Ilya Ehrenburg Jeri Laber - Essay

Jeri Laber

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ilya Ehrenburg's [The Thaw] is without doubt the most important literary work published in post-Stalin Russia…. No single document from a Soviet source since the mid-thirties has provided such a revealing image of the Soviet citizen and his life.

Significantly entitled The Thaw, Ehrenburg's book reflects that brief period, now referred to as the "Malenkov era." The significant changes which occurred during this period revealed the extent of the internal dissensions which had arisen under Stalin's rule.

As a novel, The Thaw is good journalese, in the genre of the "slick" magazine story, with a fast-moving, formularized plot. But although its significance as literature is slight, as social commentary it is outstanding.

Unlike most Soviet novelists, Ehrenburg has here broken with official Party demands that Soviet life be shown "as it should be" rather than as it is. Soviet life is shown candidly, with all of its hardship, hypocrisy, doubts and dissatisfaction, and with a constant emphasis upon individuals, whatever their reactions to the social and political system. Love, or, more precisely, frustrated love and frustrated people, is the central theme of The Thaw. His characters, unlike the successful, confident and purposeful "new Soviet men" encountered in most Soviet novels, are confused and unhappy, striving for love and security in a cold and impersonal world….

Yet despite their "un-socialist" problems and doubts, Ehrenburg's protagonists are "new Soviet men," for they represent the upper strata of a new, Soviet-educated generation. They hold responsible jobs in a provincial town, are often Communist Party members and attend meetings, lectures and other party functions. But party membership and social productivity alone do not make a man, according to Ehrenburg. His focus is on man's inner world; he finds that a neatly painted social façade generally hides an emotional slump. (p. 19)

Ehrenburg's sympathetic treatment of his characters incited a storm of abuse in the Soviet press for his "objectivity" in portraying "morally corrupt, spiritually dislocated neurotics."…

The Thaw is clearly a product of the period of relaxation, instability and re-evaluation which has followed Stalin's death. Ehrenburg is one of a number of writers who have seized this opportunity to express their criticisms of the Stalin regime and their aspirations for the future. (p. 20)

Jeri Laber, "This Side of Paradise," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1955 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 133, No. 15, October 10, 1955, pp. 19-20.