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In the spring of 1875, Russian servant Katusha Maslova awaits the arrival of her childhood playmate, Prince Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov, who is returning after six years of boarding school to visit his aunts, Marie and Sophia, for whom Katusha works. On the drive from the train station, Dmitri tells his conservative aunts that he does not wish to become an army officer. The writings of his idol, political reformer and writer Grigory Simonson, have inspired Dmitri to enter the civil service and improve the hard lot of the serfs. His aunts are dismayed by his revolutionary attitudes, especially when he declares that there is no difference between him and Katusha, even though she is a peasant. Dmitri is stunned by Katusha's beauty, and the young people happily spend the summer discussing Simonson's ideas. On the day he is to return to the army, Dmitri and Katusha bid each other a sad farewell, and Dmitri promises to visit her next summer. Two years pass, however, and Dmitri does not return to visit. Instead, he begins to lead the life of a cavalier military man, as he competes with his fellow officers and aristocrats in their frivolous games of riding, drinking and womanizing. When Dmitri finally returns for a visit on Easter, he lasciviously watches Katusha during a midnight mass celebration. Marie and Sophia are pleased with Dmitri's transformation, while the innocent Katusha is delighted that he is still interested in her. Later that night, the couple go to the greenhouse, where they spend the night after Dmitri's sweet blandishments overcome Katusha's hesitancy. Early the next morning, Dmitri leaves for maneuvers without saying goodbye to Katusha. The young woman is stunned that Dmitri is gone and becomes outraged when she opens the envelope that he left for her. In it is one hundred rubles, but no note of explanation. Katusha throws away the money, and as the months pass, her bitterness grows when Marie and Sophia fire her because she is pregnant. Hard-hearted Marie suspects that Dmitri is the father, but Katusha refuses to divulge her seducer's name. She attempts to find Dmitri when a military train passes through a nearby station, but he does not see her. Soon after, Katusha and her last friend, Matrona Pavlovna, bury her infant son, who died unbaptized. Katusha then goes to Moscow, where she spends the next seven years falling into a life of prostitution, poverty and degradation. Dmitri, who is now engaged to Missy, the daughter of the wealthy judge, Prince Kortchagin, is called up for jury duty in Kortchagin's court. The case being tried is that of the murder of a merchant, and Dmitri is astonished to see that Katusha is one of the defendants, along with the true killers, Simon Kartinkin and Euphemia Botchkova. As the trial progresses, Katusha admits that she is a prostitute, but states that she thought the powder Kartinkin and Botchkova gave her to give the merchant was sleeping powder rather than poison. The jurors agree that Katusha is not guilty of murder, but a mistake in the language of their written decision forces Kortchagin to sentence her to five years hard labor in Siberia. Dmitri obtains permission to see Katusha in Kortchagin's office, but at first she does not recognize him. When she finally recognizes him, Katusha angrily tells Dmitri about her ruined life, and Dmitri, overcome by guilt, promises to help her. Katusha scorns his overtures and reminds him of his lost idealism, but after she returns to her cell, she confides in her friend that Dmitri's visit has made her come alive again. After Dmitri is stymied in his efforts to free Katusha, he returns to the prison, where he asks her to marry him. She cries and begs him to go away, after which Dmitri tells Missy that he is giving up his decadent life to join Katusha in Siberia. On the day the prisoners are to be sent to Siberia, Katusha gives up hope that Dmitri will help her when he does not appear. Meanwhile, Dmitri splits his land among his servants and goes to the boundary of Siberia, where the prisoners are waiting to be processed. Dmitri finds Katusha and tells her what he has done, and says that he wants to "live again" with her forgiveness, help and love. Despite her protests that she is not worthy, Dmitri tells her that all innocent sufferers are holy, and the reconciled lovers, certain that the next five years will pass quickly, smile as they cross the border together.