America Beginners

With two satirical novels under their belt, two Russian journalists embarked on a coast-to-coast trip of America in 1935.

In 1935, two Soviet journalists were sent by the newspaper Pravda to "discover" America. One of them brought along a camera. The two countries - one beginning to experience the horrors of the Stalin regime, the other in the grip of the Depression - had established diplomatic relations about two years earlier. The two reporters published their impressions in an 11-part series in the Moscow-based monthly Ogonyok and later in a book, "One-Storied America," which was also published in the United States and was reissued half a year ago.

The two were not just any journalists sent by Stalin to expose the "Coca-Cola country": They were already cultural heroes, both back home and in the United States. In 1927, the two - Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov - co-wrote "The Twelve Chairs" (recently published in Hebrew for the third time); in 1932, they had written "The Golden Calf." In both works, the same protagonist, Ostap Bender, a brilliant conman, makes a mockery of the Russian social regime. "The Golden Calf" was first published in English, in the United States, and would never have appeared in the writers' native land without the intervention of Maxim Gorki.

"The Twelve Chairs," which describes a mad chase for diamonds that were hidden in one of 12 chairs that were subsequently scattered across Russia, became an almost immediate cult book in both the Soviet Union and the United States. In 1970, Mel Brooks made a film version of the book. In 1935, when Ilf and Petrov visited the United States for Pravda, they were also supposed to help adapt the novel into a screenplay, working with director Lewis Milestone. In America they were known as "the Russian Mark Twain," even though there were two of them.

They arrived in New York in early October 1935. After spending a week in the city and thinking they had begun to understand America, they were told that New York is not America - only a bridge between Europe and the real America. So they went to Washington, certain that the capital city must be America. They fell in love with that pure American city instantly, but then were told that it is only a city of government officials. Bewildered, they headed for Hartford, Connecticut, the city where Mark Twain lived. To their dismay, the local residents told them that Hartford is by no means America. Some said America was in the South, others that it lay in the West. "A few didn't say anything at all - they just pointed their fingers vaguely into space" (this and subsequent quotations from "Ilf and Petrov's American Road Trip: The 1935 Travelogue of Two Soviet Writers," Princeton Architectural Press, 2006, translated by Anne O. Fischer and edited by Erica Wolf).

Ilf and Petrov decided to set about finding the real America in an organized fashion. They bought a Ford - the cheapest way to go, they discovered - insured it and themselves, took with them a married couple whom they knew, he Russian and she American (she drove), and set off.


The choice of a car as their mode of transportation was probably made not only for economic reasons. The writers' love of cars stands out in "The Twelve Chairs" and even more emphatically in "The Golden Calf," which opens with a paean to automobiles in the guise of a lament for the fate of pedestrians. The journey in the footsteps of millions in "The Golden Calf" takes place in a car with four passengers - just like Ilf and Petrov's American adventure.

The twosome is bowled over by the highways: "The roads are one of the most remarkable phenomena of American life. American life specifically, not just American technology." They are awed by the gas stations, by the free service given cheerfully, by the helpful signs showing the number of each road: "A child, even someone deaf and dumb, could drive by himself on these roads." In San Francisco they saw the bridge suspended over the bay under construction, and wrote: "Engineers should get on their knees and cry tears of joy at the sight of this brilliant construction."

Gradually, as they drive from one city to the next, they reach the conclusion that this is what America looks like: "[an] intersection of two roads and a gas station against a background of [electrical] wires and advertising billboards." They admit to having arrived in America with a preconceived notion of skyscrapers, subways, blaring horns and the cries of stock-market brokers rushing about, trying to dump their plunging shares. But they are ready to revise the image: They discover that most of America is single- or double-storied. It's a land of small towns, all of which look alike.

