The twin sisters Helena and Irene, born in Helsinki during World War II and abandoned by their mother, are raised by their grandmother who calls them Vladimir and Ilyich after her hero Lenin. Their life under the care of their grandmother – and her communist teachings – ends with her sudden death, and at the age of eight the girls find themselves in an orphanage. There they create a world of their own, excluding all others, forming a symbiotic love that will follow them throughout their lives.
This relationship becomes threatened when their mother suddenly re-appears to take them with her into a life in the circus. She bestows adoration on the more talented one, training her to be a trapeze artist, while turning the other into her sister's servant. Not until the neglected sister reveals she has learned the art of fire eating does she finally win the affection of her venomous mother. In the present-day Helsinki the middle-aged Helena looks into her past, ceases to hate and, for the first time in her life, voluntarily accepts responsibility for another human being.