Sunday, April 20, 2014


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Ilf And Petrov's Excellent Adventure: A Look Back At Soviet Writers' 1935 U.S. Trip

Writers Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov at work in 1932
Writers Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov at work in 1932
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By Nikola Krastev
Washington and Moscow had recently established diplomatic relations. The United States was mired in the Great Depression. The Stalinist terror was about to get under way in the Soviet Union. World War II was just a few years away.

Such was the state of the world when Soviet journalists Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov set out in November 1935 to discover America as correspondents for the Communist mouthpiece "Pravda."

The resulting book, "One-Storied America" (Odnoetazhnaya Amerika), was published in 1937 and for decades remained the only expose of contemporary America accessible to the Soviet readers.

Ilf and Petrov were already admired at home for earlier collaborations like "The 12 Chairs" and "The Little Golden Calf."

Sina Najafi, editor in chief of the Brooklyn-based magazine "Cabinet," which published chapters of Ilf and Petrov's travelogue in 2004, says he and other editors at the publication were intrigued by the Soviet humorists' playful observations of American life.

The U.S. edition of Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov's "American Road Trip" (2007) and a modern Russian edition of "One-Storied America" (1937)
"[It] sort of showed the kind of intimacy that was happening between the two countries in a way that retroactively we can't even imagine," Najafi says, "because they were here, they were in some sense critics, then admirers of a society that was the kind of mirror society of theirs."

Although the two writers acknowledged at the very beginning of their work that New York is not America, their three-week stay in the largest U.S. city was nevertheless the longest single stopover of the entire trip.

Upon arrival in Manhattan, Ilf and Petrov settled in at a hotel across the street from the famous Waldorf-Astoria on Park Avenue. The hotel has since been demolished, and the building erected in its place now hosts the corporate headquarters of the Colgate-Palmolive Company.

"One-Storied America" included some of their descriptions of the street life in that neighborhood. They described details which, while less than notable to New Yorkers were nevertheless fascinating for Soviet readers.

They noted, for example, how pedestrians could pick up a copy of "The New York Times" or "The New York Herald Tribune" on the sidewalk and throw two pennies in a can while the newspaper vender was eating his lunch.

They described the bright taxi cabs, which sported a variety of colors in those days -- red, white, and orange -- in contrast to today's uniform and ubiquitous Yellow Cabs.

Times Square was a splash of lights and colors where the two journalists managed to find a Soviet film playing at a cinema.

"They're very intelligent people obviously with an amazing sense of detail -- you see that in the writing, and in the comments, and in the little things that they noticed that are hard to notice unless you've been here for years, and even then they're hard to notice," Najafi says.

A photo of Ilf and Petrov in New York in 1935 (from Aleksandra Ilf archive)
Aleksandra Ilf, the only child of Ilya Ilf, was only a few months old when her father took off for the United States. At the time -- with very few baby-care items available in Moscow -- her mother asked Ilf to bring baby supplies that could last for two years.

"Ilf brought just a few things back from the U.S. because they had very little time [to shop]," Aleksandra recalls. "Besides they were planning to have a stop-over in Paris where his brother's wife could have bought all that was needed."

Later, when Aleksandra Ilf would become the guardian of Ilf and Petrov's literary legacy, she would carry a business card that read "The daughter of Ilf and Petrov."

Ilf and Petrov were intensely envied among the Soviet writers establishment at the time, she says, because their works had been widely translated and published in the West and they were able to travel overseas.

Erika Wolf, a Soviet art historian and the editor of the 2007 book "Ilf And Petrov's American Road Trip," says the two journalists received considerable royalties from the foreign editions of their books that allowed them to finance their trips overseas.

"For me, it's simply remarkable that in 1936-37, which is when a lot of the Stalinist show trials are winding up and the terror is really about to kick into gear, that these Soviet writers are writing what largely is a sort of candid response to American culture that includes a lot of admiration of it," Wolf says. "It also captures, I think quite honestly some of the negative sides of the United States -- racism, poverty, disparity between city and countryside."

At the end of their three-week stay in New York Ilf and Petrov bought a new gray Ford-T and embarked on a two-month journey through 25 U.S. states in an attempt, as they wrote, to discover "the real" America.
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