Chapter 4 - The Twelve Chairs
What are they like, today’s young Russians? Having left Moscow in 1996, do I really know who they are, what they like, what makes them laugh or cry? As someone who grew up in the USSR, I feel I have more in common with Russians ten, twenty, even thirty years older than me than with these young creatures who have never known anything but capitalism à la russe. I read twentysomething Russians’ messages on internet forums and shake my head in disapproval at the randomness of their spelling and punctuation. One stereotype of Russians in the West is that they are great readers, but reading books does not seem to be these young Russians’ favourite pastime. Still, it is comforting and amusing to see that The Twelve Chairs (Двенадцать стульев) crops up in the list of those books that they do read and enjoy.
There are at least three reasons why this satirical novel first published in 1928 is still read now. First, so many phrases from it entered everyday use that young Russians, when they start reading the book, immediately recognize the linguistic world they are entering. Secondly, because in capitalist Russia this book, its subject matter (a treasure hunt) and its characters (a professional conman, among others) have acquired a new life, and a new reading. The third reason is that to Russian readers this book is simply, and timelessly, funny.
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“Может быть, тебе дать ещё ключ от квартиры, где деньги лежат?” – “Maybe I should also give you the key from the flat where the money is?” – the phrase belongs to Ostap Bender, and you can use it when you think someone is being cheeky in asking you too much.
“Заседание продолжается! Лёд тронулся, господа присяжные заседатели!” – “The trial continues! The ice has cracked, gentlemen of the jury!” – this is what Ostap keeps saying when he suddenly sniffs the trail of another chair.