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Ilf and Petrov: Золотой телёнок (The Little Golden Calf; The Golden Calf)

If you think Russian literature is the doom and gloom of Dostoevsky, War and Peace and Dr. Zhivago, then you need to read Vladimir Voinovich and Ilf and Petrov. This is the best known novel of Ilf and Petrov and it mocks much of the Soviet system (and its enemies) in a way that seems to me to dangerously risky for the time in which it was written. It gives the impression that the Soviet system is, at best, inefficient and all too often corrupt, that most people are out for what they get, rather than being devoted communists, and that the State is unaware of what is going on.

We first meet Ostap Bender in the town of Arbatov. He has gone to see the local Soviet chairman and explains that he is stuck there without money. He also mentions that he happens to be the son of the famous Soviet hero, Lieutenant Schmidt. He ask for thirty roubles but is given eight and three meal vouchers. Just as he is about to leave, another man enters and he, too, happens to be the son of the famous Soviet hero, Lieutenant Schmidt. As the chairman is starting to get suspicious, the two recognise each other and fall into each other’s arms, brothers who have long been separated. As they leave, the first sees a man he knows, Panikovsky, going in and knows that he is also going to claim to be the son of the famous Soviet hero, Lieutenant Schmidt. Panikovsky is unceremoniously thrown out. The first two introduce themselves – Ostap Bender and Alex Balaganov. Bender explains that were numerous people going round the Soviet Union claiming to be the close relative of some well-known Soviet or communist hero but then they more or less coalesced on the idea of being the son (or, in a few cases, daughter) of Lieutenant Schmidt. As this was causing confusion, Bender had contacted all these sons and daughters and organised a conference, at which thirty-six sons and four daughters attended. They agreed on dividing up the Soviet Union but could not agree on who would have which part so lots were drawn. Panikovsky got the Volga area, which he did not like, hence his appearance out of territory. Balaganov was not part of the conference.

Bender tells Balaganov that he has a dream. He wants to go to Rio de Janeiro and he needs 50,000 roubles to do so. Unfortunately, there are no rich men left to rob and he has certain scruples about robbing the State. When Balaganov tells him that he knows of a rich man, as his cellmate in prison (who does not get out for another three years) told him about this man, Koreiko. We soon meet the man. He made his millions by various clever deals. For example, he had a chemical plant, which was a front for black market currency exchange and for buying raw materials cheaply and selling them at ten times the price to the State industries. As a chemical plant, he is entitled to get loans for building and development from the State. When the authorities finally come round to check their investment, they find a twelve year old boy with a bucket containing a chemical – water. Koreiko has disappeared. He tries similar scams all around the Soviet Union and builds up a sizeable fortune. The problem is that he cannot spend the money in the Soviet Union, so he has to hide it. He now works as a clerk in the Hercules government office in Chermomorsk, where he earns forty-six roubles a month. Ironically, he is in love with Kosya but she will not marry him, as she thinks he is too poor.

Bender and Balaganov go in pursuit of him but have a series of adventures getting there. They use the car of Kozlevich, who was a taxi driver. He drove various government officials around, where they had wild parties. Unfortunately, they used state funds and are now all in jail, thanks to the testimony of Kozlevich, so he has no business. The threesome set off. On the way, they see Panikovsky carrying a goose, being pursued by angry peasants. The goose is freed and Panikovsky joins them. After a series of adventures, including Bender selling a recipe for illegal alcohol to a group of Americans (the novel is set during the Prohibition era), getting caught up in a car race and meeting a group of artists who only paint with cereals, they finally get to Chernomorsk. They try various methods to extract the money from Koreiko, including mugging, setting up a government office, called Horn and Hoof, which soon takes on a life of its own and has, as its chairman, Funt, whose sole role is to go to prison as chairman when the whole operation fails, a task he has performed several times, and even blackmail.

Ilf and Petrov continue to keep us entertained with their satire against the Soviet system. There is Berlaga who has himself committed as he fears a purge of the staff in the office but he is then purged from the mental hospital. One of the inmates is called Caius Julius Starokhamsk who maintains that a madhouse is the only place a normal man can live in the Soviet Union. The priests chasing Kozlevich or the German engineer who is paid a large salary, for doing nothing or Bender’s film script are all part of the satire the pair throw at us. There were two endings, one, a happier one, which was in the original and a second, less happy one, which is the ending we now have. It is a hilarious book and a worthy addition to Russian literature.

Publishing history

First published in Russian 1933 by 30 Dney
First English translation by Farrar & Rinehart, New York, and Grayson & Grayson, London, in 1932
Translated by John Henry Charles Richardson (UK), Anne O. Fisher (Russian Life Books), Charles Malamuth (Ungar/Farrar & Rinehart), Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson (Open Letter)