Translated from the Russian by John Richardson
     The original Russian title: Двенадцать стульев
     OCR: Tuocs



     1 Bezenchuk and the Nymphs
     2 Madame Petukhov's Demise
     3 The Parable of the Sinner
     4 The Muse of Travel
     5 The Smooth Operator
     6 A Diamond Haze
     7 Traces of the Titanic
     8 The Bashful Chiseller
     9 Where Are Your Curls?
     10 The Mechanic, the Parrot, and the Fortune-teller
     11 The Mirror-of-Life Index
     12 A Passionate Woman Is a Poet's Dream
     13 Breathe Deeper: You're Excited!
     14 The Alliance of the Sword and Ploughshare


     15 A Sea of Chairs
     16 The Brother Berthold Schwartz Hostel
     17 Have Respect for Mattresses, Citizens!
     18 The Furniture Museum
     19 Voting the European Way
     20 From Seville to Granada
     21 Punishment
     22 Ellochka the Cannibal
     23 Absalom Vladimirovich Iznurenkov
     24 The Automobile Club
     25 Conversation with a Naked Engineer
     26 Two Visits
     27 The Marvellous Prison Basket
     28 The Hen and the Pacific Rooster
     29 The Author of the "Gavriliad"
     30 In the Columbus Theatre


     31 A Magic Night on the Volga
     32 A Shady Couple
     33 Expulsion from Paradise
     34 The Interplanetary Chess Tournament
     35 Et Alia
     36 A View of the Malachite Puddle
     37 The Green Cape
     38 Up in the Clouds
     39 The Earthquake
     40 The Treasure

     It has long been  my considered opinion that strains  in Russo-American
relations  are  inevitable as  long  as  the  average  American  persists in
picturing the Russian as a gloomy, moody,  unpredictable individual, and the
average Russian in  seeing the American as  childish,  cheerful and, on  the
whole,  rather primitive. Naturally, we each resent the other side's  unjust
opinions  and ascribe them,  respectively,  to  the  malice of capitalist or
Communist propaganda. What  is to blame for this? Our national  literatures;
or, more exactly, those portions of them which are read. Since few Americans
know people of the Soviet Union from personal experience, and vice versa, we
both depend to a great extent on information gathered from the printed page.
The Russians know us-let us forget for a moment about Pravda-from  the works
of Jack London, James Fenimore  Cooper, Mark Twain and O. Henry. We know the
Russians-let  us  temporarily  disregard the  United Nations-as we have seen
them depicted in certain novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky  and in the later
dramas of Chekhov.
     There are  two ways to  correct these  misconceptions. One  would be to
import  into   Russia  a  considerable  number  of  sober,   serious-minded,
Russian-speaking American tourists, in  exchange for  an identical number of
cheerful,  logical,  English-speaking Russians who  would visit America. The
other, less costly form  of  cultural exchange would be for  the Russians to
read more  of Hawthorne, Melville,  Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, and for
us to become better  acquainted with the less  solemn-though not at all less
profound-Russians.   We   should   do   well  to   read   more   of   Gogol,
Saltykov-Shchedrin,  Chekhov  (the  short  stories  and  the  one-act plays)
and-among Soviet authors-to  read Mikhail  Zoshchenko  and Ilf  and  Petrov.
Thus,  in  its modest  way, the  present  volume-though outwardly  not  very
"serious" should contribute  to our better understanding of Russia  and  the
Russians and aid us in facing the perils of peaceful coexistence.
     If writers were to  be judged not by the reception accorded  to them by
literary  critics but  by their popularity  with  the reading  public, there
could  be no doubt that the late team of Ilf and Petrov would have few peers
among Soviet  men of letters. Together with another  humorist,  the recently
deceased Mikhail Zoshchenko, for many years they baffled and outraged Soviet
editors  and delighted Soviet  readers.  Yet  even while  their  works  were
officially  criticized  in the literary journals for a variety of  sins (the
chief among them being  insufficient ideological militancy and, ipso  facto,
inferior educational value), the available  copies of  earlier editions were
literally  read to shreds  by  millions of Soviet citizens.  Russian readers
loved Ilf and Petrov because these two writers provided them with  a form of
catharsis rarely available to the Soviet citizen-the opportunity to laugh at
the sad and ridiculous aspects of Soviet existence.
     Anyone familiar  with Soviet  press and  literature knows  one of their
most depressing features-the  emphasis  on the pompous and the weighty,  and
the almost total absence of the  light touch. The USSR has a  single Russian
journal of humour and  satire, Krokodil, which is seldom amusing. There is a
very  funny man  in the Soviet circus,  Oleg Popov, but  he is a  clown  and
seldom talks. At the present time, among  the 4,801 full-time Soviet writers
there is not a single talented humorist. And yet the thirst for humour is so
great in Russia that it was  recognized as a state problem by Malenkov, who,
during his short career as Prime Minister after  Stalin's death, appealed to
Soviet writers to become modern Gogols and Saltykov-Shchedrins. The writers,
however, seem to have remembered only too well the risks of producing humour
and satire in a  totalitarian state (irreverent laughter can  easily provoke
accusations  of  political disloyalty, as  was  the case with  Zoschenko  in
1946), and the appeal did not bring about desired results. Hence, during the
"liberal"  years  of  1953-7  the  Soviet  Government made available,  as  a
concession to its humour-starved subjects, new editions of the old works  of
Soviet humorists, including 200,000  copies of Ilf and  Petrov's  The Twelve
Chairs and The Little Golden Calf.
