The end of the winter of 1873, the Moscow house of the Oblonsky family. Everyone is waiting for the arrival of the sister of the house owner, Anna Arkadyevna Karenina. The owner himself, Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky is just accused of adultery by his wife. Thirty-four-years-old, he is no longer in love with his wife, Daria Alexandrovna, who is a year younger than him. She is the mother of his five living and two dead children, but nevertheless he chooses to spend time with the French governess who works in their house. Stepan - nicknamed Steve - is handsome, amorous, kind and carefree. He regrets only that he could not hide better from his wife. His sister coming from St. Petersburg to reconcile the family is his only hope. Steve thinks that only Anna can save their family from divorce.
Steve is friendly and indulgent, full of natural charm. All friends and colleagues like him and even debts and family troubles can’t force him to give up a lunch with a childhood friend who came from the village - Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin. Levin wants to make a proposal to the eighteen-year-old Kitty Scherbakova, the princess and Steve’s sister-in-law. Levin has long been in love with Kitty but he suspects she won’t choose an ordinary landowner. His suspicions are confirmed by Oblonsky who says that Kitty has a new admirer, a representative of St. Petersburg “upper crust” - Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky.
Levin goes away to confess his feelings to Kitty who likes him and is glad to spend time with him. She feels relaxed and easy with Levin, while with Vronsky everything is other way round: she feels incomprehensible awkwardness. However, it’s difficult for her to understand her own feelings and she doesn’t know whom to choose. Dreaming of a happy future with the Count from St. Petersburg, Kitty finally refuses Levin. She doesn’t even suspect that Vronsky has no intentions to marry her.
Meanwhile the Count himself goes to the train station to meet his mother who is also coming from St. Petersburg. But on the station he also meets Anna who by accident travelled in the same car. The young man is enchanted by Karenina’s beauty and instantly falls in love with her. At this time a tragedy occurs at the station: a drunk station watchman dies under the wheels of the train. Anna sees it as a bad omen.
Upon arrival, Steve asks Anna to reconcile them with Dolly. After long persuasion Anna manages to pacify Dolly. Daria temporarily forgives her husband and a fragile peace returns to the house. Kitty comes to visit Oblonsky and is delighted by Anna’s grace and beauty. In the evening Anna, Steve and Kitty go to the ball, which Kitty expects a lot from. She secretly hopes that Vronsky will make her a proposal. However he dances with her only one time and during the rest of the ball he stays near Anna. They are talking unable to step away one from another. Kitty is very upset and refuses to dance with anyone else. Anna herself is glad that her diplomatic mission was a success and says that tomorrow she will return to St. Petersburg.
The next day she meets Vronsky at the station. He follows her also going back. When Anna’s husband comes to meet her, she feels that she doesn’t want to see him anymore. Karenina’s husband, Alexey Alexandrovich, is much older than her and occupies an impressive position in the ministry. Unlike impulsive and temperamental Anna, Alexey Alexandrovich doesn’t show his feelings and lives a fairly ordinary life. They have the eight-year-old son Seryozha. He is very happy to see his mother again and is a bit confused near his father. Every day of Karenin family has a strict schedule and they leave in a hurry. Vronsky, seeing Anna’s meeting with her husband, understands that she doesn’t love him and he decides to get her at any cost. He returns to social life but visits only those homes and parties where he can accidentally meet Anna. Meanwhile disappointed Kitty falls sick and Levin, who is upset after an unsuccessful engagement, returns to his village.
There is a medical consultation in Scherbakovs’ house. Kitty is suspected of developing tuberculosis on the basis of a nervous breakdown. Her relatives are aware that it was Vronsky who caused this breakdown. The girl decides to go abroad for a while for treatment. Levin returns to the village and meets his brother Nikolai, a heavy drinker who loves loud parties, prostitutes and always lives in the cheap rooms. He sincerely sympathizes his brother. After this talk Levin is even more withdrawn and decides to devote all the time to work in the family estate. Anna and Vronsky start to meet in the house of Vronsky’s cousin - Betsy Tverskaya. Lots of people already know about their mutual sympathy and Betsy herself arrange their dates.
