more I advance the more often I have to omit events in my life about which it would be difficult for me to speak even to an intimate friend.

‘Yet in spite of this’, he insists, ‘my book is still a confession.’ Obviously, a ‘confession’ in which a great deal is ‘passed over in silence’ arouses distrust. If all that the author omitted were incidents of his private life or intimate emotions, one would not mind. Unfortunately, his silences cover many important events of public interest; not delicacy of feeling but political shrewdness dictates his discretion.

Repeatedly Ehrenburg deals with Soviet critics who long ago (in the 1920s) used to reproach him for his ‘scepticism’ or ‘nihilism’. In the rather congenial atmosphere of the post-Stalin era he is not really embarrassed by these labels. ‘Of all the apostles’, he says with a touch of solemnity, ‘doubting Thomas seems to me the most human.’ He is quite glad to be described as a ‘romantic ironist’. No doubt, these labels suited in some measure the young Ehrenburg, the author of Julio Jurenito and Thirteen Pipes, books of his that were already famous forty years ago. But the point is that the ‘sceptic’ or ‘romantic ironist’ of those years was subsequently eclipsed by a very different character, the Stalinist sycophant of the 1930s and the Stalin Prize-winner of the 1940s. And, of course, in the last ten years or so Ehrenburg has been the reputed herald of de-Stalinisation, the author of The Thaw, the champion of artistic freedom. In the Memoirs it is this last Ehrenburg who ‘defends’ his ‘sceptical’ and ‘ironical’ self of the early 1920s as if to make us forget the Stalinist hack and toady of the middle years. We are given to understand that the youthful ‘doubting Thomas’ somehow survived intact and unharmed in the veteran memoirist of today.

One would like to believe this. Yet as one ponders Ehrenburg’s reminiscences one cannot help being aware of the hidden and wretched presence of the Stalinist hanger-on, eager for self-exculpation. This book has in it much of the ambiguity that has been inherent in the whole process of de-Stalinisation, the ambiguity which derives from the fact that de-Stalinisation has so far been the work of men who were once Stalin’s underlings and accomplices. In this respect Ehrenburg’s writing has been the characteristic literary pendant to the politics of Khrushchevism.

‘Ehrenburg lifted the iron curtain that concealed the past from the present everywhere’, says Louis Fischer, himself an ex-admirer of Stalin. ‘... he is restoring to human life and dignity... the martyred men and women of Russia’, writes an innocent young American Sovietologist. Yet another critic speaks of these Memoirs as a ‘feat of courage, a near-revolutionary act’. How easily a legend can be launched!

Far from lifting any iron curtain over the past, Ehrenburg lifts only that corner of it that others, those in office, have already raised. Of the truth about events and men he never offers us more than a licensed dose. He does not, for instance, tell us anything about the Great Purges that Khrushchev and other party leaders had not said. To ‘human life and dignity’ he ‘restores’ only those of the ‘martyred men and women’ who had already been officially rehabilitated. With a remarkable presence of mind he does not allow the name of a single unrehabilitated victim to slip into his narrative. He devotes warm-hearted, even sentimental passages to Tukhachevsky, Antonov-Ovseenko, Isaac Babel and others; and he conveys to us a chilling whiff of the terror-stricken Moscow of 1938. But he has nothing to say about the great trials of that time. Their defendants, Bukharin, Trotsky, Radek, Rakovsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev and the others – most of whom he knew well – still remain ‘unpersons’. His capacity for remembering the past corresponds to the twists and turns and the tempo of the official de-Stalinisation with startling precision. One may wonder why he never refers to someone like the now rehabilitated Krestinsky, an outstanding Bolshevik, whom he must have known in Berlin as Soviet Ambassador. The answer is simple: Krestinsky’s rehabilitation was brought to public notice just after Ehrenburg had completed writing his Memoirs. This is only one of many possible illustrations. [3]

