Center for Thaw Studies
Speech of I.G. Ehrenburg to 2nd Congress of Soviet Writers, 17 December 1954

The Second Congress of Soviet Writers was held 15 - 26 December 1954. The Thaw in Soviet literature, which had begun just a year before, was under attack.

Ilya Ehrenburg's seminal novel "The Thaw" (from which the name of this period in Soviet literature is derived) was published in spring of 1954, and immediately drew criticism, most notably from Konstantin Simonov, who also attacked it from the podium of this Congress as he delivered the keynote address on the state of artistic literature.

When Ehrenburg's turn to speak came, he launched a vigorous counteroffensive. Beginning with a few remarks on the death of bourgeois literature, Ehrenburg continued with these words:

We know that the tasks facing the young Soviet literature were exceptionally difficult. Our great predecessors were writing about a society that was just being formed and backward. For decades we were in the forests undertaking construction not just of cities, but of people. Life, thoughts, and feelings all were changing quickly. But now, before us stand not foundation pits, but homes. New times demand a new, creative upsurge.

Soviet writers have given readers many good books. Then why does the reader sometimes get angry, reading this or that novel portraying Soviet reality? The answer, it seems to me, is that they can find neither themselves nor their contemporaries in some books.

In one article--about which, in my opinion, too much has been written--it was shown that the weakness of some books might be explained by an insufficiency of sincerity on the part of their authors. (referring to "On Sincerity in Literature"--Trans.) In their own day, some reactionary critics asserted that Nekrasov (1) was not completely sincere. No one, however, doubted the sincerity of Katkov (2). However, the truth about their epoch was spoken by Nekrasov, not Katkov. We know several contemporary authors who, with complete sincerity, write falsehood: some, because the do not sufficiently understand their contemporaries; others, because in the diversity of the world, they are able to distinguish only two colors--white and black. Such authors embellish their heroes, but impoverish them spiritually. They don't spare the gold when describing a communal apartment; the workshops in their factories look like laboratories, their kolkhoz clubs are like boyars' mansions; but this tinseled, illusory world is inhabited by primitive creatures, good little waxen children having nothing in common with Soviet people, with their complicated, deep internal life.

A society which is developing and getting stronger cannot fear a truthful portrayal: the truth is dangerous only for the doomed.

Truthfulness in our literature is not at odds with the spirit of the Party (partinost--Trans.); rather, it is closely tied to it. We know that all great art has always been tendentious, that is to say, passionate. Without this, there is only a dry enumeration of events or the diary of an egoist on a deserted island. A writer is not an observer of life; he is its creator. Describing the spiritual world of man, he is at the same time changing it. However, this influence on the reader should not be understood in an oversimplified manner: Do this and do that; if you conduct yourself like a positive hero, everyone will admire you, but if you follow the path of a negative hero, you will inevitably be unmasked.

The Union of Writers has a section of children's literature, which has provided our children with many good books. But occasionally, when you read a novel in a journal where the author, from the very first page, tiresomely instructs the reader, you have to think, isn't it time for the Union of Writers to open a section of literature for adults? (Applause).

The writer, marching in the avant-garde of the people, notices--in the secret recesses of the heart--good and bad, tender shoots of the future, and shades of the past. Truthfully showing the spiritual world of man, he helps people to change, to become greater, better, stronger. It would seem that everyone could understand this. However, there are many who still don't want to understand this. For example, we have read many ruminations on what a positive character should be like--ideal or not completely so--or on whether negative characters be shown, and if so, in what proportion. Such conversations are puzzling. Apparently, some men of letters have overlooked the march of time.

In the first ten-fifteen years after the October Revolution, we had not a small number of people who did not want to or could not understand the principals of socialist society. There were, as well, open enemies, people waiting to see how things would end, skeptics, and those who were indifferent. A struggle was going on for the acknowledgement of the new order. At that time, society was divided not only into leading elements and backward ones, but into allies and enemies. Since that time, much has changed. Of course, even today, you can find hidden enemies, but they are so isolated in our society, that one must have the penchant of a decadent, searching for the exceptional, to be interested in them. Generations have grown up for whom our society is their own, the only reasonable one. The battle of heroism, creative outbursts, love towards people and against egoism, indifference, and inertia now flows in the consciousness and hearts of people, precisely where the new contends with shadows of the past, the good with the foolish. Of course, you can set up poles and, in a romantic book, describe a hero who embodies the best of everything, setting him up against a polar-opposite villain. Such a book, if it were written truly and with passion, would unarguably entertain readers, especially young ones. But it seems to me that alongside such a book must be others depicting not poles but a huge world, books showing the thoughts and feelings of millions of Soviet people.

