At the start of the play, Grusha is a kitchen maid in the governor's palace. She becomes engaged to a soldier, Simon. In the immediate aftermath of the uprising, Grusha finds and saves Michael, the governor's infant son. When she realizes that the Ironshirts intend to kill Michael, she sneaks him away from the palace and carries him to the safety of her brother's mountain village. Along the way, Grusha risks her personal safety, fighting off an Ironshirt with her bare hands and crossing a rotting rope bridge. She shows great determination, wit, and love, ensuring that Michael always has milk to drink, despite its scarcity. She raises Michael in the mountains for two years before they are discovered. She is arrested and must fight for custody in court.
Azdak is the judge who tries the custody case between Natella and Grusha. Azdak is a somewhat unwilling judge—he happens into the role after the coup. There are no other judges, and the Ironshirts elect him as a way of annoying the fat prince. Previously, Azdak had unwittingly helped the grand duke escape, an act that characterizes Azdak as both kind and just. As a judge, however, while he often decides in favor of the poor, he casts harsh social judgment and makes outrageously offensive accusations, such as accusing Grusha of being a "whore." At the end of the play, Azdak decides in favor of Grusha for Michael's custody—his final decision as a judge.