Ilya Ilf / Yevgeny Petrov, The golden Calf - A Millionaire in the Sowjet Union
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1986
Can real Socialism overcome man’s greed for money? If you read the book “The Golden Calf” authored by the two Soviet writers and journalists Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, you have to answer the question clearly with a “no”. Communism or not, money retains its charm, even if you cannot buy anything with that money anymore.
The story focuses on Ostap Bender, a petty criminal. He wants – surprise, surprise – big money. He learns about Alexandr Koreiko, a clandestine millionaire. Thanks to his good connections with the Soviet authorities, he has made a fortune. With this fortune, he is now waiting for better times, in plain words the end of the Soviet Union. Up until then, he carries his money in a suitcase with him. Bender wants a share of the secret millions. And so, he blackmails their owner. He actually manages to obtain that million by fraud, and now the Dolce Vita can begin!
It is too bad that in Soviet Russia all the things it takes for living a sweet life cannot be bought with money. No mansion, no big car, no fancy suits! What do you do with a million bucks if you cannot buy anything with them? In his desperation, the disillusioned blackmailer even considers giving the million to the Ministry of Finance. But then that is going too far for him. He buys gold and jewelry – just as useless as money in the state of workers and peasants – and tries to cross the Romanian border. But even that fails. The robber is being robbed himself and ends up without any riches at all. “I’ll have to retrain as an apartment manager.” The last sentence of Bender’s and the entire book has become proverbial in Russia. It means that all those nice dreams have been shattered.
The Golden Calf is a wonderful satire whose title harks back to a story in the Old Testament: while Moses sits all by himself on Mount Sinai, waiting to receive the commandments from God, the Israelis fall from Yahweh and dance around the Golden Calf. Representing the new Communist man, Bender is no different. While the bigwigs in the Kremlin want to create a paradise on earth – as we all know, it was to remain a declaration on intent, but that was not yet foreseeable at the time – to the average Soviet citizen the old money is closer than the new community property.
Released in 1931, The Golden Calf virtually went viral. It shaped the Russian language and enriched it with any number of expressions. No censor prevented it from appearing, a fact that was no longer thought to be true in Germany after 1933. When one of the authors died of tuberculosis in 1937, a National Socialist newspaper alleged that the Soviet government murdered him because of his critique of the Soviet regime.
In fact, nothing was further from Ilf and Petrov than criticizing the system. Their novel is high-quality entertainment; it portrays man with all his longings, weaknesses and dreams, who fails because of the circumstances. Just because communism is now reigning, the dream of personal wealth has certainly not died. However, the fact that wealth is no longer of any use in this new Russia is a very much Soviet message. Money only works in societies where you can actually buy something with it.
Translated by Annika Backe