Soviet readers have grown weary from dozens of works where everything is clear from the very first page, where the villain awaits his unmasking, and the leading worker is painted with the brush of a mediocre icon painter. Such books educate no one: people with shortcomings will not recognize themselves in the villain, and people who are good but subject to many human weaknesses will view the positive hero as a creature from another world.

Men of letters breaking down the characters of any novel into the required categories of "positive" and "negative" are themselves a negative manifestation in our literature. (Applause) In them are many holdovers from the past.

Of course, nowadays, almost everyone acknowledges that it is impossible to paint a picture with only whitewash and soot. But just let an author paint a good person with imperfections, and suddenly there appears a literary critic getting indignant: "This is slander of the Soviet people!" Or let another author show that a bureaucrat, hack worker, or sluggard is not a villain, that he has some human qualities, and that same critic or his comrade will protest: "Why is the author demonstrating leniency to negative characters?" Such critics desire--no matter what--to defend an oversimplified approach to characters. They are afraid that literature might pass them up.

But what has in fact happened? Readers have passed up many writers. Let us recall the days of the First Congress of Soviet Writers. At that time, we saw before us tens of millions of new readers. These readers were taking a novel into their hands for the first time. From the beginning of the Revolution until the 1930s, culture spread out widely; it was necessary to introduce the people to it. At that time, a writer could complain about a certain spiritual inflexibility in his readers. Now the Soviet reader looks condescendingly down on that writer: he sees that the characters in the novel are far more inflexible, more primitive, and more spiritually impoverished than he or his comrades.

Our Soviet approach to the problem of the individual is the polar opposite of the approach of the Americans. There, individualism is cultivated, but individuality is trampled upon; man there is deformed by by his profession, his narrow specialization. We strive for the harmonious development of individuality. However, sometimes our education overtakes the development of feelings. We have all met people who work well and reason correctly but who cannot deal in a simple human fashion with their wife, mother, children, or comrades. Perhaps we writers bear a portion of blame for this: we have given more attention to the machine tool than to the man who stands beside it. They call us "engineers of the human soul". This places many obligations on us. But sometimes you read a story or novel where everything is in the right place--the details of the machines and the production meeting are all described just as if written by an engineer; only, where have all the human souls gone?

Let's recall the time of the First Congress of Writers. Then, the socialist transformation of the village was an event about which there was argument. With tremendous labor, the people were building the first giants of heavy industry, which allowed it to defend the Motherland against invasion and which today, twenty years later, help adorn life and make it easier. Abroad in 1934 they were still talking about the "Russian experiment", and Hitler, soon to come to power, was considering, with the amiable cooperation of his future opponents, a plan for conquering Russia.

Today times are different. There is no government in the world with greater authority than ours. Our congress is being held on days which are significant for the future of Europe and the entire world: peoples know that the hand being extended by the powerful and peace-loving Soviet Union can save humanity from unprecedented disasters. We are no longer alone. With us is Great China, with us are the nations of peoples' democracies, with us are all the forward elements of humanity. Communism is no longer a specter haunting Europe, but a fully real power in all corners of the globe. In the past 20 years, culture has penetrated deep down in our nation, and we are proud not only of the number of readers, but with their deep and passionate acceptance of artistic literature. The world has never known such a phenomenon before. Previously, there were only a few selected hundreds, possibly thousands, of such readers; but now artistic literature has genuinely become an accomplishment of the entire nation, and the entire nation is following the work of our congress. This puts a great obligation on us: to do all everything possible to make our literature worthy of our great people.

Books are born not at congresses, but in the thick of life and in the quiet of a worker's room. But I am certain that this congress will be of great help to us all and that, after the congress, each of us, sitting at our work tables, will fulfill our duty.

I have talked about what, in my opinion, writers should do with the characters in their works. Now I want to talk about what, in my opinion, writers should not do with writers. It is not necessary to either over-extol a writer or to blacken his name. It is not necessary to look upon writers as a caste of the chosen ones, and it is not necessary to flog them like guilty schoolchildren.

