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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.
- Catch Phrase: 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!")
- The automobile is not a luxury thing, it's, first of all, the transport! Let's strike on the roadless plains with all four wheels!
- 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: Polykhayev and Skumbriyevich.
- 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.
- Insane Troll Logic: How Panikovsky convinces Shura, that the aforementioned kettlebells are indeed made of gold.
Shura:"What if they aren't made of gold?"
- Karma Houdini: Koreiko. He 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. When Bender gets his one million, he leaves Koreiko alone with nine. Granted, anything else would be out of character.
- On the other hand Koreiko never gets to spend a single rouble out of his ill-gotten forutne, lives a lonely 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 hyperinflation of 1992-1993 would destroy all of his savings). I'd say Karma had some especially equisite torment in stock for him.
- Misaimed Fandom: One of the editions of the duology was preceded with a preface by a reviewer who considered the book celebrating the eventual triumph of socialism by showing the futility of Bender's attempts to coexist with the Soviet system, and blamed the authors for being too soft with "parasites" like him. In fact, even though he is purely motivated by the prospect of wealth, Bender almost universally comes up as morally superior to his opponents, including those on the side of the regime.
- 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!")
- 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.
- Obfuscating Insanity: Accountant Berlaga gets himself committed as a ploy to evade the "purging" of Hercules. It doesn't work.
- 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.
- 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 posessions are two iron kettlebells to keep himself in good health — all to live for the day 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.
- 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.
- Retcon: Of the ending to the previous novel.
- 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.
- What Could Have Been: The third book, initially called The Great Combinator.