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||Ilya Ilf (1897-1937) & Yevgeny Petrov (1903-1942)|
Russian writers and journalists, whose best known work is the satirical novel The Twelve Chairs (1928). In the story Ostap Bender, a clever scoundrel, tries to find in the Soviet Russia of 1927 hidden jewelry with Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov, a former nobleman. Ilf and Petrov also published a large number of stories and sketches under the pseudonym "Tolstoyevsky" in Soviet magazines and newspapers. Their literary reputation rests mainly on the collaborative work – other books have not stood the test of time. Both were born in Odessa, but Ilf and Petrov did not start their cooperation until they met in Moscow.
"Bon jour!" sang Ippolit Matveyevich to himself as he lowered his legs from the bed. "Bon jour" showed that he had woken up in a good humor. If he said "Guten Morgen" on awakening, it usually meant that his liver was playing tricks, that it was no joke being fifty-two, and that the weather was damp at the time." (in The Twelve Chairs)
Ilya Ilf (pseudonym of Ilya Arnoldovich Fainzilberg), was born into a Jewish family in Odessa. His father, Arnold Fayzilberg, was a bank clerk. Despite the pressure of his father, he did not pursue career in business. After graduating from a technical school in 1913, he worked at an architect's office, aviation plant, and hand grenade factory. Ilf also contributed to a humor magazine, Sindektikon. In 1923 he moved to Moscow, where he obtained a post of librarian and wrote for various newspaper and humor magazines. Two years later he became a journalist for the railroad workers' newspaper Gudok (The Whistle) and the newspaper Moriak (The Sailor). Part of his work consisted of editing letters from worker-correspondents into publishable form. In 1924 Ilf married Maria Tasarenko, an artist; they had one daughter.
During a visit in Central Asia, Ilf witnessed the clash between the old customs and new system, which became one of the central themes of The Twelve Chairs. Originally the idea for the book was suggested by the established writer Valentin Katayev (1897-1986), Petrov's elder brother. With Petrov he started to write humorous pieces for Pravda and other publications, such as Mikhail Koltsov's short-lived satire magazine Chudak. The collaboration lasted nearly a dozen years. Of their creative process they once said: "When we started writing together, it became clear that we suit each other, that each of us completes the other, as it's said. Another thing became clear, too. Two people writing together is harder and more complicated than one writing individually. But in return, as far as we can tell, it's turned out to be more productive."
Ilf and Petrov's Little Golden America (1936) was based on their transcontinental automobile trip in the Depression-era USA as special correspondents for Pravda. They arrived in New York on the passanger ship Normandie in October 1935, and after three weeks they departed, going from ocean to ocean in their Ford, and returning through the Southern States to New York in January 1936. Their travel companion for most of the journey, called Mr. Adams in the book, was Solomon Trone (1872-1969), who had worked as a technical specialist in the Soviet Union for General Electric. On its appearance, the book was criticized for being too soft on the evils of the capitalist system.
During the two-and-a-half months journey Ilf
and Petrov met such figures as Ernest Hemingway, Dos
Passos, and Henry Ford. While in Hollywood they wrote for the director Lewis Milestone a treatment based on The Twelve Chairs. San Francisco was "the most beautiful city in America. Probably because it looks nothing like America."
After seeing over one hundred Hollywood movies, the two committed communists preferred their own country, concluding that America has the "most advanced technology in the world and a horrifyingly oppressive, stupefying social order." Back in the Soviet Union, Ilf wrote his own part of the book at a clinic outside of Moscow. Its first edition did not include Ilf's photographs, taken with his Leica camera, but some of them had appeared in Ogonyok magazine. Little Golden America was also translated into English. Ilf died on April 13, 1937 of tuberculosis, which he had contracted on his journey. Already at the time, Stalin's had begun the great terror. The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf were not republished until 1956, manifesting the post-Stalinist "Thaw" in literature.
Yevgeny Petrov (pseudonym of Yevgeny Petrovich Kataev) was born in Odessa. His father, a history teacher, taught at the Women's Diocesan High School. Petrov's mother, Evgeniya Bachey, was according to some sources of Crimean Karaite stock. Karaites were a Judaic sect that rejected Talmudic law. After graduating in 1920 from a classical Gymnasium, Petrov started his career as journalist. In 1921 he became correspondent for the Ukrainian Telegraphy. Before moving to Moscow in 1923, he worked at Odessa Criminal Investigation Department. Petrov was appointed sub-editor of the satirical journal Krasnyi perets (Red Pepper) and in 1923 he joined the staff of the newspaper Gudok, where he met Mikhail Bulgakov and Yury Olesha. Originally Petrov had no ambition to become a writer. However, his brother, the novelist Valentin Kataev (1897-1986), encouraged him to compose short stories, and a small collection was published in 1924. Petrov married in 1929. From 1932 he contributed to Pravda and Krokodil.
