Mikhail Kholmogorov made the above comment in reference to the tendency of vivid characters to act in ways their authors don’t expect (Kholmogorov 1991: 248). His observation applies equally well to Ostap Bender, whom Il’ia Il’f (1897-1937) and Evgeny Petrov (1903-1942) famously killed off at the end of their first novel, The Twelve Chairs (Dvenadtsat’ stul’ev, 1928), only to find that he was so popular that they had to bring him back to life three years later to star in a second novel, The Golden Calf (Zolotoi telenok, 1931), which ended with Bender’s humiliating failure. Although they advertised the imminent publication of their planned third novel about Bender for much of 1933, they abruptly changed their minds after visiting the construction site of the infamous Stalin White Sea Canal (Il’f and Petrov, 1933).
Il’f and Petrov treated Bender harshly because they had to emphasize the inappropriateness of his un-Soviet desires and behavior. Readers had no such limiting imperative. Since 1975, seven readers have taken the matter into their own hands by writing their own continuations of the Bender saga. These continuations range from novels to five-page school essays to radio shows and pit Bender against a variety of adversaries, from OGPU to Sherlock Holmes to Beavis and Butt-Head (Akopian and Gurin, 1997; Khorunzhy, 1998; Leontiev, 1996; Shvarts, 1997; Sarnov and Rassadin, 1979). Another book features Ostap Bender’s illegitimate son, the polemically named Ostap Ogloedov, as a recurring character (Klimov, 1975). A conceptual piece explores the possibilities Il’f and Petrov left unrealized in The Twelve Chairs by writing a series of alternative endings describing what would have happened if the treasure had been discovered in the second, third, fourth, fifth, etc. chairs (Travnikov, [1994?]).
Regarding these continuations of the Bender story as a particular and impassioned discourse about the essence of the Bender character, this paper shows that this essence is marked by deep ethnic, cultural, and artistic tensions and argues that Bender’s readers turn into Bender’s (re)writers as a way of articulating and defending their own views on Soviet and post-Soviet Russia’s culture wars.
Akopian, Albert, and Gurin, Vladislav. Kavaler ordena Zolotogo runa. Moscow: Zolotoi telenok, 1997.
Il’f, Il’ia, and Petrov, Evgeny. “Nash tretii roman.” Komsomol’skaia pravda, 24 avgusta 1933.
Kholmogorov, M. “Iz kakogo sora...” Voprosy literatury 4 (2001): 239-252.
Khorunzhy, Aleksei. O, Rio, Rio, ili Novye prikliucheniia O. Bendera. Moscow: Knizhnaia palata, 1998.
Klimov, Grigorii. Imia moe legion. New York: Slaviia, 1975.
Leont’ev, Boris. Triumf Velikogo kombinatora, ili Vozvrashchenie Ostapa Bendera. Part One, http://www.tomsk.ru/Books/leontyev/1.htm#part1; Part Two, http://www.tomsk.ru/Books/leontyev/2.htm; and Part Three, http://www.tomsk.ru/Books/leontyev/3.htm. 1996 (last consulted 11 July 2005).
Rassadin, Stanislav and Sarnov, Benedikt. V strane literaturnykh geroev. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1979.
Shvarts, Pavel (Pasha). “The Twelve Chairs II, or Beavis and Butt-head LXIX,” “Saint Louis, 1997.” Available at http://www.hokkej.com/beavis/list.htm (last accessed 12 July 2005).
Travnikov, Vasilii. Dvenadtsat’ stul’ev-12. PB [Saint Petersburg]: Borei-ART, [1994?].