In 1935–6 a pair of Soviet humorists, Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov, toured America, and the book they wrote became an enduring hit in Russia. It is still remembered well enough to be recently remade as a TV series with contemporary comedians. On the rolling ocean liner to New York, Ilf and Petrov think they’ve spotted a fellow countryman playing chess in the lounge. It’s confirmed! “Who but Soviet folk would think of playing the queen’s gambit in such weather?”
The text is a gently comic popular ethnography. The funniest section concerns the search for a Russian-speaking, but American, guide and driver. He must be someone pleasant enough to spend time with, and also a man who doesn’t like to make money. A close match is found, but only his wife can drive. Ilf and Petrov quite easily persuade the couple to abandon their baby for two months, telling the two-year-old they’ll be back in an hour as they carry their cases through the door and the black nanny weeps. They’re away. “The machine glided over the damp asphalt . . . the speedometer began to register miles.”
With a group of friends, I drove nine hours from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Washington, D.C., “its gardens, columns, and full collection of monuments,” to witness the women’s march on January 21. We caught the inaugural address on the radio on the wet New Jersey Turnpike. We saw the empty bleachers at the inaugural parade on a TV in a Burger King. We debated whether the women’s march had a specific agenda. Everything is a muddle, we opined. The press doesn’t know its job. There have been, we pointed out to one another, a series of inversions. The conservatives are radicals. It’s the liberals now crying “conspiracy,” invoking the founders, defending America, hoping the CIA has their back. The chickens had been getting ready to roost for some time. And they’d roosted.
The inaugural address, we agreed, was deeply sinister, being violently nationalistic and concerned with purging social evils. We also indicted it for being fascistic in its historylessness, the sense of a golden dawn eradicating the way things have been.
Yet we’re also often told, and it seems to be true, that Trumpism is driven by a nostalgia for an America like Ilf and Petrov described it. (Their book is called Little Golden America in its English translation.) They saw endlessly repeated homogeneous suburbs, full of housewives busy housecleaning, black nurses in white aprons and caps walking little gentlemen, consistent sameness across all the continent’s colossal dimensions. They were impressed that the average man receives the blessings of life at a comparatively low price, and by the egalitarian restaurant culture, and the amazing roads, the efficiency, and above all the industriousness. But they didn’t come to America to be uncritical. The philistinism felt deadening, and the vulgar phony spectacle of American wrestling appalled them.
Ilf and Petrov detected a conspiracy of power and money masked by the sonorous words of the constitution, against which the common man was powerless. It all boiled down to bandits, racketeers and bankers, which were the same thing anyway. Liberty was deposited too close to Wall Street to be safe, and good people were forced to vote for crooks. It is due to all of these considerations today, of course, that those “who want nothing from their government but to be left alone” rejected the tyranny of Crooked Hillary.
Nevertheless, according to Ilf and Petrov, Americans—whose favorite phrase is “he looks like a million dollars”— are a little too impressed by money. They even describe an archetypal character, who comes from the outer boroughs of New York, moves to Park Avenue and becomes a billionaire, but is unsatisfied by his monstrous wealth, which can’t overcome his mortality. Obviously these are all clichés, or what an ethnographer would call strong traditions. Likewise, the kompromat gambit played by Putin seems quite simple. Like many of his fellow countrymen he may well have first encountered America through this book, whose Russian title translates as One Storeyed America. Whether he’s read it or not, who can say Putin understood America worse than its own elite?
Ilf and Petrov did not observe anything like the kind of liberalism now espoused by a shade over half of the electorate. (In their day, people advancing comparable ideas were regarded as “the enemies of society.”) And so to the women’s march, where the crowd was so huge it couldn’t march because all the streets were packed. I stood, packed in, eating fruit given to me by a woman who’d flown over from California. The most popular slogans naturally concerned reproductive rights (“My body, My choice”) and sexual violence (“Keep your tiny hands off my pussy”), but they also ran to defending minorities (“Black lives matter”), climate change, and funding scientific research. The agenda turned out to be completely clear and coherent. It was a statement of outraged liberal decency, it was a defense of a way of life, encapsulated by a large sign carefully made in august We-the-people-style calligraphy, which just said “Fuck this.” American friends said that after the event their faith was partly restored.
Cover photo: A road sign in America by Ilf or Petrov.