The story begins with the birth of the Tsarevich Alexei in the opulent surroundings of the Imperial Court. The Russo-Japanese War is on and Tsar Nicholas (Michael Jayston) is warned by Count Witte (Laurence Olivier) and Grand Duke Nicholas (Harry Andrews) that the war is futile and costing too many lives. They also tell him that the Russian people want representative government, health care, voting and workers' rights, but Nicholas wants to maintain the traditional autocracy left to him by his forefathers. Meanwhile, underground political parties led by Lenin (Michael Bryant), Stalin (James Hazeldine), and Trotsky (Brian Cox) have formed.
Alexei is soon diagnosed with hemophilia. The Tsarina Alexandra (Janet Suzman) is frantic. A shy former German princess who is not highly thought of by the Russian royal court, she is isolated, but is befriended by Grigori Rasputin (Tom Baker), a Siberian peasant who describes himself as a religious pilgrim or holy man. He has become a curiosity with some people at court. Later Alexandra calls upon him to help her pray for Alexei, and comes to believe in his healing abilities.
In a textile mill, working under ghastly conditions, the people are encouraged by their priest, Father George Gapon (Julian Glover). He leads them, joined by many other peasant workers, in a clearly peaceful procession to the Winter Palace, intending to present a petition to the Tsar. Hundreds of soldiers stand ready in front of the palace; their commanding officer tells them to shoot up in the air, but he falls from his horse, there is a panic, and the soldiers proceed to fire randomly into the crowd. Nicholas has not been at the palace and is horrified when he hears of the massacre, but admits he wouldn't have granted the people's requests. (Bloody Sunday)
Eight years later, on the 300th anniversary of Romanov rule, the family vacations at the Livadia Palace in the Crimea. Alexei (Roderic Noble) is a very lively little boy who is constantly prevented from leading a normal life. A close bond however, exists between Alexei and his bodyguard/protector, the Russian Naval Sailor Nagorny (John Hallam). Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin (Eric Porter), who succeeded Witte, has commissioned the Imperial Duma and granted some of the people's requests in order to preserve the Russian Empire. Prime Minister Stolypin also presents Nicholas with police reports about Rasputin's dissolute behavior, which is serving to give the Tsar a bad reputation. As a result, the Tsar dismisses Rasputin from the court. Alexandra demands his return. She knows Alexei's hemophilia was inherited from her, and is wracked with guilt. She is obsessed with the thought that Rasputin can stop the bleeding attacks when they occur.
The Tercenteniary celebration occurs in a grand fashion with much partying and festivities, but takes a turn for the worse when Prime Minister Stolypin is shot at an opera performance in Kiev. Nicholas retaliates not only by uprooting the conspiracy and executing the killers, but also by closing the Duma and allowing police to terrorize the peasants and burn their homes.
Alexei has a minor fall at the Spala Hunting Lodge, which leads to the worst bleeding attack yet. It is presumed that he will die. The Tsaritsa writes a letter to Rasputin, who soon responds with words of comfort and confidence. Sure enough, the Tsarevich recovers, and Rasputin is allowed to return.
World War I begins with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Germany declares war on Russia immediately after Nicholas has order the mobilisation of Russia's forces on the German border. Nicholas decides to command the troops himself in 1915 and leaves for the front, taking over from his much more experienced cousin, Grand Duke Nicholas. This leaves Alexandra in charge at home. Under Rasputin's influence and her own conservative inclinations, she makes unwise decisions. Very few people have been told about Alexei's illness or how Rasputin appears to be helping him, so it looks like the Tsaritsa is losing her mind, or perhaps having an affair with Rasputin. Out on the front lines, Nicholas is visited by his mother the Dowager Empress Maria Foeodorovna (Irene Worth), (who is very outspokenly critical of her son's lack of leadership abilities), who scolds him about not attending to crumbling domestic issues and implores him to eliminate Rasputin (as well as send Alexandra away to one of the royal palaces out of sight). On a sort of drunken whim, two decadent young princes, Grand Duke Dmitri (Richard Warwick) and Prince Felix Yusupov (Martin Potter), invite Rasputin to an opium party and kill him in December, 1916.
Deprived of her one trusted advisor, Alexandra becomes unable to cope. Workers go on strike everywhere. The army is ill supplied. Starving and freezing, they revolt, and St. Petersburg is overrun with them. Nicholas makes a long return to Tsarskow Selo, but is forced to abdicate in his train at Mogiliev, not only for himself but for Alexei, who is furious when he hears this, and becomes withdrawn, believing that the family will soon perish.
Nicholas, Alexandra and Alexei, moments before their execution
The family (and Dr. Botkin (Timothy West) and Nagorny) are forced to leave the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo by Kerensky and are brought to Siberia in mid-1917 where they live under less grand conditions with rough but decent guards. In late 1917, Russia falls into the hands of the Bolshevik party, the one revolutionary group that nobody took seriously. The Russian Civil War starts very soon afterwards, and the family is transferred to the grim Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg, under harsher conditions, and into the keeping of the cold-blooded and unfeeling Yakov Yurovsky (Alan Webb) (whom Alexei immediately pegs as an evil man). At one point, some of the guards are physically harsh with young Alexei, so Nagorny leaps to his defense and attacks them. Nagorny is then taken away and shot, leaving Alexei even more embittered and withdrawn than he was before. In a near-final tragic scene, the family is shown laughing as they read previously withheld letters from friends, relatives and teachers. Only Alexei remains sober and aloof, sensing what is about to happen. The Bolsheviks are frantically deciding what to do as the White Army is on the verge on capturing Ekaterinburg. In the middle of the night, the Bolsheviks awaken the Romanov family and Dr. Botkin. Told they're being sent to another city, the family and the doctor pack their things and wait in the cellar. Their keeper Yurovsky and his assistants enter the room, as Alexei kisses his father for the last time. They point their guns at the family, causing Olga (Ania Marson) and Tatiana (Lynne Frederick) to scream, Maria (Candace Glendenning) to run into the doctor's arm and Alexandra to cross herself. Then they open fire, and the first bullet goes through Nicholas' hand. The end scene shows the wall covered in blood.