Little-known on this side of the Atlantic, Ostap Bender is the quintessential Soviet (and at the same time, anti-Soviet) character, the anti-hero in one of the most beloved Russian novels of all time, Ilf and Petrov's "The Twelve Chairs" (where he was killed), and its sequel, the equally loved "The Little Golden Calf" (where he was resurrected).
The self-anointed great combinator; con man, polygamist, artist, thief, chess master, a man without a profession; his sayings, as penned by Ilia Ilf (Jew) and Evgeni Petrov in the 1920s and 30s, are recited to this day. So was the self-named Ostap-Suleyman-Berta-Maria-Bender-Bey, self-described son of a Turkish subject, a Jew?
The simple answer is yes. It is designation as the son of a Turkish subject that reveals Bender's ethnicity; the hint is not obvious and makes Bender anything but Turkish. Before the Revolution, southern Russian merchants, mostly from Odessa, mostly (if not entirely) Jews, would take on Turkish citizenship so that their children would avoid discriminatory laws and evade military service.
So Bender is ours, ladies and gentlemen of the jury! As much as ethnic Russians want him for themselves, they will have to settle for his sidekick, the incompetent Kisa Vorobianinov...
September 1, 2006