The son of an English father and Russian mother, Charlie Doig is a big man - big in stature and big in spirit. A naturalist, he roughs it around the world collecting birds and insects for museums. In 1914 he is on a mission for the Academy of Sciences in Russian Turkestan when war breaks out. His pay is stopped and his companion goes off to enlist. Doig, however, has no intention of volunteering to be killed. He returns to the Pink House, his family's home near Smolensk, adn to the woman he loves, his cousin Elizaveta.
At first the Pink House remains untouched by outside events, and the familiar ways continue as before. But Imperial Russia is doomed and with in all the old certainties. Trapped by the snow with Doig and Elizaveta are a motley collection of old aristocrats, their servants and hangers-on - and the two soldiers, one of whom Doig is convinced is a Bolshevik out to destroy them all.