A tension-weary couple negotiate a path between defiance and compliance in a closed scientific Institute in Moscow at the beginning of the Cold War-during Stalin-era: Natasha runs the canteen of secret Soviet research institute. When the customers have all gone home, she gossips and bickers tensely with her younger assistant- the doctor's daughter Olga, who is too lazy to help clean up and mocks Natasha for a life wasted in the affair she has been having with a married man, Blinov. The two women have a surrogate mother-daughter relationship, very much love-hate, with at times a borderline-erotic intimacy. One evening, they get roaring drunk with all the scientists and apparatchiks who have come in to celebrate a sinister experiment in radiation conducted by a visiting French scientist Luc, who goes to bed with Natasha. And then, with a sickening inevitability, she is pulled in for questioning by the security services, in the form of hatchet-faced officer Azhippo.