CULTURE

Ostap Bender: The history of a cult character in Russian culture

June 28, 2022
The educational portal Arzamas on the cult character Ostap Bender and two classics of early Soviet literature that influenced both Russian official and dissident cultures.
Ostap Bender: The history of the biggest Soviet crook is a course of four lectures on the Arzamas portal about two classics of early Soviet literature, The Twelve Chairs (1928) and The Little Golden Calf (1931), and their iconic novels’ protagonist Ostap Bender, a charming swindler who became extremely popular with Soviet readers.

Philologist Mikhail Odessky and literary critic David Feldman discuss the biography of their Odessa-based writers, Ilf and Petrov. Both hid their real biographies, as they were linked to opponents of the Bolsheviks during the Civil War. They claimed that they had met not in Odessa but in Moscow, while working at the Gudok (Whistle) newspaper. Because of their newspaper careers, both were well aware of all the events that took place in the Soviet Union and the world. Therefore, according to Feldman, their novels resemble a chronicle with a lot of references to current historical events.

The Twelve Chairs has been a real Soviet picaresque novel, which was read by millions of Soviet citizens almost immediately after its publication. It was a political hit ordered against those who considered the collapse of the young Soviet Union inevitable. Ilf and Petrov also ridicule Trotskyist slogans and expose them as empty demagogy. The novel was politically relevant, which explains its expedited publication at the end of the NEP time. The protagonist of the novel is an intellectual con man who isn’t interested in building communism – he helps a former noble to hunt down jewelry hidden in a chair.

The Little Golden Calf reflects the struggle within the Communist Party elite in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Stalin was going after former allies, meaning there was no certainty that tomorrow you yourself wouldn’t become an enemy of the regime. Critics were silent about the novel – they were afraid to praise it and be repressed. All the jokes about world revolution and the Bolsheviks that had been possible back in the 1920s were then risky.

In this tense atmosphere, the writers decided to resurrect the assassinated Ostap Bender, sending him in search of a Soviet millionaire who can’t possibly spend his fortune in the Soviet Union. The “grand strategist,” as Bender is called, outdoes the embezzler Koreiko but is robbed at the border when trying to flee abroad. The defeated Bender remains in the Soviet Union but doesn’t become a true “Soviet” citizen, and his very existence contradicts Soviet ideology.

Both books and the cinematographic adaptation became classic for many Soviet generations, being a required reading for the Soviet intellectual elite while simultaneously offering many quotes for Soviet dissidents to mock the regime. The image of Bender, which endured an unofficial ban and criticism, didn’t lose its popularity and remains popular to this day.

Digest written by the Russia.Post editorial team. See the original here.
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