Russian Reading Update: What People Were Actually Reading

bookshelf_bannerI think this may be my first Russian best-seller.  It’s certainly the first book that has claimed to be such on the blurb at any rate, which is why I picked up this totally unknown (to me) volume at my local library.  I have to admit, I did have my questions at the time, after all, would this turn out to be a Russian ‘Da Vinci Code’ or equivalent of ’50 Shades of Grey’?  Undeniable best-sellers, they aren’t books I’d be recommending future bloggers to read for their own literary pleasure…

According to its introduction ’12 Chairs’ is ‘one of the most popular novels ever written in Russian‘.  The brain-child of respected author Valentin Kataev, it was written by his younger brother Petrov and their mutual friend Ilya Ilf.  The set up is simple.  The former nobleman Vorobyaninov is told by his mother in law, on her deathbed, that she hid a fortune in jewellery in their dining-room chairs to avoid confiscation.  Now he, a travelling companion and their rival, a priest, are racing across Russia to get their hands on the fortune


I hope I’m not giving anything away when I say that an ex-nobel and a priest are hardly going to be heroes in 1928 Russian literature.  Much of the humour of the novel is of the ‘the harder they’re beaten, the funnier it is’ school of jokes and comic expectations should be adjusted accordingly.  In fact, anyone out for themselves is fair game and as all of the characters want something (money, food, companionship, fame…) very few escape without physical or emotional bruises.  

This is a book to recommend to those who think that Russian literature is all about existential loners whining about the world.  On the other hand, at 500 pages (excluding notes) it’s not going to convince anyone that Russian writers are able to cut to the chase.  I’m afraid it didn’t really work for me personally.  It was one of those situations where you can see how something is supposed to be funny, but you know you’re not laughing yourself.  On the other hand, it has been made into several films (about twenty, according to Wikipedia), including one by Mel Brooks, so there’s still time for me to join the fans.


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12 Responses to Russian Reading Update: What People Were Actually Reading

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I’m a huge fan of Ilf and Petrov – read this and the follow up “The (Little) Golden Calf” in my teens. I loaned out my copy of “12 Chairs” and it took many years to find another! I think I need to re-read this now….. 🙂

  2. Oh, how funny and serendipitous – I was trying to find out a little more about this as part of my ‘Reading the 20th’ as I was possibly considering it for my ‘in translation’ of the year, but I’ve now decided on a much heftier read (1901, wasn’t it? or am I mixing it up with something else)

  3. Stefanie says:

    Hmm, this sounds like one that could go either way for me but I think at 500 pages I’d have to really want to read it and I don’t think that is likely to happen.

    • I hasn’t been my favourite so far, but then with how things are moving with classic Russian translations NYRB will probably have a new edition out soon … and let’s be honest, there’s no way I’ll be able to resist!

  4. Lucy says:

    This is something I’ve wondered about with Russian literature, what is popular sales-wise. If this weren’t 500 pages, I think I’d give it a read, so will look up the film version first 🙂

    • Russian literature is so labelled as being ‘heavy’, it would be really interesting to see how contemporary readers actually responded to books like ‘War and Peace’ and ‘The Idiot’ when they were published. On the other hand, I think modern editions of those books don’t need to boast of sales numbers to attract audiences so it’s very hard to compare. Still, the sheer number film adaptations puts ’12 Chairs’ down as a definite crowd pleaser.

  5. Pingback: Russian Reading Update: Social Realism Take Two with Kataev | Shoshi's Book Blog

  6. Aquileana says:

    Great blurb of this book… and you are quite right… I think there are many stereotypes when it comes to russian literature… which you proved that they might not be precisely accurate at times.
    All my best wishes. Aquileana ⭐.-

  7. Lisa Hill says:

    *groan* If it got made into a film by Mel Brooks, I just know it’s not a book for me.
    Can I suggest a couple of contemporary satirical Russian novels that are well under 500 pages? The Queue by Sorokin (; and The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh (

    • Thank you so much for the recommendations and review links. I’ve fallen behind with my Russian reading recently (too busy visiting other countries through their fiction). As the weather gets colder though, I feel the Russians calling again, and it’s wonderful to have two such interesting sounding reads to add to the list.

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