Vow of Silence

The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg.
By Joshua Rubenstein.
Illustrated. 482 pp. New York:
Basic Books. $35.

WHO was Ilya Ehrenburg? Thirty years ago, that question would have been utterly unnecessary. This Russian writer's name was known worldwide, to heads of state and the man in the street. Ehrenburg was a product, star and victim of his times and, for the most part, his renown died with him and his era. But his ill fame lives after him. In ''Tangled Loyalties,'' Joshua Rubenstein, the Northeast regional director of Amnesty International U.S.A. and the author of ''Soviet Dissidents,'' sums up the usual case against Ehrenburg: ''As a Jew, he was said to have betrayed his people; as a writer, his talent; and as a man, to have kept silent about Stalin's crimes and served the dictator solely to curry and enjoy the Kremlin's favor.''

But things are never that simple in Russia, as Mr. Rubenstein indicates both in his choice of title for this convincing, judicious and enjoyable biography and in his telling of the life. Born in 1891, the bright, spoiled, mischievous son of assimilated Jews, Ehrenburg was fired up by the sight of ''blood on the snow'' during the 1905 revolution. The following year, at 15, he joined the Bolsheviks along with his good friend Nikolai Bukharin, who was to become a major figure in the Communist Party. In the first of his many ''tangled loyalties,'' Ehrenburg did not remain a Bolshevik long. Prison knocked most of his new faith, along with some of his teeth, out of him. Fleeing abroad in 1908, he met Lenin, whose head made him think ''not of anatomy, but of architecture,'' and Trotsky, whose views on the ''utilitarian essence of art'' were the coup de grace to Ehrenburg's Bolshevism. As Mr. Rubenstein jocularly but tellingly remarks, Ehrenburg had ''a unique distinction, being perhaps the only teen-ager in Russian history to have had personal encounters with Lenin, Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin.''

Ehrenburg did indeed have a knack for meeting the right people. In Paris, he became a bohemian poet who even flirted with Roman Catholicism (much more in fashion for experimental intellectuals then than it is now). And he was immediately connected with everyone in the art world -- Modigliani, Rivera, Picasso.

When World War I ended the belle epoque with a bang, Ehrenburg became a war correspondent. Some of his writing still holds up, like this description of seeing a tank for the first time: ''There was something majestic and nauseating about it. Perhaps such gigantic insects once existed. . . . It was a combination of something archaic and ultra-American, Noah's ark and a bus from the 21st century. There were men inside, 12 small, wretched pygmies who naively thought they were driving it.''

In the heady nihilism of the postwar 1920's, Ehrenburg published his best novel, ''The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito and His Disciples.'' A mixture of mockery and prophecy, the book savaged every ideology and religion while foreseeing both the Holocaust and Hiroshima. (Ehrenburg himself predicted the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union to the day -- his intimacy with history always bordered on the telepathic.) This novel, and Ehrenburg's last work, his memoirs ''People, Years, Life,'' are probably all that will continue to be read. The rest, like the man himself, belongs to history.

In the early 1930's, Ehrenburg voluntarily returned to Stalin's carnivorous Russia. He was driven by financial need, the belief that one had to choose sides in the inevitable war between Nazism and Communism, and his unerring ability to be where the action was (though he did have the sense, skill and luck to spend most of the 30's abroad as the Paris correspondent for Izvestia).

Ehrenburg had no illusions about Stalin, or didn't have them for long. He understood the terms. ''I did not renounce what I held dear, nor did I repudiate anything. But I knew I would have to live clenching my teeth and master one of the most difficult disciplines -- silence.''

But that was only half the problem: Stalin wanted more than Ehrenburg's silence. He also wanted attacks on his enemies (including Ehrenburg's childhood friend Bukharin) and praise as a signal of fealty. And Ehrenburg obliged. In what Mr. Rubenstein calls his subject's ''most compromising article,'' Ehrenburg muses about the lonely helmsman in the Kremlin: ''I think of the burden, the courage, the grandeur.''

As many Russian writers discovered, a little disgrace was better than death. Ehrenburg, however, seemed able to stomach anything. Still, when Stalin and Hitler made their deal in 1939, Ehrenburg was so upset that ''almost immediately he lost the ability to swallow solid food.'' He redeemed his honor and his pen during World War II, writing more than 2,000 articles that were genuinely treasured by the soldiers of the Red Army and so popular that, as Mr. Rubenstein nicely notes, a decree was issued forbidding the use of his articles as paper for rolling tobacco. Even Hitler got into the act, complaining, in a classic case of projection, that ''Stalin's court lackey, Ilya Ehrenburg, declares that the German people must be exterminated.''

In fact, Ehrenburg's sense of Jewishness had been deepened by his encounter with the Holocaust. The man who had mocked all beliefs and never missed a chance to side with the winners had found a shred of conscience in the faith of his fathers. And that conscience was particularly tormented between the end of the war in 1945 and Stalin's death in 1953. To attack American culture during the cold war was no problem for the old Parisian bohemian (one Soviet censor struck out a line in a news story about Ehrenburg being a Francophile on the ground that ''everyone knows Ehrenburg never liked Franco''). But this was also the period in which Stalin had begun phasing in a terror aimed directly at the Jews of Russia -- arresting Jewish doctors, executing Jewish writers. And now more than ever silence made for excruciating complicity.

In the post-Stalin ''thaw'' of the 1950's -- the title of one of Ehrenburg's novels gave the period its name -- his goals were, as Mr. Rubenstein says, ''to challenge the limits of Soviet censorship, revive Russia's connection to European culture and restore to living memory the names and works of those whom Stalin first killed then erased from history.'' As usual, he was generally successful. And as usual he found himself under attack: during the anti-Stalin period in the 1950's, the old Communists condemned Ehrenburg for -- of all sins -- hypocrisy. ''We believed and wrote. And you, it turns out, did not believe but wrote!''

IN some ways, Ehrenburg had always been a fox of virtue, working the margin between servility and the just barely possible. In the most dangerous of days, he did the little things that people do not ever forget, like visiting the ostracized before their arrest. Later, under Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, and until his death in 1967, he would battle for the rehabilitation of their names and the republication of their work.

Mr. Rubenstein handles the morality of Ehrenburg's tangled loyalties with intelligent tact, leaving final judgment to those best qualified -- the people who were there. Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam and herself the author of two volumes of searing memoirs, wrote the plain words that are probably the best epitaph for Ehrenburg: ''He was as helpless as everybody else, but at least he tried to do something for others.''

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