Why have there been books of mediocre, even questionable quality, that were off limits to any sort of criticism? Why does the tone of some critical articles--past and present-- remind us of a criminal accusation?

Criticism is the comparison of differing opinions. The judge, in the final analysis, is the reader, today's and tomorrow's. The opinion of readers sometimes differs from the opinion of critics. I myself have encountered this more than once when attending conferences of readers.

I am in complete agreement with comrade Simonov when he deplores the fact that frequently we print only some letters from readers while silencing others. This is the truth. Many readers sent me copies of letters to Literaturnaya gazeta written in protest against comrade Simonov's article. These letters were not published, while at the same time many letters expressing agreement with the Secretary of the Union of Writers were published. I am pleased to learn that comrade Simonov condemns such practice. (Applause)

The discussion of a book in the press should not end with a legal verdict: this one is recognized as irreproachable, that one as worthless. Such verdicts hinder the development of literature.

There is no argument over which is better--socialist society or the fanaticism and running amok of contemporary capitalism. The argument is over something entirely different. I welcome the uncompromising struggle against hostile ideology. But, in my opinion, critics should be profoundly circumspect when discussing whether a work, suffused with our Soviet ideology, is successful or unsuccessful. We know how often even great writers have been wrong in their evaluations. Goncharov called Turgenev a plagiarist, and Turgenev was sure that the name Nekrasov was doomed to rapid oblivion. Hugo considered Stendahl a tedious and ignorant graphomaniac, and Stendahl categorized Hugo as a dubious rhymer.

But why go rooting around in the past? Just remember the creative road of Mayakovsky and the condemnation of him by many of those who later praised him.

Some might say that I'm trying to break down an open door. Now every admits that critical judgments cannot be binding on all of society. But that's in theory. I hope that it will soon be true in practice as well.

I did not want to mention the criticism of my own most recent novel which was contained in the report and supplementary report to the congress, but that might be misinterpreted. I do not suffer from self-deception, and I know that in The Thaw, as in other of my books, there is much that is imperfect and simply unfinished. However, I do not reproach myself for the same reason that critics reproach me. If I am able to write a new book, I will try to take it a step forward from my last work, not a step to the side.

Galina Nikolaeva didn't like the novel of Vera Panova. There is nothing surprising in this; and, of course, you could find a writer who didn't like Nikolaeva's novel. But both Nikolaeva and Panova are Soviet writers, dedicated to the Motherland. As concerns Panova, however, and myself as well, recently some critics have made use of the term "objectivism". Such accusations are hardly permissible.

A great battle is underway for the future of our people and of all of humanity. A book is the heart of a writer, and you cannot separate an author from his work. Is it possible, giving due respect to the work of an author, to separate out one of his books and assert that this book denies everything that he has defended with his whole life? Is it possible to categorize people who have been on the battle lines fighting for the common cause as indifferent observers of life? Is it possible to convince people that a soldier in the ranks is hovering around somewhere above the battle?

Without taking part in the construction of our Soviet society, without passion and enthusiasm, a writer is doomed to an inner sterility. Foreigners who are ill disposed to us reproach us with indulging in fantasies and with an absence of creative individuality. They either do not want to or cannot understand that for us, the policy of the Communist Party is the path to the dawning of human values, to the triumph of humanism, and if we are fanatically devoted to the paths of our people, this in no way contradicts the behests of our great predecessors--Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gorky--to defend mankind.

Faith in the people and the Party does not deprive us of our individuality. On the contrary, we see in Soviet society all the prerequisites for the development of great literature. In this we are all one; but we part company in our literary judgments and in our styles of writing. Some love a detailed story-telling; others search for a different composition, a different rhythm. Some love to insert author's remarks, others do not. We choose different types of heroes--this is connected with the character of the writer, with his life experience, with his literary methods. Where is there a codex that decrees exactly how one should write? Where are the scales and the test tubes that can, without error, demonstrate that this character is typical and that one is not? One can and should argue about all this, but the discussion of a book is not a trial, and the judgment of this or that secretary of the Union of Writers is not a verdict, with all the consequences thereunto appurtenant.