     Muscovites  and  Leningraders  might  disagree,  but  there  is  strong
evidence to indicate  that  during  the first  decades of  this century  the
capital of Russian humour was Odessa, a bustling, multilingual, cosmopolitan
city on the Black Sea. In his recently published memoirs, the veteran Soviet
novelist  Konstantin  Paustovsky  fondly  recalls   the  sophisticated   and
iconoclastic Odessa of the early post-revolutionary years.  Among the famous
sons  of Odessa were Isaac Babel, the writer  of brilliant,  sardonic  short
stories;  Yurii Olesha, the  creator of  modernistic, ironic tales; Valentin
Katayev,  author  of  Squaring  the  Circle,  perhaps the best comedy in the
Soviet repertory; and both members of the team of Ilf and Petrov.
     Ilya  Ilf (pseudonym  of  Fainzilberg) was born in 1897; Yevgeny Petrov
(pseudonym of Katayev,  a younger brother of Valentin) in 1903. The  two men
met  in Moscow,  where they both worked on the railwaymen's newspaper, Gudok
(Train Whistle). Their "speciality" was reading letters to the editor, which
is  a  traditional  Soviet means for  voicing grievances  about bureaucracy,
injustices  and  shortages.  Such  letters would sometimes get published  as
feuilletons,  short humorous stories somewhat reminiscent of Chekhov's early
output. In  1927 Ilf and Petrov formed a literary partnership, publishing at
first  under  a variety of names, including some whimsical ones, like Fyodor
Tolstoyevsky. In their joint "autobiography" Ilf and Petrov wrote :
     It is  very  difficult  to  write  together.  It  was  easier  for  the
Goncourts,  we suppose. After all, they were brothers, while we are not even
related  to each other. We are  not even  of  the  same  age.  And  even  of
different  nationalities;  while  one is  a Russian  (the enigmatic  Russian
soul), the other is a Jew (the enigmatic Jewish soul).
     The literary partnership  lasted for ten  years,  until 1937, when Ilya
Ilf died of tuberculosis. Yevgeny Petrov was killed in 1942 during the siege
of Sebastopol.
     The  two writers are famed chiefly  for three  books-The Twelve  Chairs
(1928;  known  in  a British translation as Diamonds  to Sit On); The Little
Golden Calf  (1931), a tale of the tribulations of a Soviet millionaire  who
is afraid  to spend any  money  lest he  be  discovered  by  the police; and
One-Storey-High  America  (1936; known  in a British  translation as  Little
Golden  America), an amusing and, on the whole,  friendly account of the two
writers' adventures in the land of  Wall Street, the  Empire State Building,
cars, and aspiring capitalists.
     The  plot  of  The Twelve Chairs is very simple. The mother-in-law of a
former nobleman named Vorobyaninov discloses on  her  deathbed a secret: she
hid  her  diamonds  in  one  of the family's  chairs that  subsequently  was
appropriated  by the Soviet  authorities. Vorobyaninov is joined by  a young
crook named Ostap Bender with whom he forms a partnership, and together they
proceed to locate these chairs. The partners have a competitor in the priest
Vostrikov, who  has also learned of  the secret  from his dying parishioner.
The competing treasure-hunters travel  throughout Russia,  which enables the
authors to show us glimpses of little towns, Moscow, and Caucasian  resorts,
and  also have the three central characters  meet a  wide  variety of people
-Soviet  bureaucrats,  newspapermen,   survivors  of  the  pre-revolutionary
propertied classes, provincials, and Muscovites.
     The events described in the novel are  set in 1927, that is, toward the
end of  the period of the New Economic Policy, which was characterized  by a
temporary truce between  the Soviet  regime's Communist ideology and limited
private enterprise in  commerce, industry and agriculture. The coffin-making
and bagel-making businesses referred to in the novel  have  long  since been
nationalized; the former noblemen masquerading as petty Soviet employees and
many  of  the  colleagues of the priest described  by Ilf  and Petrov are no
longer  alive;  and it is  impossible to imagine the existence today  of  an
anti-Soviet "conspiracy"  similar  to  the humorists' "Alliance of the Sword
and Ploughshare".
     Other  than that, however,  the Soviet Union  described in the novel is
very  much like  the Soviet  Union  of  1960, industrial  progress  and  the
Sputniks notwithstanding. The  standard  of  living in  1927  was relatively
high; it  subsequently declined. Now it is just slightly higher than  it was
thirty years  ago.  The  present grotesquely  overcrowded  and  poor-quality
housing (there is not  even  a Russian word  for  "privacy"  I)  is not much
different  from the conditions Ilf and  Petrov knew. There are now, as there
were then, people to whom sausage is a luxury, as it was to the newlyweds in
The  Twelve  Chairs.  Embezzlers  of  state property,  though  denounced  as
"survivals of the capitalist past",  are found by thousands among  young men
in their thirties and forties. The ominous  door signs protecting  Communist
bureaucrats, from unwanted visitors still adorn Soviet offices.  Nor has the
species  of  Ellochka  the  Cannibal,  the  vulgar  and  greedy  wife  of  a
hardworking  engineer,  become  extinct. And there are  still multitudes  of
Muscovites  who  flock  to museums to see how prosperously  the  bourgeoisie
lived  before the Revolution-Muscovites  who are  mistaken for art lovers by
unsuspecting  Western tourists who then report  at home  a tremendous Soviet
interest  in the fine arts. Why, even the ZAGS remains unchanged; only a few
months ago Komsomolskaya Pravda,  a youth newspaper, demanded that something
be  done about  it,  because brides and  grooms  are  embarrassed  when  the
indifferent clerk inquires whether they came to  register a  birth, a death,
or wish to get  married-just  as  Ippolit  Matveyevich Vorobyaninov did over
thirty years ago in the little Soviet town deep in the provinces.