Anna have never been in love before, only respecting her husband. Vronsky tries to stay in her home in every possible way and gradually he succeeds. Even the love of her son doesn’t save Anna from affair. Vronsky is genuinely in love with her. Aside from their dates, he lives an ordinary life of an officer: balls, races, meetings with friends and fun in general. But his relationship with Anna can’t be secret anymore, because everyone sees it’s not an average flirt but a strong passion. Alexey Alexandrovich also notices this and shows his discontent to his wife. However all his attempts to settle her down are in vain.
Levin comes to Steve again. Steve accuses him of cowardice and demands his friend to fight for Kitty’s hand. Meanwhile Countess Vronsky, the mother of the officer is more and more displeased with her son’s behaviour. She thinks it may ruin his career. Vronsky himself asks Anna to leave her husband and son but she says that he will never divorce her and she doesn’t want to become an ordinary mistress. Anna is tired of this double life, but doesn’t know how to resolve the situation. Even the fact she is pregnant and the father is Vronsky doesn’t matter.
During one race Vronsky fell from the horse and seemingly broke his back. Not knowing how serious the injury is, Anna runs to him. Karenin immediately takes her away, greatly upset with such a behaviour. He thinks about what his next step: a duel with Vronsky, divorce or pretending everything is fine. He chooses the last variant just to punish his wife. Anna openly says she hates him. She realizes that she is cornered and even the position of mistress isn’t available for her anymore.
Meanwhile Levin devotes himself to the agriculture and developments in his village. He is looking for the meaning of life outside the marriage. He meets with the reformer and his half-brother Sergei Ivanovich Koznyshev and talks to him for a long time. Sergei sees him as a good manager and Levin himself understands that he works so much just to forget Kitty who he still loves and not to think about death, because his brother Nikolai is terminally ill with tuberculosis. He also helps Dolly who struggles with economic troubles on her land caused by Steve’s recklessness. Grateful, Dolly decides to reconcile them with Kitty.
Karenin thinks about Anna’s punishment and decides that he will leave the facade of happy family as it is, just won’t treat Anna with respect anymore. He writes a letter to Anna, to whom he doesn’t speak, a letter offering to leave everything as before, at least for Seryozha’s sake. Anna wants to take her son and leave the husband but she doesn’t have the courage still because she understands that society will despise her for this.
Vronsky also searches for the solution. He is trying to solve money matters first. After learning that Anna is pregnant from him he thinks about quitting the service. To support his decision Anna says that she is ready to leave her family and live with him. She confesses to her husband that she isn’t able to stop loving Vronsky but he ignores her, concerning only about looking decent in the public eyes.
In the Levin’s village, Sviazhsky - the leader of the county - wants Levin to marry his daughter, but Levin is so obsessed with his work that he doesn’t even try to meet the girl. He doesn’t notice Kitty coming to him also.
The life of Anna, Vronsky and Alexey Alexandrovich is becoming more and more entangled in lies. Anna feels disgusted towards her husband. She continues to secretly date Vronsky. Later Anna gives birth to a daughter and almost dies of maternity fever. Being delirious, she asks her husband to forgive her. Karenin feels sorry for her and grants her what she asks for. Anna rejects Vronsky and Karenin meets him to tell that the whole family is moving to Moscow, away from him. In despair, Vronsky tries to commit suicide but is rescued. When Anna returns to her senses, she again feel burdened by her husband. Neither his decency nor generosity nor even touching care about her newborn daughter doesn’t change her attitude to him. Soon she leaves with retired Vronsky and their daughter. Karenin with his son moves to Moscow.
Levin continues reforming his village and earns respect from the peasants who see that he understands what he is doing. He disputes the nature of peasants with Koznyshev and feels contempt with his life. But this illusion disappears when he learns about Kitty’s illness and sees her coming to him. Once again he makes her a proposal and she agrees. Her parents don’t object and they start preparing for the wedding.
Karenin decides to divorce. Anna and Vronsky travel across Italy. It seems she is happy but she is burdened with thoughts about being separated from her son, her indignity and her husband’s misfortunes. Vronsky does his best to cheer her up but despite all his love, he is also bored with their ordinary life. To amuse himself he starts to paint but he isn’t really good at it.