The center of every city is a main street (called Main Street), along which is a coffee shop and a movie theater and a drugstore (where the salesperson is not a pharmacist per se, but rather a young girl waiting "to be discovered"). Every town has its uptown and its downtown, and there is hardly ever anyone in the streets. They do not bother to invent names; there are several Moskvas and even an Odessa in America. Every city has the same smell, of an exhaust pipe. The traveler falls in love with the first city, is somewhat moved by the second, is rather amazed at the third, feels ironic about the fourth, but "in the fifth, 17th, 86th and 150th, it turns into ordinary indifference."


It is not by chance that the two writers refer to having found "even Odessa" in the United States. Both Ilf and Petrov were born in Odessa, though those were not their real names and they met for the first time in Moscow. Both were journalists, initially for the satirical paper "Red Pepper" and then for "The Whistle," the journal of the railroad workers. Petrov's real name was Evgeny Katayev. His brother, Valentin Katayev, was a well-known, admired Soviet writer, who lived until 1986. Petrov, who wrote little after Ilf's death, was killed in a plane crash while reporting on World War II as a military correspondent.

Ilya Ilf's real name was Ilya Arnoldovich Feinzilberg. His father was a bank clerk. Ilya attended a technical school, worked in an architect's office and in a factory that manufactured planes and grenades, and in 1923 moved to Moscow at the invitation of his older brother, an artist and photographer who also changed his Jewish name to Sandro Fasini. It was Petrov's brother who introduced the two journalists and encouraged them to write together. Ilf's older brother left Moscow in 1923, moving initially to Istanbul, from where he wrote a desperate letter to his uncle Nathan, who had immigrated to the United States earlier (with their mother, changing the family name to Feinsilver), asking for his help in obtaining a visa. "To choose Russia as a field of activity means to choose death," he wrote, adding: "Human intelligence is incapable of grasping what Russia is today. You have to see it for yourself, and only then will you be able to understand."

Fasini never got to America. He settled in Paris and married, and in July 1942 he and his wife were arrested, sent to Drancy and then to Auschwitz, where they perished in 1944. Ilf, by contrast, left Russia and returned time and again. In 1932, he and Petrov went to Paris, met with the renowned writer Ilya Ehrenburg, and wrote a screenplay with him. Ilf located his brother and they went out together. Ehrenburg related that Fasini tried to make his brother understand the weirdness of modern art; Ilf gave his brother a Rolleiflex camera and took some of his paintings and photographs back to Russia.

Ilf and Petrov co-wrote all their books (in addition to the two novels, they published a book of satirical sketches under the pen name of "Fyodor Tolstoyevsky"). The actual physical writing was done by Petrov, whose handwriting was more legible. In 1930 when the work on "The Golden Calf" was stuck, Petrov wrote: "I had savings of 800 rubles and a wonderful co-author. I lent him the money to buy a camera and lost both the money and the co-authors. Now he only just clicks." Their photographic essay of America - Ilf took the pictures - was their last collaboration (Ilf died in April 1937 from tuberculosis contracted during the trip). They knew where they were going. Gorki had already been there, in 1906, dubbing it "the city of the yellow devil." In 1926, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky savagely criticized Americans, who have unlimited electricity, but whose wealthy uppercrust prefers to eat by candlelight.

As for Ilf and Petrov, they toured and photographed America and saw its flaws, but overall their satirical writing is suffused with a "positive joie de vivre." They knew, in 1937, with Stalin's terror raging, that this was not exactly the correct or desirable tone. The period between the publication of the series of articles in Ogonyok at the end of 1936, and the appearance of the book "One-Storied America," was very tense. Ilf told his friend that he was "waiting for the other shoe to fall." And fall it did. The day after Alexei Tolstoy published a favorable review of the duo's book in the newspaper Izvestia, on March 21, 1937, the same paper published a savage denunciation of it, and other papers followed suit. What bothered the critics were observations by the writers about how Russia could benefit from emulating the American mode of interaction between managers and their subordinates, and in general the writers' love for America.

In April 1937, at a meeting of writers in Moscow, Petrov read a statement the two had written in which they attacked fiercely the Soviet tendency to create literary reputations that had no basis - as a result of which many books on shelves had never been opened. The address drew an ovation, and afterward a group of writers went to a restaurant to celebrate. At Ilf's suggestion they ordered champagne. He lifted his glass and said "The champagne is 'Ich sterbe'" (echoing Chekhov's last words, after he asked for champagne, in German: "I am dying").