     Similarly,  the  "poet" Lapis  who peddled  nearly  identical verse  to
various   trade  publications-providing  his  hero  Gavrila  with  different
professions  such  as chemist,  postman, hunter, etc., to  give the  poem  a
couleur local suitable for each of the journals-  enjoys excellent health to
this  day. There  are  hundreds of recent  Soviet novels, poems  and  dramas
written by as many  Soviet writers which differ  only in the  professions of
their  protagonists; in their character  delineations and conflicts they are
all very much alike. And, finally, the custom of delivering formal political
speeches, all of them  long, boring, and  terribly repetitious, persists  to
our times. These speeches are still  a regular feature at all  public events
in the USSR.
     Thus the Western reader, in addition to being entertained, is likely to
profit from the reading of The Twelve Chairs by getting a glimpse of certain
aspects of daily life in the Soviet Union which are not normally included in
Intourist itineraries.
     The hero  of The  Twelve Chairs (and  also, it might  be added, of  The
Little Golden  Calf) is Ostap  Bender,  "the smooth operator", a resourceful
rogue and confidence man. Unlike the nobleman  Vorobyaninov  and the  priest
Vostrikov,  Bender  is  not  a  representative of  the ancient  regime. Only
twenty-odd years old, he does not even remember pre-revolutionary Russia: at
the first meeting of the "Alliance of  the Sword and Ploughshare" Bender has
some difficulty playing the role of a  tsarist  officer.  Ostap Bender  is a
Soviet crook, born  of  Soviet conditions and quite willing to co-exist with
the  Soviet  system  to  which  he  has  no  ideological  or  even  economic
objections. Ostap Bender's inimitable slangy Russian is heavily  spiced with
cliches of the Communist jargon. Bender knows the  vulnerabilities of Soviet
state  functionaries and exploits them for his  own purposes. He  also knows
that the Soviet Man is not very different from the Capitalist Man-that he is
just  as  greedy,  lazy, snobbish,  cowardly  and  gullible-and  uses  these
weaknesses  to his,  Ostap Bender's, advantage. And  yet,  in spite of Ostap
Bender's dishonesty and lack of scruples, we somehow get to like him. Bender
is  gay, carefree and  clever,  and when we  see him  matching his wits with
those of Soviet bureaucrats, we hope that he wins.
     In  the  end  Ostap  Bender and  his accomplices lose;  yet,  strangely
enough, the end of the novel seems forced, much like the cliche happy ending
of a mediocre Hollywood film. One must understand, however, that even in the
comparatively  "liberal" 1920s it was difficult for  a Soviet author  not to
supply a  happy  Soviet  ending  to a  book otherwise  as aloof  from Soviet
ideology as The Twelve Chairs. And so, at the  end of the novel, one of  the
greedy fortune-hunters  is killed by his partner, while the other two end up
in  a  psychiatric  ward. But  at least  Ilf and Petrov  have spared us from
seeing Ostap Bender contrasted with a virtuous upright Soviet hero,  and for
this we  must  be  grateful. Much  as in Gogol's Inspector General  and Dead
Souls and  in the satires of Saltykov-Shchedrin, we observe with fascination
a  Russia  of  embezzlers,  knaves  and  stupid  government  officials.   We
understand  their  weaknesses  and  vices, for they are common  to  all men.
Indeed,  we can  even get  to like these  people, as we  could  not like the
stuffy  embodiments of Communist virtues who  inhabit the great  majority of
Soviet novels.
     Inevitably,  some of  the  humour  must  get  lost  in  the  process of
translation. The protagonists in  The  Twelve Chairs are for the  most  part
semi-educated men, but they all aspire to  kulturnost, and  love to refer to
classics  of  Russian  literature-which  they usually  misquote.  They  also
frequently  mispronounce  foreign  words  with  comical   effect.  These  no
translator  could  possibly salvage. But  the English-speaking  reader won't
miss the ridiculous  quality of  the "updated" version of The Marriage on  a
Soviet stage, even if he has never seen a traditional performance of Gogol's
comedy; he  will detect with equal ease the hilarious scheme of Ostap Bender
to  "modernize"  a famous canvas  by Repin even  if  he  has  never seen the
original painting. Fortunately, most of the comic qualities of the novel are
inherent in  the actions of the protagonists, and these are not affected  by
being translated. They  will only serve to prove once again that, basically,
Soviet Russians  are fed  with  the  same food, hurt  with the same weapons,
subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by
the same winter and summer" as all men are.

     Hunter College 1960

     Part I

     There were so many hairdressing establishments and funeral homes in the
regional centre of N. that the inhabitants seemed to be born merely in order
to have a shave,  get  their  hair cut,  freshen up their  heads with toilet
water and then die. In actual fact,  people came into the world, shaved, and
died rather rarely  in  the regional centre  of N. Life in  N. was extremely
quiet.  The   spring  evenings  were  delightful,  the  mud  glistened  like
anthracite in the light of the moon,  and all the young men of the town were
so much  in love with the secretary  of  the communal-service workers' local
committee that she found difficulty in collecting their subscriptions.
     Matters  of   life  and   death  did  not  worry   Ippolit  Matveyevich
Vorobyaninov,  although  by the nature of his  work he  dealt with them from
nine till five every day, with a half-hour break for lunch.
