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Ilf and Petrovs excellent adventure

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					Ilf and Petrov’s excellent adventure
                                                                                                  cial structure in opposition to the dynamic
         Chris Berg reviews                                                                       capitalism of the east and west coasts. (Al-
                                                                                                  though as Erika Wolf notes, Ilf and Petrov
    Ilf and Petrov’s American                                                                     are once again tricked, as a Native Ameri-
             Road Trip                                                                            can who pretends to be unaware of civili-
                                                                                                  sation was actually a famous photographer
   by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov                                                                  and clown dancer on tour.) Similarly, a trip
   (Cabinet, 2007, 156 pages)                                                                     through North Carolina confirms their So-
                                                                                                  viet views about American race relations—


I
     n 1931, some 10,000 American tour-                                                           deep in the Jim Crow era, it is fair to say
     ists travelled to the Soviet Union in or-                                                    they had a point.
     der to see what the great Soviet Experi-                                                           What does surprise the modern reader
ment could offer their depression ravaged         tering the little town of Moscow, Ohio.         is the unfocused rage they direct towards
country.                                                There are some photographs of more        American filmmaking. ‘We watched at least
      But the tourist traffic heading the other   political importance. A swaying sign in the     a hundred picture shows and were simply
direction was much lighter. Ilf and Petrov’s      street with the lettering ‘REVOLUTION           depressed by the amount of vulgarity, stu-
American Road Trip is the travelogue of two       IS A FORM OF GOVERNMENT                         pidity and lies’. Certainly, it would be hard
Soviet satirists, Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov,     ABROAD’ is, to Ilf and Petrov, bourgeois        to defend the vast piles of films which were
as they crossed the United States, scribbling     intimidation of the working class. (As Erika    produced to fulfil contractual obligations
reports for Pravda readers back home. Like        Wolf notes, the joke was on the Russians—       in the studio system during Hollywood’s
the American fellow-travellers who were           the sign was instead an advertisement for       Golden Age, but cheaply written and pro-
merrily shuttled from Potemkin village to         a popular humour anthology illustrated          duced movies are hardly a unique feature
Potemkin village, the report of their jour-       by Dr Seuss. Ilf and Petrov were the fore-      of American cinema. The cookie-cutter
ney reveals more about their home country         most satirists of the Soviet Union, but they    productions of Soviet cinema during the
and culture than the country they ostensi-        were unable to recognise the work of their      ideologically rigid Stalin era are, on aver-
bly went to investigate.                          American colleagues.)                           age, of a far lower quality than comparable
      The resulting photoessay, which was               For the most part, Ilf’s camera is non-   American films, and have certainly held up
originally published in the Russian maga-         political. Indeed, American Road Trip gen-      worse over time. Ilf and Petrov may have
zine Ogonek, (roughly equivalent to Life)         erally avoids direct political criticism. Ilf   been outraged more by the ideological con-
reproduced the snapshots taken by Ilya Ilf        and Petrov are obviously fond of the coun-      tent of Hollywood films than their quality.
on their journey with their satirical impres-     try they are studying. They are fascinated            American Road Trip is certainly at the
sions of their trip. American Road Trip is a      by the advertising they see plastered across    margins of Soviet culture in the 1930s, but
delightfully naïve interpretation of Ameri-       their trip, and direct much of their satiri-    it is more than a historical curiosity. Satire
can society in the depression era.                cal energy towards Coca-Cola and cigarette      was a major part of Russian culture before
      In this book edited by Erika Wolf, a        advertising:                                    and after the October Revolution. The lives
historian of Soviet art, Ilf’s photographs are                                                    of Illya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov illustrate how
                                                       The fiery writing burns all night
affectionately reproduced for the first time                                                      mixed the bureaucratic approach to politi-
                                                       long above America and all day
in an English language publication.                                                               cal satire could be. Their 1928 novel The
                                                       long the garish billboards hurt
      Ilf ’s photographs are more happy-                                                          Twelve Chairs flirts with political criticism,
                                                       your eyes: ‘The Best in the World!
snaps than Ansell Adams. Many photos                                                              but they remained in favour—other well-
                                                       Toasted Cigarettes! They Bring You
appear to have been taken by sticking the                                                         known satirists, such as those in OBERIU
                                                       Success! The Best in the Solar Sys-
camera out of the windows of their car.                                                           literary collective, were killed in Stalin’s
                                                       tem!’
The book is full of slightly askew pictures                                                       purges for sedition.
                                                  When we read how foreign the most ba-                 Ilf and Petrov do little more than re-
of things the two Russians found inter-           sic and innocuous advertising seems to the
esting, or at least notable—some ‘hand-                                                           flect dominant Soviet thinking about their
                                                  two Russians—they are surprised that that       ideological opponent, but they are never
some and unusually elaborate’ species             towns advertise themselves on billboards
of cactus, the childhood home of Mark                                                             heavy handed or propagandistic. Ameri-
                                                  beside the highway—we don’t gain a better       can Road Trip purports to be a study of
Twain, an advertisement for whiskey that          picture of the United States in the 1930s,
incorporated a statue of a horse, and a                                                           the United States, but instead fascinatingly
                                                  but of the Soviet Union.                        reveals the strength of Soviet ideology and
sign that notified visitors they were en-              They are highly sympathetic to the         the Russian mindset.
                                                  Native Americans living on reservations,
Chris Berg is Editor of the IPA Review.           predictably seeing them as remnants of a so-                                                r

www.ipa.org.au                                                                                            IPA Review | March 2008           49

				
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