Alexey Alexandrovich also start working harder just to forget about what happened. He feels disgust for all the women and considers friends and family dead for him. He starts visiting the Countess Lydia Ivanovna to get comfort and support in this situation. The Countess also helps Karenin with his household and Seryozha. When she receives a letter from Anna in which she asks to arrange a meeting with her son, Lydia writes her back an insulting letter and refuses in the rudest form. In addition to all his troubles Karenin is no longer promoted, the high society laughs at him and pities him.
Anna returns to St. Petersburg and fully feels her rejection. She is no longer accepted in her friends’ houses. Vronsky suffers the same troubles. On her son’s birthday, Anna secretly goes to see him. Seeing Seryozha and his sincere love to her she realizes she just can’t live without him. Desperate, she accuses Vronsky of not loving her enough. Tired of boredom Anna decides to attend the theater despite Vronsky’s warnings but the couple is insulted by other people there. Returning home, Anna blames Vronsky for everything that happened and he is not thrilled with her behaviour.
Meanwhile Levin and Kitty get married. At first, they get used to each other and the married life seems difficult for both. Quarrels and disappointments are replaced by reconciliation. Levin receives a letter saying that his brother is about to die. Levin immediately goes to him to the neighboring town. Kitty joins him despite his protests. Seeing Nikolai, Levin feels pity mixed with fear and disgust and doesn’t know what to do. Kitty, unlike him, is more collected and she patiently nurses Nikolai, showing Levin her true self - brave, kind and caring. When his brother dies, Levin learns that Kitty is pregnant. They stay in the town.
Dolly, who was staying with her sister, decides to visit Anna, Vronsky and their daughter. Anna looks great, she pays much attention to her looks. However Dolly sees the changes in her behaviour, Anna doesn’t seem natural anymore. She tries to entertain guests, keep the house and play with daughter but this is only to give Vronsky the illusion of a happy family life. She is rather indifferent to everything including her daughter, obsessed with her appearance and is afraid to lose Vronsky. She becomes extremely jealous of him with no reason.
Vronsky sees that Anna’s love becomes smothering. Once when he leaves the house she sends him a letter that their daughter is ill. He returns immediately to discover that it was lies. Vronsky isn’t sure that he wants such a family and such a wife. Alexey Alexandrovich in the meantime falls under the influence of the church and doesn’t divorce Anna because it’s a sin.
Levin sees that Koznyshev starts to give attention to Varen’ka, Kitty’s friend. Everyone is waiting for him making a proposal but he just disappears for a long time. Steve and his friend Veslovsky visit Levin, but Veslovsky starts to court Kitty and irritated Levin asks the uninvited guests to leave. Levin moves to Moscow with Kitty but he isn’t feeling on the right place in high society. Once he and Kitty visit Karenin with Vronsky. Anna tries to impress them and Levin says she is beautiful. Kitty is jealous and Levin promises to not visit Anna anymore. Soon Kitty gives birth to their firstborn son Mitya. Levin is again frightened by her suffering while he can do nothing useful, but luckily for him, everything goes well.
The relationship between Anna and Vronsky are in the dead end. She blames her lover, the days of her jealousy interchange with days of her kindness. Vronsky, despite everything, tries to be honest with her and loves her still, but she is obsessed with punishing him for his “coldness”. She sees the same nightmare again and again: the drunken railway station watchman falling on the rails. Once, after a particularly difficult quarrel, Vronsky decides to visit his mother. Anna follows him to the railway station. She remembers that horrifying scene once more and she decides to fall to the rails herself.
Without Anna Vronsky’s life loses its meaning. He is tormented by repentance. He decides to leave as a volunteer to the war in Serbia. Karenin takes care of their daughter. Happy Levin grows Mitya and decides to move back to the village. He also gives Dolly some of his property to help the financial troubles of Oblonsky’s. Levin also searches for a meaning in his life, he is afraid of committing suicide. At the same time, he understands he has a reason to life and this reason is to fill every minute of his life with happiness.