A boy and his mother try to get by in the Soviet Union of the 1950s in this tragedy written and directed by Pavel Chukrai. The joint Russian-French production opens with a woman falling down in the snow and mud to give birth to a child in 1946. The boy's father is a soldier who died in the war. Katya (Yekaterina Rednikova) and her son Sanya (Misha Philipchuk) are next seen six years later on a train. Poor and desperate, she falls in love with a rakish soldier, Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov). Tolyan pretends to be Katya's husband and uses his credentials as a war veteran to get an apartment without paying money in advance -- he turns out to be a brutal and abusive man. He teaches Sanya his ruthless code of manhood while rolling razor blades in his mouth with his tongue. Tolyan also brags to the boy that he is a secret son of Stalin. After several weeks of mooching off and seducing the other tenants, Tolyan buys them all dinner and tickets to a circus. During the performance he sneaks back to the building and robs everyone. Katya is suspicious that he is carrying on with a female tenant he has been flirting with, and she returns to catch him in his burglary. He tells her she can escape with him or stay behind, but she has no skills and no prospect of work, so she takes Sanya and follows him. Katya becomes a part of his con game as they move from city to city, working the same schemes. Tolyan also teaches Sanya his thieving ways.