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International Socialism, Autumn 1960


Ilya Ilf and Eugeni Petrov

How the ‘Soviet’ Robinson Crusoe was written



From International Socialism (1st series), No.2, Autumn 1960, pp.12-13.
Translation : Colin J. Partridge.
Thanks to Ted Crqwford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In the editorial office of the illustrated three-weekly journal Adventure there was a shortage of “literary” material, and in particular of stories that would be of interest to the young reader.

There were stories enough but nothing really suitable. There was far too much heavy-handed seriousness in them. To tell the truth, they tended to depress the young reader and not excite him in the least. But the editor really wished to arouse excitement.

At last it was decided to order a novel which would be issued in serial parts.

The editorial runner hastened with a note to the writer Moldavantsev, and the next day Moldavantsev sat on a businesslike sofa in the editor’s office.

—You understand, emphasised the editor, this must be gripping, fresh, crammed with exciting incidents. In fact, it should be a sort of soviet Robinson Crusoe. So that the reader would not lose sympathy with the hero.

—Robinson Crusoe – that’s possible, said the writer briefly.

—But not just any Robinson Crusoe – but a soviet Robinson Crusoe.

—But of course! Certainly a Rumanian Robinson Crusoe would not do.

The writer said no more. It could be perceived at once he was a man of action.

And indeed work on the novel proceeded to its stipulated length. Moldavantsev did not deviate greatly from the original. Robinson Crusoe the editor had said – so it would be Robinson Crusoe ...

The soviet hero endured the shipwreck. He was carried by a wave to an uninhabited island. He was alone, defenceless, in the face of all-powerful nature. Dangers surrounded him: wild beasts, lianas, an imminent monsoon. But the soviet Robinson, full of energy, overcame all dangers, even those which had seemed insuperable. And after three years a soviet expedition found him, found him in the prime of his manhood. He had overcome nature, built a house, surrounded it with a green ring of gardens, raised rabbits, sewed himself a shirt from the tails of monkeys and taught a parrot to wake him in the mornings with the words: “Attention! Off with your blanket! Off with your blanket! Time for morning exercises!”

—Very good cried the editor, and that bit about the rabbits is just splendid. Completely up to date. But you know – I’m not altogether clear about the principal theme of your work.

—Struggle of man against nature, rejoined Moldavantsev with customary brevity.

—Yes, but that is not necessarily soviet.

—But the parrot? that takes the place of a modern radio. An experienced transmitter.

—The parrot—that’s excellent. And the ring of gardens is good. But there is no feeling in your book for soviet society. Where, for instance, is the local trade union committee? Where is there an illustration of the guiding role of our trade unions?

Moldavantsev was suddenly apprehensive as though he felt his novel might not be accepted; his natural taciturnity disappeared in an instant. He became suddenly eloquent.

—Where does the local trade union committee come from? Surely the island is uninhabited?

—Indeed, that is correct. It is uninhabited. But there must be a local trade union committee. I am not a literary artist myself, but if I were in your place I would accept advice in the soviet manner.

—But surely the whole story depends on the fact that the island is uninhab ...

Then Moldavantsev happened to glance at the editor’s eyes and felt more afraid. The eyes were so bright with a March sky emptiness streaked with blue that he decided to enter into immediate compromise.

—But of course you’re right, he said, raising a finger. Of course. Why didn’t I think of this at first. Two people are saved from the wreck: our Robinson and a representative of the local trade union committee.

—As well as two general members, coldly added the editor.

—Oh, groaned Moldavantsev.

—No “oh” about it. Two general members and one active member, a female collector of membership dues.

—But why also a dues-collector? Whose subscription will she collect?

—Robinson’s, of course.

—But the chairman would be able to collect Robinson’s sub-subscription.

—That is where you are completely mistaken, comrade Moldavantsev. Such an action is absolutely impermissible. The chairman of the local trade union committee must not engage himself in trivial details and go around collecting members’ dues. We may occupy ourselves with these things; he must be concerned with the fulltime organisation of working resources.

—Then it must be a job for the collector, Moldavantsev conceded. That’s settled. She can marry the chairman – or even Robinson. Either way it’ll make pleasant reading.

—That doesn’t matter. Don’t slide into gutterpress attitudes or unhealthy eroticisms. It will be sufficient if she collects member’s dues and saves them in a fireproof safe.

Moldavantsev fidgeted on the sofa.

—If you please – a fireproof safe could not possibly be found on an uninhabited island!

The editor ruminated.

—Wait a moment, he said. You’ve said in your first chapter is was quite an unusual situation. Together with Robinson and the members of the local trade union committee the wave carried to the shore various objects ...

—An axe, a rifle, a compass, a small flask of rum and a bottle containing an anti-scurvy preparation, solemnly commented the author.

—Forget about the rum, quickly added the editor, and what’s this bottle of anti-scurvy preparation for? Who is that necessary for? Better to have a bottle of ink! And of course a fireproof safe.

Why on earth a safe? The subscriptions from the members of the local trade union committee could be carefully kept in the hollow of a coconut. Who would steal them from there?

—Who? Why Robinson? The chairman of the local trade union committee? The general members? The collector herself?

—Surely it was the collector who put the money there? Moldavantsev asked with a growing sense of his own cowardice.

—She did.

There was a long silence.

—Perhaps a table at which to hold committee meetings might be washed ashore too, asked the author in a malicious mood.

—In-dis-pens-able! It is necessary to create for people the right conditions for work. Let me see, there should be a tumbler of water, a small bell and a tablecloth. Let the wave throw up any sort of tablecloth you like. It could be red or green. I have no wish to cramp you in your literary work. But, my dear friend, what must be done first is to give leadership to the masses—the vast masses of the workers.

—The wave can’t throw up working masses, Moldavantsev interposed. That is contrary to the plot. Think a moment! Suddenly a wave throws on the shore several tens of thousands of people. That would make even a fly laugh!

—Not at all; a small amount of healthy, honest, life-loving laughter, stated the editor, is never amiss.

—No, a wave just can’t do this.

—Why must it be a wave? quickly asked the editor.

—And how else would a crowd of people land on the island? Isn’t the island uninhabited?!

—Who said it was uninhabited? You confuse me. Ah! Now everything is clear. There is an island – or better a peninsula. All is peaceful. Then there occurs a series of fantastic, new, fascinating incidents. Trade union work is organised but there is a shortage of responsible leadership. The active member reveals a number of defects – perhaps in the province at large while collecting members’ dues. The masses of workers come to her assistance. The chairman upbraids all those at fault. Towards the end you can have a general meeting. This has very good effect especially on cultural relations. And so, that’s it – finished.

—And what about Robinson, stammered Moldavantsev.

—Oh, yes. It’s good you reminded me. Robinson worries me a bit. Get rid of him altogether. Ridiculous, culpable, pessimistic character.

—Now I understand, said Moldavantsev in a mournful voice. It will be ready to-morrow.

—Good. That’s all then. Write it your own way. Incidentally, at the beginning of the novel you have a shipwreck. You know a shipwreck is not really necessary. It would be better without a shipwreck. It would be more entertaining, would it not? Excellent. Well, good-day to you.

Alone once more the editor smiled contentedly.

—At last, he said, I shall have a really exciting adventure story, and besides a genuine literary work of art.

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