Lazar Ginzburg was born in 1903 in Vitebsk. He was one of many siblings. His father was a rafter, ferrying cargo across the local river. A year after Lazar's birth, his parents, who had been able to save enough money, moved to Minsk, where his father Iosif opened a hardware store. Lazar, like all the other children in his social circle, was sent to study at a cheder, a private religious primary school.
In 1919, Lazar completed a secondary school in Minsk. Having been inspired by revolutionary ideas, he went to fight in the Civil War and joined the Communist Party. He was later involved in establishing the Komsomol in Belorussia. In those years, Ginzburg began to write poems and sketches. One of his poems attracted favorable comments from the celebrated Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. However, Ginzburg himself was rather dismissive of his own poetical exercises.
In 1923, Lazar Ginzburg began to attend the Minsk Conservatory, but quit it after a single year of study, having realized that he was no longer interested in vocalism.
In 1924, Ginzburg moved to Moscow, quickly gaining entry into the literary circles of the Soviet capital. At the same time, he began to study at the Karl Marx Institute of National Economy (now the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics), graduating from its Political Economy Department. In 1925, Lazar was called up to serve in the Red Army, where he continued to write. In the late 1920s, he resumed his studies, which once again revolved around politics: He attended the Institute of Red Professors,which trained the senior ideological cadres of the Party and social science lecturers for Soviet institutions of higher education. While studying there, Ginzburg became a contributor to the Pravda daily. He later began to work at the political-ideological satirical magazine Krokodil. In 1934, he became the deputy of its editor-in-chief, Mikhail Koltsov. Two years later, Lazar joined the Union of Soviet Writers.
In late 1938, right after the end of the Great Purge, Mikhail Koltsov – a celebrated journalist who had served as Stalin's political representative in Republican Spain in 1936-1937 – was arrested. He was executed on Stalin's orders in early 1940. Ginzburg, who was an associate of Koltsov's, may have been spared arrest due to the fact that he was away at the time, having gone on an extended field trip to the archipelago of Spitsbergen (Svalbard) in the Arctic Ocean, where he wrote articles about the lives of polar explorers. Another factor that may have aided his survival was the beginning of the so-called "Beria Liberalization"in late 1938, during which the political arrests became more selective in nature.
It was during that field trip that Ginzburg began to write Old Man Hottabych, a fantasy novel about a genie in a bottle, which would become very popular in the USSR. It was inspired by the novel The Brass Bottle (1900) by the English author Thomas Anstey Guthrie. Old Man Hottabych was first printed, under the pseudonym "Lazar Lagin" (derived from the author's real name: Lazar Ginzburg), in the Pioneer magazine and the Pionerskaya Pravda newspaper. The text includes numerous subtle allusions to Judaism. To take one example, the book's protagonist, the amusing genie Hottabych, would utter the spell "lekhododilikraskalo" and pull 13 hairs out of his beard, whereupon some magical effect would take place. The seemingly nonsensical syllables uttered by the genie are actually the first line of the Jewish liturgical song "Lekhah Dodi Likrat Kallah" (לכה דודי לקראת כלה), which is traditionally sung at synagogues to welcome the Sabbath. In 1940, Old Man Hottabych was published in a separate edition.
Following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in late June 1941, Lazar Ginzburg joined the army in the field. Serving with the Danube Military Flotilla, Major Ginzburg took part in the battles of Odessa, Nikolayev, and Kherson. He successfully carried out propaganda work among the sailors, wrote leaflets and songs, and was a prolific contributor to the navy newspaper Krasny Chernomorets. He penned several sketches on the subject of Jews in the navy, and sent them to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Some of them were published in Yiddish in Eynikayt, the official press organ of the JAC. Lazar Ginzburg also participated in the defense of Sevastopol and the fighting over the Caucasus. In the course of the war, he was awarded the Order of the Patriotic War, 2nd Class, and several medals. His brother Faibish Ginzburg, who served in the artillery, was killed in action near Oryol in summer 1943.
After the end of the war, Lazar Ginzburg returned to Moscow, where he continued writing. In 1947, a collection of his wartime sketches titled My Friends, the Black Sea Warriors: Frontline Sketches was published in Yiddish by the Der Emes publishing house.
In the years of the Stalinist antisemitic "anti-cosmopolitan" campaign, Old Man Hottabych underwent two rewrites, for the editions of 1953 and 1955. Blatantly anti-capitalist (anti-Western) passages were inserted into the text, while the Jewish allusions were completely excised. Despite this mutilation of his work, the former political worker Ginzburg spoke out against the theater critic Johann Altman, when the latter became a target of the anti-cosmopolitan campaign.
In1956, the film Old Man Hottabych came out, with Lagin being credited as the screenwriter. This film, which emphasized the Soviet Pioneer motifs of the original text, did much to boost the popularity of the book.
In later years, Lazar Lagin wrote additional books and became interested in animation. He wrote the scripts for several animated films aimed at adults. In1971, some of these films were banned by the Soviet censors for "slandering the Soviet regime." They would not be screened until the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Lazar Lagin died in Moscow in 1979.
That same year saw the staging of a successful musical based on Old Man Hottabych, which was accompanied by a gramophone record. Lagin's fantasy novel was published in English in 2001.