     Each morning, having drunk  his ration of hot  milk brought  to him  by
Claudia  Ivanovna in  a  streaky  frosted-glass tumbler,  he  left the dingy
little house and went outside  into the vast  street bathed  in weird spring
sunlight; it was called Comrade Gubernsky Street. It was the nicest kind  of
street  you  can  find in regional  centres. On the left you could  see  the
coffins of the Nymph Funeral Home  glittering with silver through undulating
green-glass panes. On the right, the dusty, plain oak  coffins of Bezenchuk,
the undertaker, reclined sadly behind small windows from which the putty was
peeling  off. Further  up, "Master Barber Pierre and  Constantine"  promised
customers  a "manicure" and  "home curlings". Still further on  was  a hotel
with  a  hairdresser's,  and beyond  it  a  large  open  space  in  which  a
straw-coloured calf stood tenderly licking the rusty sign propped up against
a solitary gateway. The sign read: Do-Us-the-Honour Funeral Home.
     Although  there  were  many  funeral  homes,  their  clientele  was not
wealthy.  The  Do-Us-the-Honour  had gone  broke three years before  Ippolit
Matveyevich settled in the town of N., while Bezenchuk drank like a fish and
had once tried to pawn his best sample coffin.
     People rarely died  in  the  town of N. Ippolit  Matveyevich knew  this
better than anyone because he worked in the registry office, where he was in
charge of the registration of deaths and marriages.
     The  desk  at  which  Ippolit  Matveyevich worked  resembled an ancient
gravestone. The  left-hand corner  had  been  eaten away by rats. Its wobbly
legs quivered under the weight of  bulging tobacco-coloured  files of notes,
which  could provide  any required information on  the  origins  of the town
inhabitants and the  family  trees  that had grown up in the barren regional
     On Friday, April 15, 1927, Ippolit Matveyevich woke up as usual at half
past seven and immediately slipped on to his nose an old-fashioned pince-nez
with a  gold nosepiece. He did not wear glasses. At one time, deciding  that
it was not hygienic to  wear pince-nez, he went to  the  optician and bought
himself a pair of frameless spectacles with gold-plated sidepieces. He liked
the spectacles from the  very  first, but his wife (this was  shortly before
she died) found that they made him look the spitting image of Milyukov,  and
he  gave them  to  the  man  who  cleaned  the yard.  Although  he  was  not
shortsighted, the fellow grew accustomed  to the glasses and enjoyed wearing
     "Bonjour!" sang Ippolit Matveyevich to  himself as he lowered his  legs
from the bed. "Bonjour" showed that he had woken up in a. good humour. If he
said  "Guten Morgen" on awakening,  it  usually  meant that  his  liver  was
playing tricks,  that it was no joke being fifty-two,  and that the  weather
was damp at the time.
     Ippolit Matveyevich thrust  his legs into  pre-revolutionary  trousers,
tied the  ribbons around his ankles, and pulled on short, soft-leather boots
with narrow,  square toes. Five  minutes later he  was neatly  arrayed in  a
yellow  waistcoat  decorated with  small silver  stars  and a lustrous  silk
jacket that reflected the colours of  the  rainbow as it  caught  the light.
Wiping away the drops of water  still clinging to  his  grey hairs after his
ablutions,  Ippolit  Matveyevich fiercely wiggled  his moustache, hesitantly
felt  his  bristly  chin,  gave his close-cropped silvery hair a brush  and,
then, smiling politely, went toward his mother-in-law, Claudia Ivanovna, who
had just come into the room.
     "Eppole-et," she thundered, "I had a bad dream last night."
     The word "dream" was pronounced with a French "r".
     Ippolit  Matveyevich looked his mother-in-law  up and down. He  was six
feet two inches tall, and from that height it was easy for  him to look down
on his mother-in-law with a certain contempt.
     Claudia Ivanovna continued: "I dreamed  of the deceased Marie with  her
hair down, and wearing a golden sash."
     The  iron lamp with its chain and dusty glass toys all vibrated at  the
rumble of  Claudia Ivanovna's voice. "I am very disturbed. I fear  something
may happen."  These last words were uttered with such force that  the square
of   bristling  hair  on  Ippolit  Matveyevich's  head  moved  in  different
directions. He wrinkled up his face and said slowly:
     "Nothing's going to happen, Maman. Have you paid the water rates?"
     It appeared that she had not. Nor had the galoshes been washed. Ippolit
Matveyevich disliked his mother-in-law. Claudia Ivanovna was stupid, and her
advanced  age gave  little hope  of  any improvement.  She was stingy in the
extreme, and  it was only Ippolit Matveyevich's  poverty which prevented her
giving rein to  this passion. Her voice was  so strong  and fruity  that  it
might well have been envied by Richard  the Lionheart, at whose shout, as is
well known, horses  used to kneel. Furthermore, and this was the worst thing
of all  about her, she had dreams. She was always having dreams. She dreamed
of girls  in sashes, horses trimmed with the yellow braid  worn by dragoons,
caretakers playing harps, angels in watchmen's fur coats  who went for walks
at  night  carrying clappers, and  knitting-needles which  hopped around the
room by  themselves making  a distressing  tinkle. An empty-headed woman was
Claudia Ivanovna. In addition to everything else, her  upper lip was covered
by a moustache, each side of which resembled a shaving brush.
     Ippolit  Matveyevich  left  the  house  in rather  an  irritable  mood.
Bezenchuk  the  undertaker was standing at the entrance  to his  tumble-down
establishment, leaning against the  door with his hands crossed. The regular
collapse of  his commercial undertakings plus  a long period of practice  in
the consumption of intoxicating drinks had  made his eyes bright yellow like
a cat's, and they burned with an unfading light.
     "Greetings to an honoured guest!" he  rattled off, seeing Vorobyaninov.
"Good mornin'."
     Ippolit Matveyevich politely raised his soiled  beaver hat. "How's your
mother-in-law,  might  I  inquire?  "  "Mrr-mrr,"  said  Ippolit Matveyevich
indistinctly, and shrugging his shoulders, continued on his way.
