Ostap Bender (Russian: Остап Бендер; in The Twelve Chairs he called himself Ostap-Suleyman-Berta-Maria-Bender-Bey, in The Golden Calf he called himself Bender-Zadunaysky, in later novel he also was called Ostap Ibragimovich Bender) is a fictional con man and the central antiheroic protagonist in the novels The Twelve Chairs and The Little Golden Calf written by Soviet authors Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov. The novels are examples of a picaresque novel genre, which was previously very rare in Russian literature, with some exceptions.
Bender is an extremely attractive, resourceful crook, full of energy while operating within the law ("Bender knew 400 relatively legal ways to make the population part with their money."); his description as "The Great Combinator" became a catch phrase in the Russian language.
His exploits have been enjoyed by readers throughout the Soviet times and in modern Russia. In post-Soviet times Bender's character was elevated from the status of a con man to that of an entrepreneur. His statues may be found in several cities, and a commemorative plaque was set in Odessa, the city of his birth.
In the first novel, Ostap Bender searches for a stash of diamonds hidden in one of the twelve eponymous chairs. The action takes place in the Soviet Union during the New Economic Policy era. At the end of the novel, he is killed by his partner, Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobianinov, who does not want to share the treasure with Bender when it seems like they are about to reach their goal.
The character's death was retconned away in 1931 in the sequel novel The Little Golden Calf, where Ostap claimed that "surgeons barely saved his life." This book was an extended satire on certain elements of Soviet life. Here, Ostap Bender follows a Soviet underground multi-millionaire Koreiko, hoping to acquire some of the man's riches, and thus amass a fortune. Bender gets his money, but soon discovers he cannot spend it in the USSR. He proceeds to lose it as he attempts to flee the country by crossing the border into Romania.
Ostap Bender's origins are mysterious; he mentions only that his father was "a Turkish subject", his mother was "a Countess and received unearned incomes" and that his full name is Ostap-Sulayman-Berta-Maria-Bender-Bey (Остап-Сулейман-Берта-Мария-Бендер-Бей). In the comments to the Complete Works of Ilf and Petrov by M. Odessky and D. Feldman, this phrase is explained as a hint to his supposed Jewish origin from a port city in Novorossiya, most probably Odessa, where many Jews claimed Turkish citizenship to evade discrimination and conscription for military service. Some of them indeed held the Turkish citizenship as for example Martov.
In The Little Golden Calf, Ostap Bender is also called "Бендер-Задунайский" ("Bender-Zadunaisky", literally: "Bender-Trans-Danubian") and "Остап Ибрагимович" (Ostap Ibragimovich, where "Ibragimovich" is a patronymic, literally meaning "son of Ibrahim"). The city of Bender and the Danube river are historically and geographically close to both the large regional city of Odessa and the former Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.
Ostap Bender dreams of travelling to Rio de Janeiro, "the city of his dreams," while admitting the futility of that obsession.
There were a number of possible prototypes for Ostap Bender, most famously Ostap (Osip) Shor (1899—1978), a friend of the authors who spent his youth in Odessa gaining money as a con man and then — as a Cheka inspector. He was a good story-teller, and many of his tales inspired the adventures of Ostap Bender. Valentin Kataev who came up with the idea for the novel (which, in turn, is dedicated to him) is named as another prototype; he also led an adventurous life and was known as a literary hoaxer, adding many original touches to the biography of Osip Shor whom he saw as fitting the readers' expectations of a "real-life combinator".
Another suggested influence was the character of Alexander Ametistov from Mikhail Bulgakov's play Zoyka's Flat that had been written and staged in 1926, before the work on The Twelve Chairs was even started. Also an elegant con man with many names and occupations, he is seen as a direct inspiration by a number of modern researches, to the point that some of them believe that both novels were ghostwritten by Bulgakov.
The entrepreneurial abilities of Bender attracted attention of researchers in management. Parallels have been drawn of Bender's schemes with failures of businesses in early post-Soviet Russia, a period compared to that of NEP when Bender operated. Bender is educated and has an analytical mind; is full of energy; in the case of a failure keeps his optimism and has an ability to reassess the situation; has an empathy towards his subordinates, opponents and "marks"; has exceptional organizational skills, even when limited by scarce resources.
