Ilia Olenin was born on 1899 in Odessa. In 1918-1919, he took part in the Russian civil war as a "Red partisan." He continued to serve in the Red Army after 1919. Before the Soviet-German war he and his wife Esfir (Esther), worked as bookkeepers in their native city. They had a son Friedrich (or Fred).
In 1941, with the beginning of the Soviet-German war, Olenin was drafted into the Red Army as a communications officer for the deputy commander of the 57th Army for matters relating to the rear. Within a short time, he was promoted to be head of the planning and supply department of the army, with the rank of captain, and then from March 1943 – with that of major. His wife did not want to part from her husband and, therefore, joined the same department as a hired worker. Their relatively peaceful service in the army did not prevent their sometimes being forced to take part in military operations, especially in view of the fact that at the end of 1942-beginning of 1943 the 57th Army participated in the Battle of Stalingrad. In February 1943, Olenin was awarded the medal For Military Merit.