     "God grant  her health," said Bezenchuk  bitterly. "Nothin' but losses,
durn it." And crossing his  hands on his  chest, he again leaned against the
     At  the entrance  to the  Nymph  Funeral Home Ippolit  Matveyevich  was
stopped once more.  There were three owners of the Nymph.  They all bowed to
Ippolit Matveyevich and inquired in chorus about his mother-in-law's health.
     "She's  well," replied Ippolit Matveyevich. "The things she  does! Last
night she saw a golden girl with her hair down. It was a dream."
     The three Nymphs exchanged glances and sighed loudly.
     These conversations delayed Vorobyaninov  on  his way,  and contrary to
his usual practice, he did not arrive  at  work until the clock  on the wall
above the slogan "Finish Your Business and Leave" showed five past nine.
     Because of his great height, and particularly because of his moustache,
Ippolit Matveyevich was known  in the office as  Maciste.* although the real
Maciste   had   no   moustache.   (  Translator's   Note:   Maciste  was  an
internationally known Italian actor of the time.)
     Taking a blue  felt  cushion out  of  a  drawer  in the  desk,  Ippolit
Matveyevich  placed  it  on  his  chair,  aligned  his  moustache  correctly
(parallel  to  the top  of the desk) and sat down  on  the  cushion,  rising
slightly higher than  his three colleagues.  He  was not  afraid of  getting
piles; he was afraid  of wearing  out his trousers-that was why he  used the
blue cushion.
     All these  operations were watched timidly  by  two young persons-a boy
and  a  girl.  The young man, who wore a padded  cotton coat, was completely
overcome by the office atmosphere, the chemical smell of the ink,  the clock
that was ticking loud and fast, and most of all by the sharply worded notice
"Finish Your Business  and Leave". The  young  man in  the coat had not even
begun  his  business,  but he  was  nonetheless ready to leave. He  felt his
business was  so  insignificant  that  it  was  shameful  to disturb  such a
distinguished-looking   grey-haired   citizen   as   Vorobyaninov.   Ippolit
Matveyevich  also felt the young man's business was a trifling one and could
wait, so he opened folder no.  2 and,  with a twitch of the  cheek, immersed
himself in  the papers. The girl, who had on a long jacket edged  with shiny
black  ribbon,  whispered  something  to  the  young  man  and,   pink  with
embarrassment, began moving toward Ippolit Matveyevich.
     "Comrade," she said, "where do we . . ."
     The young man in the padded coat sighed with pleasure and, unexpectedly
for himself, blurted out:
     "Get married!"
     Ippolit Matveyevich  looked thoughtfully at the  rail behind  which the
young couple were standing.
     "Birth? Death?"
     "Get married?" repeated the young  man in the coat and looked round him
in confusion.
     The girl gave a giggle. Things were going fine. Ippolit Matveyevich set
to work with the skill of a magician. In spidery handwriting he recorded the
names of the bride and  groom in  thick registers,  sternly  questioned  the
witnesses,  who  had to  be  fetched  from  outside, breathed  tenderly  and
lengthily  on the square rubber stamps and then,  half  rising  to his feet,
impressed them  upon the tattered identification papers. Having received two
roubles  from  the newly-weds "for administration  of  the sacrament", as he
said  with a  smirk,  and  given  them a receipt,  Ippolit Matveyevich  drew
himself up to his splendid height,  automatically pushing out  his chest (he
had worn a corset at one  time). The wide golden rays of the sun fell on his
shoulders like epaulettes. His appearance was slightly comic, but singularly
impressive.  The  biconcave  lenses  of  his  pince-nez flashed  white  like
searchlights. The young couple stood in awe.
     "Young people,"  said  Ippolit  Matveyevich  pompously,  "allow  me  to
congratulate you,  as they used  to say, on your legal marriage. It is very,
very nice to see young people like yourselves moving hand in hand toward the
realization of eternal ideals. It is very, ve-ery nice!'
     Having  made  this  address, Ippolit  Matveyevich shook hands with  the
newly  married  couple,  sat  down,  and,  extremely  pleased with  himself,
continued  to read the  papers in folder  no. 2. At the next desk the clerks
sniggered into their ink-wells.  The quiet routine of  the  working day  had
begun. No  one disturbed the deaths-and-marriages  desk. Through the windows
citizens could be  seen  making their  way  home, shivering  in  the  spring
chilliness. At exactly midday the cock in the Hammer and Plough co-operative
began  crowing. Nobody was surprised. Then  came the mechanical rattling and
squeaking of a car engine.  A thick cloud of violet  smoke billowed out from
Comrade Gubernsky Street, and the  clanking grew louder.  Through  the smoke
appeared the outline of the regional-executive-committee car Gos. No. 1 with
its minute radiator and  bulky body.  Floundering in the mud as it went, the
car crossed Staropan Square and, swaying from side to side, disappeared in a
cloud of poisonous  smoke. The  clerks remained standing  at the window  for
some  time, commenting on  the event  and  attempting to  connect  it with a
possible reduction in staff. A little while later  Bezenchuk cautiously went
past  along the footboards. For days on end he used to wander round the town
trying to find out if anyone had died.
     The working day was drawing to  a close. In the nearby white and yellow
belfry the bells began ringing furiously. Windows rattled. Jackdaws rose one
by one from the belfry, joined forces over the square, held a brief meeting,
and flew off. The evening sky turned ice-grey over the deserted square.
     It was time for Ippolit Matveyevich to leave. Everything that was to be
born on that day had  been born  and  registered in  the thick  ledgers. All
those  wishing to  get married had done so and were likewise recorded in the
thick registers. And, clearly to the ruin of  the undertakers, there had not
been a single death. Ippolit  Matveyevich  packed up his files, put the felt
cushion  away  in the drawer, fluffed up his moustache  with a comb, and was
just about  to leave, having  visions  of a bowl of steaming soup, when  the
door burst open and Bezenchuk the undertaker appeared on the threshold.