Everyone present knew about Ilf's illness. Ten days later he was dead. He was 40.


The 11 episodes of the American journey published in Ogonyok were accompanied by 166 photographs. According to the original plan, the book was to contain hundreds of photos. Copies of them, with the seal of the censorship, were found in the archives, but the name of one of the authorizing censors was erased (his identity and fate are unknown), and the volume appeared without any photos at all. An edition with retouched photographs was published in 1947, but was quickly shelved. A publishing house that put out "The Twelve Chairs" and "The Golden Calf" that same year was reprimanded and forced to shred the books. Even though they were cult books and Russians knew passages from them by heart, their publication was prohibited until after Stalin's death.

Ilf's daughter, Alexandra, who worked in a publishing house her whole life, preserved her father's archive and recently reissued both novels (in complete editions; "The Twelve Chairs" was not censored at all; "The Golden Calf" was both delayed and censored) along with her father's diaries and letters. She also helped with the publication of the book about America, which even 70 years later has fascinating things to say about the country, some of which remain pertinent today.

During the trip, Ilf and Petrov spent two weeks in Hollywood, intending to work on the screenplay of their novel. They met distinguished directors, such as Rouben Mamoulian (with whom they saw "Porgy and Bess" in New York), and related that in the past, during the silent-film era, there were many good films with original ideas and witty plots. There were also clumsy ideas, but at least there were ideas, and occasionally one saw real life reflected on the screen. Now that was all over, they wrote - "not counting Chaplin and two or three other directors. Their genuine art is as far away from Hollywood hack work as is the Soviet art of film. We watched at least 100 picture shows and were simply depressed by the amount of vulgarity, stupidity and lies."

There are four categories of films, they claimed: musical comedies, historical dramas, gangster films and films with opera singers. "Each kind of movie has only one plot, with endless and excruciating variations. So year in and year out, American audiences are actually watching the same thing. And they are so used to it that sometimes a picture with an original plot doesn't do well at the box office."

The travelers constantly picked up hitchhikers, from New York to San Francisco and back. The Americans they met were affable, polite, happy to help, eager to answer questions and totally without curiosity. None of them asked where the guests were from or what peculiar language they spoke among themselves. Most of them were looking for work, roaming from state to state - and not finding any.

One chapter is devoted to the Indians: "You can physically destroy the Indians; they are powerless to resist. But you can never defeat them. They hate and disdain the white peddlers, in a sense their palefaced [sic] brothers, who tried to destroy them for centuries and finally drove them into the barren desert. This hatred drips from an Indian's every glance. He will tie a newborn child to a flat board and place him right on the dirty earth floor of a wigwam, but he doesn't want to take any culture from a white man."

The Indians allowed the two to enter their wigwam, but the children were unwilling to take chocolate from them and their parents were unwilling to talk to them. Ilf and Petrov mustered the Soviet viewpoint in order to explain why it is amply clear that the American government was being deliberately mistaken in its attitude toward the Indians. They preferred them on reservations and offered them education in English instead of allowing them to develop their culture.

Ironically, Ilf and Petrov had the good fortune to die young (Petrov was killed in a plane crash in 1942, aged 39): If they had dissected life in the Soviet Union after World War II with the same sharp scalpel they used on America in the 1930s, they would probably not have come out of it in one piece.


The chapter on blacks is entitled "Negroes," a politically correct epithet in the 1930s. In one of the Southern states, Ilf and Petrov were talking with a young hitchhiker, an unemployed high-school graduate. He was living in a relief-work camp established by the Roosevelt administration:

"But wouldn't you like to go to college?"

"Of course. Even though I know fellows with diplomas in their pockets who are bumming around the country looking for work. Still, whichever way you slice it, it's easier to make a career for yourself if you have a college degree."

"Which fields are you interested in studying in college?"

