This book is one of few works by a Soviet writer that provides an honest portrayal of the life of a Soviet foot soldier on the Eastern front in World War II. Aside from the brilliant depiction of life at the front, it reveals how members of Stalin's secret police transformed themselves into war heroes and began to resurrect Stalinism, following the War. Understandably, Bykau's novel was res non grata and not published in its entirety until after the demise of the Soviet Union. In this novel, Lieutenant Vasilevich is under orders to escort several German prisoners of war to a collection point in the rear when the ambush occurs. He escapes, but soon finds himself trapped with other wounded men behind his battalion's lines. He eludes death several more times and has to traverse a treacherous, snow-covered minefield to reach the safety of a culvert. There the Germans eventually corner him. Vasilevich's group of wounded men is commanded by Captain Sakhno, a member of the secret police, who suspects everyone of treason and is merciless in risking the lives of the men. He foolishly commands the men to cross the snow-covered mine field and selfishly puts himself at the end of the column.
He even orders Katsya, a young nurse caring for the wounded, to lead the men through the field. She dies shortly thereafter when she steps on a mine. Vasilevich miraculously survives the ordeal, yet remains maimed for the rest of his life. He recalls the events of 1944 over and over again, but they well up with particular poignancy in 1965 during the celebration of Victory Day in Miensk. In a crowded hotel he comes face to face with a man that strongly resembles Captain Sakhno, whom he holds responsible for the debacle that cost so many lives. The Stalinist views of the stranger are remarkably similar to the cruel and merciless mindset of Sakhno, even though some twenty years have gone by since the war. Vasilevich argues with the stranger over the latter's arrogant attitude toward the men who fought and died at the front, and the man tries to have Vasilevich arrested for anti-Soviet propaganda. Ironically, it turns out that the stranger had served as a judge on a military tribunal during the war. The immeasurable loss of human life during the war did little to change their attitudes.
Indeed, Bykau proved to be prophetic in 1965-the cultural Thaw following Stalin's death in 1953 came to an abrupt end when Leonid Brezhnev took control of the country after Khrushchev's removal.