     "Greetings  to an honoured  guest,"  said  Ippolit  Matveyevich  with a
smile. "What can I do for you?"
     The undertaker's animal-like face glowed in the dusk, but he was unable
to utter a word.
     "Well?" asked Ippolit Matveyevich more severely.
     "Does  the  Nymph,  durn  it,  really  give  good  service?"  said  the
undertaker vaguely. "Can they really satisfy customers? Why, a  coffin needs
so much wood alone."
     "What?" asked Ippolit Matveyevich.
     "It's  the Nymph. . .  . Three families livin' on one  rotten business.
And their materials ain't no good, and the finish is worse. What's more, the
tassels  ain't thick enough, durn it. Mine's an old firm, though. Founded in
1907. My coffins are like gherkins, specially selected for people who know a
good coffin."
     "What  are  you  talking  about?   Are  you  crazy?"   snapped  Ippolit
Matveyevich and moved towards the door.  "Your coffins will drive you out of
your mind."
     Bezenchuk obligingly threw open the door, let Vorobyaninov go out first
and then began following him, trembling as though with impatience.
     "When the Do-Us-the-Honour was goin', it was all right There wasn't one
firm, not even in Tver, which could touch it in brocade, durn it. But now, I
tell  you straight, there's  nothin' to beat  mine. You  don't  even need to
     Ippolit  Matveyevich  turned  round  angrily, glared at  Bezenchuk, and
began walking faster. Although he had not had any difficulties at the office
that day, he felt rotten.
     The three  owners of the Nymph  were standing by their establishment in
the same positions in which Ippolit Matveyevich had left them that  morning.
They appeared  not to have exchanged a single  word with one another,  yet a
striking change  in  their expressions  and a  kind  of secret  satisfaction
darkly  gleaming  in their eyes indicated that they had  heard something  of
     At  the  sight of  his  business rivals,  Bezenchuk waved  his hand  in
despair and called after Vorobyaninov in a whisper: "I'll make it thirty-two
roubles." Ippolit Matveyevich  frowned and increased his pace. "You can have
credit,"  added Bezenchuk. The three owners of the Nymph said  nothing. They
sped after  Vorobyaninov in  silence,  continually  doffing their  caps  and
bowing as they went.
     Highly annoyed  by  the stupid attentions of the  undertakers,  Ippolit
Matveyevich ran up the steps of the porch more quickly than usual, irritably
wiped his boots free of mud on one of the steps and, feeling strong pangs of
hunger, went into the hallway. He was met by Father Theodore,  priest of the
Church of St. Frol and St. Laurence, who had just come out of the inner room
and  was looking hot and bothered. Holding up his cassock in his right hand,
Father Theodore hurried past towards the door, ignoring Ippolit Matveyevich.
     It was  then  that Vorobyaninov noticed  the extra cleanliness and  the
unsightly disorder of the sparse furniture, and felt a tickling sensation in
his  nose from  the  strong smell  of  medicine. In  the outer room  Ippolit
Matveyevich was met by his neighbour,  Mrs.  Kuznetsov,  the agronomist. She
spoke in a whisper, moving her hand about.
     "She's  worse. She's  just made her confession. Don't make a noise with
your boots."
     "I'm not," said Ippolit Matveyevich meekly. "What's happened?"
     Mrs.  Kuznetsov sucked in her lips and pointed to the door of the inner
room: "Very severe heart attack."
     Then, clearly repeating what she had  heard, added: "The possibility of
her not recovering should not be discounted. I've been on my feet all day. I
came this  morning to borrow the mincer and saw the door was open. There was
no one  in the kitchen and no one in  this room either. So I thought Claudia
Ivanovna had gone to buy flour to make some Easter cake. She'd been going to
for some time. You  know what flour  is like  nowadays. If  you don't buy it
beforehand . . ."
     Mrs.  Kuznetsov would have gone on for a long time describing the flour
and the  high price of it and how  she found Claudia  Ivanovna lying by  the
tiled  stove  completely  unconscious, had  not a groan from  the next  room
impinged painfully on  Ippolit Matveyevich's ear. He quickly crossed himself
with a somewhat feelingless hand and entered his mother-in-law's room.


     Claudia Ivanovna lay  on her  back with one arm under her head. She was
wearing a bright apricot-coloured cap of the type that used to be in fashion
when ladies wore the "chanticleer" and had just begun to dance the tango.
     Claudia  Ivanovna's face was solemn, but expressed  absolutely nothing.
Her eyes were fixed on the ceiling.
     "Claudia Ivanovna!" called Ippolit Matveyevich.
     His  mother-in-law  moved   her   lips  rapidly,  but  instead  of  the
trumpet-like sounds to  which his ear  was accustomed,  Ippolit  Matveyevich
only heard a groan, soft, high-pitched, and so pitiful that his heart gave a
leap. A tear  suddenly glistened in one eye and rolled down his cheek like a
drop of mercury.
     "Claudia Ivanovna," repeated Vorobyaninov, "what's the matter?"
     But again he received no answer.  The old woman had closed her eyes and
slumped to one side.
     The  agronomist came quietly  into the room  and  led him away  like  a
little boy taken to be washed.
     "She's  dropped  off.  The doctor didn't say  she was to  be disturbed.
Listen, dearie, run down to the chemist's. Here's the prescription. Find out
how much an ice-bag costs."
     Ippolit Matveyevich  obeyed  Madame Kuznetsov, sensing her indisputable
superiority in such matters.
