Life in the shifting uncertainties of Stalinist Russia, where denunciations, arbitrary arrests and sudden changes in policies meant you could suddenly become an ‘enemy of the people’ overnight, was a nightmare that has left Russian society traumatised to this day. Primarily known as a writer, journalist and poet, the twists and turns of the left-leaning Ehrenburg’s personal history should have meant a one-way trip to the Gulag but he seems to have managed to chart the treacherous waters of Stalinism with aplomb, and, unlike many of his literary contemporaries who tended to end up in a muddy Siberian grave, he was acclaimed and valorised before being allowed to shuffle off this mortal coil in 1967 at the ripe old age (for a Stalinist literary figure) of 76.
His international reputation and the fact that he was living in Paris probably helped to keep Ehrenburg out of the Gulag, but Stalin had a long reach (as Trotsky found out in Mexico) and being a Soviet writer was a dangerous game. To survive well into old age under Stalinism required a certain kind of flexibility and moral dexterity, involving the loss of all sense of personal integrity or morals, an ability to change your opinions in an instant, ratting your colleagues and workmates out before they did the same to you as well as being prepared to snitch on your friends and family to the secret police. Terror and fear poisoned everything.
It was in this context that Ilya Ehrenburg published My Paris, a study in words and images of the underbelly of that great city. Published by the State publisher Izogiz in 1933, and designed by El Lissitzky, (this copy is the faithfully reproduced Steidl reprint of 2005 which helpfully includes an English translation of the Russian text) My Paris is an interesting example of book design and an insight into how the Soviets viewed their proletarian brothers in the West. Ehrenburg’s familiarity with the city made him uniquely qualified to produce a Russian perspective on injustice there for a Soviet audience. This book certainly avoids the pitfalls and clichés that seduce many a chronicler of that iconic metropolis; the Eiffel tower only appears once in the background of a picture of a scruffy building site.
Ehrenburg’s introduction to the book, in which he describes how he used a right angle viewfinder attached to his Leica in order to catch them unawares as he was taking their photograph, does strike me as being rather at odds with his status as a fellow proletarian. As he boasts “I can talk about this without blushing; a writer has his own notions of honesty. Our entire life is spent peeping into windows and listening at the keyhole.” In his defence we must also admit that he was not a professional photographer used to the rough and tumble of taking photographs on the street and certainly, from personal experience, you soon learn that street-photography can produce some ‘interesting’ reactions from the people you photograph. But this inordinate pride in deception and dishonesty that Ehrenburg displays, in my opinion, speaks volumes about his character.
Ehrenburg used his modified Leica to produce images for a book depicting what he describes as his Paris, the working class areas of the city and the poor that live there. A good portion of the images and text are taken up with depicting the better-off sections of the working class eating, drinking and enjoying themselves, which only serves to heighten the contrast with the homeless and destitute. The result is a procession of images we expect to see from a photographer documenting this kind of subject; dirty streets, comatose men sprawled in the gutter, homeless people huddled on benches, grizzled old women scowling suspiciously, shabby houses and the discarded flotsam and jetsam of material culture picked over by the poor.
Is there any empathy with the people Ehrenburg depicts in this book? I have to say that I can’t see it. Ehrenburg’s work skims over the surface of the human degradation and squalor surrounding him but he doesn’t penetrate beneath the surface of life on the margins. Even the text serves to negate Parisian poverty, describing it in a straightforward manner, showing it as a normal, accepted state of affairs with no solidarity between the different sections of the poor. The individuals in his images are presented as passive and docile. They are browbeaten, broken and selfish people, content to wallow in their bottle of cheap wine after a meal in a restaurant or collapse in the gutter.
In the climate of fear that pervaded Russian society, books just didn’t get printed by State-run publishing houses without layers of bureaucrats being satisfied about the bona fides of the author and the contents. To do otherwise was to shorten your lifespan considerably. I would imagine that My Paris was regarded as ‘safe’ because it was interpreted by the Soviet authorities as a straightforward representation of systemic problems associated with capitalist society, such as drunkenness, homelessness and unemployment. The individuals he portrays are presented as pitiful downtrodden pawns of capitalism in contrast to the revolutionary fervour of the masses building a bright new future (under Stalin, naturally). This servile attitude is also used to explain why the Russian revolution hadn’t spread westwards across Europe; it was their own fault for being so weak and spineless. The flame lit by the Paris Commune has been passed to the workers of the Soviet Union (led by Stalin of course) who are in the vanguard of progress.
Although Ehrenburg’sbook is ostensibly about Paris, it is really being used to convince a domestic audience about the great strides being made in the Soviet Union. The formerly revolutionary workers of Paris are no more; that mantle has been assumed by their Soviet counterparts who are now the only hope left for the working masses.