According to Jean Maalouf, "Freedom is the soul's deepest need." In totalitarian countries, the lack of this precious virtue is felt as a burden, a stifling of possibility, a repressiveness that puts a lid on all honest expression of feeling. Freedom is replaced with fear — a constricting atmosphere where distrust, violence, and paranoia are rampant. In such a milieu, everyone is on edge. In his first film since Indochine, the French director Regis Wargnier has crafted a true story that reminds us what we so easily forget — to cherish the freedom that enables our souls to bloom and to flourish.

In 1946, Joseph Stalin promises Russian emigrants living in the West a Soviet passport and an opportunity to participate in the post-war renewal of society. Alexei Golovine (Oleg Menchikov), a doctor living in France who yearns for his homeland, brings his wife Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire) and his son Serioja with him. Upon their arrival in Russia, Marie is branded as an imperialist spy. Unlike many other emigrants who are executed or imprisoned, Alexei is sent to Odessa with his family where he takes a job in the infirmary of a textile factory. Although blaming himself for the bad decision to return to the USSR, he tries to assure Marie that things will get better. She desperately desires to return to France.

Marie's obsession draws her close to Sacha (Serguei Bodrov, Jr.), a 17-year-old who was taught French by his grandmother. Together, they hatch several dangerous schemes to get one or both of them out of the country. Meanwhile, Gabrielle (Catherine Deneuve), a famous French actress touring in Russia, learns of Marie's plight and vows to work for her liberation. Unbeknownst to his wife, Alexei secretly vows to give her what she most wants in life.