In the provincial town of Arbatov, Bender, now 33, meets two small-time conmen — young and brash Shura Balaganov and old Mikhail Panikovsky, who make a living by pretending to be children of the Soviet revolutionary hero Lieutenant Schmidt. When Balaganov tells his new friend about the underground millionaire Alexander Koreiko, who made his fortune by illegal means and now lives in Chernomorsk under the guise of a poor, petty accountant, Bender plans to blackmail Koreiko out of a part of his money, and thus, to get to Chernomorsk, he enlists the aid of the honest, but not too bright, driver Adam Kozlevich and his Alleged Car the Antelope Gnu.
In the second part, our "heroes" work up the ranks of Hercules, the company Koreiko works in, where everyone else is nearly as corrupt as Koreiko himself (although perhaps not secretly so rich): Hercules, which is supposed to carry out financial operations for lumber materials, is in fact solely dedicated to fighting another organization for the building it occupies. By blackmailing various employees of Hercules, up to its leader Polykhayev, Bender amasses enough evidence about Koreiko's shady past to confront him and demands one million rubles in exchange for not exposing him to the authorities. However, Koreiko manages to escape, Bender's companions are dispersed, and he continues his chase alone.
In part three, Bender finally finds Koreiko again on a railroad construction site in Central Asia and forces him to give away one of his ten millions. Despite this, the two millionaires eventually part on relatively good terms. The rest of the novel is spent describing Bender's fruitless attempts to put his million to use, as in the Soviet Union, money is worth less than state privileges, and most services and goods simply aren't available to him as an unaffiliated "private person". Eventually he tries to flee the country into the capitalist world, or more precisely the city of his dreams, Rio de Janeiro; however, he is stopped on the Romanian border and loses almost his entire fortune.
Three screen adaptation have been made: a 1968 black-and-white film by Mikhail Schweizer, generally well-liked, a 1993 version by Vasili Pichul and a 2005 miniseries by Ulyana Shilkina.
In addition to the tropes in The Twelve Chairs, this book provides examples of:
- The Alleged Car: The Antelope, which has become synonymous with this trope among Russians.
- Ambiguously Jewish: Panikovsky
- Big Store: "Horns and Hooves", which also has become synonymous with this kind of suspicious office in Russia.
- Subverted in that Ostap left the Big Store with full intent to make it vanish, and then returned and found it to be nationalized, rebuilt and actually trading in horns and hooves.
- Also a number of unnamed ones, setup by Koreyko or mentioned by Funt.
- Catchphrase: In addition to those from The Twelve Chairs, Bender got "I will be the one commanding the parade!" ("Командовать парадом буду я!") Panikovsky has "You're a poor, miserable person!" ("Вы жалкая, ничтожная личность!")
- Corrupt Church: The two Catholic priests who manipulate Kozlevich's faith to get the Antelope for service in their church. Bender, who is an atheist, gets Kozlevich to abandon them by mocking Christianity.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: most of the Hercules, but Polykhayev and Skumbriyevich most of all.
- Darker and Edgier: The novel, although brimming with wit and humour, turns out to be more depressing than its predecessor.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Bender is adamant that his "money-extraction" techniques are "relatively honest", and that he never crosses the criminal code (although the police would probably disagree with him), and he's disgusted by the machinations of the Herculesians and Koreiko.
- Fake Nationality: the book mentions in passing and some of the adaptations show as posters elements of Bender's act as a Yogi.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: The "book so dear" Lokhankin saves from the house fire? Back then, it was best known as a popular piece of National Geographic Nudity.
- Hillbilly Moonshiner: Ostap Bender reveals his experience as a moonshiner when he teaches visiting American bootleggers some Soviet moonshine recipes.
- There are strong hints, that Bender had no idea what he was talking about and was making it up on the fly. It is not the first time he does so, nor the last.
- Impersonating an Officer: Ostap Bender tries to do this with the underground millionaire Koreiko. Ostap wants Koreiko to admit that a large sum of money was indeed stolen from him, to confirm that he's richer than he seems. However, it's a Paper-Thin Disguise consisting of only a police hat, and the hat has a coat of arms of the wrong city, to boot. Koreiko later points that out.
- Insane Troll Logic: How Panikovsky convinces Shura, that the Koreiko's kettlebells are made of gold.Shura: What if they aren't made of gold?Panikovsky: Now that's rich! And what, I daresay, are they made of then?Shura: Wow! You're right, now I see it!
- Insanity Defense: Accountant Berlaga gets himself committed as a ploy to evade the "purging" of Hercules. It doesn't work.
