The Twelve Chairs

Ilya Ilf + Evgeny Petrov

translated from the Russian by John Richardson
Sphere Books 1971 [1928]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006
In Soviet Russia, former marshal of the nobility Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov works as a registry clerk — until his mother-in-law reveals on her deathbed that her family jewellery had been concealed in one of the twelve chairs in a lounge suite. He becomes a treasure hunter and, teaming up with "smooth operator" and con-man Ostap Bender, sets off to track down the chairs, in a journey that will take him from his provincial town first to Moscow and then across Russia to the Caucasus.

In this enterprise Ostap Bender is in his element, deceiving the credulous individually and en masse, telling tall tales and spinning money-making schemes from nothing, and happily resorting to theft and fraud. Vorobyaninov is not so happy, steadily abandoning his principles and losing his self-esteem. The Twelve Chairs satirises not just its central characters, however, but the people and institutions they encounter: the planning and implementation of a new tram system in a small town, a farcical counter-revolutionary conspiracy, the operations of a Moscow newspaper, student housing, a provincial chess club, and so forth. And there are comic but shrewd observations on aspects of everyday life.

As well as being great entertainment, The Twelve Chairs, first published in 1928, offers a revealing view of Russian life at the time. It was wildly popular within the Soviet Union and has been adapted for film many times, both in Russia and in the West.

February 2006

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%T The Twelve Chairs
%A Ilf, Ilya
%A Petrov, Evgeny
%M Russian
%F Richardson, John
%I Sphere Books
%D 1971 [1928]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0722148968
%P 284pp