Mnogolikie sozdateli mnogolikogo Ostapa: A Study of the Construction of Il'f and Petrov

Anne O'Brien Fisher, University of Michigan

Ever since the 1928 serialization of Il'ja Il'f (1897-1937) and Evgenij Petrov's (1903-1942) novel Dvenadcat' stul'ev, debates conducted in public, official press organs have attempted to steer reader reception both of Il'f and Petrov's literary creation Ostap Bender and of their body of work as a whole. The availability of the coauthors' works has also been carefully regulated (up to 1991, in any case). In these facts, the fortunes of Il'f and Petrov do not significantly differ from those of other contemporary satirists (Zoshchenko, Bulgakov, Platonov). However, Il'f and Petrov's case does differ in that, during their lifetimes, they achieved success in three areas simultaneously: they attained a popularity bordering on the status of cult (despite later officially sanctioned smear campaigns); they enjoyed a (relatively speaking) quite privileged relationship with the Soviet literary machine; and their exceptional literary art was (and continues to be) recognized and praised. When examining the relationship between these satirists and the object of their satire, however, one question has evaded definitive resolution: how is scholarship to address the seeming disparity between Il'f and Petrov as creators of a figure who has been consistently received as both sympathetic and anti-establishment, and Il'f and Petrov as active supporters of that same establishment?

In order to constructively address this question, another issue must be dealt with first. This issue is, quite simply, the acknowledgment that the actual writing duo of Il'f and Petrov was not identical to the writing duos which were created (and mythologized, which scholarship has noted) by them, by the official organs which sanctioned and distributed their work, and by their reading public. All of these non-identical writing subjects, and their goals and audiences, must be better defined before the relationships between them (and the processes which created them) can be usefully discussed. In my paper, I approach a definition of one of these subjects, the officially-constructed one, using a source which has tended to be less privileged by those who address the question of Il'f and Petrov's political orientation, beliefs, or subtexts. That source is the interpretative texts (introductions, forewords, commentaries, and afterwords) which accompanied Il'f and Petrov's works and "guided" readers towards a "correct" understanding of them. Based on a comprehensive (although not, despite great effort, exhaustive) survey of works published in book or booklet form from 1928 to the present, I hope to produce a narrative of the changing trends in the (re)definition and appropriation of Il'f and Petrov and of their satire which will be solidly contextualized in contemporary political, literary, cultural, and historical processes.