Ilf, Ilya

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ILF, ILYA (pseudonym of Ilya Arnoldovich Fainzilberg ; 1897–1937), Soviet Russian author. Born in Odessa, Ilf tried various jobs before turning to journalism and then fiction. Most of his work was written in collaboration with the non-Jewish author, Yevgeni Petrov (pseudonym of Yevgeni Katayev, 1903–1942). The team ultimately achieved renown among Soviet literature's most successful humorists. Ingenious and whimsical, the works of Ilf and Petrov have been entertaining Soviet readers since their publication. The most famous are Dvenadtsat stul yev (1928; The Twelve Chairs, 1961) and its sequel Zolotoy Telenok (1931; The Little Golden Calf, 1961). Both follow the adventures of Ostap Bender, a Soviet crook and confidence man, as he travels throughout the U.S.S.R. outwitting gullible Communist bureaucrats and proletarian philistines. The quick-witted, irreverent Ostap Bender is one of Soviet literature's very memorable characters. Odnoetazhnaya Amerika (1936; Little Golden America, 1937) is an account of the two Soviet authors' safari through what they thought of as the land of the almighty dollar. The considerable comic gifts of Ilf and Petrov are displayed in sparkling dialogue and clever parodies of official jargon, but their artistic effectiveness is inevitably impaired by the ideological requirements foisted upon Soviet satire in general. Thus, while The Twelve Chairs and The Little Golden Calf are propelled by such time-honored comic devices as the hidden treasure, the chase, the picture of widespread corruption, these are vitiated by patently false assertions that greed has already begun to disappear in the U.S.S.R. and that possessing large amounts of money in the U.S.S.R. is not only quite useless, but is indeed, a source of embarrassment. There are similar incongruities in their "Jewish" characters and situations. Some of the secondary characters happen to be Jewish and are amusing enough; for example, the pathetic Jewish immigrant from Russia who had come to Little Golden America in the vain hope of becoming rich. But when the authors begin to preach, their ideological bias proves fatal to their humor. Thus, in The Little Golden Calf an American-Jewish journalist is at first incredulous and then chagrined to learn that, while there are Jews in Soviet Russia, there is no "Jewish problem." The two Soviet authors are at pains to explain that, since he has devoted his life to writing about the "Jewish problem," the American newspaperman fears that this would leave him without a job. The fact is, however, that Ilf's and Petrov's denial of the "problem's" existence in the U.S.S.R. was contrary to the facts. In 1949, during the "struggle" with the cosmopolitans, they were strongly critized, removed from the official writers' lists, and forbidden to publish. The ban was lifted in 1956. Their novels were translated into more than 40 languages, and also filmed.


O.G. Golubeva et al. (eds.), Russkiye Sovetskiye Pisateli, prozaiki, 2 (1964), 204–39.

[Maurice Friedberg]