The winter of that post-war year was one of Ural's coldest memories. Vasily Nikiforov, a young forest engineer, is on his way from the railway station to the barrack he was going to be accommodated in. He steps off the old truck and is given his key. He is welcome in his new home; from now on, he's on his own. The stove is cold and there are cracks in all the corners. He is going to spend the daytime in the office and evenings in this barrack, freezing over endless cups of tea.
There are tough times ahead for Nikiforov, an urban dweller. He should get used to everything. He goes to meet the local people in the village and starts to adapt himself to his new life. It seems he has met everybody – saleswoman Claudia, the office clerks, the teacher, the paramedic, and all the village men. The only one he hasn't is his neighbor in the barrack. He hasn't talked to him yet. His neighbor is a sullen old man. Nikiforov could hear him slam the door every morning, his felt boots shuffling as he walked. He would scold his dog, a big shaggy mongrel, and get down to work. Nikiforov could hear the clinking sound of his tools. His neighbor is a carpenter and often asked by local women to fix their dishware.
His name is Alexander Grigoryevich, but the locals have nicknamed him Minister. Once Nikiforov dropped in at the store to get some sugar. The men standing at the door, smoking, said to him amicably:
"Hey there, Vasily. Does not the Minister lend you sugar? He's wound way too tight for that, your neighbor."
Vasily wondered why they called him Minister, but he felt a bit too shy to ask. Thick pride, he thought to himself.
Weeks passed and nothing happened, until one snowy day Nikiforov woke up after a night blizzard and decided, for some reason, he should clear the snow off his neighbor's doorway and the yard. Something snapped inside him, he felt like helping the man, out of kindness.
Later in the evening, Nikiforov heard a knock on his door. Standing there was the Minister. "Care to get a good scrub after a long working day? The bath house is just ready. I never see you go to the bath house. I guess you just don't know how to get it hot."
Embarrassed by the man's remark – true, he didn't, he used the public bath house near his office to wash himself, much to his embarrassment – Nikiforov accepts the invitation without further ado. There is something nice about his neighbor's dialect. He speaks in a sing-song fashion, and there are words Nikiforov can't understand.
It is hot in the bath house, the steam's so thick it's hard to see through it. Nikiforov watches his neighbor shuffling around to get them besoms. He thinks he sees the man smile at him, much to his relief. They sit on the upper bench, and Nikiforov dares to take a closer look at the man. Holy Mother! The man's got scars and marks all over his back that look like bullet hits. Three toes on one foot and two on the other. He couldn't have been to the war. He's too old.