Il’ia Il’f and Evgenii Petrov during their trip to America on behalf of Pravda, with Florence Tron, their American translator and driver, 1935. (Aleksandra Il’f)

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Il’f, Il’ia Arnol’dovich

(1897–1937), Russian writer. With Evgenii Petrov, Il’ia Il’f (originally surnamed Fainzil’berg) wrote some of Soviet Russia’s most exuberant satires. Their two novels, Dvenadtsat’ stul’ev (The Twelve Chairs; 1928) and Zolotoi telenok (The Little Golden Calf; 1931), slipped past censorship to become the texts through which generations of knowing readers mocked Soviet reality. Innocent enough to be reading material for adolescents, the novels were actually cynical works that adults memorized in part or in full. Quotations from the books, as comments on post-Soviet society, continue to turn up in the Russian-language press on three continents.

Il’f was born in Jewish Odessa; his father was an accountant. Il’f and his artist brothers made the familiar transition from Yiddish and commerce to Russian and high culture. In 1927, with the revolution just a decade old, he moved to Moscow and began a career as a journalist. In Moscow, he befriended Evgenii Petrov, a non-Jewish fellow Odessan with whom he would work for the rest of his short life. Even though their first novel, Dvenadsat’ stul’ev was barely reviewed and the second, Zolotoi telenok, was not published in the Soviet Union until a translation had appeared in the United States; both the writers and the books became very famous. In 1935, the newspaper Pravda sent Il’f and Petrov to America, where they traveled cross-country in their own car. Their account of this journey, Odnoetazhnaia Amerika (Single-Story America; published in an English translation called Little Golden America) was their final collaboration. Another outcome of the journey was a set of outstanding photographs, published in the magazine Ogonek; Il’f’s photographs have been collected and published.

When Il’f returned to Moscow, he was already seriously ill with tuberculosis. The final year of his life coincided with the start of the historical period known as the Terror. It was then, without Petrov, that he wrote his final notebook, a collection of ironic aphorisms and bitter but guarded observations on the behavior of fellow intellectuals and the landscapes of everyday life. This notebook, together with earlier ones, was published soon after his death and many times thereafter, but was always censored. The complete version did not appear until the fall of the Soviet Union.

Il’ia Il’f in a cafeteria during his trip to America on behalf of Pravda, 1935. (Aleksandra Il’f)

Both Dvenadsat’ stul’ev and Zolotoi telenok follow the adventures of an iconoclastic hero named Ostap Bender. Ostap has his differences with the Soviet state (“they want to build socialism,” he says in Zolotoi telenok, “and I don’t.”). He also dreams of making a fortune, and, in the second book fantasizes about relocating that fortune and himself to a “well-run capitalist country” (Brazil). The satire focuses on the postrevolutionary persistence of prerevolutionary vices like greed, corruption, laziness, and complacency. In singling out these “bourgeois” vices, the novels were politically correct, as was their vision of a purified new order just over the horizon. At the same time, both books showed upholders of Soviet order to be as stupid and corrupt as old-world relics. And while paragons of Soviet behavior make brief appearances, their presence is either an uninteresting afterthought (Dvenadsat’ stul’ev) or downright scary (Zolotoi telenok). As even the earliest reviewers noted, readers sympathize with Ostap. Where Il’f himself stood can be extrapolated from the pithy aphorisms of his final notebook, written at a time when he had reason to fear his own arrest: “The guard at the morgue used to say: Don’t fear the dead. They won’t do anything to you. Fear the living.”

Both the novels and the notebooks include Jewish references. The Il’f and Petrov novels differ from others of this early Soviet period by including Jewish characters who are not ideologically sanitized. The supporting characters with Jewish names are nervous, often ironic, and more than usually insecure: a reasonable reflection of the Jewish condition. Ostap’s ethnic background is comically obscure. As a non-Russian (“my father was a Turkish subject”) highly verbal con-man with principles, he has more in common with Jews than perhaps any other group. Close readers always knew that his downfall in Zolotoi telenok is a mirror of a fable about the Wandering Jew told earlier in the book.

Suggested Reading

Aleksandra Il’f, ed., Zapisnye knizhki 1925–1937 (Moscow, 2000); Il’ia Il’f and Evgenii Petrov, Odnoetazhnaia Amerika. Pis’ma iz Ameriki (Moscow, 2003); Aleksandra Il’f, ed., Il’ia Il’f—Fotograf 1930e gody (Moscow, 2002); Avel Kurdiumov, V kraiu nepuganykh idiotov: Kniga ob Il’fe i Petrove (Paris, 1983); Alice Nakhimovsky, “How the Soviets Solved the Jewish Question: The Il’f–Petrov Novels and Il’f’s Jewish Stories,” Symposium 53.3 (1999); Evgenii Petrov, Moi drug Il’f, ed. Aleksandra Il’f (Moscow, 2001); Yurii Shcheglov, Kommentarii k romany “Dvenadtsat’ stul’ev” (Moscow, 1995); Yurii Shcheglov, Kommentarii k romanu Zolotoi telenok (Moscow, 1995); Erika Wolf, ed., Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip: The 1935 Travelogue of Two Soviet Writers (New York and Brooklyn, 2007).