A crowd in the courtyard of the Novodevichy monastery. The police officer orders the assembled people to kneel. He goads them to clamor for Boris Godunov to accept the throne. Shchelkalov, the Secretary of the Duma, informs the people that Boris still refuses the throne of Russia
The orchestral introduction is based on bell motifs. Boris is crowned by the kingdom. It means the end of troubles. The people shout "Glory" to the new Tsar. Godunov thinks about the prosperity of the country but he can’t get rid of a feeling of ominous foreboding.
A cell in the Chudov monastery. Pimen, a venerable monk, writes a chronicle of Russian history. He blames Godunov in the murder of Dimitry Ivanovich, which he witnessed in Uglich. Upon discovering the similarity in age between himself and the murdered Tsarevich the novice Grigoriy conceives the idea of posing as the Pretender.
An Inn on the Lithuanian Border (1603) The vagrants Varlaam and Misail, who are dressed as monks and are begging for alms, and their companion Grigoriy, who is in secular garb, arrive and enter. Grigoriy quietly asks the Hostess for directions to the Lithuanian border. Policemen appear in search of a fugitive heretic monk (Grigoriy) who has run off from the monastery declaring that he will become Tsar in Moscow. They cannot read, so Grigoriy volunteers to read the edict. He substitutes Varlaam's description for his own. His fraud is revealed but Grigoriy leaps out of the window.
In the Tsar's Terem of the Moscow Kremlin, Princess Xenia mourns the deceased bridegroom. Tsarevich Fedor studies the map of Muscovy. Boris is tormented by grievous thoughts, neither in the family nor in public affairs does he have happiness, his benefactions for the people are vain. Shuysky brings news about the Pretender, who appeared in Lithuania under the name of Dimitry. Boris imagines the ghost of the dead Tsarevich.
Mniszech's Castle in Sandomierz. Marina appears and calls the Pretender. He is lovesick. She, however, only wants to know when he will be Tsar, and declares she can only be seduced by a throne and a crown. Having reached his limit, he tells her he will depart the next day to lead his army to Moscow and to take his father's throne. She tells him she adores him, and they sing a duet.
The Square before the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed. Great famine comprehended the country of Boris. Rumors about the miraculous rescue of Dimitry are spreading rapidly among the hungry and embittered people. Boris goes from the majestic cathedral. The people demand bread. The holy man accuses the king of killing the little Tsarevich in public. Boris asks for the holy man’s prayers, but in return he hears that it is impossible to pray for Tsar Herod.
A session of the Duma is in progress. Boyars are arguing about the capture and execution of the Pretender. Boris appears, persecuted by the ghost of the dead Tsarevich. He feels the approach of death, the Tsar calls on his son and bequeaths his plans and power to him. Boris dies.
A popular revolt erupts away from the capital, near Kromi. Varlaam and Misail incited the crowd to go over to the side of the "legitimate heir" Dimitry. People meet appearing Pretender with glee.
The yurodiviy foretells woe to Russia.