In 1925, Petrov became acquainted with Ilf, who also worked for Gudok. It turned out that they made a good writing pair. Their first book, The Twelve Chairs,
gained a huge success. It appeared during the relatively liberal
period, when the New Economic Policy (NEP) allowed limited private
enterprise. When the book was reprinted in 1948, the Writers' Union
issued a resolution deeming the publication a "severe political
The idea for the plot was presented by Valentin Kataev, he saw that the search for diamonds hidden in a chair offered the chance to portray character types from the NEP era. The first edition of the book was dedicated to him. Ostap Bender, the utterly amoral protagonist, encounterrs during his adventures a wide variety of opportunists, bureaucrats, crooks, and swindlers, filling the vacuum created by social upheaval. As a traveling con artist he has much in common with Gogol's Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov from The Dead Souls (1841-46). Two groups seek jewelry, which were hidden during the Russian Revolution by a rich old lady in one of 12 chairs. The chairs have been confiscated by the new regime, and sold to different persons. Bender and other treasure hunters track down the various owners from the provinces to the Soviet Georgia and the Transcaucasus mountains. At the end of the story Bender is killed by his companion Ippolit Matveyevich, who eventually discovers that the diamonds have already been found and subsequently sold to build a workers' club.
Bender represented values of the old order – egoism and individualism, or as Anatoly Lunacharsky said in 1931, he "might appear to be a model for young boys, who still haven't made it out of their own swamp." A con man, Bender knows "four hundred ways to get money without working for it". Although he could not play chess, he lectured on the game "(The blonde plays well and the brunette plays badly, and no lectures will change this state of affairs!"). Ideologically he had no future in the postrevolutionary Soviet Union and he was the opposite of the "positive hero," but readers loved his character. The Twelve Chairs has inspired stage and film adaptations, not only in the Soviet Union but also in the United States. Mel Brooks's film version from 1970 received mixed critics. Brooks directed, scripted, authored a song, and played in a small role. In spite of all his efforts, this time his humor was not as sharp as in The Producers (1968).
Ostap Bender: Ah, whatever became of your lovable master?
1001 den; ili; Novaya Shakherezada (1929), published under the pseudonym F. Tolstoevskii, was a collection of satirical novellas. The Golden Calf (1931), a serialized sequel to The Twelve Chairs, resurrected Ostap Bender with a tell-tale scar across his throat. Originally the work was published in the magazine 30 Dney (Thirty Days). This time Bender eventually becomes a millionaire, but in workers' paradise money doesn't bring him fame and power. He fails – and the only thing he manages to keep after a customs inspection is a medal, the Order of the Golden Fleece (or Golden Calf). Although the humor was clearly propagandistic in tone, and the world view was not so bleak, the officials at the literary censorship organ Glavlit were not interested in publishing it as a novel, until after Maksim Gorky's personal intervention. Ilf and Petrov also planned to write a third novel, in which Bender is sent to a hard-labour camp on the Solovetsky islands. There he transforms into a model citizen.
Unlike most Soviet writers at that time, Ilf and Petrov were allowed to travel to western Europe. During their journey in 1933-34, they met the famous Russian journalist Ilya Ehrenburg in Paris, and cooperated with him in a film comedy, which was not produced. According to Ehrenburg, Ilf's humor was bitter; Petrov was optimistic, his humor was more humane, and he wished good for all people.
Ilf's death in 1937 was a hard blow to Petrov, who then wrote only little fiction. He limited himself mainly to film scripts and edited a collection of Ilf's private notebooks (1937-38). In 1940 he joined the Communist Party and became editor of the journal Ogonyok.
1941, Petrov went to Germany, half a year before the Nazis
attacked the Soviet Union, declaring: "The Germans are tired of war..."
During World War II Petrov served as a war correspondent. He died in an
airplane crash returning from besieged Sevastopol on July 2, 1942.
Petrov's reports from the front were published posthumously under the
title Frontovoy dnevnik (1942).
The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf are considered cult classics. They have been reprinted a number of times and many of their lines have found their way into everyday language in the twentieth-century Russia ("Money in the morning, chairs – in the evening," "This is no Rio de Janeiro," "The financial abyss is the deepest of all abysses, you can fall into it your whole life long," "It's an idiot's dream come true!"). The character of Ostap Bender is in Russia a part of the national mythology. Regarded as the quintessential Homo sovieticus, a museum devoted to his memory was established in St. Petersburg. His first name, Ostap, was perhaps a homage to Osip Šor, a colorful policeman and a friend of Ilf and Katev. A minor planet 3668 Ilfpetrov, discovered by Lyudmila Georgievna Karachkina, was named after the authors.
For further reading: I. Il'f i E. Petrov. Materialy dlia biografia by T.N. Tsintsova (1959); I. Il'f. E.Petrov. Ocherk tvoreniia by A.Z. Vulis (1960); Il'ia Il'f: Evgenii Petrov by B.E. Galanov (1961); Russian Literature Under Lenin and Stalin by G. Struve (1971); Romany I. Il'fa i E. Petrova. Sputnik chitatelia by Iurii Shcheglov (2 vols., 1990-91); Text Counter Text by Alexander Zholkovsky (1994); World Authors 1900-1950, Vols. 2-3, ed. Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); 'Il'ia Il'f and Evgenii Petrov' by A.V. Knowles in Reference Guide to Russian Literature, ed. Neil Cornwell (1998); Zoshchenko and the Ilf-Petrov Partnership: How they Laughed by Lesley Milne (2003; An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature: Two Centuries of Dual Identity in Prose and Poetry, ed. by Maxim D. Shrayer (2007); 'Foreword' by Alexandra Ilf, in The Twelve Chairs: A Novel, translated by Anne O Fisher (2011)