What is worse, Ehrenburg still vents something of the old rancour against the as yet unrehabilitated victims of the Stalinist terror. In his description of the Civil War in Spain one looks in vain for any hint at the terror the GPU spread there, at the suppression of POUM, the abduction and assassination of its leader, Andres Nin, and of other anti-Stalinists. One need only compare Ehrenburg’s Spanish recollections with Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia to grasp the meaning of such omissions. Or take his recollection of André Gide, who in 1936 went to Russia as a sympathiser but returned disgusted with the Stalin cult, which he denounced in a memorable little book Retour de l'URSS. Ehrenburg’s comment: ‘I do not know what affected him. Another man’s heart is a dark continent.’ He admits that he slandered Gide at the time; but even now, after ‘calm reflection’, he still compares the change in Gide’s political attitude with the ‘erratic flutterings of a moth'; and like a provincial Philistine, he cannot contain his indignation, almost horror, at the thought that Gide, going to Russia, had intended to raise with Stalin himself (!) the question of the legal position of homosexuals in the Soviet Union. ('Although I was aware of Gide’s abnormality, I did not immediately grasp what he meant to speak to Stalin about.’) He is similarly still quivering with malice towards Panaït Istrati, the pathetic ‘Gorky of the Balkans’, as Romain Rolland described him, because Istrati had vehemently rejected the Stalin cult. These, by no means exceptional, examples of old Stalinist spite stirring in the Memoirs contrast curiously with the eulogies for such Western European stooges of Stalin as Marcel Cochin, Dolores Ibárruri, and their like.

Explicitly or implicitly, Ehrenburg is justifying Stalin’s major policies in Europe. True, he often pleads ignorance of politics as a mitigating circumstance for himself, a strange plea for someone who has been so prominent as a political propagandist. But he is not so modest as to refrain from passing political judgements and verdicts. He blames Léon Blum (and his ‘stupid bleatings’) for the defeat of Republican Spain, but has nothing to say about Stalin’s share in that defeat. He presents the French and Spanish Popular Fronts as heroic epics; he does not seem to suspect even now that those fronts brought about their own undoing, because they were, on Stalin’s promptings, all too eager to appease the Western bourgeoisie and to curb the revolutionary energies of the French and Spanish workers and peasants. He describes with justified sarcasm the cowardice and the surrender of the German Social-Democrats in the face of Nazism. But he makes no mention of the perverse Stalinist policies which had done no less to paralyse German labour in the early 1930s. Did he not, as an eye-witness, watch the Rote Volksentscheid, that infamous plebiscite in which, two years before Hitler became Chancellor, the Communists marched with the Nazis against the Social-Democrats and called for the ‘national and social liberation of Germany'?

Only when he comes to the Nazi – Soviet Pact of 1939 does the author of the Memoirs put aside pretence and make-believe and describe convincingly the shock, the humiliation and the horror with which that act of ‘Soviet – German friendship’ had filled him. (He seems to suggest that some repercussions of that act are felt even now in the USSR.) Here, evidently, his deep and wounded Jewish emotion gets the better of him; and instead of the slick raconteur, a suffering and frightened human being speaks to us.

What is one to make of this strange mélange of sincerity and cant? Ehrenburg relates that a young Russian, listening to his tale of the Stalinist terror, asked him: ‘How is it that you have survived?’ ‘I shall never know’, he replies, ‘... I lived in times when the fate of men was not like a game of chess but like a lottery.’ But this is surely not the truth of the matter. The fate of those of Ehrenburg’s countrymen – and they were many – who had the courage to oppose Stalin was not at all like a lottery: none of them survived. Life was a lottery to quite a few Stalinists, however, for even Stalin’s servants and flatterers could not be sure of their fate; many of them were disgraced and perished. In some cases – Ehrenburg’s is one – a man’s fate was rather like a strange combination of ‘a lottery’ and ‘a game of chess'; these Memoirs occasionally show how the author played his hand at the game.

Should he on this account be condemned beyond redemption? In quite a few countries and in many ages thinkers and writers, from Galileo to Goethe and Pushkin, bowed to the despotism of rulers and paid a moral ransom in order to save themselves as scientists and artists and to get on with their work. Posterity, which honours heroic fighters against oppression, does not invariably condemn those who have bowed to a force majeure. Supreme heroism is rare, and its absence need not in itself be a vice.

Ehrenburg’s misfortune was not so much that he lacked the character to resist Stalinism, but that he submitted to it so completely and even zealously that he thereby corrupted his own work and nearly destroyed himself as novelist and poet. He himself refers ruefully to his ‘hastily written’ and ‘badly constructed’ propagandist novels. He resembles in this the chief character of his own Thaw, the painter Vladimir Pukhov, who through opportunism and servility wasted his artistic personality. The writing of the Memoirs was for Ehrenberg an opportunity to cleanse himself, test his wasted talent, and regain artistic quality. To a very limited extent he has succeeded. He might have succeeded more genuinely and fully if he had not tried to impress us with his moral courage; if he had given up his posturing, his attempts at self-exculpation and his old rancour; if he had told us as much of the truth about the Stalin era as he knows instead of deliberately purveying half-truths.

