Sergei Petrovitch Kotov (Nikita Mikhalkov), a charismatic hero of the Russian Revolution, is a high-ranking army official in Leninist Russia. Respected and glorified by all, nothing seems to be able to get in his way. He even sends back the army tanks and aeroplanes sent into his region with one angry scowl (behind his Lenin-like moustache), a short (hilarious) phone call and a few jokes with the young corporal who gapes in awe at the legendary figure he is.
On this beautiful summer's day everything seems blissful; for him and for his beloved Russia. This Sunday is dedicated to the glorification of Lenin's budding ballooning industry. Though everyone knows they will most likely be pestered by troops wishing to practice anti-gas war drills there, the hot and hazy weather promises them a delightful afternoon on the beach by the river. Kotov lives in his wife Marusya's beautiful dacha along with her family. His nine-year-old daughter Nadia is the apple of his eye and he dotes on her with unwavering affection. His love for his family is only equalled by his love for his country and his belief in the Revolution and a new age of greatness and prosperity for all. Into Kotov's nest of idealism, duty and love enters Mitya (Oleg Menshikov), an old lover of Marusya's and a young jester of a man, brought up with his wife's family. He is returning after ten years of absence; where has he been all these years? What did he do? Why did he never get in contact with them and with Marusya, who nearly committed suicide on his behalf? Why is he coming back now that they are all settled and happy in their new life in which he has no place? The year is 1936, the start of the Great Stalinist Purges.
Much of the power of this film is due to the extremely subtle way in which the director weaves a grimmer message into the film, while letting all the humanity of the characters explode first, in scenes full of humour and visual beauty, before letting them fall prey to their fate. The actors are all excellent, particularly little Nadia, who steals every scene she is in. Nikita Mikhalkov's daughter in real life, the tender complicity that bonds father and daughter is a sheer delight to watch.
Nikita Mikhalkov dedicated this film "to all those that have been burnt by the sun of revolution". In this film, none escape it; not the innocent, nor those who were immediately involved. While Kotov served the regime out of a true sense of duty and idealism and for a greater cause, Mitya served it only to survive. In their confrontation, Kotov tells Mitya that we all have a choice and that none can play the victim. The truth, they discover, is that they live in a world where there can only be a choice between serving the system and thus becoming its accomplice or to be exploited by it under the sun of Stalin; both come to the same end.