This is a story of two households – the seemingly respectable aristocratic household of the Prince, and the household run by Kuma, devoted to pleasure and freedom. The first household is highly emotionally dysfunctional, but the second is a serene environment controlled with grace and charm by its proprietress, Kuma.
The men are gathered at Kuma’s house where she bewitches them with a serene song about the wide flowing Volga. They are interrupted by the sudden announcement that the Prince is mounting a raid on the house, under the leadership of Mamyrov, his puritanical and straight-laced Minister. But the Prince is surprised to find that proprietress of this seemingly dissolute establishment is in fact a beautiful, dignified woman. The Prince is charmed, and Mamyrov’s puritanical admonitions are ignored, to the extent that the Prince humiliates him by ordering him to dance before the entire company.
The Princess is grief stricken by the fact that her husband The Prince has abandoned her. She demands that Mamyrov tell her the truth, and he reveals that the Prince is spending all his time at Kuma’s house. She swears to have revenge, and orders Mamyrov to find out all the details of the Prince’s infidelity.
Her adoring son Yuri is very disturbed by the fact that his mother is evidently so unhappy, but she refuses to tell him the reason.
Mamyrov bribes the corrupt Priest Paisi to spy on Kuma.
The Prince reflects on the fact that his obsession with Kuma is destroying his family. But left alone with the Princess to discuss his son’s marriage, their conversation breaks down into a terrible argument, with the Prince threatening physical violence.
An angry mob breaks into the palace, demanding redress from the extortionate taxes that Mamyrov is exacting. The young prince Yuri calms them down and persuades them to leave. Mamyrov takes this opportunity to reveal to Yuri that it is Kuma who is responsible for his mother’s misery, and Yuri resolves to kill his father’s mistress.
At Kuma’s house, the old Prince attempts to persuade Kuma to succumb to his desires with promises of luxurious gifts, but this only disgusts her and she repulses him. He threatens violence against her, but her independent spirit prevails and he leaves. She learns that Yuri is coming to murder her, but nonetheless decides to receive him, as she has long nurtured powerful feelings for him. When his murderous attempt fails, she is gradually able to win him round. Together they rejoice in their newly discovered passion.
Paisi guides the Princess to a magician who can provide a deadly poison which she intends to inflict on Kuma. Kuma is intending to run away with Yuri, as his father has determined to kill her. The Princess, in disguise, offers her refreshment, and Kuma drinks the poison. She is briefly united with Yuri, but the poison starts to take affect, and the Princess reveals her identity. Yuri finds himself torn between his mother and his lover, Kuma. Kuma dies. His father finds them, and demands to know what has happened to Kuma. When his son defies him, the old Prince kills him, and then himself descends into a delusional state of violent madness.