While Bender is endowed with many traits of a charismatic leader, it was concluded that the major reason of his failures was lack of clear understanding of his own goals and needs, and short-term perspective. A serious drawback of Bender as a leader is his paternalism. Also, while he is aware of the drawbacks of his companions, he puts no efforts into their betterment. While at times he can be a motivational speaker, he did not care about the long-term motivation of his subordinates; instead, he preferred to manipulate or simply force them.
A chapter in The Little Golden Calf was called "The Great Combinator" ("Великий комбинатор", "The Great Schemer" ). It was one of the choices for the title of the book. Since then the expression "the great combinator" came to refer to either a con man or to an enterprising person.
One of the attractions of Bender is the witty language of the novels which produced numerous catch phrases:
- "Maybe I should also give you the key to the flat where I keep my money?" ("Может быть, тебе дать ещё ключ от квартиры, где деньги лежат?") - it became a cliche rebuke to unreasonable requests.
- "Stay strong. The West will help us." ("Крепитесь. Запад нам поможет.") - now an ironical hint that a situation is hopeless.
- "Money in the morning, chairs in the evening." ("Утром деньги, вечером стулья.") - now a jocular hint to payment in advance.
- "The task of helping the drowning people is in the hands of the drowning people themselves" - "not our business" Notably, this quote was cited in the situation when Russia was trying to attract foreign investors, while Russia's own capital was fleeing the country.
- "The ice has broken, ladies and gentlemen of the jury!" ("Лёд тронулся, господа присяжные заседатели!") - said to declare the onset of a progress in something after a period of deadlock, uncertainty, or stagnation.
- "Time to retrain as a super" (full quote: "No ovations, please. I failed to become the Count of Monte Cristo. Time to retrain as a super". «Не надо оваций. Графа Монте-Кристо из меня не вышло. Придется переквалифицироваться в управдомы») - crash of big plans.
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- "Остап Бендер", Radio Liberty, transcript of a talk from cycle "Heroes of the Time", host:Петр Вайль, guests: culturologist Мариэтта Чудакова and actors Archil Gomiashvili (Bender-1971) and Sergey Yursky (Bender-1993)
- Olga Fedina, pp. 36-38.
- Из своей биографии он обычно сообщал только одну подробность: «Мой папа, — говорил он, — был турецко-подданный»
- Не оскорбляйте меня, — кротко заметил Бендер. — Я сын турецко-подданного и, следовательно, потомок янычаров.
- "Илья Ильф, Евгений Петров. Двенадцать стульев. "Вагриус", М., 2003"
- "The Great Combinator was Taken for an Ukrainian Nationalist", Komsomolskaya Pravda (Ukrainian edition), May 30, 2008 (in Russian)
- "The Hero Enters (Part II)"
- Sergei Belyakov. Lonely Sail of Ostap Bender from Novy Mir № 12, 2005 (in Russian)
- Irina Amlinsky (2013). 12 Chairs from Mikhail Bulgakov. — Berlin: Kirschner Verlag, 328 pages ISBN 978-3-00-043284-2
- Asya Kramer. So What Should We Do With All This? article from Russian Bazaar №27, July 2015 ISSN 1520-4073 (in Russian)
- What's Necessary to Know about Mikhail Bulgakov by Dmitry Galkovsky, 1 September 2016 (in Russian)
- Kari Ketola, Timo Vihavainen, "Changing Russia?: History, Culture and Business", p. 85
- Rubinsky, Shekshnya
- Словарь крылатых слов и выражений, item Великий комбинатор
- Olga Fedina, pp. 36-39.
- Olga Fedina, p. 39.
- Алия Гильмутдинова Несколько слов об Остапе Бендере
- Olga Fedina, What Every Russian Knows (and You Don't), 2013, ISBN 1901990125, Chapter "The Twelve Chairs"
- Мирон ПЕТРОВСКИЙ, "УЖЕ НАПИСАН БЕНДЕР...", «Первое сентября» newspaper, no. 13, 1997 (retrieved June 13, 2015)
- Yu. I Rubinsky, S.V. Shershnya, "Was Ostap Bender an Efficient Leader?" Был ли Остап Бендер эффективным лидером? / Ю. И. Рубинский, С. В. Шекшня // Экономика и организация производства ЭКО – 15/04/2003 . – N 4 . – с. 167-181 . (Part 1, Part 2, retrieved June 14, 2015)
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