Yet, Ehrenburg’s role in the Russian ‘thaw’ has been considerable – not for nothing have the crypto- and neo-Stalinists attacked him repeatedly. But it is not easy to assess his role, for it bears on the complex relationship between half-truth and truth. I am not speaking here of the Truth of the metaphysicians, but of historical truth, which bases itself on ascertainable and undeniable facts. Soviet society needs that truth as much as it needs air to breathe. Without a genuine knowledge of the record of the Stalin era, it cannot overcome its present ideological confusion and cannot advance. Ehrenburg’s Memoirs, like Khrushchev’s revelations, offer a lot of clues to the record. But the clues are not the record. A half-truth may sometimes be a useful introduction to the truth; it may even represent an instalment of the truth and stimulate a creative ferment in minds avid for knowledge. But all too often a half-truth can divert such minds from the truth or block access to it, depending on the maturity or immaturity of the public.

Ehrenburg’s Memoirs are undoubtedly exercising a dual and ambivalent influence. They represent a transient phase in the development of a new social consciousness in the USSR, the phase in which Soviet thinking has painfully outgrown the Stalinist mythology but is still shrinking from perceiving the realities of the recent past and of the present.


Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s Premature Autobiography [4] contrasts somewhat ironically with Ehrenburg’s tardy and timid Memoirs. A slim book, written hastily during the author’s brief stay in Paris, it was published originally in French, and is still banned in Russia. The author has even paid for it with a spell of disgrace. The reason is not far to seek: in his account of his life there are none of the diplomatic silences and evasions at which Ehrenburg excels. What Yevtushenko tells us about men, events and the spiritual state of Soviet society boldly exceeds the licensed dose of truth; he exposes large patches of the social and moral background to Soviet politics which Moscow’s rulers would still prefer to keep concealed. He even begins his reminiscences with an attack upon the purveyors of reticent confessions and half-truths:

Some people boast that they have never lied. Let them have a look at themselves in the mirror and tell us not how many times they have purveyed untruth, but how often they have preferred the comfort of silence... I know that these people have an alibi... silence is gold. My answer is that their gold cannot be pure and that silence is a fraud...

Yevtushenko’s position has been easier, of course, than that of almost any writer of Ehrenburg’s generation: he did not have to endure the terror and the moral pressures to which others had been subjected; he did not have to make the compromises with conscience which caused them to lose their self-respect. At the time of the Great Purges he was only four or five years old; he was only eight when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union; and he was not yet twenty when Stalin died. His mind is not contorted by guilt and craving for self-exculpation. He speaks for a generation that does not shrink from the full truth about the Stalin era but is eager to get at it and face the consequences.

Yevtushenko says of himself:

People in the West have tried to present me as an exceptional figure, detaching itself like a bright spot from the grey background of Soviet society. But I am nothing of the sort. Very many Soviet people detest the things against which I am struggling just as passionately as I do... The new ideas and sentiments that are found in my poems were there, in Soviet society, well before I had begun to write. True, they had not then received a poetic form; but if I had not expressed them, someone else would have done so.

Yevtushenko’s anger and disgust with Stalinism spring from his loyalty to the revolution and to Communism, a loyalty which takes itself for granted. What he says about this has a more convincing ring than have Ehrenburg’s declarations of ideological allegiance. He describes himself as ‘half-intellectual and half-peasant’ and says that ‘revolution has been the religion of my family’: ‘We never pronounced the word “revolution” with any official solemnity; we uttered it calmly, tenderly and almost austerely.’ One of his ancestors, a peasant, was deported to Siberia for setting fire to a landlord’s mansion. A grandfather, also a semi-illiterate peasant, fought in the revolution and civil war, distinguished himself, was brought from Siberia to the Military Academy in Moscow, studied, and rose to the rank of general. ‘Even in his imposing uniform, with all the insignia of rank [and all his medals] on his chest, he remained a simple peasant.’ Not surprisingly, he perished in the purges. The poet recollects a last childish glimpse of the grandfather as he lulled him to sleep with songs of the civil war on the very night when he was to be arrested for ‘high treason’. A similar fate befell another grandfather, a mathematician of Lettish origin. But of all this the grandson was to learn only many years later. In the meantime:

... my parents would take me to workers’ demonstrations at the Red Square and I would beg my father to lift me high above his shoulders so that I could see Stalin. Hoisted... over the heads of the immense crowd, I waved vigorously my little red flag and believed that Stalin himself looked at me and answered me.