"What do you mean, which fields?" the youngster asks. "Whatever they teach will be fine."

They pass through a town of "Negroes": "It was the lowest level of poverty, a naked, hopeless poverty, in comparison to which the poverty of the Indians would seem the height of prosperity."

"You can tell right away which houses belong to the Negroes and which to the white folks," the hitchhiker notes.

"What? You don't mean that all Negroes live that way?"

"Of course they do."

"All right, you grew up in the South. Tell us, do you know of even one rich Negro?"

He thinks a bit. "I don't know of a single one."

"Why is that? Are Negroes bad workers?"

"No, they know how to work."

"Maybe they're not very clean people?"

"Why would you say that? I know Negroes pretty well. Negroes are good people, some of them can play football well."

"Well, how did it turn out that all Negroes are poor?"

"That I don't know."

"Does your father know any Negroes?"

"We know a lot of Negroes."

"And do you get along with them?"

"Of course."

"And would you let a Negro eat dinner with your family at the same table?"

The young man laughed. "No, that's impossible."


"It just is. Negroes and white folks don't sit at the same tables."

"But why not?"

"You're from New York, I see."


The two journalists end the journey where it began: in New York. "And if you asked us now, 'What did America seem like to you?' - our honest answer would sound something like this: 'The most advanced technology in the world and a horribly oppressive, stupefying social order.'"

They were aware that during their journey, they looked for the differences among Americans and did not always find them. "If you look carefully at a small town, you can see that it's built just like New York. It's a New York that has been shrunk immeasurably, a New York of just 3,000 inhabitants, not seven million. Thus between the biggest town and the smallest towns in America there are more similarities than differences. And whatever Americans may say about New York, it is the real America: Here you have all the heights of American technology and all the smoky delirium of its oppressive, shining life.

"The first impression of New York is that it is too big, too rich, too dirty, and too poor. Everything is too extreme. There's too much light on some streets, and not enough on others. People work in buildings that are far too overheated and enjoy drinks in their restaurants and drugstores that are far too cold. They speak too loudly. They work too much. Some people have too much money and some people have too little ... Can you really fall in love with a city because of that? Yes, you can fall in love with New York. The way Desdemona fell in love with Othello. You can fall in love with it for the pain it lives in, for the mighty struggle against death from starvation which is fought here every hour of every day by millions of people."

They sailed on the "Majestic" at the end of January 1936. The ship glided past Wall Street, and they wrote: "Golden electric light shone in the windows; maybe it was light reflecting off real gold, who knows?! That sparkling, that last golden vision, accompanied us all the way out to where we entered the open sea. After two hours, no trace of America was left. A lighthouse blinked once - that was all. The cold January wind ruffled the tall ocean waves."

The Russian photographer and art critic Aleksandr Rodchenko wrote of Ilf's photographs in 1937: "This is a photo-primitive, this is Rousseau." He viewed the stills (most of which have not been preserved; some were scanned from old issues of Ogonyok for the book) as pure documentation. "This is not photography; this is bookkeeping." In his opinion, Ilf's photographs were almost amateurish. If he had taken a creative approach to photography, Rodchenko wrote, if he had learned from Ilya Ehrenburg and his photographs of Paris, "then his 'American Photographs' would not be so passive and mild, but would be filled with the gunpowder of satire characteristic of Ilf and Petrov." In any event, the passage of time appears to have enhanced both Ilf's photographs and the impressions he and Petrov gleaned of America.

At the beginning of "The Golden Calf," the hero, Ostap Bender, arrives in a middle-sized Soviet city, where pedestrians are still respected. He looks around and says to himself, "No. This is not Rio de Janeiro. This is a lot worse." And Alexandra Ilf relates in an afterword to the recently published photographic travelogue that while they were in the United States, Ilf and Petrov wrote a story "with a grotesque flavor" for an American magazine (she doesn't say which one, unfortunately) entitled "Columbus Approaches the Shore." In it is this paradoxical observation: "The fact that you discovered America means nothing. The important thing is that America discovers you." W