     It was a long way  to  the chemist's. Clutching the prescription in his
fist like a schoolboy, Ippolit Matveyevich hurried out into the street.
     It was almost dark, but  against the  fading light the frail  figure of
Bezenchuk could  be seen leaning against the wooden gate munching a piece of
bread and onion. The three Nymphs were squatting beside him, eating porridge
from an  iron pot and licking their spoons. At the sight of Vorobyaninov the
undertakers  sprang  to attention,  like  soldiers.  Bezenchuk shrugged  his
shoulders petulantly and, pointing to his rivals, said:
     "Always in me way, durn 'em."
     In the  middle  of  the square, near the bust of  the "poet  Zhukovsky,
which was inscribed with the  words "Poetry is God  in  the Sacred Dreams of
the Earth",  an animated  conversation was in progress following the news of
Claudia Ivanovna's stroke. The  general opinion  of  the  assembled citizens
could have been summed up as "We all have to go sometime" and "What the Lord
gives, the Lord takes back".
     The  hairdresser "Pierre  and Constantine"-who also answered readily to
the name of Andrew Ivanovich, by the  way-once again took the opportunity to
air his knowledge of medicine, acquired from the Moscow magazine Ogonyok.
     "Modern  science,"  Andrew Ivanovich  was  saying,  "has  achieved  the
impossible. Take this for example. Let's say a customer gets a pimple on his
chin. In the old days that usually resulted in blood-poisoning. But they say
that nowadays,  in  Moscow-I don't know  whether it's true  or not-a freshly
sterilized shaving brush is used for every customer." The citizens gave long
sighs. "Aren't you overdoing it  a bit,  Andrew?  "  "How could there  be  a
different brush for every person? That's a good one!"
     Prusis,  a former member of the proletariat  intelligentsia, and now  a
private stall-owner, actually became excited.
     "Wait a moment, Andrew Ivanovich. According to the  latest census,  the
population of Moscow is more than two  million. That means they'd need  more
than two million brushes. Seems rather curious."
     The conversation  was  becoming heated,  and  heaven only knows how  it
would have  ended  had not Ippolit Matveyevich  appeared  at the end of  the
street. "He's off to the chemist's again.  Things  must  be  bad." "The  old
woman  will  die. Bezenchuk  isn't running  round  the  town in a flurry for
nothing." "What does the doctor say? "
     "What doctor? Do you call those people in  the social-insurance  office
doctors? They're enough to send a healthy man to his grave!"
     "Pierre  and Constantine", who had been  longing for a chance to make a
pronouncement  on  the subject  of medicine,  looked  around cautiously, and
     "Haemoglobin  is  what counts  nowadays."  Having  said  that, he  fell
silent. The citizens also fell silent, each reflecting in his own way on the
mysterious power of haemoglobin.
     When  the moon rose and cast  its minty  light on the miniature bust of
Zhukovsky, a  rude word  could clearly be seen chalked on the poet's  bronze
     This inscription had first appeared on June 15, 1897, the same day that
the bust had  been unveiled.  And despite  all  the efforts  of  the tsarist
police, and  later the  Soviet militia, the  defamatory word had  reappeared
each day with unfailing regularity.
     The  samovars were  already  singing in the little  wooden houses  with
their  outside  shutters, and it  was time for  supper. The citizens stopped
wasting their time and went their way. A wind began to blow.
     In  the meantime  Claudia  Ivanovna  was  dying.  First she  asked  for
something  to  drink,  then  said  she  had  to get  up  and  fetch  Ippolit
Matveyevich's best boots from the cobbler. One  moment she complained of the
dust which, as she put it, was enough to make you choke, and the next  asked
for all the lamps to be lit.
     Ippolit Matveyevich paced up and down the room, tired of worrying.  His
mind was full  of  unpleasant,  practical thoughts. He was  thinking  how he
would have to ask for an advance at the  mutual assistance office, fetch the
priest, and answer  letters of condolence from  relatives. To  take his mind
off these things, Ippolit Matveyevich went  out  on the porch. There, in the
green light of the moon, stood Bezenchuk the undertaker.
     "So  how would you like  it, Mr.  Vorobyaninov?" asked  the undertaker,
hugging his cap to his chest. "Yes, probably," answered Ippolit  Matveyevich
gloomily.  "Does  the  Nymph,  durn  it,  really  give  good  service?" said
Bezenchuk, becoming agitated. "Go to the devil! You make me sick!"
     "I'm not doin' nothin'. I'm only  askin' about the tassels and brocade.
How shall I make it? Best quality? Or how?"
     "No tassels  or brocade. Just an ordinary coffin made  of pine-wood. Do
you understand? "
     Bezenchuk  put his  finger  to  his  lips to  show that  he  understood
perfectly,  turned round  and,  managing  to  balance  his cap  on  his head
although  he  was  staggering,  went off.  It  was  only  then  that Ippolit
Matveyevich noticed that he was blind drunk.
     Ippolit Matveyevich felt singularly upset. He  tried to picture himself
coming  home to an empty, dirty  house.  He was  afraid  his mother-in-law's
death would deprive him of  all  those little luxuries and set  ways  he had
acquired  with  such  effort  since  the revolution-a  revolution  which had
stripped him of  much  greater luxuries and a grander way of life. "Should I
marry?" he  wondered.  "But  who?  The  militia  chief's  niece  or  Barbara
Stepanova, Prusis's sister? Or maybe I should hire a housekeeper. But what's
the use? She would only drag me around  the law courts. And it would cost me
something, too!"