In his devotion to the revolution, in the innocence with which he practised the Stalin cult, having imbibed it from childhood, and in the force of his reaction against it, Yevtushenko is representative of many – should one say most? – of his contemporaries. His occasional naïvetés are hardly surprising. When he tries, for instance, to define the difference between Lenin and Stalin, he says that Lenin wanted Communism to be for the good of the people, whereas Stalin held that the people were there only to serve Communism. What a euphemism! He echoes also some of the most threadbare banalities of ‘Soviet patriotism’ and sees in Khrushchev the real promoter and guarantor of de-Stalinisation, progress and artistic freedom. More puzzling than lack of political sophistication is a certain crudity of literary taste, which allows the poet to admire Stalin’s style and to describe the latter’s bizarre quasi-ecclesiastical ‘Oath to Lenin’ as a ‘prose poem’. But in these illusions and naïvetés there is indeed an innocence which is altogether lacking in the writings of the old disillusioned opportunists posturing as martyrs. (Yevtushenko reminds us that even Pasternak, whom he adores as a poet and as a man, produced in his time some rhymed eulogies for Stalin.) [5]

Yevtushenko is, of course, the ‘citizen poet’ and the fighter and drummer of the revolution in Nekrasov’s and Mayakovsky’s tradition. He turns his ‘Poet’s Corner’, wherever it happens to be, into a barricade. On ‘the other side’ are, of course, the revolution’s external enemies, but also ‘Stalin’s heirs’, the privileged bureaucrats, corrupters of Communism and anti-Semites, who are still conspiring against Russia’s freedom. The author of Babyi Yar offers here a gloss on that poem of his. He continues to defy the anti-Semites:

It is false and even absurd to pretend that anti-Semitism is inherent in the character of the Russian people; it is as alien to them as it is to any other people. It has always and everywhere been artificially fostered in order to promote the basest of vested interests.

He describes vividly how from his adolescence he had to wrestle spiritually with a friend, ‘the young poet K’, a member of the Communist Youth and an anti-Semite, who sought to persuade him that all evil stemmed from the Jews. ('Were not most of those that split the workers’ movement, from the Bund to Trotsky, members of that suspect race?’)

After one such discussion K stayed overnight in my flat. Next morning I was awakened by his shouting and jumping. Still in his pants, he performed something like an African joy dance and brandished a morning paper. On its first page the paper carried a long communiqué about the discovery of the conspiracy of the ‘white coats’ and the arrest of the doctors who had tried to poison Stalin. ‘Well’, K shouted in exultation, ‘who has been right all along? They are Jews, all of them.’

It did not then occur to Yevtushenko that the accusation of the Kremlin doctors might be false; he believed it and was depressed by the affair: but he refused to swallow the racialist moral of the story:

The same evening I went with my friend K to see an old film... By chance they showed a pogrom of Jews that occurred in Odessa in Tsarist times. On the screen criminals and shopkeepers filed past and with all the strength of their lungs shouted the old hate slogan: ‘Kill the Jews and save Russia!’ With blood-stained batons they hit little Jewish children on their heads... ‘All the same [Yevtushenko said] you would not like this to happen again?’ K answered coldly: ‘Listen, Zhenya, we are dialecticians; we must not repudiate the whole of our past.’ His voice had a strange metallic sound; his eyes flashed with hatred worthy of a young Nazi. Yet in his buttonhole there glittered a Communist Youth badge. I looked at him with fright.

Like no other Soviet writer so far, Yevtushenko has brought into focus this latent but deep political cleavage, the tense tug-of-war between reaction and progress, in Russia. He insists that behind the reactionary moods and ideas were – or are – the privileged and corrupt groups of the bureaucracy:

More than once the poet K used to reproach me for my lack of revolutionary vigilance. He was mistaken. I was vigilant in my own way – I watched him and his like. I was horrified to see how they built new houses for themselves and wallowed in luxury right in the centre of Moscow, where in overcrowded blocks many families usually shared one apartment. I kept a sharp eye on the members of that bureaucratic élite who gloated over the writings with anti-Semitic accents... which were appearing in our journals more and more often. And I saw how they grabbed their privileges under the very noses of underpaid workers.

