Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov: Conversations at Tea

There were three in the family--a papa, a mama, and a son. Papa was an Old Bolsehvik, Mama was an old housewife, and the son was an old Pioneer1 with close-cropped hair and twelve years of life experience.

On the surface, everything was just fine.

Nevertheless, everyday at morning tea, there were family arguments.

Papa usually began the conversation.

"Well, how are things in class," he asked.

"Not in 'class', but in the 'group'", the son answered. "How many times do I have to tell you, Papa, that 'class' is a reactionary-feudal concept?"

"Okay, okay. Group. What have you learned in the group?"

"We don’t 'learn', we 'work out'. You should know this by now."

"Fine. What have you worked out?"

"We worked out the questions of the influence of Lasalleism on the origin of reformism."

"Oh! Lassalleism? Did you solve any problems?"

"We did."

"Excellent! What kind of problems did you solve? Were they difficult?"

"No, not very. They were problems of materialist philosophy in light of the tasks set forth by the second session of the Communist Academy together with the plenum of the society of agrarian-Marxists."

Papa pushed away his tea, wiped his eyeglasses with the hem of his jacket and looked intently at his son. No...outwardly everything seemed fine. A normal looking child.

"Please, in plain Russian, what are you learn--, working out right now?"

"Last time the collective was reading the poem 'Raise High the Voice for the Hair of Horse'".

"About a horse"? Papa asked hopefully.

"About horse hair," his son dryly repeated. "Haven't your heard it?"

"Hey, kids, all in the field
To hunt
The Horse!
Flow, song; fly, voice
Rip out the valuable hair of the horse!"

"It's the first time I've heard such a...m-m-m...strange poem," said Papa. "Who wrote it?"

"Arkady Steam."

"Who's that, some kid? From your group?"

"What do you mean, kid? Shame on you, Papa. And you, an Old Bolshevik, you don't know Steam! He's a well-known poet. We just wrote a report, "The Influence of Arkady Steam on Western Literature."

"But doesn't it seem to you," Papa asked cautiously, "that in the work of this Comrade Steam there is a certain lack of poetic feeling?"

"What do you mean, lack? The questions of the collection of unnecessary horse hair for use in the mattress industry are sufficiently and clearly emphasized."


"Absolutely unnecessary."

"But wouldn't you prefer to collect horse ears?" Papa shouted with quavering voice.

"Eat, eat," mama said in a conciliatory tone. "Always arguing."

Papa snorted for quite some time, shrugged his shoulders, and muttered something angrily under his breath. Then he gathered his strength and once more turned to the enigmatic youth. "Well, how do you rest, how to you amuse yourself? How do you entertain yourself these days?"

"We don't entertain ourselves. There's no time for that."

"Well, what do you do?"

"We fight."

Papa livened up.

"Now that I like. I remember when I was young I was keen on it. The bras roulé, the tours de tête, the headlock. This is very useful. It's a wonderful pastime, French fighting."

"Why French?"

"Well, what kind then?"

"Ordinary fighting. Principled."

"With whom do you fight?" Papa asked with a falling voice.

"With Lebedevism."

"Oh, and now it's Lebedevism. Who is this Lebedev?"

"One of the kids."

"A kid with bad behavior? A troublemaker?"

"Horrible behavior, Papa! He repeated a whole slew of Deborinist2 errors in the appraisal of Machism3, Machaiskiism4, and Mechanism."

"Oh, what a nightmare!"

"Of course it's a nightmare. We've already spent two weeks on this and nothing else. We're giving all our strength to this fight. Yesterday was a political-storm-session."

Papa put his head in his hands.

"How old is this guy?"

"Who, Lebedev? He's not young anymore. He's eight."

"An eight-year-old kid, and you're fighting with him?"

"And what do you think we should do? Exhibit opportunism? Paper over the situation?"

Papa, his hands trembling, grabbed his briefcase and, overturning his chair on the way, dashed outside. The boy, who just couldn't understand, smirked condescendingly and shouted out after him:

"And you, an Old Bolshevik!"

On another day, poor Papa opened the newspaper and let out a triumphant shout. Mama shuddered. The son stared disconcertedly down at his tea cup. He was already reading the Central Committee's decree on schools5. His ears were pink and translucent like a rabbit's.

"Well," said Papa, smiling strangely, "what's going to happen now, student of the fourth grade, Sitnikov, Nikolai?"

The son kept silent.

"What did you collectively work out yesterday?"

The son continued to keep silent.

"Have you finally overcome Lebedevism, you young, uncompromising orthodox?"


"Has the poor boy confessed his super-Deborinist errors? Wait, what class is he in?

"In the zero group."

"Not in the zero group; in the preparatory class," Papa thundered. "You should know this by now!"

The son kept silent.

"Yesterday I read that this Arkady...what's his name?...Steam Engine of yours was refused admission to the Union of Writers. What was it he wrote? 'Hey, kids, let's go in the field and rip out the horse's hair by its roots'?"

"'Rip out the valuable hair of the horse'", the boy whispered imploringly.

"Yes, yes. Always with one word: 'Flow, fly, horse's voice.' I remember. Is it still influencing world literature?"

"I don't know."

"You don't know? Don't chew when the teacher is talking! Who wrote Dead Souls? You don't know this either? Gogol wrote it. Gogol.

"An absolutely decrepit and reactionary mystic...." the boy gladly began to drone on.

"Two-minus!"6, Papa said vindictively. You must read Gogol, you must study Gogol, and then--in ten years--you'll work things out at the Communist Academy. But tell me, Sitnikov, Nikolai, about New York.."

"There, more than anywhere else," Kolya began to sing, "you'll see the sharply developed capitalist contradict-...."

"I know this myself. But tell me, on which ocean's shore is New York situated?"

The son kept silent.

"What's the population there?"

"I don't know."

"Where is the Orinoco River?"

"I don't know.

"Who was Catherine II?"

"A product."

"What kind of product?"

"I'll remember in a second. We worked it out.... Oh! A product of the era of the growing influence of market capitalist--...."

"Tell me, who was she? What office or post did she occupy?"

"We didn't work that out."

"Ah-hah! And how do you know if a number is divisible by three?"

"Eat up," said Mama, her heart aching. "Always arguing."

"No, let me tell me, what is a peninsula?", Papa boiled over. "Let him tell me what is Kuro-Sivo? Let him tell me what kind of product was Henry the Fowler?"

The enigmatic boy jumped up, shoved his sling-slot into his pocket with trembling hands, and ran outside.

"A two!", the happy father shouted after him. "I'm going to tell everything to the school director!"

He finally had his revenge.

Translated by: Eric Konkol


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