     The  future  suddenly  looked  black for Ippolit Matveyevich.  Full  of
indignation and  disgust  at  everything around him,  he went back  into the
house. Claudia Ivanovna was no longer  delirious. Lying high on her pillows,
she looked  at Ippolit Matveyevich, in full  command of her  faculties,  and
even sternly, he thought.
     "Ippolit Matveyevich," she  whispered clearly. "Sit close to me. I want
to tell you something."
     Ippolit   Matveyevich   sat   down  in   annoyance,  peering  into  his
mother-in-law's thin, bewhiskered face. He made an attempt  to smile and say
something  encouraging,  but  the  smile  was   hideous  and  no   words  of
encouragement  came  to  him.  An  awkward  wheezing noise was all he  could
     "Ippolit,"   repeated   his   mother-in-law,  "do   you   remember  our
drawing-room suite?"
     "Which  one?"  asked  Ippolit  Matveyevich with  that  kind  of  polite
attention that is only accorded to the very sick.
     "The one . . . upholstered in English chintz."
     "You mean the suite in my house?"
     "Yes, in Stargorod."
     "Yes,  I remember it very well . . . a sofa, a dozen chairs and a round
table with six legs. It was splendid furniture. Made by Hambs. . . . But why
does it come to mind?"
     Claudia Ivanovna, however, was  unable to answer. Her  face had  slowly
begun  to turn  the colour of  copper  sulphate.  For  some  reason  Ippolit
Matveyevich also caught  his breath. He clearly remembered the  drawing-room
in  his  house  and its symmetrically  arranged walnut furniture with curved
legs,  the polished parquet floor, the old brown grand  piano,  and the oval
black-framed daguerreotypes of high-ranking relatives on the walls.
     Claudia Ivanovna then said in a wooden, apathetic voice:
     "I sewed my jewels into the seat of a chair."
     Ippolit Matveyevich looked sideways at the old woman.
     "What jewels?" he asked mechanically, then, suddenly realizing what she
had said, added quickly:
     "Weren't they taken when the house was searched?"
     "I hid the jewels in a chair," repeated the old woman stubbornly.
     Ippolit  Matveyevich  jumped up and,  taking  a close  look at  Claudia
Ivanovna's stony face lit by the paraffin lamp, saw she was not raving.
     "Your jewels!" he cried, startled at the loudness of his own voice. "In
a chair? Who induced you to do that? Why didn't you give them to me?"
     "Why  should I have  given  them to  you  when you  squandered  away my
daughter's  estate?" said  the  old  woman  quietly  and viciously.  Ippolit
Matveyevich sat down and immediately stood up again.
     His heart was  noisily  sending  the blood coursing around his body. He
began to hear a ringing in his ears.
     "But you took them out again, didn't you? They're here, aren't they?"
     The old woman shook her head.
     "I didn't have time. You remember  how  quickly and unexpectedly we had
to  flee. They were left  in  the chair . .. the one  between the terracotta
lamp and the fireplace."
     "But that was madness! You're just like your daughter," shouted Ippolit
Matveyevich loudly.
     And no longer concerned for the fact  that  he was at the bedside of  a
dying woman, he pushed back his chair  with a crash and began prancing about
the room.
     "I suppose you realize what may have happened to the chairs? Or do  you
think they're  still there in the drawing-room in  my house, quietly waiting
for you to come and get your jewellery? " The old woman did not answer.
     The registry clerk's wrath was so  great that the pince-nez fell of his
nose and  landed  on the floor with a tinkle, the gold nose-piece glittering
as it passed his knees.
     "What?  Seventy thousand roubles' worth of jewellery hidden in a chair!
Heaven knows who may sit on that chair!"
     At this point Claudia Ivanovna gave  a sob and leaned forward with  her
whole body towards the edge of the bed. Her hand described a semi-circle and
reached  out  to grasp  Ippolit  Matveyevich, but  then fell back on to  the
violet  down  quilt. Squeaking with fright, Ippolit Matveyevich ran to fetch
his neighbour. "I think she's dying," he cried.
     The agronomist crossed herself  in  a  businesslike  way  and,  without
hiding her curiosity, hurried into  Ippolit Matveyevich's house, accompanied
by  her  bearded  husband, also an agronomist.  In  distraction Vorobyaninov
wandered into the municipal park.
     While the two agronomists  and  their  servants  tidied up the deceased
woman's  room,  Ippolit Matveyevich  roamed  around the  park,  bumping into
benches  and mistaking for bushes the young couples  numb with  early spring
     The strangest things  were  going on in Ippolit  Matveyevich's head. He
could hear the sound of gypsy choirs and orchestras composed of big-breasted
women playing the tango over and over again;  he imagined the Moscow  winter
and  a  long-bodied  black  trotter  that   snorted  contemptuously  at  the
passers-by.  He  imagined  many  different things:  a  pair  of  deliriously
expensive orange-coloured panties, slavish devotion, and a possible  trip to
Cannes. Ippolit Matveyevich began walking more slowly and suddenly  stumbled
over the form of Bezenchuk the undertaker. The  latter was asleep,  lying in
the middle of the path in his fur coat. The jolt woke him up. He sneezed and
stood up briskly.
     "Now don't you  worry, Mr Vorobyaninov,"  he  said heatedly, continuing
the  conversation started a while before. "There's lots of work  goes into a
     "Claudia Ivanovna's dead," his client informed him.
     "Well, God rest her soul," said Bezenchuk.  "So  the old  lady's passed
away.  Old ladies  pass away . . . or they depart  this life. It depends who
she is. Yours, for instance, was small and plump, so she passed away. But if
it's one who's a bit bigger and thinner, then they say she has departed this
life. . . ."
     "What do you mean 'they say'? Who says?"
     "We   say.   The   undertakers.   Now   you,   for   instance.   You're