The prologue introduces three children, Anton, Pashka, and Anka, who are on an outing in a Soviet forest. The bucolic mood of the afternoon is dampened by two events: A game of William Tell with a real crossbow and discovery of the skeleton of a Nazi soldier chained to a machine gun.
Action shifts, for the main narrative, to Arkanar, a kingdom on a distant planet. Its inhabitants are Homo sapiens and are developing along a path analogous to human history on Earth. Don Rumata is one of a team of specialists from the Institute of Experimental History on Earth. The team is charged with guiding historical change on this world so as to ensure an eventual peaceful transition to the classless, socialist society that developed on Earth. Feudal Arkanar seems about to become capitalist, but a power struggle led by Don Reba (and not predicted by Marxist science) threatens to take this society directly from feudal tyranny to state fascism. Don Reba is an enigma, a nobody, a man with no qualities, even in evil. He is an Adolf Hitler without the historical dynamic that produced Hitler, for he has no capitalist backing, yet he thrives. Rumata is revealed to be Anton, just as his fellow don Hug is Pashka. The Marxist guides find it impossible to play god in Arkanar. Their enemy, a human nature that is fundamentally unregenerate, is not in textbooks.
Rumata is at the climax of social upheaval, which is his moment of personal crisis as well. The...
(The entire section is 482 words.)