Ivan Susanin, his daughter Antonida and his adopted son Vanya are living happily among close friends and family in a remote part of Russia. Antonida is waiting for her fiancé Bogdan Sobinin to return from fighting enemies. Sobinin brings joyful news of Russia’s victories and asks Susanin to postpone his marriage to Antonida no longer. But Susanin considers the time is not right for celebrations and happiness: there is no peace and the future is uncertain. Only the news that there is a young Tsar stirs up the people and gives Susanin and his family hopes for the future.
The enemies assemble at a banquet in a magnificent hall. They are all anticipating an easy victory. News of the young Tsar arrives and the feast ends. The decision is made to send a detachment and capture the Tsar.
The Susanin family is looking forward to a happy future, with preparations for the wedding and guests arriving. The beauty and isolation of their lives is suddenly disturbed by the arrival of the foreign detachment. Their persuasions, threats, blackmail and bribery reveal to Susanin their dark plan – they intend to discover the Tsar’s secret hiding-place. Then Susanin makes a courageous decision: he will leave with the enemies. But he will lead them not to the Tsar but deep into an impassable forest.
In despair at her father’s departure, Antonida is unmoved by both her friends’ arrival and her fiancé’s promise to find her father. Sobinin assembles the villagers and they set off to follow Susanin.
Night. Sobinin attempts to follow the enemies and Susanin, but a snow-storm has obliterated their tracks.
Vanya manages to convey the danger that threatens the Tsar – at dawn the enemies will discover Susanin’s betrayal and find the true path that leads to the Tsar. Everyone prepares to defend themselves.
The enemy detachment, having been led on a false trail through the impenetrable forest, collapses exhausted. Susanin alone has the energy to go on. Knowing death is close, he recalls with courage all his family and bids them farewell. The enemies begin to comprehend their position and demand an explanation from Susanin. Susanin admits his desperate decision to sacrifice himself. Realising death is unavoidable, the enemies kill Susanin in fury.
Deeply mourning the loss of Susanin, his family arrives at festivities to celebrate the saving of the young Tsar.