One-storied America

One-storied America (Одноэтажная Америка) is a 1937 book based on a published travelogue across the United States by two Soviet authors, Ilf and Petrov. The book, divided into eleven chapters and in the uninhibited humorous style typical of Ilf and Petrov, paints a multi-faceted picture of the US. America's entrepreneurial skills and economic achievements are praised, the oppression of the blacks, the life of the Indians in the reservations and the oppression of workers are denounced. The title of the book refers to their impression that the cities of America consist mainly of one- and two-story buildings, in complete contrast to the popular image of America as the land of skyscrapers. Based on this sentence:

One-storied America
AuthorIlf and Petrov
Original titleОдноэтажная Америка
CountrySoviet Union
Publication date

America is primarily a one-and two-story country. The majority of the American population lives in small towns of three thousand, maybe five, nine, or fifteen thousand inhabitants.

The "single story" was also interpreted as a metaphor for the one-dimensionality of the country: In America everything revolves around money and wealth, while the country has neither soul nor spirit.

The United States, which was perceived as the land of machines and technological progress, was of great importance at the time for the Soviet Union, which had set itself the goal of overtaking the United States. This slogan (Russian: догнать и перегнать Америку; "catch up and surpass America") was one of the most important slogans during the ambitious industrialization of the Soviet Union. Given the political climate in the Soviet Union in 1937 when the book was published, with the onset of Great Purge, it is surprising that a version of a book that lovingly satirizes the United States was published.[1]


Photo taken by Ilf, who wrote "I would like to caption this picture as follows: "This is America!""[2] (1936)

Ilf and Petrov traveled across the Great Depression-era United States.

On October 7, 1935, a few years after the onset of the Great Depression (1929 to 1933), the writers Ilf and Petrov, correspondents of Pravda newspaper, arrived in New York on the SS Normandie passenger ship, which was the most modern ship of the time and its tenth voyage between Europe and America. In those days, the President of the United States was Franklin Roosevelt, who did a lot for rapprochement between the United States and the USSR. This allowed the authors to freely move around the country and get acquainted with the life of different layers of American society.

The authors lived in America for ten weeks. During this time, they crossed the country twice from end to end. Ilf and Petrov did not speak English and sometimes used the help of Russian-speaking guides. Ilf took many pictures throughout the journey, and the authors produced a photo essay entitled "American Photographs", published in the popular Soviet magazine Ogoniok — a Soviet analogue to Time Magazine.[2][1]

Work on "One-Story America" began in the United States. The essay "Normandy", which opens the book, was written by Ilf and Petrov shortly after their arrival in America. Under the heading "The Road to New York," it appeared with minor abbreviations in Pravda on November 24, 1935. During the writers' stay in America, Pravda also published their essay "American Encounters" (January 5, 1936), which in the book concludes the 25th chapter, "The Desert".

They returned to Moscow in early February 1936 and announced in an interview with a correspondent for Literary Newspaper that they would write a book about America. Ilf and Petrov published their first brief notes about the trip in 1936 in the Ogonyok magazine under the title "American Photos". The text was accompanied by about 150 American photographs by Ilf, which captured the appearance of the country and portraits of people with whom the writers met in America.

In 1936, the travel sketches "One-story America" were first published in the magazine "Banner". In 1937 they were published as a separate publication in Roman Gazeta, in Goslitizdat and in the publishing house Soviet Writer. In the same year the book was reprinted in the Russian cities of Ivanovo, Khabarovsk, Smolensk.[3][4][5]

"One-Story America" was written rather quickly – in the summer months of 1936. While the book was being written, Pravda published five more essays from it:

  • June 18 – "Travel to the country of bourgeois democracy";
  • July 4 – New York;
  • July 12 – Electric Gentlemen;
  • September 5 – Glorious City of Hollywood;
  • October 18 – "In Carmel".

The first edition of the book was supposed to feature Ilf's photographs, but for reasons that remain unknown it was published without any illustrations. Both the photo essay and the book document their adventures with their characteristic humor and playfulness. Notably, Ilf and Petrov were not afraid to praise many aspects of the American lifestyle in these works.[6][7][2][1]

Ilf died of tuberculosis soon after his return (April 1937) just as the first edition of the book appeared in print in 1937. The first signs of his tuberculosis became apparent during the trip to America.[1]


Four people (both authors and the Adams married couple from New York) bought a brand new Ford with a "noble mouse color" and crossed America from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and back in two months (late 1935-early 1936).

The authors:

  • deeply detailed ordinary life of Americans of that time;
  • They acquaint the reader with many American celebrities including Ernest Hemingway, Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan Jr., Albert Rhys Williams, Francis Townsend, Joseph Steffens, Bette Davis, etc.;
  • Described many cities and towns in America: New York, Chicago, Kansas, Oklahoma, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, El Paso, San Antonio, New Orleans and the US capital – Washington DC ;
  • They visited an Indian wigwam and a Mexican village;
  • Periodically meet with Russian emigrants, including Spiritual Christian Molokans in San Francisco ;
  • They talked about some of the national sports: rodeo, wrestling, American football and Mexican bullfighting ;
  • They climbed to the roof of the Empire State Building in New York and descend deep underground into the Carlsbad caves ;
  • Described in detail the unique American invention – the Sing Sing prison "electric chair" and the creation of the first light bulb and phonograph by Edison ;
  • Explained the most beautiful landscapes of America found in the prairies, mountains, national parks and even deserts ;
  • Visited the White House, where President Roosevelt held a conversation with United States reporters;
  • Explains in detail about the production of films in Hollywood;
  • In Hollywood they spent two weeks writing a screenplay for Lewis Milestone.

The authors criticized the standard life of Americans, their intellectual passivity, especially young people, and their gullibility. At the same time, the authors admired American roads and excellent service, work ethic, cleanliness and a clear organization in everyday life and at work.

From "One-Story America" the Soviet reader first learned about publicity, life on credit and the ideology of consumption (In the chapter "Mr. Ripley's Electric House").


American impressions were explained by the authors in the fiction section of the newspaper, "Hours and People" (1937).[8]

In the Ford plant in Dearborn, was technology that enslaved and crushed people, where workers, chained to machine tools and conveyors, seem to be people deeply unhappy. We seemed to be on another planet. We saw other young workers, healthy and cheerful, passionate about their work, disciplined, friendly with their leaders. We knew about this difference before coming to America, but somehow abstractly. And now, under the still fresh impression of what he had seen in America, we admired this contrast. Every American had instilled the indisputable confidence that we will overcome everything, that everything will be fine and that it cannot be otherwise.


During Soviet times, the book was reprinted in 1947, 1961 and 1966, but in these editions its text was subjected to political censorship. Thus, references to Stalin and other political figures disappeared from the text. The text underwent an especially large number of edits when it was published in the Collected Works of Ilf and Petrov in 1961. For example, the sympathetic mention of Charles Lindbergh's move from America to Europe after the abduction and murder of his son disappeared from the text, which was probably due to the subsequent collaboration of Lindbergh with the Nazis.

In 2003, a new edition of the book, restored from the original source, was published, including previously unpublished materials from the personal archive of Alexandra Ilyinichna Ilf (daughter of I. Ilf). It first published the letters that Ilf sent to his wife and daughter during the trip, and photographs taken by him in the United States. Together with Petrov's letters, they represent a kind of travel diary and naturally complement the book.[9]

In the 2000s, several American universities successfully held exhibitions of Ilf's "American photographs", and in New York a translation of the 1936 "Ogoniok" publication with numerous Ilf photographs were published as Ilf and Petrov's American Road Trip: The 1935 Travelogue of Two Soviet Writers.[10][2]


One-Story America has been repeatedly published in Bulgarian, English, Spanish, Czech, Serbian, Romanian, French, Italian and other languages.[3]

In the US, "One-storey America" was first published in 1937, after Ilf's death, the publishing house Farrar & Rinehart, entitled the book "Little Golden America". This name was invented by the publisher, despite the protests of the author – Evgeny Petrov and translator Charles Malamuth. According to the publisher, this title was supposed to remind readers of the previous book by Ilf and Petrov "The Little Golden Calf", previously published in the United States.


Ilf and Petrov's travelogue was criticized in the Soviet Union because it was not party enough and praised many aspects of American life.

"One-Story America" was a hit with American readers and received a lot of praise in the press, including:[3][11]

This book should be noted as a very significant work. Americans and America would benefit greatly if they considered these observations. – The Morning Call
Not many of our foreign guests were this distance from Broadway and the main streets of Chicago; not many could tell about their impressions with such liveliness and humor. – New York Herald Tribune
Here is a book that Americans should read and ponder. We have no right to be angry and rage at the sight of a painted picture. Maybe we really remind her. – Saturday Review of Literature
This is one of the best books foreigners have written about America. It is a pleasant but sometimes hectic experience to rediscover America through the eyes of the authors of this book. – News Courier, North Carolina
The authors did not allow themselves to be fooled for one minute. They saw slums near the main streets, they saw poverty next to luxury, dissatisfaction with life, everywhere breaking out. – New Masses


Channel One Russia television created a 2008 16-part mini-series (directed by Valery Spirin). The goal was not to film the book, but to show viewers what America is today.

The two journalists Vladimir Posner (Russian Владимир Познер), who grew up in the US, and the younger Ivan Urgant (Russian Иван Ургант) followed the route described in the book (with a few variations, e.g. a trip to Las Vegas ) and conducted interviews with locals. They made a rough remake of the trip almost 75 years ago.

The two were accompanied by the American writer and radio journalist Brian Kahn from Montana. The series mixes excerpts and old photos from the book with current images of the same locations. The film compares the impressions of the book authors with today's impressions of the film authors. It is not only a remake, but also a continuation of the book.

Urgant slips into the role of Petrov and Posner plays the role of Ilf. However, in contrast to Ilf, Posner speaks perfect English, so that he was able to take on the role of tour guide. Urgant had the role of the newcomer, although he had actually lived in the US for some time, and Posner is the sentimental traveler. Far more Americans are interviewed in the film than in the book.

The film crew (twelve people) and the two commentators traveled 17,000 km through America, 25 states and 50 cities in 52 days. The route ran from New York via: Cleveland, Detroit, Peoria, Colorado Springs, Gallup, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, El Paso, Houston, New Orleans, Memphis, Washington, DC back to New York.

In each episode, one or two cities are introduced, their sights and the peculiarities of the lifestyle of the local population, with which interviews are also conducted. It attempts to show the way of life of a normal, average American and the peculiarities of the American character. And the America from the time of Ilf and Petrov should be compared with the current time.

The first broadcast began on February 11, 2008. One episode was shown weekly.


First episode

Like Ilf and Petrov, they began their journey in New York. It was filmed in the city for six days (Times Square, Broadway, Majestic Musical Theater, Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Greenwich Village, Harlem, SoHo and a helicopter tour of Manhattan). Posner talks about his childhood in Greenwich Village. New York is presented pathetically, sentimentally and ironically.

Episode Release date Film location Main topic
01 February 11, 2008 New York City
02 February 18, 2008 New York State United States health care system
03 February 26, 2008 Factories in Michigan Immigrants to the United States
04 March 3, 2008 Chicago Healthy lifestyle and obesity in the United States
05 March 11, 2008 Route 66

Peoria, Illinois
Oklahoma City (59. Highway Patrol Academy in Oklahoma)

The highway patrol in the United States
06 March 17, 2008 Gallup, New Mexico Life of the Indians in the United States
07 March 24, 2008 Colorado Springs, Colorado (United States Air Force Academy)

Grand Canyon

08 March 31, 2008 Las Vegas
09 April 21, 2008 San Francisco, Silicon Valley
10 April 7, 2008 Los Angeles American films
11 April 14, 2008 Sun City, Arizona

El Paso, Texas

12 28. April 2008 New Orleans, Louisiana
13 May 4, 2008 Angola State Prison Prisons in the United States
14 May 12, 2008 Tennessee (St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee)

Norfolk, Virginia ( Norfolk Naval Base )

15 May 19, 2008 Washington, D.C. African Americans and United States
16 May 26, 2008 New York City


  1. ^ a b c d American Photographs: The Road
  2. ^ a b c d Ogoniok magazine: 1936, # 11–17, 19–23 (11 photo essays: Ilf's photos, Ilf and Petrov's texts).
  3. ^ a b c I. Ilf, E. Petrov. One-story America. Goslitizdat publishing (Гослитиздат), 1937.
  4. ^ "Banner" («Знамя»), 1936, No. 10-11.
  5. ^ Roman Gazeta («Роман-газета»), 1937, No. 4-5.
  6. ^ Ilf, Ilya; Petrov, Eugene (1937). Little Golden America. New York: Farrar & Rinehart.
  7. ^ American impressions of I. Ilf and E. Petrov, (Американские впечатления И. Ильфа и Е. Петрова), Literary Newspaper (Literaturnaya Gazeta), 10 February 1936 Number 8
  8. ^ Babrotek: Babr's electronic library :: Ilf Ilya, Petrov Evgeniy :: Watches and people [Бабротека: электронная библиотека Бабра :: Ильф Илья, Петров Евгений :: Часы и люди (недоступная ссылка)]
  9. ^ I. Ilf, E. Petrov. One-story America. Letters from America / Compilation, introductory article by A. I. Ilf. – M .: (Письма из Америки / Составление, вступительная статья А. И. Ильф.) "Text", 2011. – 511 p. – ISBN 978-5-7516-0960-3
  10. ^ Ilf and Petrov's American Road Trip, 2006.
  11. ^ International Literature («Интернациональная литература») 1938, No. 4.

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