This testimony is all the more remarkable because it is based on empirical observation rather than on any theoretical thesis. And the bluntness of this and similar statements was enough to ensure that this Premature Autobiography be placed on the Index in Moscow.

However, the most dramatic pages in this short book are those which describe the impact of Stalin’s death and funeral on the author and the people around him. Most of them, he recollects, accustomed to the idea that Stalin was thinking for all of them, felt lost without him and were stunned. ‘Russia wept. She wept with genuine tears, perhaps with tears of fear for the future. I too wept.’ What follows is an unforgettable description of grim catastrophe at Stalin’s funeral. On a frosty winter morning tens of thousands of men, women and children moved from all ends of Moscow towards the House of Soviets, where the dead dictator lay in state. (The breath of the marchers was freezing in the air, forming a cloud overhead and settling on naked trees.) Suddenly the processions advancing from all sides merged into a terrible human avalanche, pouring down the slope of a street leading to the House of Soviets. The avalanche crushed women and children against lamp-posts and other obstacles on its way and moved over their mangled bodies. No one seemed able to halt it. Will-less and horror-struck, the crowd swept on:

The torrent carried me too all the time. Suddenly I felt something soft under my feet. It took me a moment to realise that I was trampling on a human body. I jumped up in terror and became suspended in the crowd which was still descending down the slope. For a long while I did not even try to walk on my feet again. It was my size that saved me. Smaller people suffocated in the throng before they were crushed underfoot. And finally we were caught in a trap. Military trucks, tightly lined up narrowed the road and barred our passage. Human waves broke against them with furious momentum. ‘Take away the trucks, move the trucks!’ the crowd screamed in terror. A young fair-haired police officer looked on, tears in eyes: ‘I cannot help it, I haven’t got any orders!’ he in his turn began to scream. The edges of his lorry were already stained with blood. But men and women were still being hurled against it and crushed under the officer’s eyes. Before dying they only heard his words: ‘I haven’t got any orders!’ All of a sudden I felt exploding within me a savage hatred of this incredible stupidity, of the docility that had produced this, ‘I cannot help it, I haven’t got any orders!’ For the first time now all this hatred was turned against the man whom we were about to bury, for I realised at last that it was he who was responsible, that it was he who had produced this bloody chaos, that it was he who had inculcated into human beings this mechanical and blind obedience to orders from above.

Over a hundred and thirty years earlier Adam Mickiewicz in a great poem depicted a similar scene that had taken place in the St Petersburg of the Tsars in the middle of a magnificent military parade. There is much poetic power in Yevtushenko’s description, which may enter literature, and the history books, as a shocking eye-witness account and as a condensed symbolic presentation of an entire epoch. Yevtushenko’s resounding anger with the docility induced in his countrymen by Stalin’s rule takes us far away from the half-truths of official de-Stalinisation. Through him young Russia is crying out against the shame and the suffering of her fathers and grandfathers.


1. Ilya Ehrenburg, Memoirs 1921-1941 (World Publishing Co, Cleveland, 1964).

2. Causerie – an informal talk, often on an artistic theme – MIA.

3. The nimbleness with which Ehrenburg moves between the ghosts of the ‘rehabilitated’ and the limbo of the ‘unpersons’ was evident in the first volume of the Memoirs, in his description of the editorial team of Nashe Slovo, a Russian revolutionary (non-Bolshevik) émigré journal published in Paris during the First World War. He managed to describe in loving detail almost every member of that team, without mentioning even once its editor and moving spirit – Trotsky.

4. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Autobiographie Précoce (Julliard, Paris, 1963).

5. Yevtushenko’s remarks on the Pasternak of Doctor Zhivago are worth quoting: ‘Those in the West who have tried to use his name in their Cold War campaign have committed a veritable crime. Similarly, I shall never forgive some of our writers who have seized this pretext in order to try and wipe off Pasternak’s name from our literature... Pasternak considered many events of our Soviet life as if he viewed them from the other bank of the river of time... His isolation resulted in his... remoteness... from the struggle and the great changes occurring in the world. Boris Pasternak once said of himself that he was a kind of milestone between two historic epochs. Nothing could characterise him better than this. Therein lies the force and also the tragedy of this poet of genius.’