Andrei Babichev, the very efficient Director of the Food Industry Trust, brings home a drunk whom he has found in the gutter, Nikolai Kavalerov. Kavalerov, who is an individualist and completely out of sympathy with the new Soviet way of life, both likes and dislikes his new protector. Kavalerov discovers that Andrei also supports Volodya Makarov, a student from the provinces who is also a star athlete and a staunch believer in the Soviet system. Volodya is away for the summer holidays, so Andrei showers his attention upon Kavalerov. While the latter appreciates the concern, he grows in his hatred of Andrei’s emphasis upon the collective and upon machinery in place of individuals. His rage grows such that he writes a letter to Andrei, criticizing the views of the official and stating that he, Kavalerov, as the representative of individuals, is superior to a system which caters only to the material needs of its constituents.
Kavalerov mistakenly believes that Volodya must also feel this way, for the latter is a talented youth who is forced to depend upon a mere bureaucrat with no pretensions to intellect. When Kavalerov finally meets Volodya, he realizes that Volodya is an avid disciple of Andrei; even worse, he discovers that both Andrei and Volodya view him with at best pity, at worst contempt. The enraged Kavalerov leaves the Babichev household, vowing to kill his former benefactor.
At this point Kavalerov meets Ivan Babichev, the brother of Andrei, who is completely opposed not only to the Soviet emphasis upon the collective and machinery but also to any form of technology. The two men collaborate in an attempt to restore the primacy of feelings and respect for the individual in the Soviet Union; they also wish to rescue Valya, Ivan’s daughter, from the views of Andrei and Volodya, whom she greatly admires. Because they have no plan, but only vague theories and desires, Kavalerov and Ivan are unsuccessful; at the end of the novel Valya has rejected her mad father and his ally, and the reader realizes that the two men are also being rejected by the course of history, at least in the Soviet Union. Kavalerov and Ivan are content to move in with a fat widow, who is willing to support them in return for their attentions.