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by Bamber Gascoigne

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 by Ilya Ilf and ‎Yevgeny Petrov, translated from the Russian by John Richardson)

Ilya Ilf (pseudonym of Ilya Arnoldovich Fainzilberg), was born into a Jewish family in Odessa.  His father, Arnold Fainzilberg, was a bank clerk. Despite the pressure of his father, Ilf 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), which attracted in the 1920s such writers as Mikhail Bulgakov and Yuri Olesha, 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 the new Soviet system. Lenin's New Economy Policy (NEP) 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: "We are not relatives, Not even the same age. And of different ethnicity: while one of us is a Russian (a mysterious Slavic soul) the other is a Jew (a mysterious Jewish soul). So, it is had to work together. The most difficult thing is to achieve that harmonious moment when both authors can finally sit down at the desk. While one of the authors is full of creative energy the other one (oh, the mysterious Slavic soul!) is lying on the sofa, feet up. reading the history of sea battles. At the same time he announces that he is seriously (most probably mortally) ill." (What Every Russian Knows (And You Don't) by Olga Fedina, 2013, p. 33)

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." (Ilf and Petrov's American Road Trip: The 1935 Travelogue of Two Soviet Writers by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, edited by Erika Wolf, 2007, p. 80)

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." (Ibid., p. xiv) 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 Russia was on the brink of collapse and limited private enterprise was allowed. The book was reprinted in 1948, BUT the Writers' Union issued a resolution deeming the publication a "severe political error". 

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." ('Foreword' by Anne O. Fisher, in The Little Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf & Evgeny Petrov, translated by Anne O. Fisher, 2009, p. 23) 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. There is also a Cuban film based on the novel, made in 1962 and transferred to the country's postrevolutionary reality. Mel Brooks's film version from 1970 received mixed reviews. "W. C. Fields would have loved this movie," said the film critic Roger Ebert. (The Chicago Sun-Times, December 22, 1970) 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?
Tikon: One night, about ten years ago, was a fearful noise. There was bombs and cannons and soldiers shooting, it was terrible, terrible.
Ostap Bender: Ah, I think it was called the revolution.
Tikon: That was it, the revolution. You're smart. You're smart and you're gorgeous. You're okay. Any ways, they all runaway.
Ostap Bender: Well, come here old boy. Let us see how drunk two Russians can get on one ruble.
(in The Twelve Chairs, dir.  Mel Brooks, 1970)

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.

In 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);  '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 by Ilya Ilf & Evgeny Petrov, translated by Anne O Fisher (2011)

Selected works:

