Moscow, late 17th century. The death of the young Tsar Fyodor III. has left Russia with a crisis of succession. Supported by Prince Ivan Khovansky, commander of the streltsy guards, Fyodor’s sickly brother Ivan and his half-brother Peter (later the Great) have been installed as joint rulers, with their older sister Sophia acting as regent. Sophia has allied herself with Prince Vasily Golitsyn, a powerful courtier and liberal politician, who is also her lover.
At dawn on St. Basil’s Square, a patrol of streltsy boasts of their exploits during the previous night. A public scribe arrives and sets up shop. The boyar Shaklovity approaches him and dictates an anonymous letter, warning Tsar Peter of a rebellion headed by Ivan Khovansky and his son Andrei. The gathering crowd laments the sad state of affairs in Russia, then cheers Ivan Khovansky, who arrives with his men, denouncing unpatriotic tendencies and promising to fight the enemies of the people. When the crowd has dispersed, Andrei Khovansky enters, chasing a German girl, Emma. He tries to force his attentions on her but she is saved by the appearance of Marfa, Andrei’s former fiancée and a member of the Old Believers, a radical religious minority. Ivan Khovansky returns and, when he notices Emma, demands her for himself and orders the streltsy to take her to his palace. Father and son quarrel until Dosifei, leader of the Old Believers, intervenes and gives Emma into Marfa’s care. The Khovanskys leave with their men, while Dosifei prays for God’s help and protection.
In his study, Vasily Golitsyn reads a love letter from Tsarevna Sophia, wondering if he can still trust her. He has summoned Marfa to read his horoscope. She arrives and, despite her fears, foretells his future from a bowl of water, prophesying betrayal, disgrace, poverty, and exile. Horrified, Golitsyn dismisses her and orders an attendant to have her drowned. As he reflects on the end of his hopes for Russia, Ivan Khovansky arrives unexpectedly, accusing Golitsyn of weakening the power of the nobles. The two men argue, and only the appearance of Dosifei prevents physical violence. Dosifei appeals to them to join forces with him and to restore tradition and the old ways. Suddenly Marfa rushes in: she has been saved from the murder attempt by the Tsar’s guard, whose presence alarms Khovansky, Golitsyn, and Dosifei. Shaklovity barges in and announces that Tsar Peter has received news of an attempt on his throne—in fact, Shaklovity’s own denunciation—and has vowed to put an end to what he has called Khovanshchina—“the Khovansky intrigue.”
A procession of Old Believers passes through the streltsy quarter, singing and praying. Marfa remains behind. She cannot forget Andrei and blames him for betraying their love. Susanna, another Old Believer, denounces Marfa’s sins and accuses her of witchcraft. Dosifei silences the women and comforts Marfa, leading her away. Shaklovity enters, reflecting on Russia’s unhappy history and begging God to end the country’s suffering. He withdraws as the streltsy assemble, boisterously proclaiming their fighting and drinking skills and quarrelling with their wives. The frightened scribe reports that foreign mercenaries, aided by the Tsar’s guard, have attacked the streltsy nearby. The streltsy and their wives call on Ivan Khovansky to lead the counterattack, but the prince tells them that they must submit to Tsar Peter’s will and accept the course of events. Terrified, the streltsy pray for deliverance.
Ivan Khovansky, waiting for news, is holding a feast at his residence while serving girls entertain with songs. A messenger from Golitsyn arrives to tell Khovansky that his life is in danger, but he ignores the warning and calls for more entertainment. Shaklovity interrupts, claiming to bring a message from the Tsarevna who wishes to see Khovansky. The serving girls hail Khovansky as the “white swan” while he is being dressed. As he is about to leave, Shaklovity stabs him.
On Tsar Peter’s orders, Golitsyn is being taken into exile, watched by the crowd in St. Basil’s Square. Dosifei mourns Golitsyn’s downfall and the murder of Khovansky. When he learns from Marfa that the Old Believers are to be killed by decree of the Imperial Council, both realize that the time has come for self-immolation and martyrdom. Dosifei urges Marfa to take care of Andrei and convert him to the faith. Andrei arrives, still looking for Emma. He refuses Marfa’s appeals until he sees the streltsy being led to their execution. Terrified, he leaves with her. The Tsar’s herald announces that, in a gesture of magnanimity, Peter has pardoned the streltsy.
The Old Believers assemble for the last time at a hermitage in the woods, resolved to die together rather than surrender. Dosifei laments the lost cause of ancient Russia and tells his followers they will find salvation in death. The trumpets of the approaching Tsar’s guards are heard in the distance. Marfa comforts the desperate Andrei and the Old Believers die in the flames as the soldiers arrive to capture them.