In the Soviet Union in 1927, Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov, an impoverished aristocrat from Imperial Russia now working as a local village bureaucrat, is summoned to the deathbed of his mother-in-law. She reveals before dying that a fortune in jewels had been hidden from the Bolsheviks by being sewn into the seat cushion of one of the twelve chairs from the family’s dining room set. After hearing the dying woman’s confession, the Russian Orthodox priest Father Fyodor, who had arrived to administer the last rites, decides to abandon the Church and attempt to steal the treasure for himself. Shortly afterwards in the town of Stargorod, where Vorobyaninov’s former mansion is located, a homeless con-artist, Ostap Bender, meets the dispossessed nobleman and manipulates his way into a partnership in his search for the family riches.
The chairs, along with all other private property, had been appropriated by the State after the Russian Revolution. Vorobyaninov and Bender set off together to locate the chairs and recover the fortune, but are stymied by a series of false leads and other trying events. They find that the chairs have been split up and sold individually. Therefore, their hunt requires a great deal of travel to track down and open up each piece of the set in order to eliminate it as a possible location of the booty. As they progress, they meet comrades from every walk of life in Soviet Russian society, transforming the film into a satirical send up of failing Communism.
By posing as the official in charge of the Department of Chairs, Bender tricks Father Fyodor into a wild goose chase to recover a similar set of eleven chairs in the possession of an engineer in a remote province in Siberia. Father Fyodor makes the long journey only to be thrown out of the engineer’s house. When the engineer is reassigned to a post on the Black Sea, Fyodor follows him and buys the counterfeit chairs (on the condition that the engineer and his wife never see him again). He finds that none of the chairs has the jewels. Later, he runs across Vorobyaninov and Bender after they have retrieved one chair from a circus, and while being chased by them frantically climbs with the chair straight up the side of a mountain. After finding out that this chair doesn’t contain the jewels, he finds that he is unable to get down again without help. Vorobyaninov and Bender leave him to his fate.
After traveling many miles and perpetrating numerous cons to pay for the lengthy enterprise, the two men return to Moscow where they discover the last chair; because the others contained no hidden treasure, this one must contain it all. It is located in a Palace of Culture, which is inconvenient due to the presence of so many witnesses. Vorobyaninov and Bender return after closing time, entering through a window Bender secretly had unlocked earlier.
At the moment of discovery, Bender carefully and quietly opens the chair cushion with his knife, but their hopes are dashed as it is found to be completely empty. Vorobyaninov is stunned and angry, but Bender laughs at the absurdity of the situation. A watchman finds them, and Vorobyaninov demands to know what happened to the jewels. “Look around you,” the watchman answers, explaining that after the jewels were accidentally found, they were used to finance construction of the grand building in which they stand. Driven into a sudden rage, Vorobyaninov smashes the chair to pieces and assaults the officer whom the watchman has summoned. After admonishing him for hitting a policeman, Bender leads the way and they escape into the night.
At the end of his patience, demoralized and bankrupted, Bender proposes that he and Vorobyaninov go their separate ways. In a desperate attempt to keep Bender from leaving, Vorobyaninov flings the remains of the last chair into the air, and collapses to the ground feigning an epileptic seizure; this is an act they had previously rehearsed as part of a con. Attracted by the crowd and understanding what Vorobyaninov is doing, Bender calls for the crowd’s attention and begs the passers-by to give generously to this sad and stricken man. Using simple gestures without uttering a word, the two men cement their partnership in crime.