ACT IThe trader Zinovy Borisovich Izmaylov's young wife Katerina spends her days in her husband's house in boredom and loneliness. Her father in-law Boris Timofejevich repeatedly reproaches her for not having given his son an heir after five years of marriage. Zinovy arrives together with the new worker Sergey who he has just engaged. Zinovy prepares to leave, a dam has broken at the mill. Boris forces the household to ceremoniously bid farewell to the departing boss, and Katerina to swear faithfulness to her husband before a holy picture. When everyone has gone, Aksinaya tells Katerina all about Sergey - no woman can resist him.Taking advantage of the absence of the boss, the workers of the Izmaylov household indulge in revelries, including making advances to Aksni. Katerina intervenes threatening to punish the initiator Sergey. He jokingly offers to wrestle with her. At the highpoint, Boris arrives, shoos the workers back to work but threatens Katerina that he will tell Zinovy about the incident.
Katerina idles in her bedroom. Suddenly her loneliness is interrupted by Serrgey. He asks her for something to read, beginning a conversation about the cruel destiny of women. Summoning up his courage, he embraces Katerina, who after a short moment of indecision gives in to his advances.Boris can't sleep. Wandering through the house he remembers how in his youth he would wander below the windows of unknown women and how occasionally he would also climb in. He decides to climb into his daughter-in-law's but sees that Sergey is climbing out of it. Boris catches him and summons the household. Boris beats Sergey up in front of Katerina and locks him in the warehouse. Exhausted from the exertion he demands to be served mushrooms for dinner. Katerina gives him his dinner dosed with rat poison. The old man writhes in agony and Katerina takes the keys to the warehouse from him. Katerina explains to the priest who has arrived to administer to the suffering man that he has eaten mushrooms and that many people who eat mushrooms, die.
Sergey is troubled by Zinovy's imminent return. He doesn't want to be Katerina's secret lover. Katerina reassures him, but she herself is troubled - for she see Boris' ghost who curses his poisoner. Barely audible steps can be heard beyond the door - Zinovy is returning. Katerina hides her lover. Having spied a man's belt, Zinovy starts to hit Katerina. Sergey emerges from his hiding place and together they kill Zinovy and hide the body.
ACT IIIt's Katerina's and Sergey's wedding day, the bride, however, is gloomy - the recent crimes don't give her peace. When the newlyweds depart for the church, a dishevelled peasant appears. Searching for something to drink, he breaks into the cellar, finds Zinovy's corpse and runs off to inform the authorities.
The detention camp. Katerina pines for Sergey. She implores the guard to let her be with her love, but Sergey cruelly rejects her accusing her of being responsible for their plight. He himself steals away to be with another inmate, Sonyetka Sergey tries to win her heart but the girl demands new socks. Sergey slyly cajoles socks from Katerina and immediately gives them to Sonyetka. The other prisoners mock the rejected woman. The guard establishes order but Katerina can no longer make sense of her surroundings. She goes to Sonyetka, kills her, and kills herself as well.