Arbitrary verdicts are particularly dangerous when they concern young writers. Sometimes the fate of a beginning author is decided not by writers, but by people who are "near to literature". Young writers are our tomorrow, our hope; we should do all we can to help them surpass us. But to do this, we will have to part with some practices which, unfortunately, are still among us. One can only grin bitterly, imagining what would await a young Mayakovsky if he were, in 1954, to bring his first poems to Vorovsky Street. (Laughter, applause.)

Of course, now, at any event, they understand Mayakovsky. They understand him even when it's time to condemn some inconvenient author. Reprimands issued by judges not possessed with the moral authority to make them and subjective appraisals which journal editors and publishing house workers tactfully obey are often laced with references to the tradition of Mayakovsky. This is painful to the ears of the contemporaries and friends of Mayakovsky, who have not forgotten how difficult was the creative path he followed.

Why, in speaking of the paths of our literature, have I given so much time to the conditions in which we work? Because the fate of literature is inseparable from the fate of writers. A certain writer once said: "We will mercilessly help our comrades." In my opinion, one should be merciless with enemies, not with comrades. I want to summon all writers to a greater understanding of one another and to a greater comradely unity. One of the leaders of the Union of Writers speaking reasonably about the significance of "average" writers, said that without milk there is no cream. Continuing this somewhat unfortunate comparison, one can say that without cows there is no milk. (Laughter, applause.) It's useful to remember this.

We live in a remarkable time. Right before our eyes, some dark sides of life are disappearing. The lofty principles of international solidarity, genuine socialist democracy, and attention to the fate of every person--that is to say, our Soviet humanism--is becoming stronger and more exultant.

Nowhere and never before has literature occupied such a lofty and responsible position as it does among us. In bourgeois nations, congresses of writers are narrow, limited gatherings or aimless arguments on the topic: me and something. For us, a congress of writers is a national event. Much is expected from us, and we have much to account for. The Soviet government and the Party have placed us in a remarkable situation. We have not been given up to the mercy of commercial publishers, and there are no McCarthys hovering over us. We writers ourselves should agree on how it is best for us to work. We should remember that the growth of our society over the last twenty years has proceeded more rapidly and clearly than the growth of our literature. This is natural; a house is never built from the roof down. When a society is maturing, formulating itself, taking up a position, then a literature appears, completely expressing its morals, its hopes, its passions. A writer is a person who possesses a gift, an internal enthusiasm, clear sight, and a heightened sensitivity. This allows him to express the thoughts and feelings of his people. Our Soviet society now finds itself on such a high level that we can justly foresee an extraordinary blossoming of our literature. Our Congress is not an anniversary gathering. No, we are on a threshold, and it remains to wish each of us--writers from all our republics, established writers and beginning ones--great success, inspiration, daring, and victories.

Friends! The enemies of humanism, the enemies of progress, the peoples' enemies are trying to halt the march of time. They are threatening to drown the future in blood. With all our strengths, we shall defend peace, and if madmen dare to encroach on the hope of all of humanity, they will meet a people who have not only a strong army and advanced industry; they shall meet a people who have a great heart and a great literature. (Prolonged applause.)


See also:
Sholokhov's Speech to 2nd Congress of Soviet Writers.
Biography of Ilya Ehrenburg
The Thaw by Ilya Ehrenburg, a detailed summary.
On Sincerity in Literature by Vladimir Pomerantsev, the text in English.
Tvardovsky Axed!, the controversy surrounding A. Tvardovsky prior to the 2nd Congress.
Biography of Konstantin Simonov

(1) Nikolai Nekrasov [1821-1878]. Poet, writer, and publisher. He began his career in 1840 with some romantic poems, which were not very popular. Following the advice of the critic Belinsky, Nekrasov switched to "civic poetry" in which he described with great compassion the suffering of the Russian peasant. Between 1846 and 1866, Nekrasov was co-owner and chief editor of the journal Sovremennik, which became Russian's leading literary journal, publishing works by Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoi, Belinsky, Chernyshevsky, and Dobrolybov, as well as by Nekrasov himself. Many of his contemporaries--used to the elegant verse of Pushkin and Lermontov--were shocked at Nekrasov's use of stark realism of detail, new rhythms, and earthy language. Perhaps his best-known work is Who Is Happy in Russia?, which describes the journey of seven peasants who wander throughout Russia in a fruitless search for a happy man.


Translated by Eric Konkol

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