The film opens during the production of War and Peace at Mosfilm Studios in 1964. An elderly Russian noblewoman is set to appear as a film extra until her past comes to light. Although the film's political commissar demands her dismissal, director Sergei Bondarchuk (played by Bondarchuk's actual son Fyodor Bondarchuk) is adamant that he needs faces like hers for the production.
The film flashes back to the Baltic Sea in 1916. Rear Admiral Alexander Kolchak (Konstantin Khabensky) is laying naval mines from his ship in German territorial waters when he runs across SMS Friedrich Carl, an armored cruiser of the German Imperial Navy. As chaos reigns on his ship, Kolchak sights in one of the guns and succeeds in seriously damaging the bridge of the German vessel. This buys him only a brief respite, however.
Realizing that the enemy ship is blocking his line of escape, the Admiral informs his men that the only way to return to safety is to lure the Germans onto one of his mines. As the ship steams into the mines they have just laid, the Admiral leads his men in Russian Orthodox prayers for God's protection. Although they barely avoid hitting their own mines, the German ship is not so lucky and sinks with almost all hands.
Later, at their naval base in the Grand Duchy of Finland, Kolchak is introduced to Anna Timireva (Elizaveta Boyarskaya), the wife of his subordinate officer and close friend Sergei Timirev. The strong attraction between them immediately becomes apparent. Although Sergei reminds his wife that they took vows before God, Anna is unmoved and wants nothing more than to be with the Admiral.
Although terrified of losing him, Sofia Kolchak (Anna Kovalchuk) offers to leave for Petrograd and let her husband be with Anna if he so desires. The Admiral, however, firmly tells her, "You are my wife and I am your husband. That is how it always shall be."
His feelings for Anna continue to grow, however. When she approaches him to deliver a love letter, Kolchak informs her that they cannot ever meet again. When Anna demands to know why, the Admiral responds, "Because I love you."
Later, he is informed that the Tsar (Nikolai Burlyayev) has promoted him to Vice Admiral in command of the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. After receiving a last minute letter from Kolchak, Anna rushes to the train station to see off her beloved. She is too late, however, and experiences only an uncomfortable look from Sofia.
After the February Revolution in 1917, officers are disarmed and massacred at the Kronstadt naval base. Sergei barely escapes the island with Anna. Meanwhile, a group of enlisted men arrive aboard Kolchak's flotilla in Sevastopol and demand that all officers surrender their arms. To avoid bloodshed, Kolchak orders his subordinates to obey. However, he throws his own sword into the harbor rather than hand it over.
Later, he is summoned to Petrograd by Alexander Kerensky (Viktor Verzhbitsky), who offers to appoint him Minister of Defense. Kolchak, however, sharply criticises Kerensky for promoting indiscipline in both the Russian Army and Navy. He states that the only way he will accept is if he is given a free hand to restore old practices. Kerensky, enraged by Kolchak's "counterrevolutionary sympathies," exiles him to the United States.
After the October Revolution, Anna and Sergei Timiriov are travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railroad when she learns that Kolchak has returned and is leading a detachment of the anti-communist White Army at Omsk. Sergei, who has become a Red Commissar, is shocked when she returns to their carriage and announces that she is leaving him. After commenting about what a year of Revolution it has been, Sergei helps Anna to pack her things.
After hearing Kolchak's speeches about defeating the Bolsheviks and "restoring Russia," Anna is deeply moved and goes to work as a nurse among the wounded of the Russian Civil War. Meanwhile, Kolchak is informed that the Red Army is advancing on Omsk, assisted by sympathizers behind White lines. Although his advisors all suggest defending Omsk to the last, Kolchak decrees that they will instead evacuate Omsk and seize Irkutsk as the new capital of anti-communist Russia.
During the evacuation of Omsk, Anna is recognized by a White officer who informs Kolchak. Deeply moved, the Admiral goes to her and announces that, although he made the mistake of leaving her once, he will never do so again. As the train steams toward Irkutsk, Kolchak informs Anna that he has written to his wife Sofia, who now lives in Paris, and formally asked for a divorce. Although he asks Anna to marry him, she insists that there is no need of marriage and that what matters is that they are together now. Eventually, she relents and they are seen attending the Divine Liturgy together.
Meanwhile, Irkutsk is under the nominal control of the French General Maurice Janin and the Czechoslovak Legions. With their defenses disintegrating, the Red Army offers them only one way out alive. As a result, General Janin agrees to hand over Admiral Kolchak.
As a massive land force of White soldiers rides and marches toward Irkutsk, Kolchak is placed under arrest by the Czechs and handed over to the Reds. Despite Kolchak's attempts to shield her, Anna insists that, as his wife, she must be arrested, too.
Kolchak is given a cursory trial by the Irkutsk soviet and executed by a firing squad along the banks of the frozen Angara River. His body is dumped into a hole drilled into the ice by the local Orthodox clergy for Great Blessing of Waters on Ephiphany. It is revealed that Anna survived more than 30 years in the Gulag and was only released during the Khrushchev thaw.
Meanwhile, in 1964, Anna Timiorova witnesses one of the ballroom scenes from War and Peace. The film shifts to her imagination as she dreams of the formal dance she was never able to share with her beloved. The fates of the film's main characters are revealed.
- Eiffel Tower Effect: The tower is visible from the window of the Parisian room where Kolchak's estranged wife works as a seamstress.
- Foregone Conclusion: source of a Memetic Mutation in the Russian internets. Allegedly, some clueless girl wrote her impressions from the movie in her blog: "For the entirety of the movie I had a feeling that Kolchak will be shot. It turned out to happen exactly this way." That last phrase became synonymous with Foregone Conclusion.
- Oh, Crap!: A Bolshevik machine gun crew has this after realizing they've just shot a nun, a non-combatant and a medic.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: A small one. A White platoon charges screaming at a Bolshevik position after a nun is accidentally killed by a machine gunner.
- Rousing Speech: When Kolchak announces his intention to restore the Russian monarchy, the entire audience fall to their knees.