It is 1920-ish in the Soviet Union. The Russian Civil War has been won, with the victory of the Bolsheviks and the defeat of the anti-Communist Whites, but things are far from settled in a Russia that is just emerging from revolution and war, with leftover White Russian bands still roaming the interior. The central command in Moscow, desperate to buy food to feed a starving country, sends orders out to the various Cheka units to send confiscated gold to Moscow. (The Cheka is the original Soviet secret police.)
In a small town somewhere not far from a border, five old friends—Shilov, Sarichev, Kungorov, Zabelin and Lipyagin—are Cheka members and veterans of the Civil War. Sarichev, the local Communist Party leader, issues orders to send all the gold they've confiscated, a whopping 500,000 rubles, on a special train to Moscow. Shilov, his most dependable man, is given command of the mission. Soon afterwards Shilov is murdered, but the mission goes forth regardless.
The Cheka men go on the train to Moscow but are attacked by assassins led by a man named Lemke, who kill them and steal the gold. Lemke and his buddies hop another train, which is promptly attacked by an entirely different group of thieves, a band of White Russian bandits led by a fellow named Brylov (played by Nikita Mikhalkov). All of Lemke's buddies are killed in the raid and the gold disappears, so Lemke pretends to join Brylov's band, so he can find the gold. Meanwhile, Shilov turns up very much alive, the corpse previously discovered having actually been someone else. Shilov being alive, and having once been in charge of the gold shipment, the suspicion falls on him. In order to both clear his name and recover the gold, Shilov also pretends to join Brylov's gang of bandits.
- Art Shift: Most of the film is in color, but some segments, most notably the whole scene where the assassins board the train and steal the gold, is in black and white. Reportedly Mosfilm gave Nikita Mikhalkov only 5000m of color film stock. So to make sure it counted, he filmed some of the more difficult sequences, like the train robbery, in black and white.
- Colliding Criminal Conspiracies: A gang of assassins swoops down on a train and steals a Cheka gold shipment, only to be surprised by a group of White Russian bandits who also swoop down on the train in order to rob it.
- Epic Tracking Shot: A long and very impressive tracking shot follows Sarichev as he rapidly stalks through the narrow hallways of a building to the room where Shilov's (fake) corpse is being held.
- Gray Rain of Depression: Rain pours, in a scene where Shilov has been arrested by his old friends, who believe that he betrayed them and stole the gold.
- Imagine Spot: The only hints of Brylov's happier, pre-revolutionary past are the repeated imagine spots he has in which he remembers his wife and family in fancy clothes at a picnic. It's strongly implied that they're all dead. Notably, in his last imagine spot as he's dying, the picnic ground is abandoned.
- The Infiltration: Shilov pretends to join Brylov's bandits in order to find out where the gold is.
- I Owe You My Life: Kaioum tried to kill Shilov, but after Kaioum falls into a raging river and Shilov pulls him out, Kaioum says "You save my life. Now, you my brother." Sure enough, Kaioum sticks with Shilov and helps him during the climactic shootout with Brylov.
- The Killer Was Left-Handed: The coroner notes that before Vanukin was murdered, he was struck hard on the right side of his face, implying a left-handed murderer. Sarichev tests Kungorov by tossing him a box of matches—Kungorov catches them with his right hand. Later, Nikodimov catches the pack of matches with his left hand. Of course by that point Sarichev has already figured out that Nikodimov is an impostor who killed the real Nikodimov and assumed his identity in order to infiltrate the Cheka.
- MacGuffin: The 500,000 rubles in gold, which are really only there to give characters something to fight about.
- Malicious Misnaming: One of the assassins who is waiting to rob the train insists on calling Vanukin the switchman "Fannyackov".
- Meadow Run: An all-male and faintly homoerotic example. Sarichev and all the local commies are pulling up their camp and leaving. They are on their way when Shilov stumbles out of the forest and into their vicinity, having retrieved the gold. A joyful Sarichev and Mylnakov dash through the meadow to hug him, and the film ends.
- The Mole: Nikodimov, who isn't even Nikodimov—he killed the real Nikodimov and took his identity.
- Monochrome Past: The opening scene, where the five buddies are celebrating the end of the civil war, is shot in a sepia tone. This contrasts to all the present-day shots in black and white (see Art Shift above), which are not tinted sepia.
- The Remnant: Brylov's band is an anti-Communist White Russian group. However, by this point the Russian Civil War is over and the Whites have decisively lost. There are a few true believers, like the fellow with glasses who calls Brylov "Your Excellency" as he delivers a warning that the Bolsheviks are coming, but Brylov himself has already recognized that the White cause is doomed and there's no point in fighting the Bolsheviks any more. That's why he's robbing trains instead.
- Seamless Scenery: Sarichev has just received word that Shilov's brother, who has been fighting for the other side, has been killed in combat. He absorbs this while checking himself in a mirror in a dark hallway, then turns—and now he's in the banquet room next to that hallway obviously much later, as the attendees are debating what to do about Shilov.
- Train Job: Lemke and his assassins robbing a specific highly valuable briefcase on the train car, then Brylov and his gang swooping down in a raid on that same train.
- The Western: One of the most famous examples of the "Ostern", namely, a film set in communist Eastern Europe that still conformed to the basic tropes of a Western. Specifically, this one's got bandits robbing a train in order to steal a shipment of gold.
- You No Take Candle: Kaioum, a darker-skinned man who looks like he's from one of Russia's Central Asian areas, speaks in broken Russian throughout.