In 1547, Ivan IV, then Archduke of Muscovy (Nikolai Cherkasov), crowns himself as Tsar of all the Russias in the cathedral. We see the crown, and then the elaborate ritual of coronation. In the sidelines, aristocratic attendees, the boyars, whisper expressing discontent at his elevation. Among them is Ivan's aunt, Efrosinia Staritskaya (Serafima Birman), who wants to advance her son Dmitri, a simpleton.
Ivan proclaims his will to recover lost territories, unite and protect Russia against foreign armies outside her borders, and the enemies within, announcing that absolute rule with an iron fist will be imperative. In a series of reaction shots, we see that boyars, officials and clergymen wanted a puppet ruler, and are unpleasantly surprised.
Soon Ivan marries Anastasia Romanovna (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya), and a wedding celebration takes place. The marriage causes him to lose his two best friends, Prince Andrei Kurbsky (Mikhail Nazvanov), a warrior who wanted both power and the hand of Anastasia, and Fyodor Kolychev (Andrei Abrikosov). The latter receives Ivan's permission to retreat to a monastery, while Kurbsky insinuates himself to the Tsarina, who repels his advances.
The wedding feast is interrupted by news of the burning of several boyar palaces, carried into the Tsar's palace by a mob of the common people who also complain that the Tsar is being led astray by the Tsarina's family, the Glinskys and the Romanovs.
Ivan calms the crowd. Fyodor Basmanov (Amvrosi Buchma), a commoner who acted as spokesman for the unruly crowd, is impressed by the Tsar and becomes his loyal supporter.
The scene is interrupted by two envoys from the khanate of Kazan, who deliver to Ivan an insulting message and present him, as a gift, with a ceremonial knife with the suggestion that he do himself a favor by using it to commit suicide.
Ivan proclaims at once that Russia is at war with Kazan. At the siege of Kazan, A group led by Basmanov digs a tunnel under the city wall and fills it with gunpowder.
Kurbsky, nominally in command, is reprimanded by Ivan for senseless brutality: Kurbsky has tied Tartar prisoners within earshot of the walls of Kazan and orders them to shout to the city to surrender. The defending archers immediately kill the prisoners with their arrows. The attack order is given, the gunpowder charges are detonated, and the city of Kazan is captured.
After the return from Kazan, Ivan falls seriously ill and is thought to be on his deathbed. Orthodox priests come to give him the last rites. He holds a lit candle over his chest, and a Bible is placed over his head. The elaborate ceremony convinces him he is about to die. With a last burst of energy, Ivan orders those around him to swear allegiance to his son, the infant Dmitri, reminding them of the need for a single ruler to keep Russia united. They demur, with Ivan's aunt, Efrosinia, openly urging others to swear allegiance to her son Vladimir instead.
Emotionally overwrought, Ivan collapses and is thought dead. The relatives, celebrating, all begin to swear allegiance to Vladimir, the "boyar tsar" they have hoped for.
Meanwhile, Kurbsky is uncertain of his own loyalty, trying to decide between the two sides. Kurbsky believes Ivan dead, so he approaches the Tsarina about joining forces with him, becoming his wife, in exchange for his swearing loyalty to Dmitri. A huge face of Jesus painted on the wall appears to be watching them. The Tsarina runs away from him back to Ivan's bedroom.
When the Tsarina returns, she says, "Do not bury a man before he is dead." Kurbsky realizes that Ivan is still alive, and publicly swears his allegiance to Ivan's infant son, Dmitri. Ivan reappears, crediting the anointing for curing him miraculously.
Kurbsky is appointed army leader as a reward for his loyalty, and sent to the western border of the kingdom to defend against the Livonians and Poles. At the same time, Ivan dispatches Alexei Basmanov (Amvrosi Buchma), the commoner he sympathizes with, to the south to take care of the Crimean border.
The Tsarina now falls ill, and while Ivan is receiving bad news from all fronts, the boyars plot to kill her. A staring duel takes place between the aunt and the wife. Efrosinia comes into the palace with a cup of wine hidden in her robes, into which she puts poison. Just as the royal couple receive word that Kurbsky has defected to the Livonians, Efrosinia slips the cup of wine into the room and listens from behind a wall. The Tsarina has a convulsion and Ivan, looking around for a way to help her, takes the poisoned wine and gives it to her.
The dead Tsarina is lying in state in the cathedral, with Ivan mourning below her bier. While a monk reads biblical verses over the body, Ivan questions his own justifications and ability to rule, wondering if his wife's death is God's punishment for him.However, he pulls himself out of it, and sends for Kolychev.
At this point, Basmanov arrives, suggesting that Ivan surround himself with men he can trust, "iron men," the Oprichnina, and offers his rather startled son, Fyodor, for service. Ivan accepts the idea, and sets about reorganizing his power base.
Town criers announce to the populace that Ivan has quarrels with the Boyars, but not with the commoners or tradesmen. The commoners , led by Basmanov, who become Ivan's loyal retainers cannot understand why he simply does not kill all the boyars who are plotting against him. He abdicates, leaves Moscow and retires to nearby Alexandrov monastery, waiting until the people beg him to return.
Not long after, a popular movement organizes a mass march, and an enormous broad line of people walk to Alexandrov to request him to reassume his position of Czar again. He sees them coming from afar, receives their plea, delivers a speech, and becomes stronger with the support of the common Muscovites.