- Karma Houdini: Subverted hard. On one hand, Koreiko, who'd amassed his ten millions by such acts as trading first need goods in a war-torn city, robbing trains with food meant for starving peasants, and exploiting the government by getting investments into his sham enterprises, is left alone with most of his money intact. However, he never gets to spend a single dime out of his ill-gotten fortune, lives a lonely, fearful and miserable life and will eventually die knowing that all his efforts were to no avail, with absolutely no chance of living to see the fall of the Union (and even if he had such longevity, the 1947 money reform would render it all worthless). In addition, his Karma Houdini Warranty is likely to expire before long, since the police has got their hands on Shura, who's bound to spill the beans, and then it's open season for underground millionairs.
- Mock Guffin: Panikovsky believes that Koreiko's kettlebells are made of gold and only coated with iron. Together with Balaganov, he tries to saw them in half, with obvious results.Panikovsky: Keep sawing, Shura, keep sawing, they're made of gold! ("Пилите, Шура, пилите, они золотые!")
- National Geographic Nudity: The "book so dear" Lokhankin saved from the home fire? A serious work, but back then, was best known for its illustrations.
- No Communities Were Harmed: Chernomorsk ("Black Sea City") is often considered a fictional stand-in for Odessa.
- Not to say about the Chernomorsk's "picket jackets" old men.
UsuallyNaturally always, their conversations involve a phrase X is the man! (or the head, if translated directly) and end with hopes that Chernomorsk will be an independent city one day.
- "Did you hear the news? Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi) arrived to Dundee (Scottish city)!" - "Gandhi is the man. And Dundee is the man."
- Not to say about the Chernomorsk's "picket jackets" old men.
- Obfuscating Disability: Before the revolution, Panikovsky used to pretend to be blind to rob people helping him cross the street. He tries the trick again with Koreiko, but is thwarted by an approaching bus.
- Recursive Import: A bizarre case mentioned in the shared biographies of the authors: after the book was published overseas, the publishing house where they worked was approached by an old lady, who was a French language enthusiast, about publishing a translation she was working on for 'this quaint French novel about Soviet con men'.
- Retired Monster: Koreiko.
- Retired Outlaw: Kozlevich.
- Revised Ending: In its original serialized form, the novel ended with Ostap Bender giving away his useless wealth to the government and marrying Zosya Sinitskaya. In the final, universally known edition, he instead loses it when trying to cross the Romanian border. The 2005 miniseries combines both endings: Kozlevich drives him and Zosya to the ZAGS after he fails to cross the border. Most modern editions of the book include both endings for the reader to choose between.
- Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: On a national(!) scale. After Bender aquires his coveted million, he expects everyone just to bend over for him and throw their services at him with dollar signs in their eyes. No such luck. All the luxuries (such as they are in the postbellum USSR) and substancial resources in the country are state-governed and reserved for people of actual trades, so almost nobody gives a damn that he's rich - he's not a part of the system, thus he's not getting any of the benefits.
- Secretly Wealthy: Koreiko, who is referred to as an "underground millionaire", but not for reasons described in the trope. He's hiding his millions because he knows he can't use his money in Soviet Union and so he lives as a poor man (almost bordering on poverty), working on extremely low pay job, and basically all his possessions are two iron kettlebells to keep himself in good health — all to live for the day the Soviet regime falls. Perhaps we should we say he is Obfuscatingly Poor.
- In hindsight, the ultimate irony is that even if someone like Koreiko lived to see the fall of the regime, they still wouldn't profit from it. The reform of 1992 made Soviet money near-worthless. Circa 1997, 10 million rubles was monthly pay for renting an apartment.
- Even before that, the 1947 money reform rendered a lot of Real Life people like him penniless. You needed a lot of connections to launder any significant sum, and Koreiko doesn't appear to have any.
- Sticky Fingers: Shura. In his last scene he got captured by a mob after he tried to steal a wallet. He didn't even want the money — he did it just out of habit.
- Especially tragic since he just got handed 50,000 rubbles, and is not, in general, a bad guy.
- They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: Koreiko. When Bender visits Hercules office for the first time, he tries to deduce which of the several clerks is Secretly Wealthy Chessmaster Koreiko - and picks the wrong man.
- Retcon: Of the ending to the previous novel.
- Straight Edge Evil: Koreiko
- Unexplained Recovery: Bender was described as dead at the end of The Twelve Chairs. In The Little Golden Calf, he briefly mentions his past partnership with Vorobyaninov and thanks surgeons for saving his life.