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Ian H. Birchall

It’s Only Human Nature

(Winter 1966/67)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.27, Winter 1966/67, p.37.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Twelve Chairs
Ilf and Petrov
Muller, 25s

The Golden Calf
Ilf and Petrov
Muller, 21s

The translation of these two novels will be welcomed by all those whose knowledge of Ilf and Petrov has previously been of a few short stories, such as the brilliant Soviet Robinson Crusoe (order your back numbers of IS now).

The plots of the two novels, built around the charming crook Ostap Bender – the search across Russia for twelve chairs, one of which contains a fortune in jewellery, and the attempt to relieve a Soviet millionaire of his clandestine fortune – are unremarkable, but they provide the opportunity for a string of brilliant sketches and observations. Often they ridicule the bureaucracy: the abstracted official who asks a young couple whether they have come about birth, death or marriage; the state humourist desperately looking for ‘something funny and at the same time socially useful about the unfair tariff rates on slow-delivery goods consignments;’ the old man composing riddles, charades, conundrums and picture puzzles on ideologically correct themes. But they are equally at home with scenes of knock-about farce, or with such details as the man who eats cold soft-boiled eggs.

It is often asked why Ilf and Petrov remained unscathed while left oppositionists and old Bolsheviks were being murdered all around them. The key to their philosophy of life is to be found in a remark of Bender’s: ‘Did you know, Zosya, that everyone, even Communists, are subjected to an atmospheric pressure of four hundred and seventy pounds?’ The real object of Ilf and Petrov’s satire is human nature; their standpoint one of warm but apolitical common sense. This is their strength – they are an oasis of humanity in a period when Marxism was being transformed into a close-knit system for the oppression of the working class. But it is also their weakness. Searching comments (‘In Russia there are Jews, but no Jewish problem’) are made, but not followed up. The purges are briefly mentioned, then we are diverted into the hilarious story of a lunatic asylum where potential victims of the purges take refuge. Ilf and Petrov seem sometimes to share the nostalgia of the old caretaker for his former master who promised him a medal, or of the confidence trickster for the days when the police could be bribed. One suspects they find ludicrous, not only bureaucratic perversions of Marxism, but Marxism itself.

The French court of the seventeenth century applauded Molière, who presented absurd aristocrats – as one aspect of the absurdity of human nature. Similarly, Stalinism could permit Ilf and Petrov to purvey satire which, however amusing, has no basic social content.

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Last updated: 20.12.2007