The action takes place in rooms in the Kremlin and a cloister near Moscow.

Boris Goudenow, Mayor of Moscow Irina, wife of the Czar and sister of Boris
Olga, a Russian princess Axinia, daughter of Boris
Theodorus Ivanowitz, the Czar Gavust, a foreign prince
Josennah, a foreign prince Bodga, servant of Boris
Fedro, a Bojar (Cossack) Ivan, a Bojar

Act 1

Scene 1: The Theater represents a magnificent hall, with a vaulted ceiling, in the middle with windows, the sides surrounded by stately seats and decorated with exquisite tapestries, the Czar's throne in the middle on the right of which is placed the imperial orb on a silver pyramid, to the left of a golden pitcher. Theodorus is on the throne, Irina, Boris, Fedro, Ivan, all the Bojars and Kneeses according to their ranks in the seats, guards, etc.

Irina, the czarina, celebrates with the assembled crowd a time of peace and prosperity. Theodoro, the Czar, complains that his burden is too great to carry alone and to universal applause, appoints Boris mayor of Moscow.

Scene 2: The Palace rooms of the Czarina with alcoves: Fedro declares his forbidden love to Irina—she councils him to caution. Boris, Ivan and Gavust enter, thereby completing the Boris faction. The plan of the Czar to divorce Irina must be thwarted, and the intentions of Josennah must be investigated. They plot together to bring Boris to the throne and Fedro mentions that the Czar has taken ill. Bogda, who has slept the whole time, is awoken by his own snoring. He is furious that all the noise about the Czar's illness has robbed him of his sleep.

Scene 4: Princess Olga and Josennah represent the other faction, first in a kind of ménage-a-trois with Gavust. Josennah meets Axinia and expresses his sympathy with the Czar. He should hurry to find out what the Czar means by "our situation." By marrying Axinia, Josennah should get the support of his hoped for father-in-law. Olga wants to use her connections to the Kneesen class to ensure Josennah's election as Czar. As a reward, she hopes to gain Josennah's affection. But before Josennah leaves, he overhears Axinia and Gavust profess their love to one another. He accuses Axinia of deceit and flees. Gavust pursues him in a rage, but finally returns to the humiliated Axinia to reassure her.

Scene 8: The Boris faction meets again. The Czar will soon die and the Fatherland must be protected. Ivan professes his love for Olga.

Scene 9: The magnificent bedroom of the Czar. Theodorus on a stool, crown and scepter on the table. Next to him stand the Patriarch, Boris, Irina, Axinia, Fedro, Ivan and the rest of the Bojars.

After Theodorus sings his swan song, Fedro implores him to name a successor. The Czar proposes first Ivan, then Fedro. Neither one wants to accept the scepter. The Czar throws the scepter on the floor and dies. Boris lifts it up. A meeting to select a new czar must be scheduled. After the death of the Czar, Fedro hopes to gain the favor of the widowed Irina.

Act 2

Scene 1: An opulent tapestry room with a golden table. Boris, carrying the scepter, Irina, Fedro, Ivan along with the Royal council, gathered to select the new Czar. In a four-part canon, Irina, Boris, Fedro, and Ivan express their hopes for the future. Boris explains to the council that he only picked up the scepter to get it off the floor. He now lays it before the council so that they can freely proceed in choosing the next Czar. Boris claims to be tired of life at court and plans to retire to a life of peace and devotion at a nearby cloister. His sister, Irina, the czarina, wishes to join him there, to the dismay of Fedro. Boris and Irina wish the council all the best in resolving the nation's crisis.

Scene 2: Josennah plans to win over Axinia and to attain the throne. To that end he tries to engage the services of Boris's servant Bogda, but Bogda decides to accompany his master to the tranquility of the cloister where he can sleep until noon. Olga offers Josennah her connections, her money and her power. They make a pact. Secretly, Josennah feels sorry for Olga, because she deceives herself; only Axinia sighs for him. Ivan, who overhears the conversation, presumes that Olga is actually plotting against Josennah.

Scene 4: The theater changes into the Czar's Garden. Ivan opens Axinia's eyes to the plans of Josennah and Olga. Although he believes Axinia will soon notice Josennah's falseness, a strengthening of the Josennah faction is to be feared, making a quick response necessary. Axinia tells Gavust of Josennah and Olga's plan and Gavust promises vengeance.

Scene 7: The scene changes into a cloister. Boris and Irina arrive at the cloister. To carry out their plan they will have to abide the Spartan facilities there as compared to life at court. Bogda sends both to their cells as a crowd of old men and children appears at the gate of the cloister. The old men have gray beards and are dressed in black; the children are in white. They implore Boris to rescue the kingdom by accepting the honor of becoming Czar. The old men decry the desperate condition of the kingdom which would result if Boris refuses. The children see Russia as an orphan and beg Boris for fatherly aid. Bogda, who fears the end of his carefree life at the cloister, tries to scare them away with obscene, threatening words.

Scene 9: Fedro arrives to try and convince Irina to leave the cloister. He claims the nation wishes to see her again, adding under his breath that it is he who desires her return to Moscow. She claims not to understand him, but later says, "Save your explanation for a more appropriate time."

Scene 10: Ivan appears, carrying the scepter and crown on a cushion, followed by the Bojars and Kneeses. He wishes to hand the scepter to Boris and begs him to accept it: Heaven and Earth unanimously request it. Irina supports this request: What the people desire, what the children want and the Princes wish, Boris should heed. Boris finally gives in and agrees to offer himself for the good of the kingdom. The assembled masses rejoice.

Act 3

The theater shows the Kremlin from outside. Josennah and Olga acknowledge defeat. Ivan approaches them and challenges Josennah to a duel. They fence. Gavust arrives to separate them with his sword. He demands Josennah to explain his deceit to Olga and Axinia. Instead of answering, Josennah attacks Gavust, but he falls and Gavust gains the upper hand. Gavust spares his life, but Josennah must promise to leave the country forever. After Josennah is banished Ivan asks Olga whether she is prepared to favor him because of his steadfastness. She puts him off for the time being.

Scene 4: Axinia's Room: Axinia and Gavust are elated to be together again, especially after such painful experiences. Irina is unsure of her feelings for Fedro, yet she cannot silence his entreaties. Bogda is annoyed about the new situation with the Czar and wishes a return to the cloister to a life of eating and sleeping.

Scene 6: The Throne Room, prepared for the Coronation. Boris is crowned and announces a general amnesty. After Irina finally allows her heart to speak, the three couples, Axinia and Gavust, Ivan and Olga, Irina and Fedro are united with the blessing of the Czar. Bogda is rewarded with food, drink, a soft bed, and suspension of his responsibilities. In a lively Chaconne, everyone celebrates the omnipotence and generosity of Cupid.