Pskov, 1570. In the garden of the Tsar’s deputy, Prince Tokmakov, young girls, Olga’s friends, are playing catch. Olga alone is not taking part in the game. She is pining for her sweetheart, Mikhail Tucha, a young citizen of Pskov. Her friends persuade her to go off with them to pick raspberries. Meanwhile Olga’s wet nurses talk to each other: Perfilyevna asks Vlasyevna whether it is true, as people say, that Olga is not ‘a Prince’s daughter! Much higher than that’. The question displeases Vlasyevna who quickly changes the subject. Much more important is the grim news from Novgorod. ‘Tsar ivan… got angry with Novgorod: he came there with all his Oprichniks… he executes… without distinction, he puts them to death mercilessly.’ The girls return and convince Vlasyevna to tell them the tale about Princess Lada.
Meanwhile, Stesha, Olga’s friend, draws Olga aside and gives her a message from Tucha: he is coming to the garden that evening for a tryst with Olga.
Suddenly, there is a shrill whistle. This frightens the girls, and Vlasyevna takes them indoors. Tucha is singing: he has come to bid farewell to Olga. Olga is betrothed to the old Matuta, and Tucha, a commoner, cannot compete with the eminent Boyar. Tucha is determined to go to Siberia to make a fortune, and then to return to Pskov rich in furs and silver, and to ask Prince Tokmakov, Olga’s father, for her hand in marriage. Olga’s begs him to stay in Pskov, she promises to plead with her father that he give his consent to their marriage. Tokmakov and Matuta go out of the house. Toucha swiftly disappears while Olga hides in the foliage where she inadvertently overhears the conversation between her father and Matuta.
Prince Tokmakov lets his future son-in-law into a family secret: Olga is not his daughter. Her mother was Vera Sheloga, his wife’s sister; it is not known who her father is. Bells are heard in the distance summoning the people of Pskov to the city meeting. The Prince and Matuta hasten to the assembly. ‘The bell forbodes nothing good’, mutters the astonished Olga, ‘it tolls for my happiness.’
Night-time. A market place in Pskov where city assemblies are held. Crowds of people from all over Pskov are gathering together here. A messenger from Novgorod brings the news that Novgorod has fallen and that Ivan the Terrible is marching to Pskov with an army. Tokmakov tries to allay the crowd’s anxieties and suggests that they welcome the Tsar peacefully, with the ceremonial bread and salt. Tucha steps forward. He calls on the people of Pskov to defend their liberties and the independence of their city. Some of the people join him and go off into the Pskov forests.
The main square in Pskov in front of Prince Tokmakov’s house. The square is full of people. Tables are brought out and laid to meet the Tsar with food and drinks. However, there is nothing joyful about these preparations. The people of Pskov are full of dire forebodings. As the Tsar’s procession approaches the town, the square gradually empties.
Olga and Vlasyevna appear on the mansion steps. The Princess is still deeply disturbed by the conversation she accidentally overheard. She remembers going as a child to her adopted mother’s grave, never suspecting that her real mother lay in the ground nearby. Vlasyevna tries to calm her down: more likely than not the Prince had said this to get rid of the unwelcome suitor, Matuta. But Olga refuses to listen to her. She is possessed by a strange feeling. She waits in agitation for the Tsar to appear. Soon the Tsar’s men march into the square, preceding the appearance of ivan the Terrible himself.
Prince Tokmakov is receiving the Tsar to his house. Ivan is irritable and suspicious, seeing treason everywhere. Olga, Stesha, Vlasyevna and the housemaids appear carrying trays with treats. With lowered eyes, Olga offers the Tsar a cup of mead. Suspecting foul play, Ivan steps back and demands that his host try the drink first. Tokmakov drinks the Tsar’s health after which Ivan, in merrier mood, turns to Olga: ‘Now give a cup to me’, he says, ‘but not with a bow, with a kiss’. Olga lifts her head and looks the Tsar fearlessly straight in the eye. Ivan is struck by the girl’s extraordinary resemblance to Vera Sheloga. The purity and openness of Olga’s gaze disarms him. he warmly kisses Olga, gives her a ring and invites her to stay with him for a while in Moscow.
Left alone with Prince Tokmakov, the Tsar asks him who Olga’s mother is. Tokmakov tells him the truth. Olga is the daughter of Vera Sheloga, but ‘my deceased wife took the shame upon her herself, a maiden, though she was engaged to marry me’, he says to ivan. Boyar Sheloga refused to believe his wife and marched off once more to fight the germans. And Vera who went out of her mind with grief, died.
Ivan the Terrible is deeply moved by Tokmakov’s story which has stirred in him a mass of memories. ‘Let all the killing stop’, he exclaims, ‘there’s too much blood! Let’s blunt our swords upon the stones: Pskov is protected by the Lord!’
The road to the Pechersky Monastery lies through the dense forests which surround Pskov. Horns are heard: the Tsar’s hunting party is approaching. A storm breaks: there is lightning and thunder. Dusk is falling. Singing is heard in the distance. Girls are on a pilgrimage. Olga lingers behind; she is waiting for Tucha. Soon, he catches her up. Olga tries to persuade him to return to Pskov, but Mikhail refuses outright. He appeals to Olga to share with him his ‘free and careless life’. Olga agrees. Now that she knows Prince Tokmakov is not her father, she has no ties with Pskov. Suddenly Matuta emerges from the forest with his serfs. Toucha is wounded in the unequal skirmish. Olga is carried off by Matuta’s men.
The Tsar’s tent on the steep bank of the River Medednya. It’s night. All are asleep except for Tsar Ivan. His meeting with Olga and hunting in the forests of Pskov have brought back old memories. The Tsar’s thoughts are broken off by the appearance of Prince Vyazemsky. Matuta, who had attempted to abduct Olga, has been captured by the Tsar’s servants. The Tsar is furious, but Matuta tries to deflect his anger by telling him that he had detained Olga during her tryst with Tucha, a rebel. Ivan orders Olga to be brought in. She falls at his feet and begs him to protect her from Matuta’s evil designs and to pardon Tucha. She tells the Tsar how, as a child, she would recite the following prayer before going to sleep: ‘Lord, have mercy upon the Tsar my father!’ Ivan the Terrible is touched by her childlike trust in him.
Their conversation is interrupted by noisy shouting. Tucha’s voice can be heard outside. He has come with a band of rogues to rescue Olga. Angered by this impudent act, the Tsar orders his guards to shoot the attackers and take Tucha alive. Olga tries to run out of the tent, but Ivan holds her back. The rogues are slain. Tucha’s words of farewell are carried to Olga on the wind. She rushes out of the Tsar’s tent and falls to the ground, shot by a stray bullet. The Tsar’s men slowly carry Olga’s body back into the tent and lay it down on the carpet. a deeply agitated Ivan bends over the body. He refuses to believe that Olga, his daughter, is dead!
The Tsar’s tent gradually fills up with the people of Pskov, who have come to mourn Olga’s death. The people appeal for an end to be put to all bloody feuds in the name of a higher goal, namely, the unification of the Russian lands.