Evgeny Gabrilovich was a Soviet and Russian writer, mostly famous as a screenwriter. He was born in 1899 in the city of Voronezh, which lay outside the Jewish Pale of Settlement. The family was permitted to reside there because Evgeny's father, Yosif Gabrilovich, was a pharmacist with a graduate degree from the University of Derpt (present-day Tartu, Estonia), who owned several pharmacies in Voronezh and Moscow. Evgeny's grandfather, Hirsh, a native of Lithuania, was a qualified medical doctor and pharmacist, owning pharmacies in Kovno (Kaunas), Minsk, and Moscow, where he lived with his wife. Evgeny studied at the Faculty of Law of Moscow University.
In the early Soviet period, the years of NEP (New Economic Policy, 1921-28), Evgeny, who had mastered the piano as a child, worked as a pianist in restaurant orchestras, at weddings and parties. As he would later recall, he was very enthusiastic about this job, and made no effort to spare his fingers. In 1922, he met Valentin Parnakh – an eccentric musician, dancer, and poet, who was passionate about jazz. From then on, Evgeny played the piano in “Valentin Parnakh's first eccentric orchestra/jazz band in the RSFSR.” The first concert of the band was attended by the celebrated theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who immediately suggested that the jazz band perform for his next production, which was then being rehearsed. Gabrilovich went on to work for five years in the Theater of Meyerhold (Gostim), the most avant-garde Soviet establishment of its kind at the time, providing piano accompaniment and performing many other duties.
In 1936, at Meyerhold's suggestion, Gabrilovich wrote a stage adaptation of How the Steel was Tempered, the famous novel by the Soviet writer Nikolai Ostrovsky. According to Gabrilovich's recollections, the resulting production was both romantic and violent, a truly revolutionary performance both in form and in content, showcasing the theatrical genius of the leading Soviet director. In 1938, the Theater of Meyerhold was shut down upon Stalin's orders, and Meyerhold himself was arrested and executed. At that time, Gabrilovich was denounced by the official press, which took him to task for "distorting" the contents of the canonical Soviet novel.
Back in 1921, even as he launched his musical career, Gabrilovich also began to publish prose pieces: A dramatized fragment of his experimental short story “AAT” appeared in the Expressionists anthology. In 1922, he joined The Moscow Parnassus, an avant-garde poetic society, and published an expressionist story in its poetry almanac. His first short story collection came out in 1931. In the 1930s, he worked as a journalist, writing laudatory articles about Stalin’s “great projects,” such as collectivization and industrialization. In 1934, he was a member of a group of writers who carried out an ambitious ideological project dreamed up by Stalin: writing the history of the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal. Although the canal was built by the forced labor of Gulag inmates, and is nowadays regarded as a prime example of state violence, this project was meant to demonstrate the greatness of socialist construction and serve as a successful model of rehabilitating criminals. Gabrilovich contributed to the chapter titled “People Change Their Profession.” That same year, he joined the Union of Soviet Writers.
In the 1930s, Gabrilovich also began to work in cinema, initially by making intertitles for silent films. At the time, he already foresaw the great future of cinematography. He soon started writing scripts for "talkies". The first of these was The Last Night, a movie about the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, directed by Juliy Raizman. His second script to be produced was Dream, written for the famous director Mikhail Romm. This movie, starring the brilliant actress Faina Ranevskaya, was filmed in 1941, and the shooting wrapped up on June 22, the day of the Nazi invasion of the USSR.
Following the outbreak of the Soviet-German War, Gabrilovich was drafted into the army as a quartermaster major – a common rank for prominent Soviet literati. Shortly thereafter, the Political Department of the Red Army sent him to work as a correspondent for the military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda ("The Red Star"). He was dispatched to the front lines, and wrote a series of essays titled “From the Frontline Notepad,” which described individuals who were contributing to the war effort in different capacities. The protagonists of his stories were partisans, nurses, and snipers, and their plots revolved around various small episodes from these individuals' everyday lives on the frontline. Taken as a whole, these sketches painted a collective portrait of the heroic "Soviet people," which was made up of innumerable individual lives. David Ortenberg, editor-in-chief of Krasnaya Zvezda, recalled:
“Gabrilovich remained a writer of a lyrical disposition, even on the front lines, amidst the storm of war. He wrote for our military newspaper without changing his own style or voice.”
David Ortenberg, Time Has No Power. Moscow, 1975, p. 253.
In the course of the war, Gabrilovich wrote the book Near Moscow (Pod Moskvoi), fragments of which appeared in Krasnaya Zvezda. He also wrote several additional scripts, which were turned into very popular movies (Mashen’ka, Two Soldiers). In 1943, Gabrilovich was awarded the Stalin Prize for the script of Mashen’ka. He then wrote a personal letter of thanks to Stalin, where he pledged to donate the prize money for the construction of a long-range bomber (such gestures were typical of all laureates of the prize). He finished his military service in Tokyo in 1947.
In the years of the postwar antisemitic campaign in the USSR (1948 -1953), Gabrilovich was targeted for his connections with the “rootless cosmopolitans” (this derogatory term, which was applied to individuals upholding anti-Soviet values, also had a strong anti-Jewish component), and denounced as an "accomplice of ideological sabotage." For about a year, he was barred from writing for newspapers, magazines, and radio programs, and all his stories and essays that had already been accepted for publication were immediately returned to him. However, he was allowed to resume working after the death of Stalin in March 1953.
In 1957, a script by Evgeny Gabrilovich was used for the film The Communist (directed by Yuliy Raizman). For the first time in Soviet cinema, the main character was not a foreman or a shock worker, but an ordinary shopkeeper, superbly played by the outstanding Soviet actor Evgeny Urbansky. The movie became a Soviet classic, and the same was true of several other films written by Gabrilovich, including the trilogy about Lenin (Stories about Lenin, Lenin in Paris, Lenin in Poland). Gabrilovich was the first screenwriter to "humanize" Lenin in his scripts, combining the official and unapproachable aura of the leader with everyday liveliness.
In the last years of his life, Gabrilovich wrote longer prose works, most of which were autobiographical (The Last Book, 1993). He died in Moscow in 1993.