The Legacy of Ilf and Petrov
- By Mark H. Teeter
- Nov. 26 2007 00:00
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In retrospect, that the book appeared at all seems close to miraculous. Its general disposition was so incomparably sunnier than that of the official "festive" occasions of that year -- the 20th anniversary of the ignoble Bolshevik coup d'etat and the 100th anniversary of the inglorious shooting death of Alexander Pushkin -- that Ilf and Petrov seem practically subversive by comparison. Or perhaps heretical is the word: The book was rife with the spontaneous wit so abhorrent to clerics of authoritarianism everywhere and included scores of noncanonical reflections on Soviet reality, with the United States serving as both looking glass and funhouse mirror.
Seventy years later, "One-Storied America" continues to entertain and edify, reminding both Russians and Americans of virtues all but forgotten, vices since acquired and mutual misapprehensions we are loath to abandon. Still.
Take Ilf and Petrov's car accident. Having plowed their Ford into a ditch, the pair find that Americans simply cannot pass by strangers in distress. The first vehicle that comes along stops to help. So does the second, the third and so on, eventually making such a "touching spectacle" that the visitors are "glad that we had this little accident [or] we would never have discovered this amazing American trait." Would they, Americans should wonder, discover it today?
Or Yankee straightforwardness: "Americans never say anything they do not mean," wrote Ilf and Petrov. "Not even once did we run across ... what we call 'talking through your hat.'" Clearly, the hats of former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former vice-presidential aide Scooter Libby, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and their ilk were unblocked. Thus, the visitors could later rhapsodize that "the mere recollection of American sincerity and the American ability to keep one's word comforts us to this day." Gulp.
The United States' "outward forms of democracy" were viewed, moreover, as "splendid" national assets, maintained "with extraordinary meticulousness," which "should interest [us Soviets] no less than any new machine." They "help in work, deliver a blow to bureaucracy and enhance human dignity." How many U.S. laborers today would admit of such democratic splendor in the workplace? Just as significant is a retro question for Russians: How many Soviet writers were suggesting in 1937 that their fellow citizens would benefit from more equality at work, less bureaucratic oppression and a dose of U.S. "democratism" to enhance their dignity as humans? The answer is surely two.
And even more remarkably, how many Soviet writers dared to marvel that year at Americans' regular access to their leader? Only a willfully blinkered Soviet reader could miss the implications of Ilf and Petrov's description of a Franklin D. Roosevelt press conference. The Soviet visitors wax eloquent over Roosevelt's public availability, noble demeanor and savvy media manner -- traits resoundingly absent, of course, in the closely guarded, crudely abrasive and endlessly secretive Stalin. In our day, moreover, Americans and Russians can both read this revealing episode and be suitably chastened -- Americans because their president cannot honestly be described as savvy, and Russians because their president cannot honestly be described as Roosevelt.
There is much to debate in the panoramic, picaresque "One-Storied America." But no one disputes its persistent buoyancy, a joy that, sadly, could not be shared in 1937 by its creators: Ilf succumbed to tuberculosis only days after the book's appearance, leaving his family, Petrov and Soviet satire bereft.
Yet the volume lives on in successive editions, and the larger legacy of Ilf and Petrov likewise flourishes. Their classic novels are still in demand, and Ilf's parallel career as a photographer has become the subject of two impressive volumes. The latest of these, "Ilf and Photography," will be introduced this week at the Carnegie Moscow Center, where Alexandra Ilf, daughter of Ilya and keeper of the Ilf and Petrov flame, will share her thoughts on many aspects of her father's art. When her subject is "One-Storied America," it seems, "Cold War II" will seem slightly less irreversible and life itself slightly more fun.
Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.