The novelette which gave a name to the post-Stalin period was Ilya Ehrenburg's The Thaw…. Ehrenburg in this work provided a concise guide to the themes and theses of post-Stalin literature; as a matter of fact his work sums up so neatly in credible artistic form the main points of "de-Stalinization" that one is obliged to assume a degree of political guidance, direct or indirect, in its writing. The argument of The Thaw … runs as follows: 1) Soviet life has become cold and rigid; let us warm up toward one another. 2) Soviet political and industrial heroes are often tyrants indifferent to the popular weal; let us expose them. 3) People are important, and they exist as individuals; let us cherish each one. 4) Emotions are real and cannot always be neatly catalogued and contained in rational categories; let us feel them: love, pity, fear, envy. It is a fine argument, indeed, but it is so well organized that one can sense in it a remnant of ice under the "thaw." (p. 247)
[The] points he laboriously hammers on the nature of artistic "creation" and the needs of literature are generally so obvious as to induce either laughter or tears. But in Soviet literature someone is always obliged to stress truisms. (pp. 247-48)
[Ehrenburg's] voice since 1954 has consistently championed individualism and artistic integrity, and in his reminiscences, People, Years, Life, published in 1960 and 1961 in the magazine New World, he has tried to revivify the ties with modern European art which were a normal part of the Russian cultural tradition. Like the "theses" advanced in his novelette The Thaw, the points he gently emphasizes in People, Years, and Life have a programmatic ring.
The refusal to treat with due seriousness the alternatives offered by the bourgeois world is amply illustrated in Ehrenburg's biography…. Without doubt Ehrenburg's best work [The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito and His Disciples (1921)] relates the adventures of a nihilistic philosopher who undertakes the mission of destroying finally the culture of Europe. His instruments of destruction are, ironically enough, typical products of that culture…. Bourgeois culture is scathingly attacked in the novel, but the new order in Russia does not escape Ehrenburg's barbs. (pp. 249-50)
Out of Chaos (1933), Ehrenburg's contribution to Five-Year Plan literature, is second only to Julio Jurenito in importance and interest. It is important because it represents for Ehrenburg a decisive step beyond the nihilistic mockery of his earlier work. It is more "in earnest" than Jurenito and represents an effort to establish a rational basis for Ehrenburg's pro-Soviet position…. The novel is important because of the main character Safonov, a young intellectual and a confirmed individualist, whose ideas at times echo Jurenito and who is certainly Ehrenburg himself. Safonov's sophisticated intellectual conscience is outraged by the crass materialism of the new collective. He cannot accept the world being created by the Soviet Five-Year Plan. In Safonov's private diary Ehrenburg pronounced an indictment upon the "anthill" culture being built in the Soviet Union, and in the personal history of Safonov he has illustrated the helplessness of the lone intellectual before the onslaught of that culture. (pp. 251-52)
Safonov's imagined speech to the "collective" confided to his diary expresses the thought and summarizes the tragedy of Ehrenburg himself….
Safonov did not deliver this [rebellious] speech before the collective, but another and thoroughly acceptable one. And Safonov's symbolic suicide had its real counterpart in the demise of Ehrenburg as a satirist. His work during the thirties … is for the most part patterned strictly and skillfully...
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to the Party line. (p. 252)
[But the] shock produced throughout the world by Ehrenburg's [The Thaw (1954)] when it broke the long winter of Stalinism should not be forgotten. To observers in the year 1954 the story seemed a miraculous occurrence, a fantastic piece of writing which gave a glimpse behind the Iron Curtain and revealed Soviet life in its real colors and contours….
The "inner world" of each character is the subject matter of The Thaw, and in this it is a conscious polemic against official Soviet literature…. The story is told in a succession of episodes, each presented from the viewpoint of a particular character, whose personal idiosyncrasies and unspoken thoughts are basic to the narrative pattern. (p. 253)
The technique adopted by Ehrenburg effectively conveys the main idea of The Thaw. Each character seems to warm up a little toward the others, each becomes less hard and "rational," more sympathetic and understanding. Each feels the need of giving and receiving love….
[Ehrenburg was attacked for his revolutionary departure in The Thaw], and he was at no time forced to recant or repent, but he did, in 1956, publish Part II of The Thaw, in which the incongruities of Soviet life as reflected in Part I tend to disappear: the true artist Saburov at last gains public recognition; the plant director Zhuravlyov has a new assignment and, while he may not be an entirely new man, he has learned a few lessons. Having once said the important things, Ehrenburg seems to have been willing to appease his critics by the relatively optimistic tone of Part II. (p. 254)
Ehrenburg, an intellectual who, though he compromised, at last threw his weight onto the side of cultural freedom…. (pp. 254-55)
Edward J. Brown, "After Stalin: The First Two Thaws," in his Russian Literature since the Revolution (reprinted with permission of the author; © 1969 by the Macmillan Company), revised edition, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1969, pp. 238-76.∗