Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip

“I’m gonna read Odnoetazhnaya America (One-storied America) by Ilf and Petrov,” my husband said a few days ago. “I think, you’ll be disappointed,” was my response. “What could the two satirical novelists write about America in 1935? How badly black people were treated there? What a poor and miserable life working people lived in the capitalistic world?” I thought. I should admit, I was wrong. The book happened to be an unbiased, very interesting depiction of America’s thirties.

The history of the trip

Ilya Ilf and Evgeniy Petrov traveled through the depression-era United States, from New York to California and back, by automobile. They were taking photos and writing their travelogue during the two-months journey. “How could this trip become possible?” one more or less familiar with the living in the Soviet Union might ask. In 1935, well into the era of communism, political terror and repressions, the two Russian satirical writers came to the U.S as special correspondents for the Soviet newspaper Pravda. As I learned from the editor’s note, in 1935 the United States and the Soviet Union felt mutual interest to each other. The Soviet Union needed American technologies, while America was suffering from the Depression and seeking for any way out. The short period of time when the two countries didn’t treat each other like the worst enemies was the best for Ilf and Petrov to take the trip and discover America.

The history of the book

When Ilf and Petrov returned home, they published their work in Ogonyok, the Soviet equivalent of Time magazine. A bit later the book Odnoetazhnaia Amerika (Single-Storied America) was published and immediately translated into English under the title Little Golden America. For unknown reasons, the first edition of the book did not include the photographs. Ilf died shortly after the trip to America; Petrov died in a plane crash in 1942 while he was covering the Second World War as a journalist. Then the Cold War came, and Soviet press started drawing America in the darkest colors only. Ilf and Petrov’ mild humor and playfulness were not appropriate in the USSR any more. The photos would be lost forever, but in 2003 Erika Wolf, a historian of Soviet art, gave a call to the Cabinet Magazine and asked if they wanted to publish a chapter from the forgotten photo-essay (Ogonyok version). This is how the book Ilf and Petrov’s American road-trip began.

Why this is still interesting

Though Ilf and Petrov took their trip to America long ago, their book and photos are still very interesting. You’ll find a very detailed depiction of America’s everyday living in thirties there. While traveling, the writers met many famous people and visited remarkable places like Mark Twain museum, Ford factory, Mexican and Indians settlements, Hollywood and the roof of the Empire State Building. America is quite recognizable in their book despite seven decades passed by!

What I liked most is how Ilf and Petrov described their first impressions of America and Americans – what a brilliant example of cross-cultural communications! When I visited the USA for the first time, I felt exactly the same what Ilf and Petrov felt (however, they wrote about their feelings much better than I could).

Read more about Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip: