The writer Ilia (Karl) Selvinskii was born in 1899 in Simferopol, into a large, well-off family. His father was a furrier. His grandfather, a Krymchak Jew named Eliyahu, had been recruited into the Tsarist army as a "cantonist" at the age of 12. In his regiment, he was given the last name of a fellow recruit who had died, Shevelinskii. In time, that name was transformed into "Selvinskii".
When he was six, Ilia was sent to Istanbul, where he attended a school sponsored by a French-Catholic mission. However, a short time later the head of the family, Leib Selvinskii, went bankrupt, and Ilia was brought back home to Simferopol. His return to the city coincided with a pogrom, after which the Selvinskii family fled to Evpatoriia. Ilia finished a municipal special school there. He dreamed of being a doctor and, after returning to Simferopol in 1919, he entered the faculty of medicine of the local university, but dropped out after two years.
At that time, he wrote his first poems, which were signed "Ellii Karl Selvinskii". He took the middle name "Karl" in honor of the author of Das Kapital, about which he was then enthusiastic.
During the Russian Civil War, the naturally reckless Selvinskii, wishing to combine his studies with political activism, joined a band of anarchists that were led by the female hetman Marusia Nikiforova (a fellow commander of Nestor Makhno). Later, when his political views changed, he joined the Red Army. He took part in the fighting for Perekop in 1920, being shell-shocked. As a physically strong man, he was able to earn some money on the side as a stevedore, a physical laborer, a swimming instructor, a strongman in a circus, and even as a theater actor.
In 1921, Selvinskii moved to Moscow, where he pursued his studies, this time at the Law Faculty of Moscow University. After graduating, in the mid-1920s he was employed as an expert in the export of furs. In this capacity, he traveled extensively around the country, writing down his impressions. Selvinskii also wrote avant-garde satirical plays mocking the bourgeoisie and continued to write poetry. 1933 saw the publication of a collection of his poems entitled Deklaratsiia prav [Declaration of Rights]. This collection included his short propagandistic narrative poem "Ot Palestiny do Birobidzhana" [From Palestine to Birobidzhan], written in 1930 to promote the goals of OZET (the Society for Settling Toiling Jews on the Land), which called upon Soviet Jews to settle in Birobidzhan in the Soviet Far East.
At the beginning of the Soviet-German War in June 1941, Ilia Selvinskii volunteered for frontline duty. Initially, he served as a military correspondent for various frontline newspapers, such as Na razgrom vraga [To Rout the Enemy], Vperiod k pobede [Forward to Victory], and Syn otechestva [Son of the Fatherland].
However, Selvinskii was not satisfied with mere writing, and wanted to take part in actual combat. He saw action in his native Crimea, on the Black Sea coast of Russia, and in the North Caucasus, first as the commissar of a battalion, then as lieutenant colonel. In the course of the war, Selvinskii was shell-shocked twice and seriously wounded once – during the fighting near Bataisk. After witnessing the aftermath of German atrocities against the Jews, Ilia Selvinskii wrote a cycle of works about the Holocaust. The following is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to his wife in January 1942:
"Yesterday, I went to the ditch near Kerch that is now home to the remains of 7,000 people who were shot there by the Germans. A devastating experience. I have been ill the whole day because of this sight."1
At the time, Selvinskii wrote in his journal:
"About myself and about how I felt and what I saw – later. What is important is the shocking impression made on me by Kerch after the German retreat. I arrived there with the landing of the 2nd Echelon. The city was half-destroyed, but that doesn't matter. We will rebuild it. But there – in the village of Bagerovo, in the ravine opposite it – lie the bodies of 7,000 women, children, old people, and others, (all of whom) were shot dead. And I have seen them. I do not have the strength to write about it now, either in prose or in verse. My nerves have become numb. What little I could convey, I have set down as poetry."2
This was the genesis of the poem "Ia eto videl!" [I Saw It], which was published in the newspaper Krasnaia Zvezda and the journal Oktiabr' in early 1942. The poem quickly became very popular: It was read both at the front and in the rear, and was widely reprinted and distributed.
However, in late autumn 1943 Selvinskii was recalled from the Crimea to Moscow. The Central Committee of the Communist Party criticized him for creating "harmful" and "anti-artistic" works. Most likely, he fell out of favor for writing about the mass killing of Jews in German-occupied territory despite the change in Soviet policy in summer 1943: From that time on, Stalin's regime no longer permitted writers to single out the Jewish victims from the general concept of "peaceful Soviet people [or citizens] killed by the Nazis".
In consequence, Selvinskii was discharged from the army, and went on to spend all of 1944 in Moscow, despite his express desire to return to the front. He succeeded in this goal only in late April 1945, going on to serve on the 2nd Baltic Front in the spring and summer. In the course of the war, he was awarded the Order of the Red Star; the Order of the Patriotic War, 1st Class, and some medals.
After the war, he returned to Moscow, where he taught at the Moscow Institute of Literature. He continued to write, but was rarely published.
Ilia Selvinskii died in Moscow in 1968. He was buried at the prestigious Novodevichie Cemetery.