  • (Petrov): Radosti Megasa, 1926
  • (Petrov): Bez doklada, 1927
  • (Petrov): Sluchay s obezyanoy, 1927
  • (Ilf & Petrov): Dvenadtsat stulev, 1928
    - Diamonds to Sit On: A Russian Comedy of Errors (translated by Elizabeth Hill and Doris Mudie, 1930) / The Twelve Chairs by Petrov Evgeni I. Petrov, Il'ia Il'f (translated by John H. C. Richardson, 1961)
    - Kaksitoista tuolia (suom. Reino Silvanto, Juhani Konkka, 1946)
    - Films: Dvanáct kresel (1933), dir. Martin Fric, Michal Waszynski; Keep Your Seats, Please (1936), dir. Monty Banks, starring George Formby; 13 stühle (1938), dir. E.W. Emo, starring Heiz Rühmann, Hans Moser, Annie Rosar; 13 stolar (1945), dir. Börje Larsson, starring Åke Söderblom, Ludde Gentzel, Lillebil Kjellén;  It's in the Bag/The Fifth Chair (1945), dir.  Richard Wallace, starring Fred Allen, Binnie Barnes, Jack Benny; Sju svarta be-hå (1954), dir. Gösta Bernhard, starring Dirch Passer; Treze Cadeiras (1957), dir. Franz Eichhorn; Las doce sillas (1962), dir.  Tomás Gutiérrez Alea; 12 stulyev (TV film 1966), dir. Aleksandr Belinsky, starring Igor Gorbachyov; 12+1 (1969), dir.  Nicolas Gessner, starring Sharon Tate, Vittorio Gassman, Orson Welles, Vittorio de Sica, Terry-Thomas (original title Una su 13); The Twelve Chairs (1970), dir.  Mel Brooks, starring Ron Moody, Frank Langella, Dom DeLouise, Mel Brooks. "Watching it on TV recently it seemed joyless and much too careful for a comedy. Ron Moody in the leading role doesn't sparkle and the only saving grace is Mel Brooks's appearance as a drink-sodden janitor." (Barry Took in Comedy Greats, 1989); 12 stulyev (TV series 1977), dir. Mark Zakharov, starring Aleksandr Makarov; Zwölf Stühle (2004), dir. Ulrike Ottinger
  • (Ilf & Petrov): Svetlaia lichnost', 1928
  • (Ilf & Petrov, under the pseudonym of F. Tolstoevskii): 1001 den; ili; Novaya Shakherezada, 1929
  • (Ilf & Petrov): Zolotoi telenok, 1931
    - The Litte Golden Calf: A Satiric Novel (with an introduction by Anatole Lunacharsky, tr. Charles Mamamuth, 1932) / The Golden Calf (translated by John C.H. Richardson, 1964) / The Golden Calf (translated by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson, 2009) / The Little Golden Calf (translated by Anne O. Fisher, 2009)
    - Kultainen vasikka (suom. Ami Aarto=Armas Äikiä, 1957)
    - Films: Zolotoy telyonok (1968), dir.  Mikhail Shvejtser, starring Sergei Yursky, Leonid Kuravlyov, Zinovi Gerdt, Yevgeni Yevstigneyev, Svetlana Starikova; Prehlídce velim já (1970), dir. Jaroslav Mach;  Mechty idiota (1993), dir. Vasili Pichul; ; Zolotoy telyonok (TV series 2005), dir.  Uliana Shilkina, prod. by Central Partnership, starring Oleg Menshikov; Zlatno tele (TV film 2010), dir. Branislav Kicic 
  • (Ilf & Petrov): Kak sozdavalsya Robinzon, 1933
  • (Ilf & Petrov): Ravnodushie, 1933
  • (Ilf & Petrov): Silnoe chuvsto, 1933
  • (Petrov, with A. Kataev): Pod kupolom tsirka, 1934 (play)
  • (Ilf & Petrov): Direktivny bantik, 1934
  • (Ilf & Petrov): Bezmyatezhnaya tumba, 1935
  • (Ilf & Petrov): Chuvstvo mery, 1935
  • (Ilf & Petrov): Chudesnye gosti, 1935
  • (Ilf & Petrov): Poezdki i vstrechi, 1936
  • (Ilf & Petrov): Tonya, 1937
  • (Ilf & Petrov): Odnoetazhnaya Amerika, 1936
    - Little Golden America: Two Famous Soviet Humorists Survey These United States (translated by Charles Malamuth, 1937) / Ilf and Petrov's American Road Trip (edited by Erika Wolf, 2007)
    - Yksikerroksinen Amerikka (suom. Mika Rassi, 2013) 
  • (Ilf): Zapisnye knizhki, 1938
  • (Ilf & Petrov): Sobranie sochinenii, 1938 (4 vols.)
  • (Petrov): Frontovoy dnevnik, 1942
  • (Petrov): Stsenarii, 1943
  • (Petrov): Ostrov mira, 1947 (play)
  • (Ilf & Petrov): Sobranie sochinenii, 1961 (5 vols.)
  • (Ilf & Petrov): Izbrannye rasskazy / Selected Stories, 1994 (edited by A.V. Knowles)
  • (Ilf): Ilya Ilf i fotografiya = Ilya Ilf and Photography, 2007 (edited by Aleksandra Ilʹf and Aleksei Loginov)

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