If you’re the kind of person who likes to avoid the obvious, it’s rather difficult to write briefly about Ilya Erenburg (1891-1967). The fact of the matter is this: his most enduring contribution to Russian culture and literature is that his novella The Thaw (1954) gave one of the Soviet Union’s most important eras its name. The novel itself, like so many Soviet novels, is pretty close to unreadable these days. Its formulaic characters and situations are served up as literary Functions, with a capital F, and there is very little life or air to be found in the story. But whenever we discuss the post-Stalin Thaw, or the Khrushchev Thaw, we are doing so, lexically speaking, thanks to Erenburg.
In fact, the man was a fascinating figure. Being revolution-minded early in his life, he spent time in prison as a political prisoner in 1908, after which he left for Paris. There he began his literary life as a poet and a newspaper correspondent. He returned to Moscow in 1917, but, unhappy with the turn that the Revolution took, he headed back to his beloved France. He remained in Europe as a news correspondent until 1940, when he returned to the Soviet Union and became one of the country’s most beloved and respected war correspondents. While in Europe, Erenburg wrote extensively, and with understanding, about avant-garde art, doing a good job of informing Europe about the Soviet Union and keeping the Soviet Union up-to-date about European art. During the 1930s he traveled back to the U.S.S.R. on short trips that allowed him to collect material for his creative writing. One of those trips in 1932 brought him temporarily to Tomsk, where he occupied an apartment in a simple, but attractive wooden building bearing the addresses of 11 Herzen Street, and 17 Belinsky Street. The first two photos here show the building from the street, while the last two photos show it from the courtyard, which, according to my friend and Tomsk expert Pavel Rachkovsky, is probably where the writer would have entered and exited the building.
While living in this house Erenburg gathered the material for, and partially wrote, his novel Day Two (1933). According to research done by Yury Varshaver under the pseudonym of Yury Shcheglov, Erenburg befriended a young student whose last name was Safronov and he turned the young man into the lead character of his novel, giving him the name of Vladimir Safonov. In the following paragraph from the novel one sees references to Tomsk’s history as a place occupied by political prisoners, present and former, and as a place with great energy and potential:
“Tomsk might have died, but Tomsk had a university. Tens of thousands of students came to Tomsk. They did not know the city’s history. They didn’t care about the whims of the merchant Gorokhov, the sufferings of Potanin, or the wooden carvings on the gates of old estates. They came to study physics, chemistry or medicine. […] They filled Tomsk with noise and laughter. They found their ways into the homes of unfortunate, disenfranchised people. They shared their rations of bread and sugar with the disenfranchised, and the disenfranchised let them into their holes, filled with dust, moths and mould. They could sleep on sawhorses, on flat boards or on the floor. They slept with a sleep that is called the sleep of the dead. But early in the morning they jumped up and ran to the wash basin filled with icy water. On the run they recited their chemical formulas and the names of skull bones. There were 40,000 of them. Among them were Buryats, Ostyaks, Tunguses and Yakuts. They knew that in a few years they would be running the country, that they would be healing and teaching people, building factories, running collective farms, drilling into mountains, sketching the plans for bridges and would be traveling into the deepest corners of the immense country, joyously rousing people from their slumber, bursting through blinds with their energetic rays just as a bright, sunny day roused them. Thus did Tomsk begin to live a second life.”
Erenburg’s legacy is mixed. There is a great deal of suspicion in so-called “liberal circles” about how he was able to live in and travel freely to and from Europe while the vast majority of Soviet citizens were unable to leave the country. There are questions on the side of orthodox Soviet thinkers about what he was doing abroad all that time. In sum, if you are so inclined, you can find enemies and detractors of Erenburg on all sides. In that sense he remains a rather quintessential Soviet figure, steeped in mystery and suspicion, and not lacking in talent.