Ostap Bender is one of the classic characters of the Soviet-era popular imagination. The star of such films as ‘Twelve Chairs’ and ‘The Golden Calf’, for almost seventy five years he’s been seen as the epitome of the swindler and adventurer. Few actually remember that he is virtually a Ukrainian creation as he owes his appearance to a real-life Ukrainian named Osip Shor!
Ostap Bender was created by two Soviet writers Ilya Ilf (real name Ilya Feinzilberg) and Evgeny Petrov (real name Evgeny Kataev). Before writing their famous masterpieces ‘Twelve Chairs’ and ‘The Golden Calf’, which immortalised their main character Ostap Bender, Ilf worked as a drafter, telephone technician and turner. Evgeny Petrov was then a correspondent for the Ukrainian telegraph agency and later an inspector of the Criminal Investigation Department. Later both started to publish articles and short stories and soon met each other in the editorial offices of Moscow’s ‘Gudok’ newspaper (which is described in detail in their novels.) Literary critics said that separately they were not worth a penny as writers, but together they combined their benefits and talents and became ‘one ingenious satirist’.
Though he was a thoroughly mercantile scoundrel, the character Bender is extremely appealing, largely because of his intellect and charm, often leading to hilarious results. In his most famous adventure Bender sets off together with his long-suffering helper Kisa Vorobyaninov to find the twelve diamonds which Vorobyaninov’s mother-in-law once hid in one of her set of twelve chairs. The problem is that the suite of furniture has already been sold and the plot revolves around the search for the chairs. Their pursuit is portrayed as a ridiculous adventure rather than a greedy self-serving mission.
Even though Bender uses poor old Madame Gritsatsueva to seize and disembowel the coveted chair of hers, he still behaves with her in a gentlemanly manner. Even today many of the phrases that Bender uttered are well-known, popular lines. For example, Bender’s sarcastic ‘sultry woman – the dream of a poet’, description of the fat and clumsy Madame Gritsatsueva, is now a popular way of putting down an unattractive lady without being too low-class about it.
Of course, the Bender novels would probably never have seen the light of day if it had not been for Petrov’s brother Valentin Kataev, another Soviet writer who at the beginning of their writing career enjoyed great popularity. Historians claim that it was he who actually recounted the plot of the future novel to the writing pair.
Furthermore the writers actually created the image of Ostap Bender from a real-life acquaintance – Osip Shor, a friend of theirs, who was born in Ukraine in Nikopol and then lived in Odessa. Absurd and funny as it may seem, Shor wasn’t a scoundrel like his literary twin, but instead worked for the militia and fought against banditry! He did like adventures, though, and once told the writer double-act a long story that was to inspire them. The tale revolved around Shor’s adventures when trying to make his way back from Petrograd to Odessa in 1919, and it was this series of mishaps and scrapes which came to serve as the backbone for the Bender character.
Though most Bender novels are widely held to be nothing more than purely satirical pieces, there are suggestions that they had a political slant as well. David Feldman, a philologist who has studied Ilf and Petrov’s literary heritage, has argued convincingly that the first novel ‘Twelve Chairs’ was actually written on a political order from Stalin! The book was written in 1927, they year when Stalin and Bukharin were scheming against Trotsky. His opposition to the New Economical Policy (NEP) made Trotsky blame Stalin for betraying the ‘idea of world revolution’ as he was sure that socialism would only be possible if revolution were to take place in all capitalist countries. However, Bender is no politician. In the first novel by Ilf and Petrov, ‘Twelve Chairs’, Bender shows support for the NEP. While that is true enough, just as many contemporary critics found the book anti-Soviet as Bender also frankly confesses at one point, ‘Over the course of the past year I’ve come to a serious disagreement with the Soviet power. I am bored of building socialism.